Interview

"The Uprooted"

A psychologist draws on her own experiences to gather the stories of those who fled the Nazis

("The Jewish Journal" - April, 1994)

By Naomi Pfefferman, Senior Writer

Dorit Bader Whiteman is not a concentration-camp survivor. For much of her life she did not consider herself part and parcel of the Holocaust, though she is Jewish, was born in Austria and lived there through most of the 1930's. But her parents had the wisdom and/or good fortune to flee the Nazis in 1938, and Whiteman found herself an escapee rather than a concentration-camp inmate.

Four years ago she set out to discover what had happened to others, like her, who had fled the German nightmare and landed safely on some shore that eventually became home. Most of these fellow escapees had also believed it was "immodest to talk about what happened to you compared to the camp (victims)." Nor were there any existing studies of these refugees. So Whiteman embarked upon a study of her own, "What Happened to Those to Whom 'Nothing Happened at All,'" and the result was a critically acclaimed book, The Uprooted: A Hitler Legacy, which has recently ranked high on academic bestseller lists.


John Guthrie -- "the gentle giant" who fixed the shoes of orphaned Jewish children who were evacuated to Scotland -- gives the author a bear hug.

The psychologist's timing could not have been better. She approached 190 refugees from Israel to New Zealand, who like Whiteman had been too busy building families and careers to think much of the past but who now had begun reminiscing about faces and places long gone. "The book became a mission for me," said the soft-spoken New York author, who gave up her Health Clinic's psychology department to immerse herself in research. "The world didn't know what had happened to the escapees, and I felt their story should be told."

The psychologist's own memories came rushing back as she sat at her computer. She had grown up in a comfortable home in Vienna, her father a physician, her mother a chemist and the proprietor of a renowned girls' boarding school. But upon the Nazi invasion Whiteman's family was forced to race to London with just a few suitcases in tow. Whiteman was eventually evacuated from her Kent boarding school to a primitive bricklayer's house before moving to New York with her parents in 1941. There they all eagerly became Americans, but the price, of course, was one more uprooting.

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Dorrith Sim (center), a member of the Kindertransport, shows her childhood pictures to the author and the author's husband.

"The feeling of having lost something came much later, as I went to weddings and funerals and realized how few relatives I had," Whiteman said. "It came when I finally returned to Vienna, and realized what I might have had."

Like the other escapees she stood outside her old European home and retraced the path to school. "My nostalgic feelings were mixed with tremendous anger and hostility," she said. "My mother's boarding school was now run by the state, and I recognized the paintings and grand piano, now shabby and neglected. Waves of sadness came over me at the ice cream parlor across the way; there were the same mirrors, the same small tables, but most of the children who had noisily crowded the place were either scattered or dead."

Whiteman, who felt the loss even more vividly when her daughters left home, discovered an "immediate bond" with the fellow escapees she interviewed. There was Ruth Michaelis, who was severely beaten for bed-wetting in her foster home. There was Ruth Wesson, once part of a strange children's commune in a drafty Welsh castle, without furniture, toilets, running water or adult supervision. There were refugees who lived in poverty in Shanghai; who scratched a living from the rocky soil in the remote mountains of Ecuador; who were shipped as "enemy aliens" to the dusty Australian interior.

What they shared, Whiteman found, was a sense of always being the "assimilated outsider" -- different but in no way inferior. Rather, overcoming the odds had brought feelings of self-worth, though many had heightened awareness of the unpredictability of things and were wrenched by even casual goodbyes. Whiteman, for one, is "intensely moved by the innocence of children"; at her daughter's school plays she found herself staring at the ceiling so tears did not run down her cheeks, for the earnest scrubbed faces reminded her of the youths "who were oh so good´┐Ż(but reaped) something most terrible."

Yet the psychologist was surprised to discover that while escapees felt grief or anger about the Holocaust, they did not have the expected survivor's guilt (perhaps because they had had less proximity to the dying). This claim was so controversial, she said, that colleagues warned it could damage her reputation.

"It was also striking to me that (escapee) children did not confide much to each other about the pain of separating from their parents; it was better to have a certain amount of denial in order to function," she continued. "Today the popular idea is that (youngsters) must always be encouraged to talk about their trauma, but I now believe it's better to let that go, in some cases, until the child is older and stronger."

Whiteman added that the highly functional escapees have another message for contemporary psychologists, as they counsel refugees from Bosnia and Central America. "We must keep in mind a brighter future for these people," she said. "The ability to recover is enormous."

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