holocaust

Judy Batalion’s ‘White Walls’ Explores Mental Health Of Holocaust Survivors

white wall

Judy Batalion’s new book, “White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess In Between,” is as much an homage to the Holocaust, mental health, and the intricate dynamics of Jewish families, as it is a memoir. Through weaving the story of her own pregnancy with glimpses into her life as a child and young adult, Batalion brings us into her world as the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and how her family’s challenging past has a direct impact on her own growing family.  

While Batalion’s family struggles with her mother’s significant hoarding is not something I’ve experienced firsthand, I still found myself nodding in agreement at many of the revelations Batalion finds herself unwrapping. As a fellow granddaughter of survivors and someone who has had her fair share of mental health battles, “White Walls” both pulled me in and provided me with some answers, while leaving me with many more questions.

There are some commonalities that I think spring up for many of us who grew up with grandparents who were/are Holocaust survivors. My mother was born in Germany after my grandparents met in a displaced persons camp. My grandfather had seen his fair share of concentration camps and was eventually liberated from Dachau, while my grandmother and her family fled to the woods of Poland and survived by living there in underground bunkers and in barns of incredibly caring non-Jews. The ramifications of it all came out in my family through anxiety.

How much of what you experienced growing up do you think you can trace to the atrocities of the Holocaust?

judy batalion
We have anxiety, too! Hoarding, by the way, is usually accompanied by other mental illnesses: anxiety, major depression, even paranoia.

Though I hate to, and would never make concrete cause and effect claims, it seems like the Holocaust catalyzed much of my family’s behavior. My mother was born in 1945, on my grandparents’ journey back to Poland from Siberia, in a make-shift hospital in Jalal-Abad, Kirgizia. She was born en route “home” (to find out if anyone else in the family was alive) but there was no home to go back to; she was a refugee before knowing what home was.

Appropriately, perhaps, my mother (and Bubbie) were hoarders, creating protective nests for themselves, hanging on to whatever they had—in particular their homes—terrifically afraid everything would suddenly be taken from them. As a child, I found my mom’s piles of junk to be blockades between us—physical and emotional (there was no room to crawl into her bed when I had a nightmare), but as an adult, I can see that blockades against the enemies (Nazis, Poles, etc.) make sense.

By the way, did you see that study that came out last summer that said that the post-trauma of the Holocaust is passed on genetically—the anxiety actually shifted genes? I know the study was criticized, but there is something there, I think.

Have you broached the idea with your mother about how her hoarding might be connected to her/her parents’ past? If so, what does she think about it?

It’s really been through my book and my writings that my mom and I have begun to discuss the origins of her hoarding and anxiety. I get emails from readers, and in particular have been hearing from third generation survivors who’ve dealt with similar issues in their families (and in some awful cases, relatives have committed suicide). I talk about some of these with my mom, and she’ll briefly respond, usually saying something similar to what she said on the “Today Show”: She’s hanging onto things because she’s so worried they’ll be taken away from her. My grandmother was the same.

When it comes to the Holocaust, we’re quick to talk about the need to transcribe and share the stories of survivors, but what about the stories of the aftermath? How we can make it more acceptable to talk about these types of things, especially as the survivor generation dies off, but the resulting generations still feel an impact?

Yes, I feel very strongly about this. I feel like in my (middle-class/upper-middle class, hyper educated, urban) milieu, everyone is on Paxil or current trend-drug for their depression and anxiety disorders, and yet, serious talk of serious mental illness in the Jewish community is so taboo, even though so many of us are affected longer term by these conditions. Really affected, on an everyday level. As I mention in my book, I once read that it takes four generations for trauma to pass through a family and that totally resonated. I’m the third generation; the Holocaust affects me most days, and as such, affects how I’m raising my kids.

You know, I’m trying to do events with Jewish mental health services, and it’s been hard to orchestrate. There are so few. I’ve been invited to speak at North Ontario mental health conferences, but so far, none in the Jewish community.

I think for many Jews, especially those who immigrated here after the war, there was this ideal of the stalwart immigrant—i.e. don’t show your weakness. But in doing so, it made Jews struggling with mental illness a shanda to talk about. When I was finally diagnosed with anxiety, it was like “WHAT? Anxiety is actually a thing that can make you super physically sick and doesn’t just mean being a worry wart?!”

I still haven’t told my Bubbie that I have been diagnosed with anxiety and am medicated daily for it. I’m not sure she’d “get” it, you know?

Yes, totally. I think there’s also a kind of passing on of survivor’s guilt that manifests in different ways in different generations. How can I complain about being worried about a physics exam/a romantic date/going into pre-term labor when Bubbie hid in a convent, schmoozed Nazis, swam rivers to save her life, then gave birth to mom en route from Siberia to Poland to find out her family was murdered?

Then again, I do feel like I grew up in a milieu where people kvetched excessively about things… It was like the anxiety was everywhere, but never articulated and explored.

Learn more about Judy, her family’s struggle with hoarding, and more in “White Walls—out now!


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The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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