Maintaining The Visage of Humanity

Shamai Davidson (1926, Dublin – 1986, Jerusalem) was an Israeli professor, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, who spent 30 years working with Holocaust survivors, trying to understand the nature of their experience. He was Medical Director of Shalvata Mental Health Centre and served as Head of the Elie Wiesel Chair for the Study of the Psycho-Social Trauma of the Holocaust.[1]

Davidson witnessed the Nazi terror and the death of his aunts and cousins in the Warsaw Ghetto, Łódź Ghetto, and the gas chambers of Treblinka.[2] He studied medicine at the University of Glasgow and in Oxford University Medical School. In 1979 he became the co-founder of the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide along with Israel W. Charny and Elie Wiesel, and worked as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, treating Holocaust survivors, until his death.

Davidson is best known for his work Holding on to Humanity which he started in 1972. According to the Jerusalem Post, “In this intensely fascinating book, Davidson succeeds in conveying a systematic understanding of trauma and survival as a whole, while emphasizing individual difference.”[3]

As a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst practicing in Israel, Davidson spent 30 years working with survivors, trying to understand their experience. Evoking from survivors their most silenced stories, Davidson concentrated on giving them voice and recorded memory. Davidson worked on this book for many years – since 1972 it was a dream of his to write an authoritative work — but unfortunately Davidson died in 1985 at the age of 59. This book is the result of extensive effort by Israel W.Charny to complete the project at the request of Davidson’s widow, Jenny Davidson.

Davidson wrote: This study relates to the phenomenon of spontaneously arising reciprocal human relations among the inmates of the Nazi concentration camps. It is postulated that interpersonal bonding, reciprocity and sharing were an essential source of strength for “adaptation” and survival in many of the victims. Apart from the limited opportunities for the starving inmates to share the sparse food rations, it was their interpersonal support that sustained the motivation to carry on with the struggle to live.

Davidson argued: The Significance of Reciprocal Human Relations in Extremity From our studies of the experiences of concentration-camp survivors, we have learned that acts and activities of humanity and mutuality coexisted with the amorality stemming from desperation in the midst of human destruction, where the ethical categories of everyday life could not be upheld. We have understood that despite the lack of uniformity and the instability of supportive behavior in the concentration camps, the very existence of helping relations – however sporadic – and their spontaneous appearance implies a transcendence of evil and of faceless dehumanization with a preservation of the human image.

About Ken Waltzer

Ken Waltzer grew up in New York City and attended Harpur College of the State University of New York and Harvard University as a Graduate Prize Fellow. He has helped build James Madison College, Michigan State University's highly reputed residential college in public affairs and currently serves as director of Jewish Studies at MSU. In 2011-2012, he is the Winegarden Visiting Professor at UM-Flint.
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