I grew up in Melbourne, Australia among the largest Holocaust survivor community outside of Israel. Sitting around with friends from Mt Scopus College, at the time, and maybe still, the largest Jewish day school in the Southern Hemisphere. My Scopus War Memorial College to be precise. Established in the wake of World War Two and the Holocaust. My parents both went to school there at least for some time.
Sitting around with my school friends, at University time, living in Nth Fitzroy, going to Melbourne University, first time socialising with non-Jewish people, we realised that every single one of of the 9 of us had a grandparent who was a survivor in some way.
What did this mean for me?
What did this mean for others around me?
We studied Holocaust at Melbourne University with Mark Baker. We read Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi before we read anything else.
It meant I knew my nana had stories and had suffering. Especially when I was alone with her she would tell me about her parents being taken away. She’s now nearly 99 and in a nursing home but less than 10 years ago she was still hand grating latkes and standing over 4 fry pans at once. I remember saying, “Nana, every 45 minutes we need to sit down”.
I couldn’t keep up with her. In the middle of the latkes she told me about the shrieks of the Romani gypsies in the gas chambers haunting her 80 years later as if it was yesterday.
When I was 15 she narrated her story to me.
I handed it in as a school project. When I was 17 we went on a roots trip and saw her parents’ place in Hungary, Bolozurgurmat. We also went to Auschwitz. Krakow. Prague.
In Australia, I took her to the German Consulate for her yearly visit to show she was still alive to keep receiving the monthly compensation money. She was also compensated for being a slave labourer for Siemens. I have a Siemens washing machine.
I would fill out forms for different kinds of compensation. Once through this process I came to realise that it wasn’t that all of her 4 sisters had stayed alive. I came to know that 4 others, the younger ones had all been killed.
Not far from her face. They separated at the line for the gas chambers. I had heard her story so many times. We had visited the places. And it was only after that that I found out this devastating loss she was carrying in secret.
Much later, I found out that her first husband, my grandfather, Zaida Max, who died when my dad was a young child, had a family – wife and children before the war who never came back.
These are the invisibles I knew. I knew that I didn’t know what happened. I knew the details were too painful. I knew that nana couldn’t be at home alone in quiet without the radio in the background. I knew that it was horrifying.
I knew that I cried with my nana. I knew that she would cry for her life for that and for more.
It was only this year that I realised that my maternal great-grandmother listened on the radio as she heard the catastrophic circumstances of most of the members of her family.
What I didn’t know is the weight and the price of what we don’t know. I didn’t know the effects of this utter devastation in my family system. There is no cosmic garbage dump. If grief isn’t felt it gets passed on in any system.
In addition the effects of grief get passed on.
What are some of the effects of grief?
-because the grief is SO HUGE we have many protections and a lot of fear and we form unconscious bonds that protect us from having to feel the magnitude of the grief
-if we can’t feel the magnitude of the grief then we can’t feel the depths of love and we are very vulnerable to codependency and relationships that don’t have room for growth and emotional independence. We mat vacillate between control, judgement and criticism, and distance and hyper-independence.
-when we have these emotional blocks then we are limited in our capacity for horizontal love and authentic bonding between intimate adult partners. If these intimate partners have children then they are vulnerable to be used by their parents to fulfil their unmet emotional needs. Sure everyone does the best they can. It’s not a matter of blame. But it is important to note that until we can take responsibility for holding our own unmet dependency needs, we will be passing on this initiatory challenge to break the cycle to those who come after us.
-Survivors guilt- As we open up to feel more grief and open up to metabolising more love and safety in our systems it is possible that deep inside we experience guilt – more layers of grief- how do I get to live such a good life when those before me died in these ways. But it is an illusion to fall prey to the guilt. We honour those who lived by our living the fullness of our lives. And moving through the guilt and grief as we go.
Above is just a taste of the devastating emotional effects of living after a catastrophe. May we hold ourselves in gentleness as we hold the hurts.
May we celebrate and praise life producing less ongoing catastrophes.
In prayer and reverence for the beauty and unending gifts of nature.