(The following essay is based on my own personal observations and experiences, but I think some of my insights will resonate with a unique group of individuals who were raised by unique parents – Holocaust survivors.)
Whenever I read about grief counselors being rushed to schools to offer their services to students who have tragically lost friends and classmates to accidents, disease or violence, I am, on one hand, relieved that professional therapy has been recognized as being crucial to help traumatized children, teenagers, and young adults work through their feelings of shock, grief, even guilt.
On the other hand, I am deeply resentful that the thousands of Holocaust survivors who came to the United States and Canada post WW 2 – most just out of their teens and early twenties – were not afforded the intense therapeutic psychotherapy they needed to heal mentally and emotionally from the unprecedented trauma, upheaval and loss they were subjected to.
While many did receive financial aid, they were they not given any significant counseling; rather they were discouraged to even talk about what they went through. The prevalent attitude at the time was, “Get over it. Put it behind you and move on.” (No doubt, survivors of pogroms and massacres and exiles in Russia and elsewhere received the same message, with the inevitable emotional and mental impairment trickling down through succeeding generations.)
And so the survivors bottled up their feelings, but the mind-boggling horrors they lived through greatly influenced and affected their world view, with extreme fears, mistrust, over-caution and suspicion impacting their day to day lives, as well as their children.
Nowadays, there is a name to explain the atypical behaviors and attitudes of the Holocaust survivors – post traumatic stress syndrome, a term used to explain severe mental health issues besetting military personnel who witnessed the horrors of war.
I remember reading about veterans who would run for cover when hearing a car backfire. Likewise, if a policeman was in close proximity, my parents’ faces would become ashen with fear.
The children of the survivors – most of us now aging baby-boomers – were greatly affected, both negatively and positively, by our keen awareness of the dichotomy of our parents’ heroic will to live and their never ending emotional torment and at times physical pain. All of which were as a result of by the extreme brutality and degradation many were subjected too.
We took on an 11th commandment: “You shall not add to your Holocaust parents’ suffering for they suffered too much already.”
Compliance – suppressing our individual preferences and tastes – was preferable to the suffocating guilt we would feel for adding to their stress and distress.
For as stoic and resilient as many of the survivors were, rebuilding their lives in a foreign country, learning a new language, creating families (again, for some), they were also internally fragile, their equilibrium undermined by their immeasurable losses twinned with insidious guilt. Many were the only members of their immediate families to walk out of the concentration camps or forests or secret hiding places, alive.
I was privy to conversations where survivors heartbreakingly insisted that those who died were ”better” than them, and if anyone deserved life, they did. It was almost as if the survivor felt like a thief, “stealing” what didn’t belong to him or her: continued existence.
(Anyone whose has survived a life-threatening disease, crash or fire that others have succumbed to, often grapples with unwarranted guilt and a sense of being unworthy.)
Some survivors felt ashamed for living, and desperately needed justification for their existence.
We, the children were their hapless excuse. If survivors could raise a child who became a cancer researcher or heart surgeon; or who like the fictional TV lawyer, Perry Mason, would prevent the locking up of the innocent, and ensuring killers didn’t get away with murder; or had a daughter who was beautiful and married well and used her charm and money to run charities, they could assuage the gut-wrenching guilt that gnawed at them. “This is why we lived. We had to have this child who greatly influenced and improved the world!”
Of course, that need to justify their existence put a mountain of pressure on us, the children, to be super achievers, leading to unintentional verbal and emotional abuse in the form of shaming. The girls were often body shamed, (too fat, too thin, big nose, etc.). As for the boys, scoring a 92% on the physics exam didn’t count, unless it was the highest grade. Often, siblings were compared to each other, resulting in a life-long soured relationship fueled by competition and jealousy and one-upmanship. (Why can’t you be like your brother and get 100 on the math exam?) Like dogs fighting over a bone, children would fight for the few shreds of affection tossed their way by emotionally repressed parents.
Most of us never measured up; there was always someone prettier, smarter, neater, more popular, etc.
Some Holocaust survivor parents were too terrified to let their teenage/adult children out of their sight, and some children submitted and let themselves be isolated and removed from a normal social or professional life.
Some absorbed their parents’ paranoia and didn’t trust anyone, believing that people would give them bad advice, cheat them, put them in harm’s way or “throw them under the bus” to ensure their own financial gain or social benefit. You could only trust your parents; only they had your best interests at heart. And so they clung to their parents, their social ineptness reinforcing their parents’ warnings that the world outside the door was cruel.
Many neurotic parents micro-managed every nuance of their child’s existence, with extreme worry over-riding what was normal. I knew someone who, having lost a child during the war, was terrified of losing her only daughter, and made her wear sweaters in 80-degree weather, lest she catch a cold.
Some kids never married, staying tethered to their mentally ill parents, due to the total control their parents never relinquished. They might have been handicapped by the pathological lack of self-esteem caused by a lifetime of having every decision made for them, or by an overwhelming sense of inferiority fueled by constant comparison to their siblings or peers.
One mother confessed that she never complimented her children. When asked why, she shrugged. She likely didn’t know why. With therapy, she might have realized that after being treated for years like she repulsive vermin, she needed to believe that she actually was, to give “meaning” to the intense abuse the Nazis and their European henchmen heaped on her.
By extension, her offspring were garbage too.
(Human nature is such that people are “relieved” when there is a “reason” or “justification” for a heinous act. People can “accept” for example, a man shooting his ex-wife, but are deeply disturbed when a murderer kills a stranger for no reason at all.)
Many of the life altering choices we made out of love and great sensitivity for our parents, affected the outcome of our entire lives, and in some cases, our children’s. The dysfunctional parenting that was our “normal” – ranging from smothering, helicopter parenting, to emotional neglect (our feelings never acknowledged or validated due to emotionally numb, robotic like mothers and fathers) we repeated on our offspring. You replicate what you know.
I, the daughter of survivors who were liberated from Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen, was briefly married to an only child of survivors – and have always blamed the Shoah for the pathology that made our union non-viable.
Hitler’s destruction of the Jewish family continued long after the liberation.
As my kids observe the first yahrzeit of their father on erev Shavuot, I mourn, much as a mother might a decades old miscarriage, what could have been.