In Memoriam: Isaac Zieman
Psychologist and Psychoanalyst
and Paul Elovitz
Psychohistory Forum Director
On April 2 the retired psychoanalyst Isaac Zelig Zieman (1920-2007) died at home with his wife by his side, after an extraordinary battle for life in the face of major heart disease, severe anemia, and a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer made in the previous June. His will to live to carry on his work of the reconciliation of Germans and Jews, Palestinians and Israelis, and others who would turn their own suffering into murderous, genocidal hatreds, kept him alive well after his body had long since past the normal point of human endurance. Indeed, his January 27th presentation, “Jewish and Universal Lessons from the Holocaust,” to the Psychohistory Forum was but an intermission from a hospitalization caused especially by his body’s failure to absorb nutrients. Zieman had previously survived near-death situations in his native Latvia under the Nazis, as a Soviet soldier sent to the Battle of Stalingrad, through starvation as a forced laborer in the Soviet gulag, and in traveling under assumed identities in Stalinist Russia later in World War II. Even this skilled survivor’s will to live to carry out his mission of making this a better world could go on for only so long.
On May 6, 1920 Isaac Zelig was born as first of four children to the Zieman family in the shtetl (small, tradition Jewish community) of Livani in Latvia. His middle class, Yiddish-speaking orthodox Jewish family owned a small grocery store. As a ten-year-old Isaac joined Gordonia, a Zionist-socialist youth group with its plans for European Jews to move to Palestine to create a modern Hebrew-speaking Jewish homeland. This commitment created tension with his family. His dreams of creating a just, secular state in the Biblical land of “milk and honey” would be a major motivation in his life.
Fate was not kind to the 93,000 Latvian Jews. The Russians invaded and occupied their country in 1940 and the Germans invaded it a year later. Upon the later invasion Isaac joined a group of anti-Hitler partisans, which soon collapsed. He then fled to the part of Russia that was not yet occupied and enlisted in the Soviet Army. His fleeing Latvia would in the end save his life since it kept him out of the reach of the Nazis genocidal machine—though it should be kept in mind that ultimately more people died at the hands of Stalin than Hitler. The World War II date of May 13, 1942, when Stalin decreed that people born in “capitalist” (noncommunist) countries could no longer fight in the Red Army, changed his life. He was transferred from Stalingrad to forced labor in a Siberian coal mine. This decree may have saved his life, as he was about to fight in the battle for Stalingrad where the victorious Soviet Army suffered over a million casualties.
Conditions in the Soviet forced labor camp were horrendous. When due to meager rations he was on the verge of exhaustion and starvation, Isaac was sent to the infirmary where his food provisions were cut: he begged for food to stay alive. After a few months authorities in Moscow gave permission for him to travel to Kyrgyzstan, a Central Asian Soviet Republic, where he worked in a variety of jobs including laboring on a small collective farm. When he became depressed and went to a Soviet psychiatrist, he was encouraged to find a direction in life, a goal. His secret plan was to escape the Soviet Union and establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
After he was mobilized to work in a military factory, at night he studied Polish from a book. Again, he volunteered for the Soviet Army which he subsequently deserted, devising a purely fictional story of being a Pole on the way to Poland. After numerous interrogations by the Soviet police he was referred to a group of Poles heading to their homeland to join the Polish army. In all he assumed five different identities to help him navigate through the murderously troubled waters of the Second World War. In the Polish army he taught soldiers how to operate a tank and rose to the rank of sergeant. (For someone who never in his life even had a driver’s license, this was quite a feat.) After the collapse of Nazi Germany he went west, working for the Gordonia organization in displaced persons (DP) camps in Austria and Germany to assist other Holocaust survivors to prepare to emigrate to Palestine. He felt destined to join them and live on a Kibbutz growing oranges until he discovered that his entire family was murdered, prompting a severe depression. After a year, and being unable to work, he again reached out for professional help. (At different points in his life he would struggle with depression, which he combated with “love and a hundred years of psychotherapy.”)
When Zieman fully realized the usefulness of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis he changed his path and life’s mission. He studied psychoanalysis in Munich and in 1955 married for the second time – he had a brief earlier marriage. The couple immigrated to the United States where they had a son and daughter.
Zieman had plunged into the depth of despair when he realized the extent of his losses, yet he refused to continue living his life feeling like a victim. He channeled his survivor experiences, guilt, and skills into a meaningful and constructive life. His drive to help his downtrodden fellow human beings manifested itself in his activism in the American Civil Rights Movement and other causes. In the early 1960s Isaac met Ruth Cohn, a prominent Berlin-born psychoanalyst in New York City, who had developed “Theme-Centered-Interacton” (TCI) as a psychological method for encouraging communication in groups. After participating in a yearlong workshop led by Cohn, to test the practicability of the this method, during many summers he conducted TCI training and reconciliation workshops in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Israel. He saw this method of communication as assisting in personal growth, maturation, and respect for others in a manner that encouraged democracy and combated the seduction of totalitarianism. In adapting it to work with Jews and Arabs he fought for Palestinian rights alongside the rights of Jews in Israel.
Isaac was a visionary who was working towards reconciliation between children of Nazis and Holocaust survivors, including the second generation. During one of his workshops in Germany, he met his third wife Ingeborg (Inge) leading to their marriage in 1981. At the memorial service held at the Plaza Chapel on Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan – attended by 250 mourners – Dr. Flora Hogman noted how Zieman integrated his past into his current life in a positive rather than shameful manner. Holocaust survivors and other individuals traumatized by the horrors of history can respond progressively rather than regressively to their horrific past if they do not get stuck in the early stages of mourning. When one reaches the final phase of mourning, a “search for meaning” starts to emerge and then the possibilities for repairing the world (tikkun olam in Hebrew) are endless. Isaac Zieman is a role model for resilience despite adversity. His energy, vision, sense of humor, and humanity have inspired others to carry on his work of reconciliation.
Appreciations, connections, beginnings, and endings were enormously important to Isaac. No matter how brief the time he had to speak at meetings, he always expressed his heartfelt appreciation to the people who came. Perhaps people’s presence had so much meaning to him as a legacy of the abrupt losses and changes in his life. He also greatly valued the many groups in which he participated. These included the American Academy of Psychotherapists, American Group Psychotherapy Association, Association for Psychoanalytic Self-psychology, the Dialogue Project, The Generation After and Holocaust Survivors Association, Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis, National Institute for the Psychotherapies, Psychohistory Forum, Friends of Yiddish, and the Workshop Institute for Living Learning. Joining and building groups to strengthen that which he valued was a way of combating the sense of loneliness and despair he felt upon learning of the destruction of his immediate and extended family, as well as of the entire Jewish community of Latvia. Humming and singing Yiddish tunes from his childhood and supporting the survival of Yiddish in a world in which most Yiddish speakers were murdered, would serve the same function.
Wherever he went, Isaac was establishing connections and building “community.” When he told Flora Hogman, a hidden child of the Holocaust who had lost her entire immediate family, that she reminded him of his sister Tzila, she felt a restored sense of family especially as she shared Passover Seders at his home. Even in his many recent hospitalizations, as he came out of anesthesia, he would groggily chat with the Filipino nurse whose name and life story he had learned and who he introduced to his family. Similarly, according to his son Josh, he seemed to know all the cab drivers and waiters in Manhattan’s West Side, as he connected with them in his own tactful, humorous manner. He would not even die without saying goodbye to the members of his men’s group who met in his living room a week before his death. These friends of many years were struck by his need to focus on what was happening in their lives even in this process of final leave-taking. Dr. Herbert Rabin, speaking for the group, remembers Isaac as an “unusually perceptive and compassionate man” who could “confront” the most “delicate of issues” in “a kindly” manner and declaring, “the world needs more Isaac Ziemans.”
As a community builder Isaac Zieman was part of the Reconstructionist movement in New York City, first at the Society for Advancement of Judaism and later at the West End Synagogue. During the memorial service on Yom Kippur he would always sing. His Passover table included strangers who needed a place to celebrate the movement from oppression to liberation – it was the festival that symbolizes his own life.
Isaac Zieman was such a determined survivor that disappointments did not readily deter him. For example, shortly after joining the Psychohistory Forum about a decade ago, he stated his appreciation for its intellectual work as well as his strong desire to present in our Saturday Work-In-Progress Seminar Program, only to be faced with the reality that he would need to write an original article in English to serve as the work in progress paper to be discussed at the meeting. Clearly, he was disappointed, but it was not easy for him to write about himself. When last fall it became obvious that he was approaching the final stage of life, the Forum made the offer of transcribing if he spoke about what he wanted written. He declined politely and several weeks later sent his “Lessons from the Holocaust” article, which was published in our March issue, which had a special feature with ten articles on the Holocaust prompted by his work.
Though he spoke seven languages (English, German, Hebrew, Latvian, Polish, Russian, and Yiddish – with varying levels of fluency), Isaac Zieman was not a prolific writer. Fortunately, his almost completed memoir, From Victim to Peace Builder, is greatly valued by his family who are working to prepare it for posthumous publication. He touched many lives across several continents in his private practice as a psychotherapist/psychoanalyst, in conducting workshops (and groups) for group leadership skills, personal growth, and reconciliation, and most of all with his frequently shared ideas to build a more peaceful world.
The drive to create a new and better world that propelled Zieman from the age of ten and for the next three quarters of a century fits into a Jewish altruistic and millennial tradition. The Jews of Europe were caught amidst conflicting forces including religious anti-Semitism and Nazi racial anti-Semitism, capitalism and socialism (including its communist form), customary beliefs and science, modernity and tradition, and nationalism and internationalism. A powerful response to these forces in the modern era has been the impulse of some Jews to altruistically save others – the world – when Jews themselves have so often desperately needed to be saved. A reflection of this impulse is in Isaac’s often saying that “the division of labor in his household was clear, Inge took care of the home and he took care of the world.” Incidentally, Ingeborg, who was born a German Christian, last year converted to Judaism and they had remarried in April 2006 in a Jewish ceremony.
We at the Psychohistory Forum would like to express our condolences to Isaac’s widow Ingeborg, his children Josh and Mimi, his grandchildren Ari, Noa, Jake, Maya, and Emma, and the innumerable people whose lives he enriched. We would also like to thank Inge, Herb Rabin, and others who helped with the research and writing of this memorial. Isaac Zelig Zieman will be missed, but his work will be carried on by his co-workers and others he inspired.
Eva Fogelman, PhD, born in a displaced person’s camp as the daughter of survivors, is a social psychologist and psychotherapist in private practice in Manhattan. She is co-director of Psychotherapy with Generations of the Holocaust and Related Traumas and Child Development Research. Dr. Fogelman’s publications include Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust (1994) and Children During the Nazi Reign: Psychological Perspectives on the Interview Process (co-editor with Judith Kestenberg, 1994). Dr. Fogelman may be contacted at email@example.com. Paul Elovitz, PhD, editor of this publication, teaches a course on the Holocaust, publishes articles and book chapters on this important subject, and has made professional presentations on its pedagogy. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.