John H. Krystal, M.D.

John H. Krystal, M.D.

Thank you, on behalf of our family, for inviting me to share some reflections on my father at this important event. It is humbling to talk about the Holocaust as a second generation in a room with many people here today who experienced it first hand. Also, it is fitting that we are remembering Geoffrey Hartman today as he organized a conference on the Holocaust in New Haven in 1981 in which my father spoke and in which I, as a first year medical student, served as a volunteer.


When I was about 5, I was told that my father, Henry Krystal, was “a great man.” Really? I thought. What had he done? It seemed incongruous. After all, we were at the Jewish Center of Detroit and the man telling me this was the janitor.


On October 9, 2015, my father died at the age of 90. He had lived a remarkable life that was distinguished by his capacity to turn his experiences in the Nazi Death Camps into insights and treatments that would alleviate the suffering of victims of psychological traumas.


Today I will share some reflections on my father’s life that I hope will shed some light on how he accomplished this feat. I will touch on a few highlights, but people who are interested in his story can view or read his Holocaust testimony on the web ( I hope the reflections that I share today resonate with most of the families in this room, who have their own, equally remarkable, stories.


My father grew up in a family that had transitioned from orthodox Judaism and village life, to liberal Judaism and the city. He was born in 1925 in Sosnowiecz, an industrial town in southwest Poland. His father, Hershel, was a bookkeeper and an ardent Zionist. His mother, Dora, was a strong-willed beauty from a shtetl, called Bodzentyn in Polish or Byzechien in Yiddish, who, like Tzietel in Fiddler on the Roof, “married down” for love.


When my father was quite young, he developed a serious lung infection and nearly died. He needed fresh air to recover. So, in the summers, my grandmother left my grandfather and uncle and brought my father to the mountains, giving rise to his life-long love of the outdoors. These summers also forged a special bond between my father and his mother.


My father attended a Jewish liberal Zionist Gymnasium rather than a Heder. In that school, he dressed like a Polish student, took traditional academic subjects, learned Sephardic Hebrew, and was called, Henyek, his Polish name rather than his Hebrew name, Hananyah.


My father’s idol was his brother Samuel, after whom our son Samuel is named. Samuel was 7 years older than my father, handsome (by this I mean he looked like my brother, not me), charming, athletic, and smart. By the mid-1930s, Samuel was a medical student at the historic University of Bologna, in Italy.


When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, things got very bad very quickly. My father left school after the 6th grade. My uncle left medical school and returned home. After the Nazi’s ordered my uncle to appear for evaluation, my grandfather and uncle left to set up a homestead in Tarnapol in Ukraine. Once there, they sent for my grandmother. During this period, my father was sent to stay with his maternal grandparents in the small village, Bodzentyn.


There, he was an anathema. Because of his big city schooling, according to the villagers, he did not look, act, or talk Jewish. He was shunned, harassed by other children, and no one in the village protected him. With food very limited, he began to starve.


My grandmother was desperate to reclaim him. Even though Jews could no longer ride trains and travel was dangerous for Jews. She travelled alone from Ukraine by horse cart, and various other means. Shortly after she left, the Nazis and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists rounded up and executed approximately 4000 Tarnapol Jews, including my grandfather and uncle.


When my grandmother arrived in Bodzentyn, the Nazis sealed the village and they were unable to leave. This was a very difficult time. The Nazis were beating and killing Jews, particularly when they gathered, for example, at funerals. Nonetheless, my father carried messages for the small Jewish Resistance Group in the village.


When rumors of transportation to death camps began to circulate, my grandmother knew that the only hope for my father lay in his being assigned to a work detail. However, my father was a rather small and frail 13 year-old boy. Nonetheless, one day he was selected for work. But he turned it down. He could not bear the idea of being separated from his dear mother. My grandmother was distraught. When the Ghetto at Bodzentyn was eliminated, she shouted at him and pushed him until he accepted a work detail. He was sent on one of only two trucks headed for a nearby slave labor camp, Starachowice. His mother, and the remaining Jewish population, were transported to Treblinka. There, she was sent to the gas chamber upon arrival. He never saw her again. At this point, although he did not know it, he was alone; the last surviving member of his family.


From Starachowice, my father was shipped to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Section C, a part of the Camp where people were housed in cheap horse sheds. My father was subject to all of the horrors designed to destroy the spirits of the people in the Lager, the murders, the humiliations, the selections, the beatings, the starvation, the pointless grueling work, and other tortures.


Around him, he watched people give up on life and stumble to their deaths. They became clumsy and slow to respond to commands or they failed to line up or march, or they wandered too close to the electrical fences.  These observations had a big impact on my father and he wrote about the impact of losing hope and described these dissociative states or “mental fog” later in his career.


somehow, he kept his presence of mind. Despite the systematic dehumanization, he believed that the fact that his mother loved him meant that he was a person and that he mattered. He felt that he had to survive for her. No matter how beaten down he was, he held on to this belief. He said that this gave him the courage to take advantage of opportunities at critical moments to save his life.


I’ll give two pivotal illustrations. In Auschwitz, my father contracted a serious illness called typhus. He was so ill that he expected to be selected for the gas chambers at any moment. He saved himself by taking an enormous risk. He answered a call for tool-and-dye makers and he was transferred to the Bobreck Work Camp, run by the Siemens company (this company makes MRI magnets that I use in my research!). There was only one problem.  He was not a tool-and-dye maker.  Normally, this would have resulted in his immediate execution. However, his fellow prisoners put the products of their work into his basket, trained him, and gave him extra food so that he could recover.


I will share one more incident. With the Russians approaching, he had been marched out of Buchenwald and then Sachsenhausen. He was so run down, he did not know exactly what has happening around him. His legs were swelling, which he knew was a sign that he was close to death from starvation. Around him, people were stumbling and falling due to exhaustion. They were killed where they lay. A soldier hit my father in the head with a rifle butt and my father was very close to collapsing. Again, he somehow held on to the memory of his mother’s love for him and the notion that his life counted for something. He kept marching.


One morning he woke up and the Nazis were gone. So there he was on liberation, alone in the world, stripped of everything, and with only a 6th grade education. In the refugee camps, once he recovered physically, he took classes at a technical school for Polish non-Jewish POWs. With help from HIAS, he entered medical school at Goethe University in Frankfort. After a year, he left Germany for Detroit to live with his father’s favorite sister, his Tanta Polly, teaching himself rudimentary English along the way.


In Detroit, he wanted to follow in his brother’s footsteps and study medicine. But as a penniless immigrant with poor English and an unusual educational history, it was a challenge. He convinced the Dean of Wayne State University to give him a scholarship for college. Graduating with honors, he received a scholarship for medical school.


In medical school, he was interested initially in cardiology, but he came under the sway of Dr. John Dorsey, a student of Sigmund Freud and the chair of psychiatry at Wayne State University. Dr. Dorsey became my father’s most important mentor. As a result, I am named after this Irishman from Iowa.


So my father became a psychiatrist. Because he was fluent in Polish, Yiddish, German, and Russian, the German government had him evaluate survivors of the Death Camps for evidence of psychological “damage”. According to my mother, he evaluated approximately 2000 survivors and vigorously advocated for their reparations. This was no small feat. He was trying to argue for disability reparations for post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, but the diagnosis of PTSD would not be created for over 20 years. In the absence of diagnostic criteria, there were no formal standards for determining who would qualify for compensation. He had to make it up as he went along. In the process, he collected detailed data on each patient and made a systematic study of the adjustment problems of survivors. His own experiences as a survivor proved to be a curse and blessing. The curse being that each patient he evaluated reactivated his own traumatic memories and nightmares.  The blessing was that my father’s experiences helped him to focus on the most important issues.


My father made the problems of Holocaust survivors the focus of his work. He hosted a series of international conferences in Detroit in the early 1960’s in which he presented the results of his studies. The conferences also provided opportunities for other future leaders, such as Robert Jay Lifton from Yale, who lived in Woodbridge, whom you may know from his work with the Nazi Doctors. My father edited a book based on these meetings called, Massive Psychic Trauma, a term he coined. The book became a foundational text for the field and contributed to the introduction of the diagnosis of PTSD in the psychiatric diagnostic manual in 1980.


This work set the stage for what my father considered his most important contributions, the introduction of a conceptual model for the role of emotions in resilience and the development of psychotherapies for traumatized people.


He viewed emotions, including negative emotions, as critical to self-care. He described how traumatization overwhelmed emotional function, and made people essentially blind to their own emotional states. This response enabled people to focus on what they would do in the moment, a response that might be adaptive in the Camps or during war. But, he said, the cost was that some people with PTSD reported feeling numb, had difficulty experiencing pleasure, struggled to tolerate negative feelings, and essentially had trouble using their emotions to help take care of themselves, relate to others, or adapt to their environment. This problem also blocked their ability to benefit from typical insight-oriented therapies. He was among the first people to develop psychotherapeutic approaches to treat these problems. His writings on psychotherapy remain widely influential, promoting the development of a range of new therapies for PTSD.


My father took a developmental approach to emotions and he viewed trauma as producing a developmental regression in emotional function. While Freud focused on anxiety as the prototype emotion, my father focused on love. He believed that the infant-mother bond was the prototype of both self-love and all subsequent relationships. He viewed obstacles in the capacity to give and receive love to be a central consequence of traumatization. His magnum opus, a book called, “Integration and Self-Healing” made this point explicitly in its foreward, he wrote:


“The human newborn is confronted with death, from which (it) can be saved only by (its) mother’s loving care… The puzzle is how to bring the message of love to those who are afraid of it, who think of it as prohibited. The … question… is whether one may exercise all the possible self-regulatory and self-caring functions…In this book, I speak of people who have particularly great difficulties in the spheres of (emotion) and … imagination. There is a long way between…the liberating proclamation of love to all mankind and the practicalities of the therapeutic situation. Quite literally, this whole book is addressed to bridging that gap.”


My father was amazed by his life. He expected very little after the Camps. He never expected to be a parent or grandparent. He received great pleasure from his grandchildren Hannah (who will be the third generation of doctors in our family), Samuel, and Hannon. He certainly never expected to be a professor or to receive the international acclaim that came his way. He was an extremely humble, kind, and generous man.


I believe that much of what he achieved in life grew out of his relationship with my mother. When he arrived in the U.S., he had no notion of “fun.” It was only after he met my mother, that he began to loosen up. Apparently they had a sort of “love at first sight.” My mom was immediately impressed by my father’s intelligence. My father also seems to have been impressed, as he told my mother that they would be married on their first date. (OY!)


Ultimately, he and my mother had a very full life together; traveling, exploring, hiking, skiing, riding horses, sailing, and playing tennis. They loved the arts, concerts, plays, and museums. My father passionately loved my mother and he expressed his affection for her sweetly until the very end.  My mother was his compass.  My mother never left his side, even during his long illness. She made sure that the boy who had lost everything had the best that life had to offer. 


My father said that to be a whole person, he had to get past his anger at the Nazis and the Poles for what they had done. After liberation, anger was “eating him up.” Perhaps in the context of his relationship with my mother, he began to appreciate the importance of loving feelings as central to self-healing. He subsequently went back to Germany, had German collaborators, and brought us to places in Frankfurt where he had lived. A German writer even wrote an obituary of him that appeared in the British Medical Journal. However, he never really got past his anger at Poland and he declined invitations to go back.


I had the feeling that my father was a little bit different from other dads. For one thing, he would invent unique games, like competitive napping. He also shared little bits of his Holocaust experiences with us, usually at odd moments. For example, when I was 8, I wanted to quit taking piano lessons. My father advised me to keep going because the musicians in Prisoner Orchestra in Auschwitz were better treated than other prisoners. I said, really? I should take piano in case I have to go to Auschwitz? He laughed and I quit piano lessons. But he worried about whether his experiences in the Shoah affected his capacity to be a parent. But this was his preoccupation; to us he was usually patient, tolerant, loving, and forgiving.


My father was a role model for my brother and I who both became psychiatrists; although my path to psychiatry was through neuroscience and my brother’s path took him through engineering. These paths resonated with my father’s broad interests. He was an original thinker. His writings were distinguished by the breadth of their influences outside of psychology, including the arts, anthropology, mythology, history, religious studies, literature, cognitive neuroscience, and many other areas. My father corresponded with leaders in his field, but also more broadly, with people like Alai Stevenson and the playwright Arthur Miller. It was a special day for us when Wayne State University held a celebration in honor of my father’s 80th birthday, when my father, brother, and I were the plenary speakers.


After a long illness, my father had an easy death surrounded by his family. In the moments after he died, we had a quiet moment to reflect on his passing. Then my mother, always looking out for him, spoke up and said, “at least he had a good lunch.”




My father’s life story seems to have lessons about resilience. I will highlight three important messages for us as we reflect on Yom Hashoah:


  1. Each of us counts:  Life can strip us of nearly everything that we hold to be important. But if we hold on to the a belief in ourselves, we can rebuild.
  2. Life is a search for meaning: We can find meaning in anger or fear, but we also can find meaning in hope and love. If we choose hope and love, our lives will be enriched.
  3. Life is change: My father survived and ultimately thrived because he kept moving forward, taking risks and embracing life.


Shortly before my father’s liberation, he had the feeling that if he died on the death march, no one would know and nobody would miss him. The notion that he might be forgotten was a painful thought to him and to our family. In this regard, it was a great comfort to us to see obituaries about him published and it also makes today’s event particularly special.


Thank you for the opportunity to share these reflections.