I am from Melbourne, Australia with the highest proportion per capita of Holocaust survivors outside of Israel. I myself am the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of Holocaust survivors — and also of those killed in the Genocide. My ancestors went through unspeakable horror.
About 30 years ago, sitting around in university suburb of Fitzroy one Yom HaShoah evening with Jewish friends who had all gone to Jewish Day Schools, every single one of us in this minyan (quorum of 10 for prayer), as it were, was the descendant of a Holocaust survivor. Already by the end of high school I had read all of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi. My grandmother had narrated her story to me several times. In broad sweeps. Recurring motifs. Many important painful details omitted. Understandably so. Almost every time I went to see her, she wanted to feed me, and then tell me how difficult her life had been and what she went through.
Wide-eyed and bushy-tailed I took it in every time. Crying as she cried. Holding her hand. Offering some comfort.
She is now in a nursing home in Melbourne, unable to receive visitors, and I have witnessed her heart thaw and held space for her to express more and more grief, year by year. Leaving her home and letting go of her household goods and beloved cooking was a huge trigger for this grief.
With my children, and the extra distance we had, I knew I wanted them to have a different kind of exposure. At their own pace. According to their own curiosity. Not sharing information until they asked or the opportunity presented itself. They saw their great-grandmother as a hero who jumped off a train to survive. I will never forget one night of Sukkot — we were in Australia — and they asked what a gas chamber was. What do you say to a child who asks you that? How do you answer in a way that can explain what happened to us adults that we have fallen so far from who we are that we could hurt each other in such ways? I am not prepared to inculcate a perpetual victim narrative for them — or an us-and-them picture. At the same time, there is so much pain and loss to be acknowledged. And there is so much life to be claimed. This claiming of life is how we most wholly honor those who came before us and for whom we owe gratitude for the gift of life.
I knew that intergenerational trauma was a thing. I knew that so many of my ancestors were exposed to severe circumstances. What I didn’t realize was the dire implications that this has on everyone who it touches. Somehow, in some hubristic way, I thought it was more theirs, and much less mine, and somehow I could bypass it. I didn’t realize the extent to which it is all of ours. And the very real effects it has on our lives in the most intimate ways.
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This is a huge topic, so I will address 3 aspects on intergenerational trauma here:
I hope to share a taste of how real the effects are, and also how we can journey through a deep honoring of life and love and the sacred through integrating these personal and collective hurts.
- Unresolved Grief
Losses can be so great that we can not possibly face them in our lifetime. Some of us have parents and grandparents who lost whole families in the war — spouses and children — and for who our family was their second family. Sometimes the pain was so great that they never even spoke about their loss. They carried on with life in the best ways they could. Grief that is not felt does not disappear. It still stays in the system in one way or another and gets passed on in different ways. We often have all kinds of patterned behaviors that keep our armor and protection in place. This protection serves a purpose. We may not have the internal resource to feel the magnitude of how destroyed our life was. But the thing about the protections is that while they serve an important purpose and have kept us alive on one hand, such protection can also separate us from our vitality and access to the capacity of life-force that a human can access in openness and less defendedness. As we get more resource, we can possibly open ourselves to feel more. Opening to grief also enables us to open to new layers of joy and of love.
The defendedness we wear in order to understandably protect ourselves, also has high cost of covering over aspects of our vulnerability in relationships. Instead of feel our own vulnerability which could be terrifying because of the amount of intense feeling we have inherited- as well as amassed in out own childhood experiences — we can get involved in a range of addictive patterns that avoid our pain. We can be addicted to actions, substances and/or relationships. With the latter, we continually look to the relationship to take away our pain which is not it’s job and which creates further cycles of alienation and negativity. We may blame others for the things they don’t do to make us feel better. We may also manipulate and control others, even unconsciously. At the same time this struggle keeps us in the safe zone of not having to open up the deep wound of our grief and loss we are carrying and have inherited from those who lost everything. And although we may be stuck in difficult dynamics we are grateful because we have life and love in some ways — more than those before us. This difficulty and struggle is what is familiar in our system. It keeps our nervous system on a high alert. It is hard to fully relax. It can be hard to feel satisfied. We may think we are just wild mystics longing all the time for God but really we have some deep deprivation material we may not have attended to yet. (And we may also still be wild mystics). This inability to feel satisfied or our escape through addiction reinforces false beliefs that we may have that to deprive ourselves is worthwhile. The more we deprive ourselves the more worthy we are. These are some of the negative recordings we need to grapple with and transform.
When we bring more consciousness to our wounds and how they manifest and we start to take full emotional responsibility for ourselves then our relational retraumatization loops are interrupted. We can take back our power to have sovereignty over our lives and emotional states. We can move away from that which is not good for us and move closer to that which is good for us. As we become more attuned with ourselves then our life becomes more attuned and our different parts more integrated.
- Survivor’s Guilt
To become more attuned to ourselves, also enables us to be more attuned with others and others with us. As this happens we open ourselves to metabolize love in new ways. We expose ourselves to layers of grief and pain. Our unresolved grief and our protections and armor also have ramifications in our capacity to open to life-force energy and the many dimensions of our sensual pleasure . I remember being on a camping trip, with my beloved, taking in the beauty of the stars and the dark night- and I was choked up with a sense of guilt. And I realized this guilt, this was survivor’s guilt . It was the feeling that with my opening to this deep joy I was leaving people behind. I realized in my own body, there was this recording — how can I LIVE when those I loved the most died. How can I live when those I love the most died. And since then as I open to more and more pleasure and grief as well, this keeps emerging.
I invite us in to this paradigm that we we honor life by living it. We don’t honor those who suffered by suffering ourselves. We can not ameliorate someone’s suffering. It is theirs. But we have life. And can express our deepest awe and gratitude for the preciousness of life.
This is my prayer and this is my blessing. I am in deep gratitude and honor of those who went before me and those who contributed to give me the most precious gift that there is — LIFE.
This blog is dedicated to my paternal grandparents, Nana Frida who is 97, to Zaida Max- May his Memory Be for a Blessing, and to his first wife and children who died in the Holocaust, and to my maternal great grandmother Nana Bronka, who lost almost all of her 18 Polish siblings when she was already in Australia.