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Author’s suicide raises question of history’s toll

Can be tough to get distance from tragedy
/ Source: Reuters

For more than half a century, historian Raul Hilberg has studied the Holocaust, arguably the most savage episode in human history. He has tried to distance his personal life from his work but says on occasion, he has been overtaken by the pathos of his subject.

“When you are done writing the work, bringing it to the public successfully, even being praised, you wake up one morning and say to yourself, ’They’re still dead,’ and that’s really the most profound reaction there is,” said Hilberg, author of the definitive history “The Destruction of the European Jews.”

The suicide near San Francisco last week of Iris Chang, 36, author of “The Rape of Nanking,” raises questions about the psychological toll of exposure to past tragedy, and experts say reactions differ.

Historian Chang wrote a graphic best-selling account of the brutal Japanese Army invasion of China in 1937 and recently researched the wartime Bataan Death March in the Philippines.

“The accumulation of hearing those stories, year after year after year, may have led to her depression. But that’s just speculation,” her husband Brett Douglas, was quoted as telling the San Francisco Chronicle.

David Spiegel, associate chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, said some researchers believe it is possible that “people can sort of get post-traumatic stress disorder symptom by proxy.”

“Rescue workers, therapists, even though they are not themselves physically hurt, will sometimes just by the emphatic connection ... develop symptoms.”

“It is an occupational hazard, but I think depression is not the inevitable concomitant of work on depressing topics.”

Small episodes nauseateHilberg said that during his work on the Holocaust starting in 1948 a few small episodes affected him especially strongly. For example, he said he became sickened after researching the fate of a Jew who sued the Nazis for the right to purchase coffee.

“I was nauseated because obviously this Jew was picked up and sent to Auschwitz or wherever they sent him and died,” he said. “Why did this particular incident affect me when I could calmly read about mass murder?”

As someone born in Vienna, a city of coffee houses, Hilberg said the subject sparked memories of his childhood. He added he has also dreamed of being a victim sent to Auschwitz.

Robert Conquest, 87, a leading historian of Stalin’s terror and famine that left tens of millions of dead, said he too was sometimes hit by smaller episodes amid larger tragedy.

“There are details, not necessarily the most horrible in theory, that somehow make you feel this is somehow a worse world than we thought,” Conquest, the author of “The Great Terror” and “Harvest of Sorrow”, said in an interview.

He cited for example documents about students during the Stalin era forced to stand in front of their schools and hear abuse after their parents were arrested.

“They are harangued for two or three hours denouncing the parents of one of the kids. Then the kid has to come up and they are all screaming at him,” he said. “It shows the awful level they’ve got to. Horrible.”

But both Hilberg and Conquest said their passion to tell the world about those episodes helped shield them from the tragedies in their books. “It is the blindness of the West to the world which is in a way more horrifying than the deeds,” Conquest said.

Psychosocial expert Spiegel said that a sense of purpose can help shield historians from their brutal subject matters.

“What many people who adapt resiliently to it do is they find some aspect of what they’re doing in which they feel they’re taking charge and doing something.” he said.

“I would presume that somebody writing a history of the rape of Nanking would try and see it as not merely observing tragedy, but, you know, following Santayana’s notion that those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it. The idea is perhaps in some way that this is contributing to something like this not happening again.”

But Roger Bell, professor emeritus at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, said those exposed to violence in their job can suffer if they have difficulty leaving work behind in their home life.

“People sometimes begin to identify what they do with what they are,” he said. “Especially where you have high-profile people, especially like law enforcement, they have a tendency to carry that over into who they are.”