German War Children Begin Facing Suppressed Traumas | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 04.02.2008
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German War Children Begin Facing Suppressed Traumas

One quarter of Germans were children during World War II. During the 1950s, researchers were still convinced that the generation had overcome the war traumas. That's not the case, according to recent studies.

Refugee children walk on a road during winter

Wartime childhood traumas are only beginning to affect Germans now

When Hildgeard Jost-Berns hears a siren, she regularly winces. While still working as a teacher, the 69-year-old had to disrupt her lessons when a practice alarm went off outside. As a five-year-old, Jost-Berns saw how her parents' apartment in the western German town of Essen went up in flames after an air raid. She was too young to understand why this was happening. She was also too old to ever forget it. Years later, the flames still haunted her in her dreams.

The loss of home and security always goes along with the loss of childhood. That's also what happened to Beatrix Wagner, who witnessed the attack on Dresden in 1945. She can remember the crackling of the bombs and the scary helplessness of her mother.

"It was something completely unexpected and a horrible feeling," Wagner said.

Left alone with traumatic experiences

No one was interested in the hurt feelings of a seven-year-old girl during the chaotic times of war. Bare survival was all that counted. Even after the war, Wagner didn't get a chance to deal with her experiences. Psychologists taking care of traumatized children didn't exist. A 1954 study also did away with any concerns about the psychological and physical well-being of these children and teenagers.

Harmut Radebold

Hartmut Radebold

"They were back to a normal weight, a normal height, normal school grades and had no serious psychological disorders as far as those could be detected with the methodology used at the time," said Hartmut Radebold, a psychiatrist in Kassel, who has studied the generation of war children for years.

Again and again, he noticed behavior among those 60 years and older that he attributes to war experiences that were never dealt with. He noticed difficulties to form relationships, for example. Women from this generation find it difficult to open up to a partner. Many of them were raised by mothers and grandmothers alone -- their fathers had either died in the war, were still missing or came home late after years as prisoners of war.

What doesn't kill me…

But relationships were not the only way that traumas kept haunting the war children. Sirens or an uncomfortable lack of space inside a magnetic resonance tomography can bring back images and horrors from childhood.

It's a process that many find difficult to endure, as they see themselves as proud survivors, Radebold said.

"They live according to the saying: What doesn't kill me, makes me stronger," he said.

That's why they locked away their memories and let them simmer in their adult subconscious while going on with the professional and private lives. In retirement, however, these suppressed memories start resurfacing in the absence of distractions offered by day-to-day jobs. Depression, panic attacks and physical ailments such as heart problems are often the result. But many people ignore these signs as they've learnt to ignore their body's signals in times of hunger and cold.

They still do that today and avoid medical checkups more frequently than others. They do not take enough time to get over illnesses completely and have difficulties paying attention to their spiritual needs, including the need to mourn.

Hildegard Jost-Bens, for example, used to like a particular photograph of herself that shows her as an eight-year-old with bow-ties and curls.

She's changed her mind. She's realized that her face looks tense and serious.

"And that's despite the fact that the worst was over in 1946," she said. "At least on the outside."

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