1466 A dozen kinds of hiding

Sounds from Silence: Reflections of a Child Holocaust Survivor, Psychiatrist and Teacher
by Robert Krell

Amsterdam: Amsterdam Publishers, 2021
$21.95 (U.S.) / 9493231488

Reviewed by Peter Hay

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From the outside, Robert Krell’s memoirs present us with a man of great humanity who, after a long and distinguished career in medicine and psychiatry, has been widely honoured for his many contributions, especially to the Jewish community.

And still on the outside, the cover shows an old photo of a small child concentrating on a book, while a beautiful young mother looks closely over his shoulder. From her hairstyle and his clothes one can deduce that this intimate photo was taken in Europe sometime in the 1940s.

All this seems ordinary enough. You have to look closer at their serious faces to see an indefinable sadness in their expression. The mother seems anxious, hovering to protect the child, who largely ignores her. Despite physical closeness there is a distance between them.

You don’t have to read far inside the book to learn that very little has been ordinary in Robert Krell’s life. Born in Holland in 1940, his parents were forced to give him away, aged two, to neighbours in order to save him from the murderous Nazi occupiers. He was hidden by a loving family of ‘Righteous Gentiles’ who risked their own lives to protect his. Robert (Robbie) was five when reunited with his birth parents who also survived the Holocaust, while most of their relatives perished in the death camps.

Leo, Emmy, and Robbie Krell in the Hague, 1940, in the back garden of the home they fled in 1942

During those three years, when it was dangerous to go outside or even to be seen through the window of his foster parents’ apartment, Robert learned to be almost invisible. Just at the age when young children delight in trying out new words and prattle ceaselessly, he grew to be completely silent. And when anybody came to knock on the door, he was quickly hustled off into a hiding place and told to remain there, totally still.

When the war that had been Robert’s entire life finally came to an end, he was reunited with his anxious parents. Outwardly, this was a joyous event: a child whose life had been saved now had two sets of doting parents. Even after the Krells emigrated to Vancouver in 1951, they kept in touch with the other family that stayed behind in the Hague. All his life Robert called them Moeder and Vader, the Dutch words for mother and father. And despite all the love showered on him, he never quite forgave his real mother for abandoning him. “My parents survived the war,” comments the eighty-year old author tersely: “How lucky. And they came to take me back. How unlucky.”

Although he mastered new languages and many new words which he employed in countless speeches, lectures and learned papers, the child inside Robert Krell remained in hiding for half his life: obedient and silent, as he had been told so many years ago. In various countries he came across many Holocaust survivors besides his parents, but he never thought about himself as one. After all, he was a mere child then, he had escaped the camps, and had few memories of his own. It was easier to keep feelings hidden, including the guilt of surviving a genocide in which more than 93 percent of Jewish children under Nazi occupation perished. It felt safer to be invisible.

Robbie with his father, Leo Krell, 1947. The family would move to Vancouver four years later

The habit of keeping silent made Dr Robert Krell a good listener. Occasionally he would have a patient who was also a child survivor but who could not be silent any more. Gradually, Dr Krell began to share his experiences with them and others who understood what it was like to be hidden for years and then to keep hiding for a lifetime. By the 1980s interest in child survivors grew into a movement, first among a few historians, then psychiatrists specializing in trauma, and finally among the survivors themselves. Dr Krell found his vocation and himself in annual gatherings and conferences that continue to bring together a diminishing number of child survivors — and now their children and grandchildren — to share a painful past and hopes for a better future.

A pioneer in the teaching and treating of the crippling effects of such trauma, Dr Krell has been much in demand and has travelled far and wide. A good portion of the book provides interesting insights into cities or institutions in different countries, and especially into some of the great men and women he met along the way. His generous portraits of Elie Wiesel, Sir Martin Gilbert and many other prominent experts of Holocaust history and literature reflect his wide-eyed admiration and also a deeply felt connection.

But it is in British Columbia that Robert Krell made his most profound, lasting impact. He founded the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre which, through exhibits and outreach programs, teaches hundreds of thousands of school children about the worst atrocity in recorded history. He initiated in Canada the preservation of first person testimonies on video, in books and through personal encounters with the survivors themselves. Through his teaching at UBC, his academic papers and books he brought understanding, and as a practising psychiatrist he helped to mend broken souls.

L-R: Shoshana, Robert, Simone, Marilyn, and Michaela Krell in Vancouver, 1981

But the physician still had to find a way to heal himself. After a battle with the Dutch government to get restitution for the loss of his childhood, Robert Krell went into therapy himself for six years. He sought out a professional colleague to unburden his own tortured soul: “It was a two-hour appointment. I was ready to tell him my story and I thought I was emotionally prepared. I opened my mouth and wept uncontrollably for two hours.”

What makes this book of memoiries — as he calls it — so remarkable is Dr Krell’s unwavering honesty with himself and his ability to probe his own feelings. “Blessed with a fascinating career, lasting friendships, and an incredible family,” he writes in the preface, “I have kept at a distance my profound sadness, chronic fears, devastating shame, incapacitating shyness, nightmares and preoccupations shaped by my earliest experiences and forged in an atmosphere of potential annihilation.”

He describes one of the most dramatic episodes of his adult life, being hijacked aboard a TWA flight bound for Israel by two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Convinced that the plane would crash or be blown up, Dr Krell connects with the helplessness he felt as a hunted child. The plane lands in Syria and is duly blown up, just after the passengers had fled from it. They are held hostage and interrogated in an atmosphere of total uncertainty and fear. Then, after tense negotiations, they are released and put on a plane to Athens.

With Elie Wiesel, Boston, 2008

“Fortunately we were given toothpaste and toothbrushes on the flight from Syria,” Dr Krell continues about the ordeal: “What a treat after three days of going without it. I love toothpaste. I love to shop for it. I went into mourning when Maclean’s Mint disappeared from the shelves. Not many days passed in my postwar life without thinking of the ghettos and camps and the filth and not just to survive but also how to wash and brush.”

This may seem trivial after a horrendous event that threatened the lives of all those passengers. But it is also a reminder to be grateful for the small pleasures in life that can be so easily taken away. And even those pleasures are always tinged with sorrow, reminding Dr Krell of all who suffered inhuman losses, and yet considered themselves lucky to have survived.

Sounds from Silence is a book revised from the earlier memoiries that Robert Krell wrote for his family. The new version for the general public was launched recently at a public event organized by the Jewish Book Festival, alongside Alan Twigg’s important new book, Out of Hiding, an exhaustive review of all the publications by British Columbia authors about various aspects of the Holocaust. Twigg’s volume is dedicated to Robert Krell, and features, among many others, Rudolf Vrba, who escaped from Auschwitz and tried to warn Hungarian Jewry about the fate that awaited them in the spring of 1944. His detailed account of the horrors being perpetrated inside the most notorious of the Nazi death camps was largely ignored and more than half a million Jews perished there in the final year of the war.

Robert Krell was a professor of psychiatry at UBC, 1971-1995

Eventually Rudolf Vrba landed in Canada and also became a professor of pharmacology at UBC, working in a building next to where Dr Krell had his office. The two had opposing personalities and very different experiences during the Holocaust. But gradually they became friends, and in a moving chapter Robert Krell describes his colleague’s final battle with cancer and his burial in a remote cemetery in Boundary Bay.

Alan Twigg made a short film about this forgotten hero which was shown at the book launch; its highlight is a simple Jewish ceremony Rabbi Yosef Wosk performs at the neglected gravesite — the place where Rudi Vrba went into his final hiding. In the afterword to Twigg’s book, Rabbi Wosk recounts more than a dozen different kinds of hiding, starting with Adam and Eve hiding their shame in Eden, and followed by other examples in literature and throughout history. “Humility can be another type of hiding,” he writes. “Holocaust survivors know a unique humility. They live in a place that is inaccessible to the rest of us and they are understandably reluctant messengers as to its reality.”

Robert Krell displays that humility on every page of his book. He remains the ‘elderly child’ we see on the cover, but he is also a teacher and a therapist who transcends his personal history and provides us with universal insights into human nature, our shortcomings and our resilience.

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Peter Hay. Photo by Brenda Maunders

Peter Hay (pronounced ‘High’) was born in Budapest in 1944 and hidden by a non-Jewish couple for the first year of his life. His father was saved by Raoul Wallenberg. His mother and grandparents were neighbours of Chana Szenes (Hannah Senesh) and her family in pre-war Budapest. One of his books, Ordinary Heroes: The Life and Death of Chana Szenes, Israel’s National Heroine (Athena, 1989) is featured in Alan Twigg’s new book, Out of Hiding (Ronsdale Press, 2022).

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The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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