Can something that happened six-plus decades ago ago still wreak havoc today?
Depends on what it is.
April 19 is Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom Hazikaron L'shoah U'l'gevurah (which translates into Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day). There will be ceremonies all over. Survivors will tell their stories. Prayers will be said and candles will be lit in memory of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust. Others will observe it with a moment of silence.
While the day is an important day, as is International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, during which we honor all who perished at Hitler's hand -- gays, gypsies and the disabled among others -- there are some for whom the Holocaust is woven into the very fiber of their being: The children of survivors, the so-called Second Generation.
There are an estimated 200,000 in America; I am one.
It was only in midlife that I came to fully understand how that has shaped me as well as my relationships, including two marriages that ended in divorce.
My mother was just 12 when she and her family were rounded up from their home in Chernowitz, Romania, and sent to the ghetto. Her father was killed almost immediately and other relatives perished at some point or another, but she, her mother, aunt and young cousin were shipped to a work camp in the Ukraine before they escaped via the Jewish underground to another, supposedly better, camp. She was 16 when liberation came, survived a bout of untreated typhoid fever that killed her mother, and lived in orphanages until she was reunited with family members who luckily had left Romania before Hitler arrived. And that's about all I know.
She went on to marry, as many survivors did -- to mixed results, especially if they married other survivors -- and made a life in a world that often didn't want to know too much about their experiences or that sometimes blamed the survivors themselves for their own fate. They were eager to have children -- what better way to prove their aliveness despite their immense losses and suffering? Or, if they had lost children in the camps or on the way to them, to start a new family?
Some Holocaust survivors shared intimate details of their experience with their children, sometimes with a layer of guilt when there should be none, like when their children misbehaved as all kids do -- "I survived for this?" -- or expressed their own pain -- "You don't know what suffering is." Others, like my mother, were unable or unwilling to speak of the horrors they knew, thus creating a mystery that their children can't help but try to solve. With a child's curious mind and a budding writer's vivid imagination, I filled in the blanks of my mother's life, imaging all sorts of terrors that may or may not have been true -- all of which made me become protective of her.
That was not a healthy thing, as I later came to understand; caretaking, denial, anxiety and self-sacrifice became my unconscious vocabulary when it came to those I loved. Those behaviors no doubt contributed to two marriages ending. And, really, what was I protecting her from? She survived, she was strong.
There have been numerous books and studies on the long-term effects of the Holocaust on the children of survivors. We evidently have a "psychological profile," (a predisposition to PTSD, various difficulties in separation-individuation and a contradictory mix of resilience and vulnerability when coping with stress), as our parents' experiences shaped not only our upbringing but just about everything since. As Eva Fogelman, a Second Generation child as well as psychologist, author and filmmaker who founded the first therapy groups for Holocaust survivors and their children, notes, there's a Second Generation Complex that affects our identity, self-esteem, interpersonal interactions and worldview. Others question the accuracy of those Second Generation studies, saying we just may be more prone to anxiety and depression.
I'm not too interested in being a victim or pathologizing my past -- many of us grew up with less-than-perfect childhoods just as many have experienced horrific situations, such as poverty, abuse, trauma, natural disasters and war, and yet have managed to live happy, healthy, fulfilling and productive lives. Others continue to struggle, some more than others, sometimes with devastating effects. Our past either drives us or traps us, sometimes in subtle ways, often subconsciously. That's why knowing the patterns and behaviors of your family-of-origin is so important in understanding how you became who you are today and how that impacts your relationships.
Still, I do not really need Second Generation studies to understand how the Shoah and the loss of everything my mother had -- her home, her parents, her friends, her sense of normalcy -- transformed a spunky girl who was known in her family as a bit of a rascal into the woman I knew as my mother. While I spent my adolescence like most teens -- crafting my own sense of identity, falling in and out of love, challenging authority -- she was just trying to survive. Hitler did not take her life, but he changed it in ways that linger in her children even today, and most likely in my own.
On Holocaust Remembrance Day we remember the 6 million who died. I will also think of the millions who survived. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote, "If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we would find in each person's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility." Who are your enemies?