Often times we find ourselves forgiving everyone around us except ourselves. This Rosh Hashanah let us find a way to forgive ourselves.
I am the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. This year I will not be observing Yom Hashoah. I didn’t observe it last year, or the year before. That’s because for children of Holocaust survivors, every single day is Yom Hashoah.
Yom Hashoah Everyday
Growing up in a family where one or both parents are survivors is traumatic. Our homes were occupied by members of our immediate families and by the souls of those murdered by the Nazis. My life had to have enough meaning to justify my own existence and to compensate for the unlived lives of my martyred relatives. My burden was immense, but it seemed entirely appropriate. Survivor’s guilt was dispensed in large doses and we all opened wide. I might not have had a number tattooed on my forearm, but it certainly felt like I did.
Yom Hashoah & Trauma
Some survivors were able to talk about their wartime experiences while others were not. Even those who kept silent during the day, were unable to suppress their memories at night and would cry out in their sleep, reliving their terror and broadcasting it to everyone in the house.
My father almost never talked about what happened to him during the war. He also never screamed out at night because he was so plagued by his memories that he couldn’t sleep long enough to have a nightmare. Each morning, as I stepped into the living room, I came face to face with the telltale signs that he had spent much of the night there. The pages of the Yiddish daily newspaper, The Forward, were on the floor in a messy pile. The three sofa pillows which my mother meticulously placed on the long sofa were either stacked on the loveseat where my father rested his head as he reclined to read, or lay in disarray on the carpet, having tumbled off. His transistor radio, his other nocturnal companion, stood silently on the end table. It was Yom Hashoah.
Although my father was a man of few words, his character and courage spoke for him. The night the Nazis came to his house in search of his older brother, my 15-year-old father stepped forward and said that he was the one they were looking for. He was two years younger than his brother, my father was taller and easily passed for the oldest son. That night the Nazis took my father away.
Yom Hashoah & 2G’s: Second Generation Survivors
Like all children of Holocaust survivors, I feel like I am a survivor. We are known as second-generation survivors or 2Gs. Like my father, I am one of those people who doesn’t like talking, thinking, or reading about it. Me, join a tour group to Eastern Europe to visit the concentration camps? Place myself where others disembarked from the cattle cars? Picture the confusion and hysteria of mother and child being separated? Make physical contact with ash-laden earth and relive moments in history that are seared into my memory as if I had lived through them myself?
Never. Why would I want to come face to face with memories that my folks spent years suppressing?
When I was eighteen and touring Israel with a group, we visited Yad Vashem. Entering the exhibit hall, I felt flooded with feelings I wasn’t equipped to face. I had to leave. I made my way out and sat down on the ground leaning against the building. A chayal approached and asked if I was okay. My answer was nothing more than a silent and sad glance upward. He sat down next to me and didn’t try to engage me in dialogue or offer words of comfort. Intuitively, he realized that all I needed was to sit mournfully and he, both a stranger and a brother, offered the only comfort possible – silent companionship. It was Yom Hashoah.
Despite my parents’ silence about the war, I knew that they had survived it and their family members had not. All my parents’ friends were survivors. They were joined by a common language, Yiddish, and their relationship was more of a kinship than a friendship. Anything and everything we children experienced was seen through the prism of the Holocaust.
My parents may have escaped death, but life was always lived in its shadow.
Yom Hashoah’s Explicit & Implicit Reminders
It’s commonly known that survivors can’t bear to throw food away or waste anything that has even the slightest value – those messages were explicit.
Other messages were communicated implicitly. We were granted the gift of life – therefore any type of discomfort we experienced could never be worthy of complaint.
When I had a stomach ache it was never just a stomach ache. It was Yom Hashoah. I would automatically think about how painful it must have been to starve to death.
When I’d walk home from school in the snow, my fingertips were never just frost bitten. It was Yom Hashoah. I conjured up the image of thousands of men and women standing outside in the bitter cold during an appell.
When I turn the pages of a newspaper, it’s never just a pastime. It’s Yom Hashoah. My mind wanders as I imagine my father wrapping newspaper around his legs to keep warm as he worked laying railroad tracks somewhere in Nazi-occupied Europe.
When I get a delivery from Amazon, it’s never just about opening the box to discover its contents. It’s Yom Hashoah. I hold that empty box in my hand, turning it over, examining it, considering whether it might serve another purpose – throwing away a perfectly good box just seems so wasteful.
I never wondered why I had these feelings. They all seemed natural to me. It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I learned about epigenetics, that I understood why.
Yom Hashoah & Epigenetics
Dr Rachel Yehuda, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience and director of the Traumatic Stress Studies at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, is an expert in epigenetics. During an interview in 2015 she said, “The idea is a very simple idea, and you hear it from people all the time. People say, when something cataclysmic happens to them, I’m not the same person. I’ve been changed. I am not the same person that I was. And epigenetics gives us the language and the science to be able to start unpacking that.”
Epigenetics tells us that traumatic events act like a movie director who alters the play script at will. As Dr. Yehuda described above, trauma survivors have had their genes altered by the trauma. The trauma has changed them on a genetic level, and they are not the same person they once were. Children of survivors receive these altered genes. Learning about epigenetics has helped me understand that the trauma that was transmitted to me is not a mysterious emotional response to my parents’ history, it is a scientifically based genetic outcome of trauma. It has helped me understand why every day is Yom Hashoah.
Is There More to our Legacy?
We wonder about survivors. How did they cope after the war? Where did they get the courage and strength to build new lives? The answer is that qualities like resiliency and resourcefulness are in our parents’ genes and in our genes too. They were passed on to our parents and to us by our predecessors who had survived the countless catastrophes throughout Jewish history. We, the second generation have inherited more than just trauma. Our legacy includes the attributes that enabled our parents to prosper after the war – and these attributes are just as much a part of our legacy as the trauma is.
A Continuous Legacy
We do not choose the traits we pass down to our children. Like eye color, artistic talent, or temperament. The trauma encoded in our genes gets passed down to the third generation, also known as 3Gs. Third generation survivors have their own constellation of symptoms and responses to these symptoms; some similar to 2Gs, some different.
Dr. Irit Felsen, a clinical psychologist, a researcher, and a second generation survivor specializes in trauma with a focus on Holocaust survivors and their families. She emphasizes that although it is critical for us to gain insight into how we have historically managed our own thoughts, feelings and behaviors, it’s equally critical that we put the understanding we’ve gained from this insight to good use.
Yom Hashoah & Post Traumatic Growth
The complexities of being a child of Holocaust survivors are labyrinthine, and I wander around the maze searching for a way out. That is a good thing. Being a seeker is as an outgrowth of trauma, known as Post Traumatic Growth. I constantly search for meaning in my own life and in the lives of others who ask me to help them do the same. To paraphrase Viktor Frankl, a well-known Holocaust survivor:
Meaning is what motivates us to live another Yom.
For more conversation:
Michelle Halle, LCSW is a therapist with a practice in Lakewood, NJ. She works with adults who have experienced complex trauma and helps them find a way through their pain to live a life filled with meaning. Learn more at MichelleHalle.com.