As a child, Ann Jaffe witnessed the Nazi invasion of her village in Poland. She saw her neighbors suffer severe beatings before they were hauled away for execution. She and her family fled their community and survived the Holocaust by hiding in a forest through harsh winters, subsisting on meager portions of potato and cabbage cooked in melted snow. She envied a boy she knew who froze to death and dreamed of escaping the misery of hunger pangs and constant cold by falling asleep and never waking up.
Yet Jaffe lived, and offered a profound message of compassion in her testimony with the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive.
“People are people,” she said, “and we are responsible for each other.”
After the Holocaust, Jaffe devoted decades of her life to philanthropic efforts, bringing joy to the elderly and educating children about genocide with the hope of promoting kindness and peace.
But how? What empowers someone who has experienced the worst extremes of human cruelty to still believe in human goodness? Why do some victims of trauma react with aggression and hatred, while others come out of it with deepened empathy and a heightened sense of responsibility for the welfare of others?
In testimonies recorded by the Visual History Archive, many survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides offer “messages to the future” that advocate for understanding, tolerance and the proactive prevention of crimes against humanity. This is an aspect of what psychologists call post-traumatic growth. Let’s look at how this incredible phenomenon develops.
While Jaffe’s testimony details the horror she witnessed and endured in the Holocaust, she also talks at length about the acts of kindness she experienced.
“There were some extraordinary individuals at that time,” she explained. Jaffe recalled a gentile by the name of Yusef Yukevitch who lived just outside her town. “During the war years, Christians weren’t even allowed into Jewish homes but he would come to our back door at dusk to sneak us food.”
Yukevitch told Jaffe’s father that he would leave his barn door open in case the family needed to go into hiding. “Now this was an extraordinary thing to do,” she said. “You had to be the most altruistic person to do such a thing because the order for Christian people was not to give any comfort or help to a Jew because if you did, you would be killed along with the Jewish family. [The Nazis] would burn down your house and kill your whole family.”
According to psychologist Ervin Staub, himself a Holocaust survivor, such acts of help, connection and kindness in the midst of a crisis (and in the aftermath) have a major impact on the post-traumatic growth of a victim, as well as their attitudes toward caring for and helping other people.
Much research into the psychological effects of trauma, including physical or sexual abuse, genocide or other ethno-political violence, has focused on its negative consequences, such as survivors’ feelings of guilt, meaninglessness, hostility and isolation. But only a relatively small percentage of those who have had traumatic experiences develop these severe symptoms, Staub noted in his article “Altruism Born of Suffering: The Roots of Caring and Helping After Victimization and Other Trauma.”
Some trauma survivors, Staub said, are driven to take care of those who have also suffered and are dedicated to the prevention of future suffering. He focused his attention on those victims who “reclaim meaning and turn toward others, becoming caring and helpful” – people like Anna Jaffe.
He called this phenomenon Altruism Born of Suffering and found it develops when people are cared for and helped by their families, community members or strangers at the same time they experience traumatization – the way Yukevitch helped Jaffe’s family during the Holocaust.
Altruism Born of Suffering may also develop when victims of trauma are shown help and affection following trauma, according Staub. “Caring, support, love and connection, all of these things can balance to some degree the psychological impact of harmful behavior that people have suffered,” he explained in a training video for therapists and counselors (available from Alexander Street’s Academic Video Online).
We are often bombarded with news of violence unfolding around us, in our neighborhoods and all over the globe. We might feel like there is nothing we can do about it. But it turns out there is something we can all do: listen.
“Given that we are powerless,” Staub continued in the video, “it’s too painful to listen sometimes, but if we learn to just be present and to understand that our empathy can be healing to another person, that can make a very great difference.”
According to Staub, empathic listening can promote healing for survivors of trauma, causing them to grow more compassionate and caring themselves, and driven to help others. Following the Tutsi Genocide, Staub conducted training sessions to help aid the people of Rwanda in the recovery and reconciliation process. In a blog post about this work, Staub described how talking or writing about painful experiences empowered victims of genocide to gain a sense of control over what happened to them, which proved beneficial in the healing psychological wounds.
“In a country like Rwanda, where everyone is wounded to some degree, people empathically listening to one another… is an important avenue to community healing,” he explained.
“Since we have a world that inflicts suffering on many people, without experiences that transform suffering into caring, people can be increasingly alienated from or hostile toward others,” Staub wrote. “It is important both to help people who have suffered, and for people to join together to work to create societies that do not harm their members.”
Learn more about Altruism Born of Suffering:
Staub, E. (2003). The Psychology of Good and Evil : Why Children, Adults, and Groups Help and Harm Others. Available from Ebook Central.
Staub, E., & Vollhardt, J. (2008). Altruism Born of Suffering: The Roots of Caring and Helping After Victimization and Other Trauma. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 78(3), 267-280. Available from Ebook Central.
Read the blog post by Ervin Staub.
For additional research on genocide:
Human Rights Studies Online
Genocide and atrocity crimes show humanity at its worst. They lead us to question our very nature—what it means to be human. Despite their horrors, they must be documented and they must be studied. In doing so, we hope to understand them. We memorialize their victims. We help prevent their re-occurrences. We discover the striking ordinariness of the perpetrators and ask what we would have done in similar circumstances. We see heroic actions that show that even in humanity’s darkest moments there is still cause for hope.