Appreciating Robert Jay Lifton

Letters to the Editor of Clio’s Psyche.

Dear Editor,

In 1976, along with a social worker, I started co-leading awareness groups for children of Holocaust survivors at Boston University. We were young mental-health professionals in our mid-20s whose family backgrounds were similar to those we were treating. We spent many hours de-briefing our weekly sessions together and with a supervisor of Harvard University, who also encouraged us to do research on the effects of the groups and on the psychological impact of growing up with parents who have experienced massive psychic trauma.

When colleagues heard of our pioneering group they started asking, “Did you read Robert Jay Lifton’s book, Home from the War: Vietnam Veterans Neither Victims nor Executioners?” The rap-groups that Lifton and others were instrumental in co-leading in the early seventies had become “phenomenon,” not only in terms of healing wounds, but in giving veterans a voice. Our groups for children of survivors were more structured, but there was an element in common with Lifton’s groups: bringing people together who had experienced a common bond with a historical trauma.

After writing about our initial groups for the International Journal of Group Psychotherapy, I contacted Lifton to see if we could meet. Eager to learn more about the work, he immediately gave me an appointment. I felt intimidated, but my fears of meeting a well-known Yale psychiatrist evaporated as soon as I met him. Lifton was friendly, interested in my experiences, and he left the door open for me to continue to keep him abreast of my clinical work and research. His work with Hiroshima survivors had sensitized him to Holocaust survivors and to the significance of sharing their testimonies when all around there was silence.

We next encountered each other when Lifton started working on his monumental project on the Nazi doctors. This time, I was glad to be in a position to help him with contacts of survivors who could give testimonies. In 1978, I met Bob and his late wife Betty J. Lifton (with whom I developed a close relationship) at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem. His research was then in full swing, and I got to witness a seasoned researcher who was passionate about his subject. We also spent time together with an Auschwitz survivor who was a leading Israeli psychiatrist, discussing how to break the silence about the effects of the Holocaust on subsequent generations and to train mental-health professionals.

Lifton next appeared as a protagonist in my film Breaking the Silence: The Generation After the Holocaust (PBS, 1984). When the director tried to usurp the film as his own, Lifton was not a passive bystander. He refused to appear in the film, which for me was the beginning of a process to regain my rights. He graciously came to speak at the celebration of the opening of the film in New York.

Over the years, my contact with the Liftons became more social, visiting them in Wellfleet and New York City. They were most famous for their New Year’s Eve parties in their spacious apartment overlooking Central Park. Betty Jean and I shared professional interests, especially around her book on Janusz Korczak. B.J.’s life’s mission was to help adopted children understand their identity and connect to their roots and to make Korczak a household name for his devotion to the orphans he cared for at the cost of his own life in the face of Nazi genocide. B.J. felt a particular kinship with the work I was doing with child Holocaust survivors. Lifton truly encouraged and appreciated his wife’s contributions to the field. In 1984, when I started working with the psychoanalyst Judith Kestenberg on the persecution of children during the Holocaust, I suggested that we co-lead a group similar to the rap-groups for Vietnam veterans. Our monthly New York group eventually mushroomed into groups around the country, and ultimately an international network of Holocaust child survivors and a Hidden Child Foundation.

When Lifton left Yale and joined the faculties of John Jay College and the Graduate Center of City University of New York, I had finished my course work for my doctorate and was working on my Rescuer Project. Lifton gave permission to my research assistant to sit in on his class, leading her to become a changed person. When a member of my dissertation committee, Stanley Milgram, suddenly died of a heart-attack, I asked Lifton to serve in his place, which he willingly did. He was always available for consultation, and he helped me learn how to handle a massive data-set. I learned some tools of the psychohistorian à la Lifton, which crystallized my thinking about the motivation of rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust. Most importantly, always interview each person at least twice. Do not ask about motivation, but lead the interviewee step by step to the moment that he or she made the decision to rescue. There is, of course, the beginning of a rescuer self. How does that self evolve over time? What happens to that self after rescue relationship(s) are over? Light bulbs went on for me, and I developed a new way of thinking about how to analyze qualitative data.

The Nazi Doctors was published while I was writing my doctoral dissertation. Lifton’s findings enriched my understanding of the rescuers about which I had an opportunity to write in the earlier Festshrift for Lifton, edited by Charles B. Strozier and Michael Flynn.

Not only do I value Lifton’s sincere dedication to his students, but I admire his commitment to using his profession to make a difference in the world, to get us to see how easy it would be to destroy the world with a touch of a button. Bob Lifton is a colleague, friend, and, above all, my mentor.

Sincerely yours, Eva Fogelman

Dr. Fogelman may be contacted at

Publication Date:2012


Fogelman, E. (2012) Appreciating Robert Jay Lifton. Clio’s Psyche, 19,3, 361-3.

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