Filling in the painful spaces by Ilany Kogan

Filling in the painful spaces

N. Szajnberg, MD, Managing Editor         

Ilany Kogan, writes about holes: voids, memory-erased spaces of open-mouthed silent screams.  She presents cases of children or grandchildren of those who survived the Holocaust, documenting how their psychic holes are populated, filled in with unconscious fantasies, enacted in their lives.

Her work, as you will read here or in her books, is pains-taking:  she absorbs the pains, metabolizes them, and

Figure 2 Berlin Jewish Museum Memory Void

facilitates the analysand’s relinquishment of those pains.  The piece is longer than many of our posts. She begins with a visit to Libeskind’s zinc-clad, Jewish museum in Berlin.  He left two voids within: one he calls voided void, the other a memory void.  Let’s hear what she does with these.




Ilany Kogan, Training Analyst, Israel Psychoanalytic Society

            Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit Berlin’s Jewish Museum for the third time. An architectural masterpiece, the museum is a spectacular structure that has firmly established itself as one of Berlin’s most notable landmarks. The zinc building is unique in that it ties the museum’s themes to its architecture, which is rich in thought-provoking symbolism that makes German-Jewish history palpable.

            The museum’s architect, Daniel Libeskind, called his conception “Between the Lines,” a name reflecting the tensions of German-Jewish history. In the design of the building, the past takes shape along two lines: one straight, but broken into many fragments; the other winding and open-ended. The intersections of these lines are marked by Voids – empty spaces that slash through the entire structure top to bottom, in a straight line.   The Voids, which are quite separate from the rest of the building, have walls of bare concrete, are neither heated nor air-conditioned, and are largely without artificial lighting. They are an architectural expression of the irretrievable loss of the Jews murdered in Europe.  In Libeskind’s words, “A Void is not really a museum space.  It represents “that which can never be exhibited when it comes to Jewish Berlin history: humanity reduced to ashes.” (Libeskind, 2000).

            Sharing with a colleague my impressions of the Voids as well as Libeskind’s remarks about them, and the thoughts they evoked in me in connection with my article for the IPA volume that focuses on Freud’s “Negation” paper  (Freud, 1925), I was struck by his brilliant observation: “Isn’t Libeskind using ‘negation’ here? Isn’t it clear from his ‘not really’ that he was (unconsciously) aware that the Void is indeed a museum space?  We see the psychic game of negation ‘live’ in action here!!” 

            I agree with my colleague’s astute observation about the negation in Libeskind’s remarks. I would take this one step further – that it is not only Libeskind’s statement, but also the Voids themselves which convey “negation.”  These Voids are museum spaces that represent death and, like “negation,” “belong to the instinct of destruction” (Freud, 1925, p.239).

             In this paper I wish to examine “negation” from the perspective of the psychic representation of absence. Two of the Voids roused thoughts that relate to this theme. The first Void, the “Voided Void,” is a bare, narrow, unheated chamber rising the full height of the building, silent and unlit except for indirect light from a high diagonal slit, dimly echoing the end of a thousand years of Jewish life in Germany.  The effect of this empty, hollow space is petrifying. The second Void is the “Memory Void.” The floor of this space is covered by a sculpture entitled Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves) by Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman. This sculpture consists of over 10,000 open-mouthed faces coarsely cut from heavy, circular iron plates, evoking painful recollections of Holocaust victims.  Both Voids represent death, and, in my view, both Voids are full: While the “Memory Void” is replete with open-mouthed faces, the “Voided Void” is replete with emptiness.


            These two Voids are reminiscent of the different formulations of the experience of absence that may be applied to Holocaust survivors’ offspring: the “empty circle” and the “psychic hole.” The “empty circle”, a term formulated by Laub, symbolizes “the absence of representations, the rupture of the self, the erasure of memory, and the accompanying sense of void that are the core legacy of massive psychic trauma” (Laub, 1998, p.507).  The “psychic hole” is conceived of as an “absence of psychic structure” (Kinston & Cohen, 1986, p. 338).   But, in the case of Holocaust survivor’s offspring, I define this “hole” as a space which encapsulates all of the unconscious fantasies linked to the parents’ traumatic past (Kogan, 1995, 2007a, 2007b). In my mind, the notion of the “empty circle” is conveyed by the Jewish Museum’s “Voided Void” and the notion of the “psychic hole,” by the museum’s “Memory Void.”  Both the “empty circle” and the “psychic hole” are expressions of “negation”, as they represent death and destruction. 

In this essay, I will explore the term “psychic hole,” and compare it to similar terms from the world of astrophysics and terms used in the psychoanalytic literature, particularly the “empty circle” mentioned above.  I will then present my own conception of the “psychic hole” in cases of Holocaust survivors’ offspring.  I will explain how this “hole” is created, and describe a particular aspect of the “psychic hole” that is unique to Holocaust survivors’ offspring, namely the enactments (termed “concretization” by Bergman [1982]) generated by the negated traumatic themes which reside in it. I will illustrate these enactments using clinical material taken from case studies of Holocaust survivors’ offspring which I have published (Kogan, 1987, 1993, 1995). The clinical vignettes reveal the transgenerational impact of the memory hole resulting from negation of survivor parents on the lives of their offspring, up to the third generation. They also show the painful journey from enactments to psychic representations, a journey which exposes the negated traumatic events, facilitates the work of mourning and the eventual achievement of a better integrated self.  Finally, I will offer technical suggestions for analysts to help patients remove the “negation”.

The “psychic hole”

           For children of Holocaust survivors, there is no memory of a time when the Holocaust did not exist in their awareness, whether articulated or unconsciously conveyed by their parents. The remembrance of the Holocaust is constructed out of materials or stories – those spoken aloud, told and retold, as well as those silently borne across a bridge of generations (Axelrod et al., 1978; Barocas & Barocas, 1973; Kestenberg, 1972; Klein, 1971; Laufer, 1973; Lipkowitz, 1973; Rakoff, 1966; Sonnenberg, 1974; Laub & Auerhahn, 1993; Auerhahn & Laub, 1998; Brenner, 2002 ). This remembrance marks those who carry it as “secret bearers” (Micheels, 1985).  Children who become burdened with memories that are not their own (Auerhahn & Prelinger, 1983; Fresco, 1984) often echo the dramas existing in their parents’ inner worlds by enacting them in their own lives (Krell, 1979; Phillips, 1978; Laub & Auerhahn, 1984; Kogan, 1995; 1998; 2002). These often violent enactments intermingle death wishes with potentially dangerous situations (Kogan, 1998). In many cases, they are caused by persecutory anxieties which develop into delusional fantasies of paranoid proportions, anxieties that demonstrate a lack of differentiation between self and others, past and present, inner and outer reality. At the core of the compulsion to enact the parents’ traumatic experiences in the offsprings’ own lives is a kind of identification with the damaged parent, termed “primitive identification” (Freyberg, 1980; Grubrich-Simitis, 1984; Kogan, 1995; 1996; 1998; 2003; 2007a; 2007b). This identification leads to a loss of the child’s separate sense of self and to an inability to differentiate between the self and the damaged parent. I find this phenomenon similar to the identification which takes place in pathological mourning, which Freud (1917) describes as a process whereby the mourner attempts to possess the object by becoming the object itself, rather than bearing a resemblance to it. This occurs when the mourner renounces the object, at the same time preserving it in a cannibalistic manner (Grinberg & Grinberg, 1974; Green, 1986). It is this type of identification that is at the core of the offspring’s inability to achieve self-differentiation and build a life of his or her own.

The coexistence of the offspring’s global identification on the one hand, and the “negation “(which is defined by Freud as the “cognizance of the repressed” (Freud, 1925, p. 235) on an intellectual level, while the feelings connected to it remain repressed),  of the parents’ trauma on the other – a coexistence present in many cases of Holocaust survivors’ offspring – creates a gap in the offspring’s emotional understanding, which I conceive of as a “psychic hole.”  The “psychic hole” can be regarded as a two-sided coin, one side of which is conscious ignorance of the parents’ trauma, and the other side, unconscious knowledge of it. 

I wish to compare the “psychic hole” with a metaphor borrowed from the world of astrophysics – the phenomenon of the “black hole.” This term, reviewed by Eshel (1998b, p.115), is pregnant with meaning in psychoanalysis as well as in astrophysics.  

The “black hole” – in astrophysics and psychoanalysis

            In the world of astrophysics, the “black hole” is defined as a body that sucks all the forces of gravitation into it.  It is described as a “region of space-time where infinitely strong gravitational forces literally squeeze matter and photons out of existence” (Penrose, 1973; cited in Gribbin, 1992, p. 142).

          In psychoanalysis, the term “black hole” is used to describe the nature of early traumatizations caused by premature and/or traumatic physical separation from the mother or by troubled symbiosis with her.  These traumatizations lead to a premature psychological birth.  They propel the infant into a world of precocious separateness from its mother, a sort of shocking infantile catastrophe associated with stark terror. and may lead to primitive mental disturbances.

          The concept of a “black hole” was first applied clinically by Bion (1970) in reference to the infantile catastrophe of the psychotic.  It was further developed by Tustin (1972; 1986; 1990; 1992) who applied it to psychogenic autism of children. Tustin claimed that adult patients who are prone to autistic ways of behaving have, instead of a psychic core that holds them together, an unmourned sense of loss or “black hole.” This “black hole” represents the absence of the mother and is a primitive depressive situation which may occur even earlier than the paranoid-schizoid position (Tustin, 1986). The experience of the “black hole” promotes the use of very strong defenses, for example, the autistic shell, to cover over the rupture in the psychic umbilicus and to split away any hint of vulnerability. Grotstein (1986; 1989; 1990a, b, c; 1993) applied this term to schizophrenia. He (1990) emphasized that the “black hole” is felt “not just as a static emptiness, but as an implosive, centripetal pull into the void” (p.257).

 While these psychoanalysts applied the term “black hole” to mentally ill patients, Eshel (1998) applied the term metaphorically to individuals who seem to function in their social and professional life; in these cases, Eshel sees the “black hole” as the product of the impact of a “dead” parent, particularly the “dead mother” (Green, 1986).

The “psychic hole” in psychoanalysis

    The concept of a “psychic hole” was first mentioned by Freud (1894) who stated, “in melancholia the hole is in the psychic sphere” (p.104). In contemporary psychoanalytic writing, a “hole” in the psyche connotes a deficit or absence.  It is synonymous to psychic concepts such as absence, void, black holes, inner deadness, and being unavailable to oneself or others, concepts which refer to the experiential states of patients who do not “register” their experience, even, such acute experiences as trauma, object loss and separation.           

            There is a connection between the “psychic hole” and trauma, and the mechanism of “negation.”  Baranger, Baranger, and Mom (1988) suggested that “we can think of the subject of the ‘pure trauma’ as a subject without history. These  are subjects with a history, but a history with a huge hole in it.… What is ‘actual’ of the neurosis is not biological, but is the impenetrable wall within the subject which opposes the historicization of some sectors of his existence” (p. 125). The “holes” they describe tend to dismantle the survivor’s sense of psychic history. The traumatic experience remains, according to them, “present and unintegrable” and antagonistic to structure. Indeed, trauma’s ability to debilitate individual psychic structure is perhaps its most definitive characteristic.   I believe that the “psychic hole” results from the negation of traumatic experiences which are too painful to be integrated into the victims’ cognitive and affective framework.

The “psychic hole” in the case of Holocaust survivor’s offspring

          In this essay, I wish to apply the term “psychic hole” to a specific population, the offspring of Holocaust survivors.[1]  These survivors underwent massive trauma, and often conveyed their feelings of depression and aggression to their children in a manner beyond words.

My definition of the term “psychic hole” is similar to the “black hole” in the sense that it is a body – one that encapsulates all the unconscious fantasies connected to the parents’ traumatic past. Thus, it differs from Kinston and Cohen’s formulation of the “psychic hole” as an “absence of psychic structure” (Kinston & Cohen, 1986, p. 338). It does not belong to the category of “blankness” [“negative hallucination,” “blank psychosis,” “blank mourning,” all connected to what Green (1986) calls the “problem of emptiness” or the “work of the negative”[2]] or to Quinodoz’s non-existent “hole-object” (1996).[3]

My definition of the “psychic hole” also differs from Laub & Podell’s “empty circle” (Laub & Podell, 1995, p. 992), although both these terms apply to a unique phenomenon in the lives of Holocaust survivors’ offspring, and both may stem from the “negation” of traumatic experiences. In contrast to the formulation of the “empty circle” as “a space created by the collapse of the imaginative capacity to visualize atrocity” (Laub and Auerhahn 1993, p. 289), I believe that the “psychic hole”, like the “black hole,” is not an empty space, but rather a space that embodies all unconscious fantasies with regard to events that are experienced as an absence.  I therefore associate it with the “Memory Void,” which is a space filled with sculptures representing death, a concrete expression of this concept.

The origin of the “empty circle” and the origin of the “psychic hole”

           Auerhahn and Laub (1989) claim that the “empty circle” in the case of Holocaust survivor’s offspring is created by the absence or breakdown of an empathic relationship in the perpetrators which, under normal circumstances, could have contained the affects mobilized by trauma. The “empty circle” is perpetuated through the inherent resistance (or inability) to integrate this “unmentalized” (Fonagy and Target, 1998) psychic spot into the survivor’s cognitive and affective framework – that is, through the survivor’s inability to possess the experience as knowledge (Laub and Auerhahn, 1993).  “In Lacanian terms …” writes Lewis Kirshner (1994), “extreme traumas might be defined as experiences producing a tearing of the network of signification which supports symbolic relationships …” (p. 238).  We can see this tearing of the network of signification as an expression of “negation”. This inherent resistance to signification within the traumatic encounter is responsible for the fact that it is “repeated in behavior, that is, in reenactments of unconscious structures” (p. 238).  It is from its unlocalizable place outside the realm of signification and human meaning that the “empty circle” comes to exert a dominating and mysterious force on the identities and lives not only of survivors but of their children as well. 

Laub and Auerhahn (1993) explain the origin of the “empty circle” and its impact on the lives of Holocaust survivors’ offspring in the following way: For children of survivors “the enormity and horror of events of massive destruction establish the events as primary, and simultaneously constrain precisely those imaginative processes that must be used if they are to know” (p. 289). Although, typically, their knowledge of the parents’ trauma is replete with associations and imagery that the survivors themselves cannot contain (Auerhahn &Prelinger 1983), at the center remains a ‘hole’.”  For these offspring, these “wounds without memory” may compellingly find expression in the very shape of their lives – as a sense of void, terror, vulnerability, and loss that defies all comfort – and may paralyze their ability to start a family of their own.  The “empty circle” legacy transmitted to these children thus becomes interwoven with, and often comes to overshadow, their normal developmental conflicts.

In my view, there is no “empty hole” in the psychic structure of Holocaust survivors’ offspring. The tearing of the network of signification caused by the traumatization may indeed create a “hole” in the psyche of the Holocaust survivors themselves, expressed through the survivors’ inability to integrate trauma into their cognitive and affective framework. But, in the case of their offspring, the “hole” does not remain empty, but is filled with unconscious fantasies pertaining to the parents’ traumatization, which are then often behaviorally acted out.[4] These enactments reveal the “negative” by acting out the negated traumatic themes residing in the offspring’s “psychic holes ”, themes which are connected to death and survival.

 How is the “psychic hole” created in cases of Holocaust survivors’ offspring? Even in those families where a “pact of silence” prevails, a child would still be able to guess some of the details of the parents’ severe traumatization.  When cognitive development is sufficiently advanced, he or she will begin to investigate the parents’ past.  At this stage, the parents’ desire to deny or repress the traumatic events could force them to unconsciously convey to the searching child that the object of his investigation is not something that really happened in their parents’ lives. Rather, it is the child’s wicked thoughts, a bad dream, something that ought to be forgotten (Grubrich-Simitis, 1984). Thus, the parents’ redefinition of the traumatic events in their lives as something horrible that emanated from the child’s inner world makes the reality of the trauma unreal for the offspring.

    Through the parents’ negation or repression of the trauma (a trauma which, by means of “primitive identification”, the offspring attribute to themselves), as well as through the offspring’s repression of the traces of the trauma, what was known or almost known becomes “unknown.”  It is the “unknown,” or that which cannot be remembered, that creates a “psychic hole,” a hole which includes the child’s unconscious fantasies about his or her parents’ traumatic past.  


           The body of unconscious fantasies that fills the “psychic hole” generates the compelling need to enact these fantasies in the offspring’s current life.  As mentioned above, enactment, the projection of denied knowledge by acting out, is an expression of the “negative” [in Freud’s (1925) terms revealed in the denial expressed by stating the opposite].  The understanding of the meaning of these enactments that often endanger the patients’ lives, reveals the traumatic themes which have been consciously negated. This understanding transforms the unconscious fantasies residing in the psychic hole into conscious psychic representations of the traumatic absent events.

I will briefly define and compare the concepts “enactment,” “acting out,” and “acting in.” Freud, who considered psychoanalysis to be a talking cure, regarded nonverbal activity as a problem in analysis. He believed that “acting out” (“agieren”) was an expression of resistance to remembering and communicating, thus constituting an obstacle to treatment (Freud, 1905; 1914). However, he also regarded acting out as a way of remembering (Freud, 1914, p.150).

Towards the end of his life, becoming more aware of the close relationship between transference and “acting out,” Freud indicated that communicating through acting was at least as valid as communicating through remembering: “… the patient produces before us with plastic clarity an important part of his life story, of which he would otherwise have given us only an insufficient account. He acts it before us, as it were, instead of reporting it to us’’ (Freud, 1940, pp.175-176).

This newer attitude of Freud’s, as well as the more recent attempt in the psychoanalytic literature to give greater legitimacy to acting in psychoanalysis, led to the appearance of two new concepts, “acting in” and “enactment.”  These two concepts viewed acting in analysis as a way of remembering and expressing, and as a nonverbal way of communicating, rather than as a way of avoiding painful knowledge, as in the case of “acting out.”

 “Acting in” is defined as “acting in the transference” or “acting in the analytic situation,” which is sometimes the only way for the patient to convey some meaning to the therapist.   A problematic aspect of this concept, however, is that it is defined by a local or technical situation rather than by a theory or metapsychology (Etchegoyen, 1991; Laplanche & Pontalis, 1973).  Consequently, a further concept was coined in the last decade – “enactment.”  First suggested by Jacobs (1986), “enactment” was accepted as a far more useful concept than “acting in,” which was contaminated by the negative connotations involving resistance to treatment that were attributed to “acting out.”  “Enactment” differs from “acting out” in that it is primarily an interactive concept, reflecting what occurs in the relationship between patient and analyst, and stressing the analyst’s participation in the process (Schafer, 1982).

I wish to define “enactment” somewhat differently and apply it to Holocaust survivor’s offspring. In the context of the Holocaust, I view “enactment” as a general term that includes some of the attributes of both “acting out” and “acting in.” In this sense, “enactment” may serve the purpose of avoiding painful knowledge and memory [similar to the objective of “acting out” (Freud, 1904, 1914)] while at the same time it is the only way available to the patient to relive an inner experience [as in the process of “acting in” (Freud, 1940)].

My usage of the concept “enactment” in the context of the Holocaust differs from that of analysts who primarily stress its interactive aspects.  These analysts believe that enactment (or “actualization,” as it is termed by Sandler & Sandler, 1978) reflects what occurs in the relationship between patient and analyst and the analyst’s part in the process (Schafer, 1982; Chused, 1991; McLaughlin, 1992; Renik, 1993; Jacobs, 1991; 2000).  I define “enactment” as the compulsion of Holocaust survivors’ offspring to recreate their parents’ experiences in their own lives through concrete acts.  Thus, “enactment” is the externalization of traumatic themes from the past which have been negated, and not what occurs in the relationship between patient and analyst in the analytic situation.

          The exploration of fantasy, fact and acting out helps the patient/offspring to “know and then to “feel.”  By transforming the offspring’s unconscious psychic representations of the parent’s traumatic past that reside in the “psychic hole” into a cognitive mode, and by linking them to affects which until now were severed from them, the offspring fills the “psychic hole” with knowledge (that is, psychic representations of the trauma). The result is the achievement of “affective understanding” (Freud, 1915) which takes the place of “negation.”

           I will now present several examples of the enactment of fantasies that reside in the “psychic hole,” and how they were transformed into psychic representations of the Holocaust. In these cases, the transgenerationally transmitted mnemic deposits of Holocaust-related memories of the parents are intertwined with independently occurring separation-individuation, oedipal, and adolescence conflicts which, while interesting in themselves, are outside the scope of this paper. In this paper I will focus only on the impact of these deposits on the offspring lives, and the negated contents of the Holocaust past revealed through their enactments.

The patients described in the examples below display different levels of disturbance: one is neurotic and the other two are borderline psychotic patients.  In my view, there is not much difference between the “negative” expressed in enactments at the neurotic and psychotic levels. Since the enactments are externalizations of negated traumatic themes from the parents’ past, all of the patients below exhibit a withdrawal of their libidinal investment in life, and express the “negative” through their self-destructive enactments.


Gabrielle [5]

            Gabrielle, an attractive, thirty-five-year-old woman, sought professional help because of her inability to find fulfillment and happiness in her life and personal relationships.  Her marriage was on the verge of collapse.  She had been married for twelve years, had two daughters (then aged twelve and eight), and worked as a technician in a medical laboratory.  At the age of two-and-a-half, the younger daughter was diagnosed with emotional problems, thus placing on Gabrielle the burden of raising a disturbed child. 

            Gabrielle was born in 1946, somewhere near the Polish-German border, to a Holocaust survivor-mother and a handicapped father (he had a glass-eye since his youth).  The family spent three years wandering through Poland before immigrating to Israel, where they lived under very difficult conditions for the first few years.  Poor and uneducated, both parents struggled to earn a living.  Their marriage was unharmonious and devoid of support and friendship.

            Gabrielle’s mother was the only surviving member of a family with many brothers and sisters (Gabrielle never knew how many) who perished along with their parents in the Holocaust.  The mother, who was then only seventeen at the time, managed to flee through the woods and save her own life.  She emerged from the forest after the war limping, emaciated, and suffering from rheumatic fever, which developed into a chronic heart condition after Gabrielle’s birth.  Though Gabrielle was unaware of it, her mother’s past had a great impact upon her life and that of her young daughter.       

             I will use some clinical material to describe Gabrielle’s daughter’s enactments of “unknown” (negated) traumatic events from her grandmother’s Holocaust past. This enactment , which referred to the actualization of her suicidal wishes was a product of the unconscious fantasies which resided in a “hole” in her own psyche, as well as in the “psychic hole” of her mother, Gabrielle.

            For a long time in the treatment, Gabrielle was unaware of the impact of her mother’s past on herself and her daughter. Gabrielle told me how worried she was about her younger daughter, then thirteen years old, who seemed to be preoccupied with death and was living in a fantasy world where her fear of death was intermingled with death-wishes.  At home, as well as in school, the child told bizarre stories about a family (father, mother and little girl) who inhabited her throat. Gabrielle’s daughter described the little girl as paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair.  The little girl’s mother took her for a walk, pushing the wheel-chair ahead of her, and the wheelchair returned empty; the child had fallen out and been run over.  In the daughter’s story, the child was taken to the hospital where nobody knew whether she would live or die.  The daughter’s inclination was to think that the girl would die.      

            During this phase we began exploring Gabrielle’s fear about the very special bond existing between this daughter and herself: “I think that she feels what I feel, and in a way she reads my thoughts.”  I became aware that there might be a symbiotic relationship between Gabrielle and her daughter, and that, through the child, the mother might be expressing feelings of which she was unaware.  The daughter may have been identifying with the aggressive, destructive aspects of her mother, and through her behavior and stories, was expressing suicidal tendencies that actually belonged to her mother and not to herself.   In analysis we discovered that the same symbiotic bond existed between Gabrielle and her mother, as well as with me in the transference. This was confirmed by the following occurrences:

            a) Gabrielle dreamt a long series of suicidal dreams which reflected her fear of death, intermingled with death wishes towards her daughter and only occasionally towards herself.  In Gabrielle’s dreams, her daughter was run over by a car or drowned.  Gabrielle warned her to be careful, because she felt that the child was fulfilling her own inner wish of disappearing. For example: “I dreamt a dream in which my little daughter was run over by a car. There was a car full of children and she fell out of it. I was totally overwhelmed, and by the time I reacted another car came and ran her over.” In the associations related to the dream Gabrielle said: “This morning I was watching from the window as my daughter stopped in front of a truck while crossing the road. I saw the truck approaching and I was terribly frightened. I wondered what would have happened had she been run over by it.  At the same time, I thought that perhaps my life would be easier.”

            b)  Gabrielle described her total identification (fusion) with me in the transference. Gabrielle became confused about her own identity and was incapable of differentiating between herself and me. For example, she thought that she saw me walking around the neighborhood dressed provocatively, and then suddenly realized that those were actually her own clothes that she had recently worn. This confusion of identities, which lasted for about a year in analysis, pointed to the possibility that a similar process of confused identity had taken place between herself and her own mother during an early stage in Gabrielle’s development.  The dreams and the stories about the Holocaust that Gabrielle reported later in the analysis did not contain any trauma that belonged historically to her own past, but to the past of her mother.  Apparently she had always been entirely absorbed into her mother’s feelings, and was unable to differentiate between herself and her mother.

            Gabrielle herself confirmed the hypothesis of her total identification with her mother during the process of working through her feelings towards her mother: “My black feelings, where do they come from? I know they come from my mother, not because of her illness, but because of the war she went through. She transmitted her depression to me, her sad face was always in front of me, the unhappiness, the quiet despair.”

            In analysis, Gabrielle recollected a story about her mother’s “mythos of survival” (Klein, 1981, Kogan, 1995)[6]: “Mother suffered terrible things; she ran away and left her entire family behind. I truly admire her wish to survive; I wouldn’t have had the desire to live any more. She told me that she tried to commit suicide twice, and when she put the rope around her neck, she saw her mother’s face telling her: “If you’ve survived up until now, you have to go on living for everybody else.”

         The longing for suicide, which is typical of many adolescents, is usually mediated by changes in ego functions, the quality of which depend greatly on the structural-cognitive development that takes place in adolescence (Erlich, 1978). Here I will focus only on the impact of this young adolescent’s unconscious fantasies that derived from the mother and grandmother’s negation of traumatic past events.

        Gabrielle’s ill mother was probably unable to carry the burden of pain and aggression caused by her massive traumatization. She transmitted it to Gabrielle, who unconsciously conveyed it to her own daughter.  Thus, in both generations, the mother was unable to help the daughter to achieve self-object differentiation, and hence, the daughters felt the need to live in their mothers’ pasts (Kestenberg, 1980; Auerhahn and Prelinger, 1983). The unconscious processes of identification on the one hand, and the negation and repression of the trauma on the other, created a “psychic hole” in both generations. The unconscious fantasies residing in the “psychic hole” in the third generation compelled the child to enact the conflicting emotions and unconscious wishes regarding living or dying – her grandmother’s “mythos of survival” (Klein and Kogan, 1986) – in her own life. The child attempted to enact suicide, thus repeating her grandmother’s wish to die, but also to survive at the same time. She tried to come close to death in order to overcome it.         


           Hannah was a new immigrant living in Israel who sought analysis because of her feelings of derealization and her inability to cope with life.  She was the daughter of a Holocaust survivor whose first wife had perished in the Holocaust and who spent much of the war in hiding.  Hannah’s father had suffered from masked depression throughout his life, and never disclosed his past to his new family.  But during the first year of analysis, Hannah heard through a cousin about her father’s first wife and how she had died. The secret was at long last revealed to his second wife and children, and Hannah’s father donated a sum of money to an institution in Israel in his first wife’s memory.

Following this, there were many enactments, which expressed Hannah’s unconscious attempt to recreate the fate of her father’s first wife in her current reality.  Moreover, she connected the fact that she was living in Israel, surrounded by Arab hostility, to her fantasies about her father’s past. The source of these fantasies was the “psychic hole,” the conscious negation of the traumatic past, while unconsciously always knowing about it. A description of one of her enactments follows:

Hannah rushed back to analysis from a trip to Europe in a state of panic and tremendous anxiety, relating that she was in great danger because “an Arab is after me.”  It turned out that she had met an elegantly dressed gentleman in the lobby of her hotel, who she believed to be an Arab spy.  Despite the fact that she did not have Israeli citizenship and that she had been living in Israel for only a few months, she immediately told him that she was an Israeli citizen.  After going out together to dinner and a film, Hannah went to his room, where the two had sex without uttering a single word.  Suddenly Hannah realized that she did not even know his name, and panicstricken, quickly made up an excuse that she had to go to the toilet, dressed hurriedly, grabbed her handbag and fled the room.  Two hours later she was on a plane to Israel.

Upon arriving home, Hannah phoned the hotel where she had stayed to inform them that she had left a pair of shoes there, and gave her address so that the shoes could be forwarded to her. Immediately afterward she came looking for me in desperation, convinced that the “Arab spy” would pursue her.

Hannah connected this episode to the film The Night Porter, which she had seen many years before. She related that the story in the film took place some time after the Nazi concentration camps had been liberated, and it portrayed an encounter between a Jewish woman who had been imprisoned in a concentration camp as an adolescent and the Nazi officer who had been her tormentor there.  In this encounter, said Hannah, the past prevailed over the present, and the protagonists, propelled by a force greater than themselves, resumed their concentration camp roles of victim and persecutor.  The man sexually abused the woman, and then – unable to return to reality – killed her.

Attempting in the transference to understand Hannah’s need to enact her unconscious wishes and fantasies with regard to her father’s first wife, I pointed out that she was assigning me the role of her savior, while attempting to bring this woman back to life by becoming her. But, I added, she was trying to kill her father’s first wife by placing herself in danger of being killed by the Arab/Nazi.

During this phase of treatment, Hannah achieved some “affective understanding” (Freud, 1915) of her enactments by making the unconscious conscious and linking to it her feelings of pain and mourning for the losses incurred by her father. Without describing this phase in detail here, suffice it to say that, following the above-mentioned episode, and supported by her analyst, Hannah summoned the courage to question her father about his traumatic past.  Their discussions produced an unexpected result. Her father, concerned that he was nearing the end of his life, decided to write an autobiography, and asked Hannah to be his editor.

In analysis, we understood that her willingness to edit this work demonstrated Hannah’s readiness to become acquainted with negated details of her father’s trauma, and furthermore, to place it in a past that was not her own.  Only after filling the “psychic hole” with knowledge, could we work through feelings of mourning and guilt that belonged to her father, which had been transmitted to her in nonverbal forms of communication. This long process of working through eventually led Hannah to a better differentiation between herself and her father, between past and present, between reality and fantasy.

Kay[8]           Kay was the stepdaughter of a Holocaust survivor who had been castrated by Mengele’s doctors.  Kay communicated with me (in the first phase of treatment) through infantile drawings.  One of her pictures, bearing the title “Electricity,” depicted a man with a wiry flower emerging from his head.  Only at a later stage in analysis, when Kay was able to communicate with me verbally, were we able to understand her unconscious fantasy: the flower of death symbolized her stepfather’s traumatic experience of having to avoid death by spending an entire night standing naked in the cold between the two rows of electric wires of the concentration camp.

Kay was referred to treatment after attempting to jump from the eighth floor of a building.  In analysis, we were able to understand her desire to jump to her death from high places as an attempt to enact the torment associated with her stepfather’s survival and close encounters with death. For her stepfather, falling would have meant touching the wires, electrocution and a horrible death. When Kay ascended to the eighth floor, intending to jump out of the window, she was convinced that she would survive.  Her delusional, paranoid fantasies of magically and omnipotently conquering death were endangering her life.

In analysis, Kay demonstrated a constant preoccupation with her body – physical fitness, weight, and muscle tone – as part of her survival complex.  This preoccupation was based on her unconscious fantasy that “I feel my body, therefore I exist.”  I will go into detail on this matter later on.

The following episode illustrates Kay’s compelling need to enact the reparation of her stepfather’s castration upon her own body:  After my summer holiday, she informed me that she had undergone breast surgery during my absence. She stressed that she had chosen to undergo the surgery while I was away because she did not want to cancel her sessions after I returned home. Elaborating, she explained that the operation was the fulfillment of a wish she had had since she was young – to enlarge her breasts with silicone implants.

Kay went to a doctor who examined her breasts and described them as “empty” rather than small. He stated that an operation was possible but was not without risks, warning her that her body might reject the silicone, a condition accompanied by tissue inflammation, fever, and pain, and the necessity for further operations. She was informed that she might never be able to breastfeed a child. Despite being terrified of these prospects, Kay nevertheless decided to go ahead with the operation. She was referred to a shop where she was measured for implants, and selected them from a catalogue, choosing a medium size, which she felt would make her look much more like a “whole” woman.

Kay came to analysis on the appointed date, two weeks after her operation. She entered the room walking upright and, pulling her blouse against her breasts, asked if I could see any change. Only afterwards, when lying on the couch, did she tell me the entire story.  She was overjoyed and emphasized her satisfaction at being able to conquer her fears.

In my countertransference feelings, I felt a heavy weight laying on my heart. This feeling made me aware that Kay was not in touch with her sadness, which was conveyed to me by massive projective identification.  Attempting to understand what had compelled her do this deed during my absence, I pointed out to Kay that she had begun feeling that her breasts were “empty” only when I was not around, when she was not getting the feeding and support from our regular sessions. Kay laughed a short laugh and then confirmed my hypothesis in an angry voice, “I don’t need you; I don’t need anybody. I want to depend only on myself.”

I pointed out Kay that her need to “fill” her breasts stemmed from her anger and frustration at feeling abandoned by me.  Over the course of that session she became aware of these feelings and accepted them.  Working through these feelings in the transference led her to reveal her fantasies of flirting with death on the operating table.  She had undergone the operation in order to repair her femininity, but was aware that she might die as a result.  Of course, she now felt that she had once again overcome a terrible danger.

Kay associated her victory over possible death on the operating table with a story from her stepfather’s life.  After the war, he met one of the few other men who had survived castration in Mengele’s experiments.  The man told Kay’s stepfather about a Jewish doctor in Paris who performed restorative surgery (implantation of testicles) on these victims free of charge.  Her stepfather decided to go to Paris and have the operation.  It was successful and he was able to resume sexual relations with women, though he remained infertile.

Kay and I then began to elaborate upon the unconscious fantasies that compelled Kay to enact her stepfather’s life story on her own body.  I pointed out to Kay that she may have been trying to implant her femininity into her breasts in the same manner in which her stepfather had had his manhood implanted into his empty testicle sacs.

A pregnant silence filled the room as Kay absorbed my words.  Then, understanding the meaning behind her decision to undergo surgery, she was overwhelmed by a powerful surge of emotion.  It took us many months to work through the feelings of fear, depression and pain which replaced her euphoria.  We also tried to elaborate on the complex needs she had expressed through her surgery.  Consciously, she was trying to attain a better, repaired sexuality.  Unconsciously, she was attempting to endanger herself in a concrete way, to come as close as possible to an imagined death, in order to overcome it.

Kay knew few details of her stepfather’s experiences during the Holocaust, as he kept them mostly to himself. The atmosphere of silence at home masked a past full of terror and violence, which Kay absorbed.  For the last twenty years her stepfather had been writing his Holocaust memoirs, but Kay had never had the courage to ask to see them. In analysis, after working through her fear of discovering what had really happened to him, and encouraged by my supportive attitude, she decided the time had come to do so. To her great surprise and excitement, her stepfather sent her his complete autobiography, which he had dedicated to his adopted children. Kay read it avidly, and brought it to me so that I too could read it. I read it, feeling that I had to participate in this act; thus I “actualized” (Sandler & Sandler, 1978) her wish to make me her partner in “the search for the self through family secrets” (Gampel, 1982).

The elaboration of Kay’s enactment enabled us to begin an exploration of the way she had communicated with me during the first part of treatment, and the way she had lived her life until then, using her body to express unconscious fantasies pertaining to physical occurrences, anxieties and emotions that were experienced by her stepfather during the Holocaust.

All through her treatment, Kay had complained at length about her defective sense of smell. Only now could we connect this impairment to her stepfather’s story of the awful stench emanating from people dying in their excrement and vomit, unable to reach the public latrine. Impairment of the olfactory sense thus became a survival mechanism for him.  Kay’s constant state of hunger, as well as her suffering from cold and her inability to find suitably warm clothing, were primary aspects of her stepfather’s wartime experiences as well.

Kay had a fear of incontinence (which she expressed by running repeatedly to the toilet during sessions).  In this regard, she related a story of woe and humiliation from her stepfather’s memoirs: “Father stood for hours at roll call, peeing in his pants, knowing that any movement could incur a death punishment.” Urine was the substance used by her stepfather to treat a wound on his leg caused by a brutal kick from a German soldier.

During this phase of analysis, in which she recounted these stories, Kay  was treating the wounds in her soul by uncovering negated bits of information from her repressed consciousness, information which she had known but had forgotten over the years.


 As I have shown in various case illustrations which I have published over the years, history is never truly past.  That is, the past is never dead; it lives in the mind, never to perish.  Turner (1938) eloquently described the intermeshed nature of past and present by viewing the present as an undeveloped past, and the past as an undeveloped present.

This connection between past and present derives from the difference between the “facts” of history and the meaning and significance we attribute to these facts. The initial fact has many ramifications and is not a thing unto itself with sharp, clear outlines.  Becker (1955) posed three simple questions about historical fact: what, where and when.  Regarding the “what”, Becker states that historical fact is not the past event, but a symbol which enables us to recreate it imaginatively.  As to the “where”, Becker places it in someone’s mind and insists that a historical fact is – not was.  While the actual past event is gone forever, it is remembered; it is the persistence of records and memories, rather than the ephemeral event, which makes a difference to us now.  Becker then addresses himself to the “when” of a historical fact, claiming that if the historical fact is present, imaginatively, in someone’s mind, then it is now part of the present.

The transformation process

              In the case of Holocaust survivors offspring, the historical past is always present, and unconscious fantasies about this past fill the “psychic hole,” generating enactments. I believe that the most effective way to transform these unconscious fantasies into conscious psychic representations is by making patients aware of the connection between their enactments and their parent’s traumatic past.  This awareness, making the unconscious conscious, which was stressed by Freud in many of his works, can transform the enactments into a cognitive mode and uncover what was negated. The transformation may be achieved by helping these individuals to find the meaning of the trauma in their parents’ lives and to bind[9] it in a meaningful context, thus consigning it to their parents’ past rather than to their own.  

              During the first phase of analysis, the analyst deals with cognition and emotions which were severed in the offspring by the parents’ negation of the trauma, leaving in the child traces of what was negated. Finding the parents’ “unknown” story, which facilitates the removal of negation, followed by a process of working through, which links thoughts and feelings, transforms the enactment of negated contents into an “affective understanding” (Freud, 1915). The resulting integration of cognition and emotions greatly diminishes the offspring’s need to externalize the “negative” by repeatedly re-enacting the parents’ stories in his or her current life.[10]

The quest for information – the purpose of which is to enable the patient to fill the “hole” with psychic representations and give up enactments – is a difficult experience for the survivor’s offspring.  It is my view that in the initial stages of analysis, only a supportive, nurturing environment, which includes a “holding relationship” (one that decreases the patient’s tremendous anxiety) and “holding interpretations” (those that help the patient mobilize his/her forces to find the meaning of the trauma in the parents’ lives) can strengthen the patient’s mental organization to the point that negation is removed and psychic representations of the Holocaust past replace fragmenting, potentially life-threatening enactments (Kogan, 1995; 1996; 1998; 2002; 2003; 2007a; 2007b).

The information resulting from the offspring’s quest for knowledge facilitates differentiation and the creation of a new and separate self.  This quest for information might be accompanied by torment and anxiety. Consciously, the offspring is afraid that his questions about the past will force the parent to uncover what was negated, and relive painful, traumatic memories that may threaten the parent’s psychic survival. Unconsciously, the child experiences the wish to know his parent’s history as a step toward differentiation and a relief from the burden of the parent’s past, while at the same time realizing that this differentiation and separation may be potentially destructive for the parent. The quest for information is usually facilitated by the holding atmosphere in analysis and by the patient adopting the analyst as an ally in his quest.

 It is only after this initial phase of holding, in which the patient’s self is strengthened, that interpretations of his or her unconscious life become not only acceptable but also necessary. During these later phases, it is possible to work through the negated, and thus missing, piece of the parent’s history that is often connected to the offspring’s feelings of shame and guilt, and which created a myriad of unconscious fantasies which filled the “hole.”

In some cases, the parent’s story does not emerge easily, but has to be actively sought.  The therapist’s supportive attitude facilitates the patient’s discovery of that part of the parent’s history that was negated and that will fill the “hole” with psychic representations. This process is realized through the acquisition of concrete details from the parent’s past. Examples from the cases above are Kay’s request to read her stepfather’s memoirs in order to learn, among other things, about his castration by the Nazi doctors, and Hannah agreeing to edit her father’s autobiography of his Holocaust past.

The construction of an unbroken narrative – one that fills the gaps in the offspring’s knowledge, that makes it permissible to mention the unmentionable, that interweaves awareness of the realities and horrors of the Holocaust with the present – enables the offspring of survivors to uncover what was negated, and gradually gain some comfort from the split-off knowledge that has been accompanied by unacknowledged affects and fears. The events and narratives that formed the starting point of the child’s traumatic wound can be reconstructed, so that the split-off and diffusely enacted memory fragments from a persecutory world are elucidated. Thus, the interpretation of the “negative,” which  is often expressed through fragmentary, defensive enactments, leads the patient to an awareness of the reality of the trauma, and fills the “psychic hole” with psychic representations. The work of mourning which continues during the latter phases of analysis eventually frees him from the burden of the past and enables him to achieve a stronger, better integrated self.

Ilany Kogan is a Training Analyst in the Israel Psychoanalytic Society.  She teaches and supervises in Bucharest, Romania; Istanbul, Turkey; Munich, and Aachen, Germany.

She was awarded the Elise M. Hayman Award for the study of the Holocaust and Genocide.

She has written:  The Cry of Mute Children (1995); Escape from Selfhood (2007);  The Struggle Against Mourning, (2007); and The Canvas of Change: Analysis through the Prism of Creativity,  in press.

       For References, see On Freud’s “Negation”, eds. O’Neil and Akhtar, London: Karnac, 2011.

[1] The offspring of other war-affected people (e.g. Vietnamese refugees) and genocide survivors (e.g. Rwanda) may suffer from “psychic holes” as well. As I have described elsewhere (Kogan, 1995), while the modes of transmission of trauma are universal, in cases of Holocaust survivors, the modes of transmission bear the unique quality that the Holocaust trauma imparted to them.  This is often expressed in analysis through specific imagery connected to the Holocaust experience.

[2] The “work of the negative” is Andre Green’s (1993) collective designation for mental functions that are designed to reject objects, disinvest perception, and impoverish the ego. Under the broad rubric the “work of the negative” he includes the “negative therapeutic reaction” (Freud, 1923), as well as the mechanisms of repression, negation, splitting and disavowel. He adds five additional notions of his own: “negative hallucination,” “negative hallucination of thought,” “subjective disengagement by the ego,” “negative narcissism,” and the “ego’s sense of self-disappearance.” Fuelled by destructive drives, these processes impel the individual to accept or reject something: an object, a perception, a thought, or even one’s own subjective existence (Akhtar, 2009).

[3] According to  Danielle Quinodoz, the “hole-object” is created by the patient to defend against psychic suffering and aggressive drives towards the object.  Quinodoz makes a careful distinction between the “hole-object,” which is defined in terms of its non-existence, and the” absent object,” the “melancholic object” and the “bad-breast feeling,” all of which exist or have existed at some time.

[4] Parents who did not deny (negate) their traumatic past, and who succeeded in working through the feelings of mourning and guilt connected to it, may have conveyed their history to their children in a healthier manner. In these cases, the children are much less likely to experience a “psychic hole” in their psychic reality.

[5]  See Kogan (1986, 1995) for additional descriptions of this case.

[6] As a result of their traumatization, Holocaust survivors often create personal myths and fantasies – their “mythos of survival” (Klein, 1981; Kogan, 1995) – which differ from other types of neuroses. The mythos contains memories from the past, and its function is to maintain a traumatic screen (Kris, 1956) that hides huge amounts of ambivalence and hostility which can be unleashed by brutality, anxiety, or emotional pathology.  This longitudinal process, which began in the Holocaust, continues to influence the survivor at different stages of his life cycle.  It affects his perception of his body image, his object relations, his political views, and the way he relates to issues of life and death.  The “mythos of survival” is the realization of conflicting emotions and unconscious wishes regarding living and dying; it often permeates boundaries between generations and is unconsciously transmitted to the next generation by processes of projection-introjection (Kogan, 2007b).  As a result, the death wish, as well as the struggle against it, that existed in the lives of the parents, may become a compelling need in the lives of the offspring.

[7]  See Kogan (1993, 1995) for a more detailed description of this case.                                       

 [8] See Kogan (1987, 1995) for a more detailed description of this case 

[9] The concept of “binding” was first described in Freud’s (1920) theory of why certain events have a traumatic effect upon the mind, and how personality takes account of and adapts to the resulting changed internal conditions.  “Binding” appears in connection with Freud’s famous meta-psychological explanation (1920, p. 31) of trauma as an “extensive breach made in the protective shield against stimuli,” which occurs only when the mental apparatus is not prepared for anxiety, i.e., the parts of the system which are to receive the excessive stimulation are not properly hypercathected and therefore “the inflowing amount of excitation could not be bound.” It is hard to be sure what precisely Freud meant by “binding,” since he used the term at different stages of his work in different ways (Laplanche et al., 1973). However, by 1920 it had taken on the general meaning of a defensive operation that restricts free-flowing “excitation.” Once the catastrophic breach in the protective shield has taken place, and mental functioning is in turmoil and disarray, the problem is one of “mastering the amounts of stimulus which have broken in and of binding them in the psychical sense, so that they can then be disposed of.”

   In the recent literature (Garland, 1991, 2002), “binding” is described as a process by which the ego creates links between the free-flowing excitation and functions of the mind. In this way the ego attempts to recreate structures of some permanence in which ego functioning is possible.

[10] Wilson (1985) writes that offspring of survivors can acquire greater affect tolerance through the joint construction, with the analyst, of the historical narrative of the parents, which includes their Holocaust experience.  This then lessens their need to enact the traumatic past of their parents. 

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One Comment on “Filling in the painful spaces by Ilany Kogan”

  1. Leticia Franieck Says:

    I thank Mrs. Kogan for this thoughtful paper. It made me think about my own experiences,
    as a member of a family that experienced the second war, with had losses, mourning,
    silences and histories that were never told. But I also recalled a recent conversation I had
    with a woman about eighty five, while I was just buying tee at her shop. I will describe
    this conversation briefly in order to raise a question about the psychic hole. Back to the
    tee shop: due to my Brazilian-accented German, the old woman noticed that I was foreign
    and she asked about where I was from, how long I have been in Germany and so on. I
    told her that I live in Tübingen (a beautiful university city that was not destroyed by the
    war). With a sad face she said ‘I used to go to Tübingen a lot, to take my father to treat
    his “nerves”. Tübingen has the University and my father was traumatized after the war, it
    was the nearest city that could offer a treatment after the war. Since he has died I have
    never been in Tübingen anymore’.
    At this point I just said ‘I am sorry, it seems that Tübingen is not so a beautiful city for
    you as it is for me, sorry that you have such sad memories.’ Just after I said that she
    began to narrate her experiences during the war, which was rich in details. I only highlight
    a passage of her narrative that is intriguing. She described her memories at the first
    bombardment, which according to her destroyed most of the her birth city. She said ‘I
    was fifteen years old, not a child anymore, and what I can clearly remember is that it was
    night around 9pm, we had just had a bath and I was wearing a white dress, suddenly there
    was an explosion, people yelling and when I realized I was with a sooty dress and face,
    we were so clean!”
    I won’t interpret her representations of such a painful situation, after all it is not a clinical
    vignette. Instead I would like to raise a question about the psyche’s hole. I particularly
    wonder whether the psychic hole is a place full of mistaken representations that are
    still mixed with very primitive emotions and phantasies, therefore primitive reactions
    replace the unknown and uncertainties in order to survive. Above of all, there is confusion
    between reality and non-reality, as the reality presented has had a fragile boundary
    towards primitive phantasies, causing the psychic hole then. Again, I thank Mrs. Kogan for
    her moving essay.

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