The pre-Third Reich records indicated that very few Jewish writers in Germany had committed suicide. Noteworthily, all of the writers who had committed suicide during or after the Nazi regime were victims of persecution or incarceration.
Suicide in Pre-war Germany
The eminent historian Konrad Kwiet studied the overall Jewish experience in pre-Nazi Germany. He concluded: “Organized persecution had a profound effect on Jewish morale. ... a suicide curve would document the close correlation between persecution and suicide.”6
His comprehensive essay shows that during the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century the incidence of suicide by German Jews was much lower than for the other two dominant religions (Protestant and Catholic Christianity). There were, however, occasional upsurges of suicide before WWII that paralleled periods of persecution. In these periods “Jews were driven to despair,” and their suicide rate would rise to the level of “a mass phenomenon.”6
Two patterns were observed in the suicides of the pre-war/war period. The first pattern related to writers who remained on German soil and were persecuted and restricted in their careers, with some being temporarily interned. These writers, unwilling or unable to leave the country, found escape in self-destruction. Examples of such were John Höxter and Ludwig Fulda, both in Berlin, and Egon Friedell in Vienna, all of whom committed suicide just before WWII.
The second pattern related to writers who had left Germany and suffered from what Roden defines as the “crisis of exile.”7 In 1933, and even more so after the Nuremberg Laws were enacted, Jewish writers in Germany were barred from their literary pursuits. Essays were no longer published, art critiques remained as drafts, plays went unproduced, and books were blacklisted and later thrown out of libraries and burnt on the streets. These experiences were soon augmented by fear for their lives.
Several of these writers managed to escape to Palestine, such as A. Koestler, or to free countries in Europe, the Americas, Asia, or Australasia (e.g. Walter Benjamin escaped to Spain, Stefan Zweig to Brazil, Klara Blum to China, and Karl Wolfkehl to New Zealand). For some, suffering took the form of a “crisis of exile” (Exilkreisen), a term that was coined by Klaus Mann and led to “Kreisenliteratur.”3,7 Yet another author from this second group raised the question, “How much home does a person need”?5
The loss of homeland with its customs, food, clothing, music, entertainment, stories of childhood, and literature made the exile not just merely physical, but cultural. “One ages badly in exile, because a human being needs a home.”6 These writers felt so isolated that they could not adapt to a new language.7
Table 1 provides a selected list of pre-war/war period writers who had suffered from “crisis of exile” and who committed suicide.
Selected List of Jewish Writers Who Committed Suicide in the Pre-war/War Period.
Suicide during World War II (1939–45)
Intellectuals in the Nazi camps were unique, as they suffered more than average people, both during their early detention and their later incarceration in the “univers concentrationnaire”4,7
(i.e. concentration camp universe). The harshness of unaccustomed manual work, the hunger, the cold, the crudeness of non-existent hygiene, and the personal humiliation were made more difficult and painful as they were singled out for particular persecution by their tormentors. Paradoxically, the desire to commit suicide seemed to diminish during camp life: “Suicide was not a typical response to the concentration camp inmate.”7
Instead, the daily fight for survival was paramount. The impact on their physical and mental health, however, was intense; some perished in the camps, others did indeed commit suicide.8
The Post-war Period
How was it possible for these sensitive intellectuals to survive after their horrendous experiences? They did indeed have difficulties in adjusting to freedom. Birkenau camp prisoner no. 31661 (Charlotte Delbo) provides this insight into the survival syndrome: “one doesn’t die from grief—you go on living” and “I took leave of my skin—it had a bad smell, worn from all the blows it had received.”9
This non-Jewish French writer, arrested for anti-fascist activities, described how she “suffered survival” in the years after liberation. “I lived next to Auschwitz …, but had to return to gestures belonging to another earlier life, the using of a toothbrush, of toilet paper, of a handkerchief, of a knife and fork, and … later on, smiling.” Perhaps as atonement, she wrote the poem: “Prayer to the Living to Forgive Them for Being Alive.”9
The persistence of the torment and the incurability of the concentration camp syndrome were perceptively described by Kaminer: “Even if the survivors founded a new family, even if they experienced professional success, even if they have a peaceful environment, deep inside them lurks anxiety and feeling of being in constant threat … a feeling of living on razor’s edge.”10
Surprisingly, for writers, the release from the camps into the general community proved stressful.1,11 Suicide became more frequent, born out of a “guilt relegated to the background only to re-emerge after the liberation.”3 Despite their experiences, some of the surviving writers became productive. Although living in distant lands, often changing their names, most wrote in German, though a few wrote in Italian (e.g. Primo Levi), Ukrainian (e.g. Piotr Rawicz), Polish (e.g. Jerzy Kosinski), or partly in English (e.g. Arthur Koestler). Eventually, they achieved international recognition for their talents and were flooded with accolades from their peers. Amongst those who survived the camps, demonstrated some common manifestations of persecution, and committed suicide later on were: Jean Amery, Bruno Bettelheim, Paul Celan, Jerzy Kosinsky, Primo Levi, Arthur Koestler, Piotr Rawicz, Peter Szondi, and Joseph Wulf.
Primary Guilt Syndrome
The general frame of survivor syndrome has been detailed by Niederland.2
In trying to explain the post-war behavior and eventual fate of writers haunted by the Nazis or their collaborators, one can use the ideas advanced by prisoner no. 174517 (Primo Levi), born out of his ordeal in Auschwitz. In 1947, Levi was one of the earliest writers to mention the “guilt of the survivors,” trying to throw some light on the differences between the “drowned” and the “saved.”1
He described the remorse of the survivor, for being the fittest, his survival perhaps being to the detriment of a weaker or an ignored inmate.
A very detailed study was also given by Ryn on the “Evolution of Mental Disturbances in the Concentration Camp Syndrome (KZ-Syndrom)”.12 In his view it was an “encephalopathic syndrome,” a multiform psychopathological disease, indicating that the syndrome is chronic and progressive.
Secondary Guilt Syndrome
Secondary guilt syndrome of Jewish writers is presented as a psychological decompensation, following a period of success and life rebuilt. The post-war condition emerged in three stages: latency, activity, and finally secondary guilt syndrome. The initial period of literary silence (the latent period) was not the result of amnesia. For different writers, different events broke the silence: “The experience was not forgotten or repressed, it needed appropriate time when ‘suddenly everything demanded telling’.”4
Once this latency period had ended, commonly a period of intense literary creativity followed, which focused on Holocaust-related topics. The duty to bear witness to the atrocities was a compulsive driving force for many survivors, and more so for the intellectuals, including gentile prisoners like Terrence Des Pres13 and Charlotte Delbo.9
The last stage of the writers’ suffering, secondary guilt syndrome, began to manifest via a disappointment that led to a pre-suicidal period. Once they felt that they had fulfilled their duties and had disseminated their testimonies, they suddenly sensed that their audience was tiring of the subject. “The survivors wanted to transmit a message … but you discarded their testimony.”14 Their perception of an indifferent world led to catastrophic thinking, to dysfunctional periods in their lives, and to the uncontrollable “psychache” studied by Janet McCord.15 Their post-Auschwitz period of life was an “existence only.” Being incapable of finding joy anymore, they felt defeated by the world’s attitude. Once they reached “the end of [their] road” they eventually “drowned” themselves.16
The Jewish writers discussed herein survived the Holocaust, passed through these three stages, and eventually committed suicide. Three of them are described in more detail below.
Jean Amery. The story of the Austrian writer Jean Amery was typical. Born as Hans Mayer in Vienna in 1912 to a Jewish father (killed fighting for the Austro-Hungarian Empire during World War I) and a Catholic mother, he studied philosophy. He fled his native land in 1938 after the annexation of Austria. Changing his name to Jean Amery, he settled in Belgium. Amery was arrested for anti-fascist activities and severely tortured. Once it was learned that he was Jewish, he was sent to Auschwitz and later to Buchenwald. In 1945, Amery was one of the walking skeletons found by the British in the liberated Bergen-Belsen. After regaining his “freedom,” Amery lived in Belgium. He was silent for some 20 years, until “I could again meet Germans impartially.”17
His autobiographical stories (essays, critiques, and books) were not published until 1966, when he could finally write about “things that were weighing on my soul.”17 His writings were retrospective analyses of his experiences influenced by contemporary attitudes. Amery frequently talked and wrote about death and suicide. He wrote that his life was “an existence only.”18 He must have been aware of his mental state: “I was told of my mental damage apart from the physical, it was called ‘concentration camp syndrome,’ a ‘delayed psychic effect’.” He stated: “I neither can nor want to get rid of resentment.” Amery’s awakening came “when the old anti-Semitic attitudes re-emerged on the world scene” in parallel with Germany’s grandiose resurrection; it was a “loss of trust in the world.”18
His feelings of guilt were based on the perception of his inability properly to communicate his experiences. For Amery, aging was made particularly painful “by scars left by the Auschwitz experience.”18 Amery analyzed the resurgence of anti-Semitism and rejected the idea of “forgiving or forgetting.” His last autobiographical books were “Lean Journeyman Years” (1977) and his posthumous “Carry On—But How?” in 1982.
Amery committed suicide in 1978. Was his suicide a sign of unrecognized and untreated depression, which eventually with age and deteriorating health led him to take “the last path to freedom”?5 Appropriately, his grave in Vienna is marked by a simple, unpolished rock, inscribed with his name, year of birth and death, and “Auschwitz Nr 172364” (Figure 1).
Grave of Jean Améry at the Zentralfriedhof Vienna
Primo Levi. Primo Levi’s story is particularly tragic. He was born in Torino, Italy, in 1919 into a large, assimilated, and educated family that gave the world artists, scientists, and a Nobel Laureate. Primo studied organic chemistry, barely managing to finish his studies before the Racial Laws were enacted in Italy. Aged 20, he joined the anti-fascist movement and was captured and subsequently interned in the camp for political prisoners. Betrayed by a fellow partisan as being Jewish, Levi was sent to Auschwitz as prisoner no. 174517.19 Physically frail but intellectually alert, Levi managed to survive for 10 months in Auschwitz. After liberation, reunited with his family, he soon started work in an old chemical factory, married, and had two children. His career as a writer was slow to emerge, and success came late. His fame and the love of family and friends did not suffice, however; he could not forget what had happened. Indeed his teachings and lectures were always on Holocaust topics. In 1982 Levi stated: “to deny Auschwitz is to be ready to rebuild it.”20
His feelings of guilt were based on the perception that he had insufficiently communicated his message, thereby allowing the world to become indifferent to the past. His emotional disturbance became steadily more pronounced, culminating in his plunge to death on April 11, 1987. Levi lived “without peace,” passing through all three phases of post-war suffering. The author Elie Wiesel asked, “Why Death, Primo?” and then answered his own question: “He killed himself because he could not go on.”21
Levi was known to have suffered from repeated bouts of depression. He was treated for at least six years by a psychiatrist, a psychoanalyst, and a neurologist. He was also treated with a monoamine oxidase inhibitor, tramylcypromine (Parmodalin) with trazodone (Trittico or Desyrel), sleeping tablets (Neulactil), and anti-dementia medication.22,23
The officially declared suicide was questioned by some friends. However, none contested his severe depression, perhaps aggravated by several somatic disorders. Levi’s words were: “... the most serious disease I ever had: the tattoo on my forearm.”23 Appropriately the simple stone on his resting place is marked with his prisoner number and years of birth and death (Figure 2).
Joseph Wulf. Joseph Wulf was born in Chemnitz, Germany, in 1922 and received a rabbinical education. He experienced ghetto life, and at the age of 22 he became prisoner no. 114866 in Auschwitz. After the war, he wandered through Poland, Paris, and Berlin. His driving force was “to do everything to prevent the world from forgetting the millions of murdered Jews.” He was silent for 14 years, after which he wrote many books—all of which were only about the Holocaust. At the end of his life, he lamented in a letter to his son: “I have published 18 books about the Third Reich and they had no effect ... mass murderers walk around free, live in little houses, and grow flowers.”24 He fought for the creation of the Wannsee Memorial in the Berlin villa where the Final Solution was decided upon.25 In October 1974, Wulf jumped to his death. Although he died in Germany, his final resting place is in Israel, where he is buried beside his wife; appropriately, the stone is marked in Hebrew with his name (Figure 3). Clearly, Wulf’s feelings of guilt were based on the perception that he had failed to have a positive effect in remembering the Holocaust, or in bringing justice to the perpetrators.