Hot Chocolate

On "Hot Chocolate," by Ilana Sterlin, Modan publishers, 2002

"I have not yet come out of hiding." For seven years Naomi and Ilana Sterlin - the psychologist who treated her - met in a pink room, a surrealistic envelope for what was happening inside within its four walls. The building, which in the past had been the Russian Embassy in Israel, has become a center for the psychological and social support of Holocaust survivors and those from the so-called second generation of survivors - "a place that is not an ordinary clinic, but rather a home."

On the application form, in hesitant hand-writing, Naomi defined herself as "second generation." Only later it turned out that she had been born into the war and was "a child of the Holocaust," according to the definition that prevails today. For years, society ignored those children, who were not categorized according to "the hierarchy of suffering" and therefore pushed their miserable childhoods into deep dungeons. Now they have tired of the back-breaking work of barricading themselves in, and in face of the loss and the deprivation that are beating their way out, have come to seek a shoulder to lean on.

Naomi's form was left mostly blank. She had made her life into a mad race of errands and chores as she moved frantically along the thin surface of a busy everyday life in order to bypass the emptiness within her and not to fall into a bottomless pit. Her early history as a baby who was given over to a Christian family to be saved, and the series of separations and losses she suffered even after she had survived, cast a dark shadow on her existence.

In her distress, she turned to psychologist Ilana Sterlin for salvation from a situation of psychological anorexia she had imposed upon herself. Naomi did not want to cope alone with the work of remembering. "I move through a constant cloud of guilt feelings toward everyone ... It is already a part of me - this heavy guilt. Like another organ of my body."

Sterlin's book documents a reality that develops during the course of years in a closed space. The psychological therapy, with all its ups and downs; forgetting as the only possibility for survival alongside revelations and scars that have not healed and that have to do with parents' love and being torn. Naomi's first choice was not to document the sessions, and only after they had separated, did Sterlin feel that Naomi's story should be immortalized in writing, as a peephole into the bleeding world of people whose childhood was so badly damaged. Eventually, when they met again, Naomi asked Sterlin to be the personal curator of her lost memory.

Seductive dance

The book moves along several axes of memory simultaneously - Naomi's torn memory and that of the therapy itself, which Sterlin describes, along with the succinct and suggestive notes she took at the time. For the writing of the book, the sessions of the past were reconstructed along with conversations from the present and extracts from Naomi's letters. She tried to weld together the sizzling fragments inside her into a comprehensive picture of sorts that was orderly and sequenced, but the pieces refused to come together. "I am trying to know, to hold on to something, to understand. Feeling you being there for me. A sort of combination of existence and nonexistence."

The two knew that they were breaking the unwritten contract between therapist and patient. Should they hold regular therapy, according to the rules? Sterlin decided to break the mold and go beyond what is accepted: "The therapy route is long and difficult and it is necessary to proceed along it in measured steps. Exposure should never be determined as an end in itself."

The pace of the treatment and its depth were put into the patient's hands, while the therapist was available at all times, even beyond the allotted sessions. "The therapist's job is only to be there and give of himself. To feel and to be moved without words."

In the untangling of her early life, Naomi revealed that she had been a fetus who ultimately was not aborted, and spoke of her parents' decision to bring her into the world against all the odds, and of her feelings of abandonment and betrayal as a little girl, which increased when she was sent to a kibbutz upon coming to this country. And what came back to Naomi with great force was the hot chocolate her father used to serve her, in a regular ritual, before bedtime. This was the father whom she had "killed" in her memory because he had married another woman and built a new family. Only before his death, did she dare to acknowledge him. "Love - how this word has been cheapened."

Now, at a distance of six decades from the events themselves, Naomi looks back on "her history" that has been woven with the help of Ilana, and is concerned about banality: "I don't want to be just another Holocaust story." For after all, it was the secrecy that could have given the secret life some meaning. The desire to dig and to know, along with the fear of discovery, their coming together in a "seductive dance" - this is the therapist's observation. "You are freeing me of the effort to both remember and forget," replies the patient.

Even when they came out of hiding, the Holocaust children had to cling to disguise and continued not to trust anyone, trapped in loneliness and always on the alert, as discovery for them means death. The necessity of hiding feelings at any price and of relating to the environment - and even those closest to them - with constant suspicion became a behavior pattern, a necessary tool of survival.

Ilana Sterlin gently gets Naomi to talk, locates the land mines of vulnerability, and leaves plenty of room for silences as well. "Naomi relaxes ... Within the relaxation she can live. Simply live." Can the therapist promise the patient that she will not go crazy? There is always the danger that opening up, if only a crack, will lead to an uncontrollable flood.

Compassionate light

The uniqueness of this book is that the therapist also reveals something of herself, albeit in a cautious dose. She testifies that she made use of her own inner child to translate Naomi's feelings, and sets out a difficult dilemma. Should she lead the survivor straight to her scorched core and take the risk of the collapse her defense systems? Sterlin is conscious of the weight of her responsibility, including the fear that she will not succeed in building an alternative world on the ruins of the pit of secrets.

This is a modest book that arouses respect, which was written from within therapy's recognition of its helplessness in the face of incomprehensible horror, and the understanding that there is no perfect cure. The writer has no pretenses of covering the entire phenomenon of Holocaust children, but wants only to cast a ray of light on an individual instance at human eye-level, out of compassion and an embrace. The quality of the book is in the intimate partnership that developed between the two women, who also bring the readers along on a twisting journey of the soul.

"Hot Chocolate" ends with a question: Does the book itself put Naomi back into a kind of hiding? But now the two are going back there together. At the end of the process, Naomi was officially recognized as "handicapped by Nazi persecutions," and found the strength to appear before school children and reveal her history in public. She hung the gold-plated crucifix pendant - her "symbol of shame" - that she had hidden somewhere in the depths of cupboard - on her heart, alongside the Star of David. She is here.

For the discourse that is being conducted with those who survived the Holocaust at this late point in time, unconditional empathy and the ability to listen are essential. It is necessary to begin with the assumption that we will never understand this story, but nevertheless the little we can do is to listen. We are here.

Nava Semel's book, "And the Rat Laughed," published by Yedioth Ahronoth Books, is about the memoirs of a woman who was hidden in a potato pit as a girl.

Published in: Ha'aretz Book Review, 2002

© All rights reserved to NAVA SEMEL 2017