Dreams of Auschwitz concentration camp survivors examined in new psychology study

A new study has investigated the traumatic dreams of former Auschwitz concentration camp prisoners. The research was published in the journal Dreaming.

“The dreams of people who were as traumatized as the former Auschwitz camp prisoners are exceptionally interesting as a source of knowledge about dreams in general and about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in particular,” said study author Wojciech Owczarski of the University of Gdansk.

“Many dream researchers, theorists and therapists claim that dreams, even nightmares, often serve as facilitators in the process of coping with trauma. I wondered whether the extremely frightening nightmares of the Holocaust survivors could also reveal any kind of an adaptive or healing potential.”

Owczarski analyzed 504 dream reports from 39 women and 88 men who survived the Auschwitz camp. The reports were collected by psychiatrists from the Kraków Medical Academy in 1973.

“It would be good to personally interview the former Auschwitz inmates. Unfortunately, they submitted their testimonies in 1973 and now it is impossible to talk to them. My study is based solely on what they wrote,” Owczarski told PsyPost.

Only 26% of the dreams were dreams about Auschwitz — and most of these dreams occurred after they had left the camp. While they were in Auschwitz, the survivors reported dreaming more often
about things they had been forced to leave behind, such as their homes and their relatives.

“In the camp, I dreamt about being free. Nowadays, I sometimes dream about the camp,” one survivor explained.

Unsurprisingly, the dreams about Auschwitz were more terrifying than other dreams. Fear and apprehension were the overriding emotions in most.

“In my dreams I see a pile of corpses being transported to the crematorium in a wheelbarrow, I see black smoke rising from the chimney and my whole body is overcome by fear of death… I am haunted by the image of hanged men, their bodies swinging like a pendulum from the rope, an image that is becoming the recurring horror of my night life,” a survivor recalled.

But Owczarski also found some evidence that Auschwitz nightmares had therapeutic potential. In what he dubbed “comeback dreams,” the survivors returned to the camp for the second, third, or even sixth time — and the fear and negative emotions were diminished.

“I felt the confidence of a ‘second-time’ tenant… And I managed everything exceptionally well—and was very calm. Because I knew for sure that we were there for only three weeks… The dream wasn’t bad. I woke up feeling rather cheerful,” one survivor recounted.

“I dream about still being in the camp—without the threat of doom or any particular torture. The camp is bearable, the war is over, it has been five years since the end, but they are still keeping us because the prisoners are released in small groups and I am unlucky—so I have to wait,” another survivor explained.

Such dreams, according to the report, show that repressing nightmares might not be the best solution for trauma sufferers.

“This study is only part of a broad and complex research project on the Auschwitz inmates’ dream reports undertaken by my international research team,” Owczarski said.

“We investigate these reports from many perspectives: psychological, psychoanalytical, anthropological, linguistic and other. We will be publishing a monograph (in English and in Polish) on this fascinating topic.”

The study was titled: “Adaptive Nightmares of Holocaust Survivors: The Auschwitz Camp in the Former Inmates’ Dreams“.