“I’ve been waiting for you to ask.”
That’s what I remember most about the first time I asked my mom (a woman I called Mutti, which is German for mom) about her childhood. It was a Sunday afternoon, and I had just come home from religious school. The class discussion was about something called the Holocaust, an event in the distant past that was horrific and unimaginable. Mutti had never talked about it, but somehow I just knew that this was the cloud hanging over our house every day.
From that day on, I learned a little more each time I asked. Bit by bit, I pieced together the courageous story of a 22-year-old woman, newly married, who was shipped to concentration camp and forced to dig graves for the prisoners who preceded her. She spent two years not knowing if or when she would be the occupant of the grave she had dug.
Through sheer luck and determination, Mutti escaped the camps, reunited with her parents, and eventually emigrated to the United States. She met my father and married him in 1963, giving birth to me in 1964. And even though she told me about the many unspeakable acts she experienced and witnessed, her physical and emotional abuse of me dominated my life.
I was resentful of the happy childhood my friends had but I was robbed of—and the loving mother I deserved but never had.
Fast-forward 70 years from the Allied liberation of the camps, and this daughter of a Holocaust survivor (we call ourselves “2Gs”) felt driven to not only write her mother’s story of survival, but also her own.
You see I, too, am a survivor, as is every other child, grandchild, and even great-grandchild of those who survived the Nazi death camps. We are all survivors of humanity’s lowest point; survivors of the trauma our parents and grandparents experienced first-hand. And so too, we are survivors of the trauma they transmitted to us, which continues to permeate our lives. Invisible to most, it’s always there with us.
We carry with us a feeling that nothing we experienced—or ever will experience—is worth complaining about because what they went through was a thousand times worse. And then, there’s a feeling of resentment: We just wanted to be normal, American kids. But we couldn’t be—because we weren’t.
We were different from everyone else. We didn’t fit in. Because our parents—and/or grandparents—spoke with accents. They were older. They didn’t look or sound like our friends’ parents. And mostly because they had experienced something that no human being should experience.
Like other 2Gs, I spent years not telling anyone that my parents were Holocaust survivors, because I didn’t know whether people even knew what the Holocaust was or, if they did know, how they would respond. Would they simply say, “Oh wow, that’s interesting,” and move on, because they didn’t know what, exactly, to say? Or would they respond with, “So what? That’s in the past,” and make you feel like you were imposing upon them for bringing up a sensitive subject?
I struggled with these—and other—issues for many years, and I only recently came to terms with my relationship to the Holocaust’s overwhelming presence in my childhood and my mother’s treatment of me as a result of her history. After the difficult, emotional process of writing about my experiences, spanning from my earliest childhood memories to Mutti’s death in 2014, I have finally been able to forgive Mutti.
Through writing, I connected the dots between her Holocaust experience, her treatment of me, and my resulting behaviors and decisions. Writing about and releasing the trauma, I feel happier and more excited about the future than ever before.
But I also know that my children have been affected by this transmitted trauma and I want them to heal, too. It won’t be easy, but I am committed to helping them come to terms with how my Mutti’s trauma affected me, and in turn, them. The stories and experiences aren’t pretty, but I’m newly confident we can discuss and resolve them.
When I look beyond my immediate family, I know that the vicious cycle of transmitted Holocaust trauma needs to stop—right here and right now. When every second, third, and even fourth-generation Holocaust survivor can overcome his or her fear of telling—and accepting—his or her story, only then can we all begin to heal.