Coping with Holocaust Trauma in Zipi Reibenbach’s Choice and Destiny

by Rina Dudai

January 29, 2003


This essay analyzes three modes of coping with traumatic experience in Choice and Destiny, a documentary film, by Zipi Riebenbach. The director, Zipi Riebenbach, interviews her parents about their traumatic experience during the Holocaust. As the film unfolds, two distinct modes of confronting the extreme trauma are unveiled. In analyzing the parents' patterns of response to the trauma I explore both their psychological reactions and their rhetorical representations of the Holocaust experience. The essay uses two fragments of this film to illustrate modes of confronting an extreme traumatic experience. I also analyze the daughter's mode of coping with this trauma while containing, without any judgment, the way her parents deal with it. She gives voice to these two modes, one complementing the other. The effort to contain both these complementary patterns is the director's sincere attempt to touch the core of the experience and yet to do so from an outside position.


     Zipi Reibenbach's Choice and Destiny is a documentary film providing testimony about the Holocaust experience. Two hours long, the film was produced in 1993 in Israel, and won several prizes in Paris, Amsterdam, Jerusalem and Yamagata, Japan. Zipi Riebenbach, the director, interviews her parents as they represent their traumatic experience during the Holocaust. As the film unfolds, two distinct modes of confronting the extreme traumatic experience are unveiled. One mode of coping is constrained and subdued. It is used by the father. The other mode of coping is characterized by silence, which is transformed towards the end of the film into a defying scream. This mode of _expression is used by the mother.  

     In analyzing the parents' patterns of response to the trauma I will explore both their psychological reactions and their rhetorical representations of the Holocaust experience. Hence, I use this film to illustrate modes of confronting an extreme traumatic experience. 

The father's mode of coping with the Holocaust trauma 

     I will start with the Father's mode of coping. About fifteen narrated vignettes are chronologically interwoven throughout the film, recording the horrifying events of the father's experience from the very moment in which the ghetto was demolished, and all his family was annihilated, until the moment he was liberated from the concentration camp, Mauthousen. The father provides a direct testimony: "Many times we saw death right in front of our very eyes". The father refrains from bringing up events, that, he himself did not experience. His discourse is referential, analytic, almost pragmatic, reflective and, most of all, subdued.  

     Consider two small stories the father tells: the prologue and the fence episode. The prologue epitomizes the restrained style, and the reductive principle underlying his style. 

     Choice and Destiny opens with a story, which takes place in the concentration camp, Birkenau. Chronologically, the story is not set in the right place; yet, it is situated so because of its strong affect. It is a story of dogs and human beings: "There was this one who raised dogs. There was a group, who took care of them: cleaned them, fed them. The dogs got good food! The people of this group were hungry, so they ate the food. In the end of the day the dogs were thin and almost dead. So they understood that the dogs didn't get fed. They took this entire group and shot them dead. Shot all of them dead and finished." 

     This episode is recounted in a very sparse language and shows nothing of the mechanism which Labov (1972) calls: "Evaluation". According to Labov, evaluation is the storyteller's rhetoric device, in which he marks the raison d'etre of the story. This device has a pragmatic function in telling stories: to mark the important information positioned at the forefront of the story. But, the father's story doesn't need this kind of device. The raw materials of this story are so loaded, that any device would only amplify that which is already amplified. The constrained style here is reductive. The building blocks of the story are based only on facts, which are used to construct the narrative skeleton. No unnecessary words are provided. Everything is weighed and balanced, and maintains a vital minimalism. There are no judgments or revelation of emotional states. Representing the victims and the executors in a sort of a bare structure enables the speaker to materialize a penetrating irony, which is intensified by this kind of structure. 

     The gist of this story, and the reason the filmmaker positions it as a prologue, establishes links to the film's name: "Choice and Destiny". In a very parsimonious way, the father represents the paradoxical existence that entails the impossible choice of living a destiny one cannot escape. 

     The fence story demonstrates another mechanism of constraint: splitting viewpoints. In this story, the unbearable content, which expresses acute feelings of helplessness, is shaped into a discourse, which deconstructs the loaded emotions by exposing how grotesque this reality can be conceived of. This situation enables the observer to watch the inferno from unexpected viewpoints by moving through space from the inside to the outside, and back again. But first let us watch the father's story in the film. 

     Viewing the father's fence story 

     The story about moving the fence is absurd; it delineates the relationship of the victims to their traumatic reality. The camp fence defines the borderline between victims and executors, Jews and Nazis. Complications between inside and outside are created in two ways: first, the fact that the guard's tower was made out of cement and therefore could not be moved, and second, those who went out of the camp could not be let in again. The re-examination or re-probing of these arrangements enhances and intensifies the victims' torment because it concretizes the Holocaust experience: living an uprooted existence, being in no place. As the father puts it: "There is no place for living, no place for living". 

     The fence story is shaped into a very simple narrative structure: exposition, complication, resolution. Still, in spite of this structural simplicity, a highly intricate reality gets represented. The inner angle of the camp has been split into two, thus enabling a new perception of the camp. From the victims' viewpoint, the experience of getting out of the camp, and contemplating the options of escaping it, gives them a taste of imagined freedom. Yet, the decision to return to the camp epitomizes their feelings of helplessness and vulnerability, as well as their experience of mental annihilation. This serves as an omen for the future. From the perpetrators' point of view, the outside-inside terms are examined twice: once as a decision to let them get out of the guard's tower, and away from the camp due to a sense of anxiety from the victims, and for the second time, in letting in the lost victims' group "in spite" of the bureaucratic difficulties.  

     Notwithstanding this loaded topic, the story is told in a highly ironic, and thus in a constrained way. The subdued style is due to the need of the observer, who gives this testimony, to contemplate the split angles, imposed on him by the situation. This constraint-generating ironic discourse deconstructs the intensity characterizing the core of the traumatic experience. 

     As we have seen, the father seems to be a natural storyteller. Yet, in all his stories he never dramatizes his recollections. He maintains a distance from the events, using a spare and simple language, focusing on data in a very parsimonious way and succeeding representing the complexity of an unbearable reality in a crystal clear style. 

     Intense focus on the events that happened in front of his very eyes enables him to process the traumatic materials. When his daughter asks him what he felt when he arrived in Auschwitz, he answers: "We felt ... many times we felt ... many times we saw death right in front of our eyes ... we saw death in front of our eyes many times. We got used to it. We got used. We got used to death. We knew that the end is death. Yes, this we knew". The father's answer creates an implied relation between feeling, seeing and knowing by transforming feeling into sight, and then into knowledge. On the question "What did you feel?" he answers "We saw death in front of our eyes". The father tells the story of a man who crossed into the death zone, looked death in the eye and knows it. In this case we can say that the father transfers his episodic memory to a factual semantic one, the memory of experience into the memory of facts. Gazing at death is his deepest existential experience. His courage to gaze at this traumatic experience and testify about it might perhaps somewhat abate the feelings of horror and anxiety and enable him to turn towards some sort of noble knowledge. In Semprun's book "Writing or Living," he wrote: "I didn't escape death, but crossed it, or better said, it bisected me, I, who lived it, in a sense. I returned from there like returning from a voyage that had absolutely changed you; might ennoble you" (Semprun 1994, p.18).  

     The distance from which the father is watching and recalling his own traumatic experiences is the very distance which enables him to represent the trauma without being drowned in it. The ability to narrate his own experience enables him to demarcate the trauma's borders and to face death within the limits of the language. The father's mental state is put in the framework of processing a closure; a closure which wins the father some sort of departure from it. 

     Reductive and parsimonious style, split viewpoints, chronological structure and a reflective ability are psychological and rhetoric parameters which characterize the father's attempt to work through the trauma. Working through, according to Freud (Freud, 1914), is a psychical work, in which the past is reconstructed from a reserved analytic perspective, which is controlled, but not mechanical. Through the act of recalling, the past is re-experienced, but in a very restrained and subdued manner, not in the least as intensive as it might have been, had it been acted out. In this sense, recording the traumatic experience in a controlled way, and not by reviving it in full volume indicates a mourning process, rather than a melancholic one (Freud, 1917). This is a mourning process, in which, in a way, the mourner parts with his own grief. The father is the one who seems to go through a working-through process. He identifies, recalls and demarcates the boundaries of his loss, and is capable of parting with it, in a way. 

       In spite of this, one cannot ignore the subversive movement, which emerges from time to time through the wrapping of the working-through process: an obsessive avoidance phenomena, which implies the existence of a concealed, unfinished, repressed acting-out process. The father avoids talking about his own feelings. He avoids expressing a whole spectrum of emotions like fury, outrage, insult, shame or guilt. He contains and accepts his destiny. The repressed materials emerge through the obsessive process in which he prepares the food, and his constant mantra: "That's it, that's it". Is this a real working-through process we are seeing here? Or is this nothing but an obsessive closure, implying a deep defense structure which functions as a shield against the bursting-out of the emotional world?  

     The father perceives the Holocaust as a part of human evil nature, which one has to recognize on the one hand, and reject as abject, on the other. In this double-edged approach he epitomizes his way of living, as is also reflected in the title of the film: Choice and Destiny. The father's destiny compels him to face the abject part of humanity, yet his choice is to identify it, fight it and regain his life, in spite of everything. His attitude towards the Holocaust experience does not come from a negative sublime position, rather, it stems from a survival struggle, waged against human abjection. 

The mother's mode of coping with the Holocaust trauma 

     Virtually throughout the film the mother is documented by her screaming silence. Most of the time the father is positioned in the film's foreground, whereas the mother is in the background. The mother does not speak. Instead, she is always hovering around him, like a shadow. Her screaming silence is the other mode of confronting the trauma.  

     Silence is the _expression of absence. It necessitates a different type of attention and a different way of observation. While the father is narrating his stories, most of the time the camera focuses on the mother's daily activities, like preparing food, cleaning, arranging closets, watering the plants. These ritualistic acts are visually embedded in the father's stories, thus demarcating the traces of both the father's and the mother's unconscious obsessive thoughts. 

     The choice of silence lasts until the very end of the film, when a dramatic and emotionally loaded cry is let out. Let us watch the mother's emotional outburst: 

Viewing the mother's acting-out 

     Screaming is the other facet of silence. The intense emotions, which were sealed off for so long, are forcing their way out, towards a very powerful _expression of the trauma. The difference between silence and a scream is that all that was lying concealed and repressed, is suddenly unveiled, and exposes itself to the public eye. When the mother bursts out she says that the scream had already been cried, but hasn't got its publicity, its witnesses: "When there was no one at home I sometimes turn around and shout loudly all the names: Sara'le, Shimshele ... where are you?" Only when the mother is telling this to her daughter, right next to all of her family, and the camera, does the scream gets its full volume and validity.  

     The mothers' scream is anchored in a melancholic reality, which has no boundaries. She touches this reality from the inside and hasn't any perspective from which to be able to look at it from a safe distance, the same distance which allows the father to go through the mourning process. Clinging to the "Real," the heart of the trauma, makes it impossible for the mother to contain her traumatic experience and demarcate its boundaries: "How can one tell everything?" she asks.  

     She cannot confront the trauma by narrating her story. A story usually has a beginning, a middle and a closure. If the mother confronts the trauma as an experience which she cannot contain, then she is incapable of creating a closure, which would mark its end. Her story is the story of the incapability of telling this story. The mother talks about the possibility of narrating her story, but at the end of the day she provides only two situational images rather than stories. She repeats herself with hypnotic rhythm about the possibility of telling her life in story form, but in fact, cannot bring herself to do so:  

     "All day long one can tell,

     Every hour was different,

     Everyday something else happened,

     So many events!

     So many!

         Tomorrow I will recall something else, I will tell you something else ... I have a lot to tell, a lot".  

     The desire never materializes into a story. The narrative structure gets displaced by an emotional, loaded scream, which focuses on the physical aspects of the language: the sounds tones and the rhythm, which are repeated endlessly.  

     Yet, she succeeds in revealing the feelings of loss, absence and a deep endless melancholy. Long after the trauma's events are over, she is still not able to part with it. She is haunted by the thoughts of her beloved, their destinies, even though she didn't witness their murder, with her own eyes. She can't sleep at nights and keeps imagining how her beloved were killed: "Lately", she says, "I can't get to sleep. I lie down like this, until two o'clock at night. I see Hashek taking Getza'le. All he told me I see ... When Abraham Leizer was shot death... I wasn't there already. I describe myself how he was shot, how he was carried away... I didn't see ... I was told and I describe it to myself ...".  

     The mother's horror is abstract, and as such it is even more horrifying. In her loss, the people are absent, and so are their bodies. It is as if nothing ever happened. A reality, which has been suddenly deleted is revived anew time and again by her own imagination. In contrast to the father, who tells about death happening in front of his very eyes, the mother tells about death for which there is no testimony, a death which not only annihilated the victims, but also wiped out their any trace of their life. In this case we can say that the mother is transforming constantly her semantic memory to an episodic one. The erasure of the victims' traces turns her loss into an open-ended entity with no boundaries, an entity that can never be processed and contained. It is turned into an experience which would forever be acted out. Its suitable representation is either silence or screaming. 

     The mother experiences the Holocaust trauma from a mental position of the negative sublime. The emotions of lack, loss and absence merge into a loaded state of mind, in which she tries to cope with un-resolvable questions. She experiences the trauma as an incomprehensible entity, which is accompanied by an endless failure to represent it. She keeps imagining events in which her beloved ones are murdered. In contrast to the father, who is focusing only on what he witnessed, she clings to the trauma and does not let these pictures go.  

     Her body tells the story of a frozen state of mind, which traps her in an endless cycle of acting out the trauma in a mechanical and obsessive way, cooped up in a closed world with no chance of escape. The intensive inner world, which reveals itself at the end of the film through her scream, lives throughout the whole film in her silence. The silence, or the "Differend", which Lyotard (1988) speaks of, is a state where we experience something which is beyond of our ability to grasp, let alone represent. The inevitable confrontation with this possible impossible, drives us to find ways to represent it in spite of not being able to do so. The mother, with her acting out behavior exemplifies it more than anyone else. 

     The absence of the story on one hand and the loaded scream, on the other, give _expression to the authentic core of the traumatic experience, emphasizing the inevitability of absence.  

The daughter's mode of coping with the Holocaust trauma 

     Zipi Riebenbach, the daughter and the film's director, accepts the existence of both modes of coping with the trauma. She does not judge any of them. She gives voice to these two modes, one complementing the other. The father's constrained and subdued style lacks the quavering authentic howl of the mother touching the trauma's core. At the same time, the mother's scream lacks the level of working through which enables the subject to contemplate his experience from a position of stability, from the outside. Juxtaposing these two modes one against the other underscores the need for both in the case of such an extreme experience. The price of controlling pain is the loss of the ability to touch the real essence of human existence authentically, whereas the price of submission to pain is losing touch with, and control over reality. The effort to contain both these complementary patterns is the director's sincere attempt to touch the core of the experience and yet to be able to do so from an outside position. Combining the two creates a constant, endless and irresolvable restlessness. This, in turn, testifies to the failure of attempting to reach a total, ultimate understanding, where a traumatic experience of the magnitude of the Holocaust is concerned.

Work Cited 

Dudai, R. (2001). Modes of Coping with Trauma in the Holocaust Literature: A. Appelfeld, Ka. Tzetnik, P. Levi. Ph.D. Dissertation. Hebrew University Jerusalem. 

Freud, S. (1914). Remembering, Repeating and Working through. S.E.12 pp.145-156. 

Freud, S. (1917). Mourning and Melancholia. S.E.14 pp.237-260 

Labov, William. 1972. The Transformation of Experience in Narrative Syntax, Language in the Inner City. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press. Ch. 9.

Lyotard, J.F. (1988). The differend: Phrases in Dispute. trans. G. Van Den Abbeele. Minneapolis. University of Minnesota Press. 

Semprun, J. (1994/ 1998). Literature or life. trans. Linda Coverdale. penguin. New York.

Reibenbach, Tsipi (1993). Choice and Destiny. Israel. (

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Rina Dudai "Coping with Holocaust Trauma in Zipi Reibenbach’s Choice and Destiny". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available July 19, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 18, 2003, Published: January 29, 2003. Copyright © 2003 Rina Dudai