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Tova Herzl
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The strength of second generation trauma, after Hamas’s massacre

I worry that history is repeating itself, and I can't help asking: Will Israel survive? If not, will it go in multiples of October 7th?
Tokaj, Hungary. (Civertan, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons)
Tokaj, Hungary. (Civertan, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons)

The day after Passover 1944, a town crier and his drum walked the streets of Tokaj in Hungary and announced that thenceforth, Jews were forbidden to leave their homes. In that picturesque wine-producing town, my 15-year-old mother heard the decree.

What does one do, she asked her father in Yiddish. Pray, he said. What should one say? Vi’Yehi Noam (Psalms 90, 17). A day or two later, all local Jews were herded into the synagogue courtyard. After a week, they were moved in carts to a central ghetto in a larger town, where they spent a month before continuing by train to their final destination. On May 20th, they reached Auschwitz. My mother was separated from her parents, and the rest is history.

It is not only my private history (many “Tova”s, which means “good,” commemorate their grandmothers,”Gittel”), but that of an entire generation of Israelis who were born into small sad families. Incredibly, our parents survived to help found a country and to raise us.

Research has shown that trauma like theirs may be transferred genetically. How do we cope with our unique inheritance? Each in their own way. One person reads every new book on the topic as soon as it is published or spends time digging in archives. Another repeatedly visits the sites where it happened. Someone might seek an outlet to write or speak about it. All too often, a youth learns to shield adult parents, who themselves shelter orphans inside.

Others like me develop defense and repression mechanisms. Avoidance is simplest — there are other locations to visit, other films to see, other books to read. When there is no alternative, it is difficult for me. I take medication produced in Germany, my official car when I was ambassador in South Africa was a Mercedes, and I once flew through Frankfurt. I brought a sandwich from home, drank from water fountains in order to avoid buying, and shuddered as the loudspeakers blared “Achtung! Achtung!” echoing those days.

Then came October 7th and we witnessed atrocities not seen since 1945. Nevertheless, my mind told me that using “holocaust” to describe them was neither accurate nor wise. As early as October 20th, I published an article refuting the comparison.

I stand behind my comments. The Holocaust was unique in the intentions behind it, in the recruitment of an entire state apparatus to realize them, and in its dimensions. Also, if Octobr 7th was “a holocaust,” then who were we, who are we? Victims being marched into gas chambers? Partisans in forests? I believe that the comparison cheapens the memory of the Holocaust and undermines those parts of Israel’s goal and ethos that relate to Jewish sovereignty and safe haven.

But now, as we approach 80 years since the event that was so central in making me into who I am, I constantly return to one element in my mother’s story: what does one do?

I do not know what they knew then, in that charming town. The Holocaust of Hungarian Jewry – some half a million people eliminated in seven weeks – occurred towards the end of the war and presumably rumors had reached them. Perhaps they didn’t believe them, maybe they were sure that their prayers would be answered. Or maybe they were simply helpless.

Could it be that because of inherited DNA, it is to that aspect, the helplessness, that I feel so connected here, in my pleasant home in Jerusalem? Are my fears exaggerated? This is not the place to elaborate on external factors that threaten Israel’s sturdiness or to detail the personal and political processes which exacerbate them from within, but I am so anxious.

Will we survive as a country? If not, how will it happen? Gradually? In one blow? Will it be in many multiples of October 7th?

What does one do? I write and publish in local media, in the hope (or delusion) that my modest contribution to the discourse will help, even minutely, to change those aspects of the situation that are in Israel’s hands. I demonstrate, sign petitions, donate some money, and look with ever increasing helplessness at what appears to be a severe threat. And I ask, as she did then: what does one do?

About the Author
Tova Herzl served twice as congressional liaison in Washington DC, was Israel's first ambassador to the newly independent Baltic states, and took early retirement after a tumultuous ambassadorship in South Africa. She is the author of the book, Madame Ambassador; Behind The Scenes With A Candid Israeli Diplomat.
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