Wednesday, January 3, 2018
Dream sharing in Auschwitz
Sharing dreams was a vital community ritual for Polish prisoners at the notorious Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, originally designed for Poles, later expanded to facilitate the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews, Gypsies and nationals of other countries. In 1973, under communism, an attempt was made to interview Polish survivors and collect accounts of their dreams during their time in the camp. A questionnaire was sent to former inmates and 147 responded.
One of the fascinating things to emerge from this research was that dream sharing - and the effort to interpret each other's dreams - was central to the life of many Polish inmates, providing a precious sense of community, hope of survival and other therapeutic benefits under terrifying conditions.
One survivor reported, "Every morning we would start the day by sharing and interpreting the dreams we had during the night." Another former inmate said that "Dreams and fortunes were an inexhaustible source of daily conversation" - reflecting how dreams were examined for clues to an otherwise unknown future.
This important material has taken a long time to seep out, finally in English translation, to the world community. We now have an important summary by Polish scholar Wojciech Owczarski in the latest issue of Dreaming, the magazine of the International Association for the Study of Dreams.
Owczarski contends that in general Polish society undervalues dreams. "Polish people hardly pay attention to dreams and and hardly pay attention to dreams and hardly believe in their diagnostic, healing, or problem-solving powers." I am sorry he has not met some of the wonderful Polish dreamers, including two who are now teachers of Active Dreaming, who have come to my workshops. However, if Owczarski is nonetheless substantially correct about a prevailing social attitude across many generations, the phenomenon of enthusiastic dream sharing in the concentration camp becomes even more fascinating.
It seems there was no agreed method of interpretation of dreams among the Auschwitz inmates. You told a dream to your fellows and they came up with whatever occurred to them, which might be influenced by a folk belief, a half-remembered dictionary of dreams, or gut feelings and personal associations. Some individuals who proved to be good at dream reading received favors from the others. A survivor reported that "Those who believed in their powers were willing to part with their last slice of bread just to hear a prophecy."
However in his book Sny obozowe w pamięci ocalałych z Auschwitz, published in Poland in 2016, another scholar, Piotr M. A. Cywiński, suggests that the inmates did approach an informal consensus on the meaning of a long list of dream symbols, in effect an oral "dream book" of the camp. The list of symbols and their interpretation included these:
To put on shoes = to be moved for interrogation or another holding area
To look into a mirror = to be interrogated
To cook meat = to be beaten under interrogation
To smoke a cigarette = to be released from prison
To hear a shot = a letter from home
It was agreed among survivors that one of the benefits of dream sharing was hope that they would make it through. Though not all the dreams shared received positive feedback, there was a bias towards hope and as one inmate recalled, the dream readers "lit flickers of hope in the hopeless spiritual desert, in our dying hearts." Good predictions, said another, "distracted the prisoner's imagination away from the camp" and seeded hope of a happy outcome after all the pain and fear.
Dream sharing in the camp gave inmates a way to be heard, and to hear each other, building bonds of sympathy - and also a little fairly benign competition, to tell the most entertaining story or offer the most accurate interpretation. Being present to each other in these exchanges may have been more important than the content of specific reports. "Being emotionally engaged in dream sharing," Owczarski concludes, "the inmates built a community based on close relationships."
Sadly, it seems that habits of regular dream recall and dream sharing did not survive the camps, at least as far as former inmates were willing to admit in response to questions put to them under the aegis of a totalitarian government. One female survivor said, "Fortune telling and dream interpretations were the most important aspect of our camp lives." However, "I have stopped interpreting dreams after my return because I no longer have any."
Despite this disappointing sequel, we find confirmation in the story of the sharing that went on at Auschwitz that dreamwork, as a social as well as individual activity, is crucial to our human ability to survive and to thrive. This is an important chapter in the history of dreaming.
Source: Wojciech Owczarski, "The Ritual of Dream Interpretation in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp" in Dreaming volume 27, number 4 (December 2017)
Of related interest: Growing a Dream of a Better World, Even in Auschwitz.