Sunday 25 August 2019

Obituaries: Henry Krystal

Psychiatrist who developed treatments for psychological trauma and coined the term 'survivor guilt'

Expert: Henry Krystal in the late 1980s
Expert: Henry Krystal in the late 1980s Newsdesk Newsdesk

Henry Krystal, who has died aged 90, was a Holocaust survivor who went on to pioneer treatments for psychological trauma, coining the term "survivor guilt".

As professor of psychiatry at the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine, he worked with more than 2,000 survivors of Nazi persecution to examine the nature of "concentration camp pathology". He identified a constellation of symptoms, ranging from nervousness, irritability and insomnia to headaches and heart conditions, which often continued for decades after the original trauma.

The challenge for the doctor, Krystal found, lay in persuading these patients that their complaints might have an emotional basis. This inability to identify their own feelings - a state known as "alexithymia"- was a central part of their trauma.

Left untreated, patients often self-medicated with drugs or alcohol.

Krystal's research formed the basis for new therapeutic approaches.

Biofeedback - focusing on sensations such as pulse or breathing - aimed to help alexithymic individuals with basic self-care, as many struggled to recognise their own bodily needs.

A landmark 1968 study of 151 patients, written with William Niederland, described the "all-pervasive guilt" of the victim, with 92pc of those examined expressing "self-reproach for failing to save their relatives". By the early 1970s, the concept of "survivor guilt" had become well-established in the field.

Henry Krystal was born Henick Krysztal on April 22 1925 and spent his early life in Sosnowiec, south Poland, near the German border. While his father Herman worked as a bookkeeper, his brother Samuel, seven years his senior, was a physician.

The family had little contact with those outside the Jewish community, and the encounters that Henick recalled were hostile.

In 1938, his paternal grandfather was beaten to death in his own store, and the following year the Nazis invaded Poland. Samuel fled to Ukraine and Herman to Soviet-occupied eastern Poland. Neither were heard from again. Henick, who remained behind with his mother Devorah, would be the only survivor in his immediate family.

On the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur 1942, Devorah was put on a closed train to the Treblinka death camp. Henick was taken to the labour camp at Starachowice. Having been moved to Auschwitz, he received a tattoo number and became a slave labourer.

Towards the end of the war, he was transferred to Buchenwald and then to Sachsenhausen, until the Germans began to drive the prisoners in retreat before the advancing Allied forces.

As order collapsed, Krystal escaped with a friend, and they bedded down in a forest wearing clothes looted from an abandoned SS truck. They woke to find the Germans surrendering. "I couldn't muster the feeling of joy," Krystal told an interviewer in 1996. "Maybe a day or two before I was liberated, a thought occurred to me, and that is that if I should die, nobody in the world ... would miss me."

The British transferred him to a displaced persons' camp, where Krystal renewed his studies of English. With the war over he moved to the American zone in Frankfurt, attended Goethe University and then emigrated to live with an aunt in Detroit, Michigan. He completed his studies at Wayne University medical school, graduating in 1953. Despite his outwardly successful re-entry into normal life, however, much of this period passed "in a kind of a numb state".

In later years that numbness still descended at times of high emotion, including his own wedding day.

Dr Krystal's published research papers included Trauma and Effects (1978) and Psychotherapy with Alexithymic Patients (1983). He also wrote studies on drug and alcohol addiction, and edited Massive Psychic Trauma (1968).

Henry Krystal, who died on October 8, is survived by his wife, the former Esther Reichstein, and by two sons.

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