Holocaust survivor and psychiatry professor Dr. Henri Parens died on Feb. 19 of congested heart failure in Minneapolis. The former Wynnewood resident was 93.
Parens served as a professor of psychiatry at Thomas Jefferson University, a research professor of psychiatry at the Medical College of Pennsylvania and an analyst at the Psychoanalytic Center, and also was a prolific author.
A native of Lodz, Poland, Parens (born Henri Pruszinowski on Dec. 18, 1928) escaped by himself at the age of 12 from a French detention camp in France, making his way to the United States a year later. He never saw his parents, older brother or other relatives again, detailing his experiences to the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries.
Upon arrival in the U.S., Parens lived with two foster families in Pittsburgh. The nascent singer earned a bachelor’s degree in music at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University), in 1952. Son Erik Parens noted that his father had a beautiful singing voice and was paid as a cantor for a time.
After two years in the Army as a medic, he earned a medical degree at Tulane University Medical School in 1959, his first step in a lengthy professional career.
But his Holocaust-era experiences influenced his career and “he dedicated the rest of his life to helping children, parents and others understand and manage despair, prejudice, aggression and other destructive behavior,” the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote in its obituary.
He drew inspiration from his mother, who encouraged him to try to escape, as well as those who helped him during his long journey.
Erik Parens said that while his father spoke of his childhood experiences to his children, he didn’t speak publicly about it until somewhat later in life.
“He became very deeply committed to speaking in schools,” Erik Parens said, “It became enormously important to him … His dream was to educate people so it wouldn’t happen again.”
Erik Parens said his father was strongly impacted by his mother’s death at the hand of the Nazis, particularly since he was able to survive because his mother encouraged him to escape.
He also wrestled with the question of how good and evil could co-exist in the world. Erik Parens described how his father was impressed by his first foster family — led by a poor bread truck driver who already had three children.
“‘How could people be full of such generosity’?,” he asked.
Parens joined the faculty of the Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1969, moving on to Jefferson in 1992. He retired in 2017.
Parens worked as a private psychiatrist and psychoanalyst for more than a half-century, specializing in treating children with psychological trauma.
His work included lectures, workshops and research on family relationships. He served with the United Nations and other global organizations to combat ethnic hatred and genocide.
As an author, he published a dozen books, while writing, editing and contributing to nearly 300 books, as well as a multitude of media projects.
His 1995 textbook “Parenting for Emotional Growth” was adopted by schools in the Philadelphia area and nationwide.
Dr. Salman Akhtar’s career intersected with Parens’ life for decades, starting in late 1979 or early 1980 when the former was the latter’s student. A decade later, they co-wrote “Beyond the Symbiotic Orbit,” the first of a half-dozen works together. And Akhtar took advantage of his colleague’s singing voice, having him sing at his wedding.
Akhtar said Parens had a different outlook than often-cynical psychoanalysts such as Sigmund Freud.
“He had a more positive view of mankind,” Akhtar said, adding that Parens believed that human aggression was more a response to life than something innate.
In addition, Akhtar said Parens’ focus on parenting education also set him apart.
Awards Parens received included the 1993 Miriam Jones Brown World of the Child Award from Friends School Haverford, and the 2019 Sigourney Award for outstanding contributions to psychoanalysis.
“Dr. Parens and his colleagues used real-life moments to help teach parents and caregivers how to respond in ways that would enhance their children’s emotional development,” the latter wrote in describing his work. “Focusing on the caregiver’s role in shaping the child’s capacity to manage their own aggression and teaching caregivers new ways of responding at moments of real urgency between caregiver and child, Dr. Parens is able to teach new and alternative ways to handle aggression.”
Another colleague, Dr. Ira Brenner, elaborated on what made Parens tick.
“Henri Parens life was forged in the Holocaust by his experience as child who escaped a certain death and having to leave his mother behind. He was gifted enough and fortunate enough to become a healer who dedicated his career to the welfare of children. Perhaps like Ann Frank, he never lost his optimism about the goodness in human nature.
“He truly believed that a healthy loving childhood experience for every child in the world would change the course of human history and eliminate war. The older he became the more and more he realized just what an indelible impact the Holocaust had had on the direction of his life. He was a giant in the field, a dear friend and colleague, and leaves behind a proud legacy of his contributions to the field.”
The Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia created the Henri Parens Hope Scholarship for students who plan to “improve the lives of individuals, especially children and the underserved.”
In 2020, granddaughter Sophie Parens debuted a short documentary entitled “Zaida” about her grandfather.
Parens is survived by his wife, Rachel; sons Erik, Karl and Joshua; eight grandchildren; and other relatives.