The Power of Painting: Art Therapy for Holocaust Survivors

Peter Gillespie ’25

Figure 1: The physical aspect of art along with the use of symbols may provide a means of nonverbal release of emotion for traumatized individuals

Trauma during the formative stages of childhood can lead to permanent alterations to the neuroendocrine system, largely impacting one’s responses to stress. Previous brain scans have shown that reflection upon trauma triggers immense emotional activity but little speech-related activity; thus, traumatized individuals may have strong feelings yet are unable to verbalize their emotions. A team led by Roni Israeli at the University of Haifa posits that art therapy may be a useful therapeutic process for individuals with traumatic childhoods, such as Holocaust survivors, by providing a nonverbal outlet for emotion: art therapy.

To determine the challenges and efficacy of art therapy for Holocaust survivors, the researchers conducted a year-long art therapy with five Holocaust survivors. Survivors engaged in semi-structured interviews featuring open-ended questions related to their Holocaust experience, their previous relationship with art, and their experience with the art therapy. The art therapists were also interviewed with questions pertaining to their experiences with art therapy and their specific experience with Holocaust survivors. Responses were then analyzed for recurring themes.

According to the interviews, many survivors were deprived of art during their childhood, and as such, initially felt unfamiliar with the materials. Additionally, many were intimidated by memories of the Holocaust and were reluctant to address it. However, analysis of responses reveals that art therapy could be extremely beneficial to older adults and adults with traumatic childhoods. Dwindling self-worth plagues the older population, but especially so in Holocaust survivors who, given the immense loss of the old and sick during the Holocaust, have reported feeling that they do not deserve their life, especially in old age. Art gives an outlet for creation, allowing the older generation to feel a sense of pride in their work, leading to greater self-worth. Because these survivors were deprived of art as children, art therapy was a way to regain and process a sense of their childhood. Additionally, the physical aspect of art provided a means of releasing the survivors’ thoughts. They could focus on the present, which was a much needed escape from the persistent negative memories of the past. These implications may be applicable to a broader population of adults with traumatic childhoods as well. While this study proposed a pathway for coping with psychological distress, future initiatives should include a method of gradually engaging traumatized adults with art, especially for those who were deprived of it in childhood. 

Works Cited: 

[1] R. Israeli, D. Regev, and L. Goldner, The meaning, challenges, and characteristics of art therapy for older Holocaust survivors. The Arts in Psychotherapy 74, 1-7 (2021). doi: 10.1016/j.aip.2021.101783

[2] Image 1 retrieved from:
https://picryl.com/media/remembering-grussau-808315

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