Generations What Isn’t Mine Is Mine: Accepting Intergenerational Trauma
We inherit trauma through the actions of family members and through the stories they share.
“Experts debunk study that found Holocaust trauma is inherited,” reads a Chicago Tribune headline, referring to a now-infamous study by Dr. Rachel Yehuda that attempted to prove a genetic change caused by trauma that may be passed along to offspring. My eyes well up. Every nerve in me wants to hurt, to scream, but I won’t knowingly or purposefully do harm to anyone other than myself. The skin of my stomach still bears the faint scars of former outbursts of frustration. I bite my nails and try to calm the roiling anger inside me, a powerful rage born of not being able to understand, to pin down, why I am the way I am, why I feel the way I do.
I email my therapist the article with the subject line “ . . . debunked?” I mean it to be passive-aggressive, but really I’m crushed, and she knows it. I thought I had found an answer, an explanation, only to feel invalidated yet again.
She sends me a link to a book : Granddaughters of the Holocaust: Never Forgetting What They Didn’t Experience. I recoil at the title. How ridiculous, how self-indulgent. I tell her that I’m disappointed that Dr. Yehuda’s methods and conclusion have been called into question. I tell her, “It’s hard for me to swallow it being just a narrative-based thing.” It being the trauma experienced by the granddaughters in the title; it being my own relationship to trauma.
She writes back two days later, “I’d say ‘just a narrative-based thing’ would be a false oppositeness.”
In our next session, she elaborates. Trauma has been scientifically found to have adverse effects on our biology, a fact accepted by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Whether that trauma is genetically passed along or not, the narrative of trauma often is, through the actions of a family member or through the stories they tell. We inherit so many things from our families that aren’t provably genetic: the way we move our arms when we talk, the noises of satisfaction we make while eating a favorite food. My therapist asks why I distrust the narratives of the granddaughters in the book; after all, one of the things I most struggle with is how I can’t point to a particular, graspable, tangible incident that would cause me to feel the kind of guilt I experience, that underlies everything I do. As a writer, especially, my therapist points out, shouldn’t I accept that narratives serve as evidence of our experiences?
This is the narrative I know.
My paternal grandparents, my saba Zvi and savta Helen , separately and unaware of each other, both fled Poland during the early days of what would become World War II. Zvi’s mother essentially kicked him out of the house and told him to run, run far, and run alone. His siblings were all married with children, and as the only single and untethered person in the family, he had the best chance of survival. He crossed the Russian border and might have ended up relatively unscathed if he hadn’t made the decision to turn back, which was when he was caught. I imagine he was lonely and terrified, that he missed his family and worried about them. Perhaps he felt like a coward for running. Maybe he was already experiencing a dreadful guilt, which must have become so much worse when he survived the war while the rest of his family were exterminated.
Savta Helen also ran, with her mother and older sister. Zvi was in his late teens as far as I can tell; Helen was in her early twenties, though she lied about her age later to make it less scandalous when she married a younger man. Even after her death we never found out when exactly she was born.
Both Zvi and Helen and her family, having come from Poland, now German-occupied, were accused of being German spies—a terrible irony—and placed in labor camps in Siberia. Both of them worked as tree cutters there for years, with no shoes, little clothing and food, in that impossible, impenetrable cold. Once, when Helen was in the Russian labor camps, her crew was given meat, which hardly ever happened. A friend of hers, having so enjoyed the rare bounty, asked one of the Russian soldiers who watched over them what kind of meat it was. He told her, “One of the horses died.”
When she caught his meaning, Helen’s friend threw up her meager meal. “Stupid,” Helen told her. “Food is food.”
Helen and Zvi both survived under conditions that were as bad as those in many Nazi camps. When Germany fell and the war ended, they were sent to Samarkand in what is today Uzbekistan. There, a Jewish matchmaker hitched them. They married because that’s what you did when you were an Orthodox Jew, which they both were, though Helen, despite being the daughter of a rabbi, lost all faith in god during her ordeal, and only went along with religious traditions and strictures for her new husband’s sake.
After they married, Helen and Zvi were sent to a Displaced Persons camp in Ulm, in Germany, which was where my father was born, and where Helen’s health problems started in earnest. She was found to have osteomyelitis, a bone infection. A nurse, Albert Einstein’s niece, in fact, took a shine to my infant father and helped care for him during Helen’s long recuperation. Eventually, with surgeries both in Germany and later in Israel, Helen ended up with one leg shorter than the other, forever needing to use canes and wear specially cobbled shoes to make up for the difference.
In the newly-instated Israel, a Jewish state meant to house the survivors, there was new stigma. The very souls whose survival caused the UN to affirm Israel’s statehood—alongside a Palestinian nation, which has yet to be formally recognized—were, in the fledgling Israel, viewed with suspicion. The sabra s , those Jews already native to the land by virtue of their birth, and those who emigrated before the war began, couldn’t understand. Why didn’t the Jews fight back harder? How did they let themselves be exterminated? And how dare they complain, now that they arrived in a state they’d done nothing to help establish? Survivor’s guilt set in for many, and it took years before the Holocaust was discussed. It was somehow shameful to have survived it. The immigrant experience wasn’t made easier by a lack of jobs and infrastructure, as well as a lack of family support for those—my grandparents included—whose clans had perished.
Helen was ill much of the time, developed an addiction to painkillers after her surgeries, and couldn’t work. Zvi took on back-to-back shifts as a typesetter and later proofreader for Haaretz, one of the oldest Hebrew-language newspapers. Helen’s sister, who had one daughter herself, refused to take in my father, a two-year-old toddler, during this time, claiming her resources were tapped out; Helen never forgave her for this. My father spent his earliest years in and out of children’s homes that housed orphans and those kids whose parents couldn’t care for them.
As if that weren’t enough, members of Helen and Zvi’s community and the distant relatives they found spoke to my father as if he were to blame for his mother’s illness, for the fact that she was now disabled. It wasn’t the labor camps that broke her, after all; it was my father being born. It wasn’t an accident of fate and bacteria and an imperfect hospital in postwar conditions; it was my father’s existence as a newborn. For years, he was made to feel guilty for being.
He claimed that he learned from this experience that guilt was a useless emotion, that it didn’t solve or change anything, and that he subsequently refused to feel it.
I believed him for a long time, and felt guilty for my own guilt, until I realized that his refusal to acknowledge the feeling must have been his response to having so much of it. Where he covered his pit of guilt with a sturdy manhole, I jumped down it and discovered that there was no bottom.
Here is another narrative:
I am white, had a pretty good childhood, and was raised in a mostly secure middle-class household. I pass for straight if I need to. I am apparently in good health, my vitals within normal range. I have maintained good relationships for much of my life. I’m close to the family I have left. I’m in a PhD program. I’m doing well. I’m fine. Really.
There was a time when my parents impressed upon me that we couldn’t afford extraneous expenses, which convinced me that we were, for a while, poor, and I have never treated money with anything but the utmost respect and conservation since then. I was bullied in elementary school, and ostracized, and made fun of for my bilingualism and bookishness. Some teachers truly had it in for me for reasons unknown. I was uprooted at age three from my home in LA and moved across oceans to Israel. My saba Zvi died, and then my maternal grandmother was ill and died, then my maternal grandfather, then my father, then my savta Helen. All before I turned seventeen. I developed an eating disorder. I recovered. I went to college. I relapsed. I left college. I recovered, sort of. I have arthritis in my lower back, my hands ache more often than not, I have shooting pains throughout my body at inopportune and mysterious times. My fatigue is becoming untenable. I’ve had migraines since I was six, possibly earlier. I’ve had a constant, shifting headache every single day of my life that I can remember. I have no satisfactory diagnosis. Doctors tend to dismiss me. I feel awful much of the time.
If, indeed, I suffer from intergenerational trauma, then it’s clear where this guilt comes from: my grandparents, guilty for surviving oft unsurvivable ordeals; my father, guilty for being born and harming his mother in the process, guilty for later shucking off the religion and god he was raised with and choosing a different path. I feel guilty for entertaining this possibility in the first place, struggle with its possible reality; how dare I, I think, complain about my own life, let alone take on the burden of traumas I never experienced first hand? And, on the other hand, why else does my body ache when I am seemingly healthy? Why does my depression continue to overcome every drug thrown at it? Why do I go through life both wishing to be seen and simultaneously treading as lightly as possible so as never step on anyone’s toes?
Still—I have no right to complain.
My father was a classic second-generation Holocaust survivor . He ate everything on his plate. If bread was going bad, he’d scrape off the mold and eat the rest. If he didn’t like his food, he ate it anyway. He kept things, small and useful things like spare string, tools even after they’d begun rusting, paper clips and twist-ties, every kind of tape you could think of, from duct to electric to masking, shoelaces, any and all spare change, coat hangers, and plastic bags. He wasn’t a hoarder, exactly, because he kept these collections organized, neat, and contained. He wasn’t a survivalist, because he didn’t stockpile excessively or obsess about an apocalypse. No, he was simply prepared for every eventuality, for every meal to possibly be his last.
He didn’t make my brother and I lick our plates clean and didn’t make us save stuff. He understood his neuroses and didn’t want to inflict them on us. But I find myself keeping little piles of extra twist-ties, which prove useful as impromptu cat toys. I don’t throw food out at home unless it is revolting, I drink milk until it’s clearly gone bad, and at restaurants I can’t not finish my meal because I know they will throw the food out if I don’t.
Of course, I inherited all sorts of things from my father. His chin. His on-point eyebrow game. His ability, and desire, to drink coffee when it’s hot-hot-hot. Palms as able as his to hold those hot-hot-hot mugs without flinching. Also, his magnetism for people who are hurt and traumatized, his ability to serve as their hearth and home and give them warmth even when he was himself freezing. I am both grateful and resentful of this magnetism. It’s made me a good friend, able to listen to any number of horrors without being fazed; yet I’ve also been dismissed, dropped, distanced by folks who decided I got too close, or once they didn’t need me to be there for them anymore. I wasn’t, in other words, worth much more than the role of a therapist or confidante. It wasn’t me these people cared about; it was my capacity to soak up pain like a sponge.
I also inherited, though my dad would likely dispute this, his great, echoing chasm of guilt. The same guilt his mother must have felt when she found that she, her sister, and her mother survived what the rest of their Polish village did not. The same guilt his father must have felt when he realized he was completely alone, that everyone else was dead. My father did nothing so terrible in his life to account for his guilt—he was just born. My grandparents didn’t do anything so awful to merit their guilt—except that they survived when others didn’t. I certainly can’t credit myself with having such a profound effect on the world or on those I’ve loved to merit the kind of guilt I carry around. Instead, I bear the scars of my father’s guilt, my grandparents’ guilt, on my body, where I’ve punished myself for being. I bear that survivor’s guilt in my middle name, Yehudit, which is for my saba Zvi’s favorite brother, Yehuda.
In one of my only memories of my saba Zvi, who died when I was four, he is teaching me how to draw a pearl necklace. The human shape on the page is very basic—a few lines to denote a face and a shirt with buttons. There is barely any neck, but along it, my saba draws little circles to denote pearls. Pearls are composed of calcium carbonate, a substance mainly found in rocks, that has built itself in concentric layers. Pearls are considered precious only when they hold a perfect spherical form, but there are other kinds, called baroque pearls, whose shapes are not so neat. I find them more beautiful for their imperfections, and wonder what it is about the perfect circle that we find so precious. A couple years ago, my brother gave my sister-in-law the pale pink pearl necklace—made of those perfect orbs—that belonged to my savta. I don’t know who gave it to her, but perhaps it was Zvi himself. Maybe that’s why he taught me to draw pearls.
One of the first memories I have of my savta is, oddly, also a drawing lesson, though neither she nor Zvi were artists. Still, she taught me about visual perspective. “You don’t draw a path like this,” she said, drawing two parallel lines down the page from top to bottom and adding simple tree trunks with an orb signifying their foliage. She flipped the page over—it’s wasteful to use only one side of the page, I learned.
“No, you draw a path like this, ” she explained, and drew two diagonal lines upwards from the two bottom corners of the page, so that they bent towards each other and almost met but stopped just short. Then she added trees, big ones at the bottom of the lines, smaller ones in the middle, and tiny ones near where the lines almost touched. The path looked like it was moving into the page. This is how perspective works; the things closest to you loom large, the things farther away look smaller, even if they’re technically all the same size.
“Why do you think that narrative accounts of trauma are less important than scientific data?” my therapist asks me. The reason, I think, is that I doubt my own narrative so deeply that I want empirical science to see me, to convince me I’m allowed to feel as I do, that my experience is legitimate. But science has failed me in every other realm so far—I have no satisfactory physical diagnosis; I am increasingly resistant to psychiatric drugs—and so perhaps it’s time to trust the narrative. To trust that what my grandparents went through was real. That what my father suffered was real. And that, as a result, my pain is real too, even if it isn’t due to something I can tangibly point to as being mine.