Some Distant Memory: A Thread of Trauma
Does history, in fact, repeat itself? I look at my own family's history and how they survived the Holocaust as it relates to the last four years of America's political turmoil - culminating with the 2020 election. (Nonfiction Piece for Narrative Journalism Course, GWU, 2020)
“I don’t think that history will repeat itself, but these things do happen… from selfishness... a desire for power. My fear is that it could happen again, I think I had that suppressed for a while.” – David Brenner, My Late Grandfather (Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive, 1996)
“Not to freak you out, but I would pack an emergency bag before tomorrow,” my father texted me. "Also make sure you know where your passport is."
Much to the dismay of my mother - who was already concerned with my anxiety levels before the vote - I threw my passport, wallet, meds, and an extra change of clothing into a backpack. From there, I started playing the ‘what if’ game, as I like to call it.
I FaceTimed my father, as he was doing menial tasks in our home back in New York. I asked him if he thought there would be violence, or war, following the election. He laughed this off, but I could tell he was only doing this to ease my worries. Like me, my father is apprehensive of the world at large; he holds a general distrust in people’s intentions and motives. As a parent, he often tells me, it is his role to minimize my distress while maintaining his own all the same.
I continued with my questions: What if Martial law is declared? What if I have to flee DC? Or the entirety of the US gets put on lockdown again? Living in an apartment just blocks away from the White House had seemed to fuel my anxiety in recent weeks. While sitting in classes or watching a movie, I could hear the sounds of the presidential motorcade driving down the street below. With each passing siren, I wondered if there was truth to what my father was saying. I kept my emergency bag close to me.
I told my father about a show I had recently watched, The Plot Against America, and the fictional tale of the Holocaust taking place in the United States following the 1940 election of a known fascist. The father in the show tells his family to hold onto their passports, pack a bag, and prepare to flee their home. This would never happen in the US, my father assured me as he sprinkled in details of his own parents’ escapes from Europe all those decades ago. It was a different time, he said.
Over FacetTme, he told me their stories as briefly as he could, careful not to draw parallels to now or reveal too much about his parents’ past. It’s this secrecy that results from a suppressed history. But as he spoke I could see the fear within his eyes.
“The marches seemed to last forever, because that’s all we would do… just walking and walking and marching. People were dying from starvation, disease, mental illness, they just couldn’t cope with it. Days and weeks and months meant nothing to me, you were just trying to survive and keep going, finding food and shelter.” - My Grandfather (Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive, 1996)
While visiting home one weekend, I watched my late grandfather’s Holocaust story. Though he is no longer alive, the USC Shoah Foundation in partnership with Steven Spielberg produced over 50,000 testimonies from survivors from that period in history.
“It was usually the younger generations who would say something as we walked to shul… but I have to assume if the younger generation is saying these things, the older generation is in the background,” my grandfather spoke directly to the camera, as if he were sending me a warning some thirty years after the testimonial was filmed.
My mother joined me in hearing from her father, sitting quietly on the couch as if unsure how to embrace his previously unspoken traumas. I could tell that it was difficult for her to listen to him recount stealing bread just to survive, or having his mother killed before him by Nazi generals.
As a child, my mother and her family went to the Holocaust Museum in D.C. When they were faced with the replica of a WWII cattle car, she remembered her father refusing to walk through it, taking the extra steps to go around the exhibit.
“No one ever talked about [the Holocaust]...They may have talked about it with each other, but they did not talk about it with the children,” My mother said, thinking back to her own upbringing now. She lived in an area of Brooklyn, New York dominated by Holocaust survivors; her friends and friends of the family would vacation together, go to synogogue, and have parties as a group. “Nobody saw therapists back then, so I’m sure there was a lot of repressed stuff.”
My mother didn’t know about the Holocaust until learning about in Yeshiva, a Jewish day school in Brooklyn that she attended through her last year of high school. Here, she was able to connect and embrace her cultural heritage while also being an American. Yet, she only had knowledge of this point in history from an academic standing. Growing up, there was “an air of secrecy” surrounding the anything related to the Holocaust, despite her social circle all being second generation survivors, like her.
“I was shielded from it, if that makes sense. But that’s because I only had one parent who was a Holocaust survivor… and I guess he had his head screwed on right. Your dad was not shielded from it, he was exposed to more trauma… his father was older when the war started, maybe 17. His mom, your grandma, was just a newborn. I’m sure he has much more to say on this topic.”
My mother told me a line that her own mother would repeat as she grew older, “find a husband who went through a similar upbringing as you did.” That’s why your father and I are still together after all these years, she said to me. My parents were both raised in households where they were expsoed to languages other than English. Their motives and triumphs were different from that of their peers, as success for survivors is defined by the ability to make a living just slightly better than the one had before.
Weeks after the election, my father and I drove to the train station in Stamford, Connecticut so that I could catch a train back to Washington D.C. In typical fashion, I sat in the passenger seat, one earbud in my ear to combat the silence that filled the car. With music still playing in one ear, I asked my father about his childhood, curious as to how it compared to my mother’s.
My father is the first born son of two Holocaust survivors and immigrants, both of whom escaped their home country of Poland during the war. His parents - born 17 years apart - spent the two decades after the Holocaust traversing across Europe, Israel, and then the United States in search of financial opportunity and freedom from further persecution.
“I was raised by first-gen Holocaust survivors… where my father’s parents had been killed during his teenage years and he never recieved that love,” My father said, gripping the steering wheel tighter. He makes a point of staring ahead at the road, careful not to catch my concerned eyes. Like my mother, he grew up in one of the five boroughs of New York City, surrounded by European immigrants and working class families. He lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a rent-controlled co-op building, where his father worked late shifts at a local deli and his mother tended to the home. It was very American, he told me, much like the vision of a nuclear family from the 1960s. Only he had to maneuver around his father’s outbursts of anger and his mother’s difficulty in grasping the English language and its customs.
Times like these are the only chances I get to hear my father talk openly about his inherited traumas. Like both of his parents - who learned to survive by any means necessary due to their limited access to life’s amenities - my father is persistent in moving forward and embracing the opportunities that his own parents weren’t granted. The more he thinks about it, he told me, the more infuriated he is having to imagine his parents’ losing family, their exposure to death, and their prolonged hopelessness in the world.
“My father had a lot of anger. He also had a lot of trust issues. He came from a town in Poland that was closest to the Warsaw Ghetto, so he witnessed a lot of the liquidations… At some point he was in Auschwitz and then Buchenwald, and later in the war was traded for German officers along with 350 other Jewish boys and girls, but I’m not sure of the timeline exactly.”
My father admitted to the abuse he endured in his household growing up, both verbal and physical. Yet, he was reluctant to place blame on his father, who he still believes to have been an “honest man.”
“It’s a non trusting world,” my father turned to me. “But I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, and if they burn me… I’ll be the first to forgive but never forget. That’s a trait that comes from my father, for sure.”
I asked about his mother who also survived the Holocaust, and is still alive today. Different from my grandfather whom I had never met, my vision of her is one of a doting grandmother living independently and freely.
“My father was a very dominant personality… but if you look at his upbringing, he didn’t have an outlet,” he said. “My mother, she’s a different person. Very trusting… very good heart. I had a one parent household, my mother didn’t and couldn’t make any of the decisions.”
“My question was always ‘when are we going home, when will this be over’... my only answer I ever got was ‘this will not go on forever.” - My Grandfather (Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive, 1996)
On a warm November that weekend my sister and I were both home from college, my family feasted on hotdogs, hamburgers, and knishes from a local Kosher deli. It’s a rarity for the family to be altogether these days; my twin sister and I have been busy completing our final year of college.
Amidst the uncertainty of our futures, we make bets over dinner as to where each of us might live after graduation and whether or not we will find jobs come May.
“Did we want you to have your independence?” My father asked aloud. We sat outside at the dining table on the back porch, as the dog ran from one side of the white picket fence to the next. “Of course… but the way things are going in this world… it’s hard.”
The foundations of intergenerational trauma are evident in a family’s hesitancy towards discussing feelings, be it from the emotional numbness witnessed in previous generations, or a lack of trust with “outsiders.” There is a sense of danger surrounding the children, even when there is no legitimate threat.
I sat with my family, thinking back to the last few months of tension and turmoil within the country. When my father watched former President Trump’s hate-inciting speeches, he was reminded of Hitler’s ability to use strong rhetoric against marginalized groups. My mother called me the day after the Proud Boys and MAGA supporters stormed the streets of Washington D.C. in pits of violent attacks, worried for my safety even though I myself was frightened in my apartment, going nowhere near them.
My grandmother recently spent the night in the emergency room of a New York hospital, convinced she had caught COVID during one of her excursions to the grocery store or on a walk in her nearby park, or perhaps it was a heart attack. For someone who spent her early life wandering alone around Europe connecting with lost family and friends, the pandemic has stripped her of her ability to socialize, find pleasure in Broadway plays, or visit family elsewhere in the world.
She had suffered a panic attack, the doctor told her. She fixated on her fears for my sister and my future, she told me. She worried about my father losing his job at the MTA due to the current economy, and wondered who will provide for our family if that were to happen after my mother retires.
When my sister and I got our first car at 16 years old - an Audi - my parents were hesitant to buy anything German produced. As we ate our hot dogs and hamburgers, I asked my parents why this was.
"We grew up being told not to buy anything German… not to give them any of our money,” my mother said.
“But you let us travel to Berlin and Munich for spring break, so that’s a little ridiculous don’t you think,” my sister replied back. When we did travel to Germany a few years ago, my parents had me take off my necklace toting a Jewish star, and warned me against using my Israeli name in public. For them, that fear of persecution will always be real, since it’s a truth that they were raised on.
It became apparent to me that the lost hopes and ambitions of my parents - and theirs before them - have served as a catalyst for my twin sister’s and my upbringing. My grandparents who survived the Holocaust did so by seeking safety, food, shelter. They sought protection from their parents and family members who instead were killed by a force much larger than themselves.
These are the memories that have fueled the development of my own parents, who were raised to seek out opportunity and start a life slightly better than the ones they had growing up. My parents, consequently, raised my sister and me to provide for ourselves and be independent. They remind us of the support we have from family, the financial advantages that they did not have and access to a future filled with hope, rather than despair.
“It’s hard to understand for any American… that this is real, this is not a game. Always remember who you are, who you associate with… where you’re coming from and where you’re going. And when you have children, try to carry out what you have learned.” - My Grandfather (Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive, 1996)
Thanksgiving this year consisted of just my immediate family and my grandmother. We sat around a makeshift folding table in the center of an empty dining room. The holiday plates and utensils have been taken out of their boxes for the night, and the table was adorned with the only cloth my parents could find.
“We’re almost there, I know it,” my mother shared with us. “I just have to wait until my retirement in a few weeks, then I’ll be spending a lot of time with the realtor. It’s just so hard… the last time I was buying a house I had my mom and my dad to help me with everything.”
My sister and I glanced at one another, knowing very well that both the overprotectiveness and the endless support of our parents are a result of their fractured upbringings. That first generation was granted opportunity and an unrelenting push to succeed in life, given that their own parents came to America with little to their names.
“A lot of us who were second generation Holocaust survivors were very reliant on our parents… almost like they would do anything for you,” my mother went off on a tangent. After weeks of watching her stress over preparing the house and retiring from the school where she worked for over two decades, I sensed her fear over what will be next. “Education and work… I remember for my dad he just never stopped working… he was just grateful for the chance to make money and provide for his family... but you girls need to work hard, that’s what your dad and I tried to dispel unto to… I hope we have.”
“But I don’t want to work,” my sister says, who is now lying across the couch full from a feast of brisket, matzah ball soup, and mashed potatoes. We may be twins, but the two of us are different. If intergenerational traits are in fact passed down, I received the strive for success and a hard work ethic. My sister, uninterested in our family history altogether, is bound to those she loves and will do anything to protect them. Together, these appear to be the cornerstones of survival as seen through the different generations of my family.
“Listen girls,” my father told us when my grandmother went to the bathroom. “The grandmother you see now is not the grandmother from then… she was your typical housewife. Then, she got a job, and she got out and she started to get her confidence back.”
When my parents left the table to clean dishes in the kitchen, my grandmother pulled out her wallet, handing me a fifty dollar bill.
“I really shouldn’t be giving you this, but I’m proud of you for getting a job.” she says quietly. “Your mom is worried about how you will spend it… don’t spend it on anything stupid.”
“I won’t,” I tell her. “I’m taking better care of myself now, and I want to save up for when I graduate.”
“Good. You know I still get money from the German government each month… not much,” my grandmother laughs at this, as if the Holocaust is now some distant memory within the trajectory of her long life. “I don’t need much anymore, I’ll continue to spend on food or gifts for you and your sister. I just want you girls to finish school and get married after… find a job that you like… to be happy and healthy.”