On the Centenary of Eugene Heimler’s Birth.
By ANTHONY RUDOLF.
EUGENE (ALSO KNOWN as Jancsi and John) Heimler was a psychiatric social worker whose influence was widespread within the profession thanks to his creation of the Heimler Scale of Human Social Functioning, which came to be used in the Commonwealth, North America, Europe and many other countries. This was one major aspect of what was known as the Heimler Method of Human Social Functioning, the other aspect being his own version of psychotherapy, in which the counselor engaged with the individual or group on their own terms.
Heimler was born one hundred years ago in Hungary on March 27 1922. The scale emerged from his post-war work in London with the long-term unemployed and later the mentally ill. Throughout his life, his work was informed by his experiences in four Nazi camps including Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and crucially by his immediate and ongoing reflections on those experiences while actually in the camps.
Even as he suffered, he was asserting his freedom inwardly by observing fellow slave labourers and the SS officers and guards, and how they all went about their tasks. He was profoundly affected by the sight of deliberately meaningless work inflicted on inmates as part of a typically sadistic Nazi experiment on the limits of endurance (how many would commit suicide, go mad, etc., etc.). Heimler even escaped from a camp factory that was being bombed by the Americans but he realized he had no hope of survival and would be shot when found, so he returned knowing that he would, at best, be severely beaten, which he was.
All along, he survived by “splitting” — that is, by making a deep mental effort to divide the suffering self from the observing self. To say that he was resilient and tough-minded is an understatement. Equally important, he burned with purpose and hope, and was already unconsciously armed with his future insight that frustration and other negative aspects of personal life represent one pole of a spectrum of energy that can be deployed in a positive way.
When he was deported from Hungary in 1944 with his new wife Eva, who had been his childhood sweetheart, and their families, he was 22. Born and brought up in a small town in Western Hungary, Szombathely.1 Eugene had a blissfully happy Mitteleuropa childhood, with his lawyer father Ernest, artistic mother Maria and a much older sister. By the age of 17, supported in his creative efforts by his mother, he was already a well known poet and had published three pamphlets. After one night together with Eva, whom he had married in the ghetto, he spent the rest of his honeymoon in a sealed cattle-car heading towards Auschwitz. Eugene would never see Eva or the rest of his family again.
He wrote powerfully about his camp experiences in his profound exploration of Auschwitz, Night of the Mist (1959), the title possibly alluding to Alain Resnais’s documentary film Nuit et Brouillard (1956). The late fifties was the time when major Holocaust testimonies finally came to the attention of a wider public, thus the second edition of Primo Levi’s masterpiece If This Is a Man. Heimler’s book is a classic of the genre, albeit less well known than Primo Levi’s and Eli Wiesel’s. (In a public discussion with Wiesel, Heimler encouraged him to write on other subjects). Eugene Heimler barely escaped death several times. Once, correctly intuiting that his own barrack, number 17, was about to be raided, he ran to a ditch on the edge of the camp and survived among corpses. This was one of several decisions taken swiftly and correctly and which were among the notable characteristics of survivors, along with luck of course. A powerfully sexual man, he even took the risk of having a (gypsy) lover who helped him survive.
After liberation, Heimler returned to Hungary but unlike Levi in Italy had no surviving family, and would soon find he had no choice but to leave. In his second book A Link in the Chain (reissued as My Life after Auschwitz), Heimler vividly describes how he, a fiercely independent social democrat at deep odds with the Communist Party and the far right-wing Smallholders Party, published articles as a journalist, which resulted in his life being threatened numerous times. He was accused, charged with treason and arrested. “Enough!”, he said, and, after marrying his second wife and cousin Lily, left the homeland for England in 1947, a country admired by his anglophile father. Lily would follow him later in the year and they would have two children, Susan and George.
HEIMLER’S EARLY YEARS in England, as recounted in his second book, were tough. His “teeming brain” already held “the rich garners of full ripened grain” (in the words of Keats) but he was a sick man and he underwent psychoanalysis. Having worked hard to learn English, he went on to become the first psychiatric social worker to graduate from Manchester University, in 1953. He would become a pioneer in the new approach of “community mental health” and worked with the long-term unemployed and their families (the Hendon Experiment and later the Hounslow Project from which the Heimler Scale grew) and his life would be devoted to healing the minds of all who had stared defeat in the face, whether from internal or external factors. Heimler, a passionate and compassionate charismatic personality was possessed of an extraordinary intuitive understanding (later rationalised and conceptualised) of people’s deepest needs and hopes — especially those hurt in mind and the long-term unemployed. This was already evident early in his professional debut as a psychiatric social worker after the war.
Heimler’s ideas about frustration and satisfaction were at the heart of his therapy and of his HSF Scale, which was devised for use with the unemployed – supported by government departments such as the Ministry of Social Security, the NHS, the National Assistance Board and local authorities – and in situations such as prisons and mental hospitals where there was no time or money for prolonged psychotherapy. Parts of the Scale can be found in a blog on the website of Southampton University Special Collections which house the Heimler papers.2
Heimler would interview people where they were comfortable, indoors or outdoors, eschewing the consulting room if that was appropriate, and in language appropriate for each individual. One young man had been on tranquillisers for years because he yearned to cut people up. Heimler persuaded him and the authorities to allow him to work (under supervision) in a butcher’s shop and this unconventional treatment was effective. Accounts of his work and approach can be found in Creative Use of Destructive Forces and The Healing Echo, titles which speak for themselves. Heimler taught Human Relations and Social Functioning at the extra-mural department of the University of London and numerous other educational settings across the world. He trained many future practitioners.
Psychopathology and psychotherapy had their place in his scheme of things, but he knew that sociopathology and sociotherapy were equally important. Paying attention to his broad perspective is crucial to any assessment of his influence. His philosophy was practical and his practice, developed during years of work when his resilience and courage were tested, had affinities with the existential psychotherapy of Viktor Frankl and Hans Cohn (like Heimler, Cohn was also a poet). “Do not ask why pain / Only what is to be done with it”: these lines from his verse play The Storm, which I had the privilege of co-translating with him, are carved on his tombstone at the Jewish cemetery in Hoop Lane, Golders Green. Eugene Heimler was a guide, counsellor and mentor to some of the best minds in non-orthodox Jewish circles in the UK, and it was through my friends in the rabbinate such as Albert Friedlander and Michael Goulston that I met him and became for a while the editor of his newsletter.
He was a consultant to the World Health Organisation and the American government. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Calgary, Canada, where he had a Chair and taught for 17 years. Heimler also gave lectures in Berlin where he met his future third wife, a social worker mesmerized by his charisma and intellect. She inspired his final act of witness, the transformative Messages – A Survivor’s Letter to a Young German. Had he lived into the digital age he would have grasped the possibilities opened up by the flexibility imposed by the gig economy – and in some ways his attitude intuited it — even as he would have fought to combat the parallel alienation experienced by many.
Messages: A Survivor’s Letter illuminates the author’s singular trajectory: losing, searching and re-finding his own identity in his physical, emotional and spiritual worlds. In his “dream of consciousness” musings, Heimler moves from biblical to medieval to modern human experiences of transformation through pain to self-discovery. The book is the testament of a Holocaust survivor, who has succeeded in re-discovering meaning, purpose and passion in his shattered world. “What”, he asks, “are the connections between life and what we call death? How can meaning transcend suffering? How can we understand all the hatred that surrounds us? How can hate be turned into creativity instead of self-destructiveness? What can keep our love and our ability to love alive in the midst of atrocities or indifference?” He also understood that it is not easy to be the child of a Holocaust survivor. The healing of traumas of such children when they grow up — especially those anguished by what they were not told when they were young — was one of his major concerns in his final years, undertaken with the help of his devoted third wife and professional colleague, Brigitte, now Miriam Bracha (a member of the Haredi community in Jerusalem), whom he married with the blessing of the dying Lily. Individuals can read Constructive Use of Destructive Forces (Survival in Society) and The Healing Echo to explore and benefit from his philosophy.
I WILL END on a personal note: the last few months of his life – he died on December 4, 1990 — sadly coincided with one of our regular but temporary periods of estrangement. For more than 20 years we moved in and out of sync. We both knew that his powers could flood younger people in his circle and we both knew it was right to tell him to go away. We both knew he could sometimes be “difficult” (and no doubt that was reciprocal, given my history of seeking father figures). But even when we were not seeing each other, I would ask myself what his views would be on certain topics, and I always will.
Those of a more pessimistic cast of mind, such as myself, sometimes struggled to cope with his optimism. But it was not that of a Pollyanna. It was forged in a crucible, a vortex, of suffering that legitimized his philosophy. It was earned. It was a magnificent example of a cast of mind that has embraced tikkun olam, the kabbalistic concept of repairing the world, which God knows, needs it more than ever. Heimler taught us to avoid the original sins of eastern and western traditions: extreme abandonment of self and extreme embrace of self. Even in the darkness of anus mundi, Heimler, as Deuteronomy and the Book of Micah instruct, “chose life”. A fitting thought in his centenary year.
ANTHONY RUDOLF is a writer, editor and translator. He is Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and Fellow of the English Association. His forthcoming essay on poetry written and read in extreme situations will be published in June 2022 in the American magazine, Paideuma. His most recent book is on Isaac Rosenberg.
Author’s acknowledgment: I thank my brother-in-law Jack Chalkley, clinical psychologist and author, for his helpful comments and astute suggestions.
- The city is famous for being the home of a more marginal Jew than Heimler — Leopold Bloom’s father: thus the happy coincidence of the centenary of another son of Szombathely; Ulysses also was published in 1922. There are memorial plaques to both of them in their houses on the main square.
- Eugene Heimler, University of Southampton Special Collections and see the website of the Eugene Heimler Literary Trust and the Wikipedia entry on the Heimler Scale and Method.