On Transmitting Family Trauma to the Next Generation

by Suzanna Eibuszyc (Calabasas, CA)

It is said that in every survivor’s family, one child is unconsciously chosen to be a ‘memorial candle,’ to carry on the mourning and to dedicate his or her life to the memory of the Shoah.  That child takes part in the parents’ emotional world, assumes the burden and becomes the link between the past and the future.  I realize now that my mother chose me to be that memorial candle.

My mother was forever haunted by her loved one’s images. She saw them starved and frozen in the streets of the Warsaw ghetto. She saw them in the cattle cars that took them to the Treblinka death camp. My mother never forgave herself for leaving to save her own life and abandoning them to the horrible deaths that followed. She never stopped mourning.

My parents’ huge losses were more than I could fathom. In time I came to realize it was impossible to recover from such a tragedy.  They carried on with their lives, but the Holocaust was being played out in their minds on a daily basis. Understanding this became crucial in my understanding of myself.

I grew up in a home where my sister and I lived, day by day, with my parent’s experiences.  I sensed my mother’s abandonment and helplessness and felt her fears and resignation. I lived with her rituals, where every crumb of bread was important, where fear of being cold was magnified, and where suspicion of others, and secretiveness and mistrust ruled everything she did.  Her scars became my scars.

Growing up in the shadows of the aftermath made me a witness to what had happened.  Sometimes I was sympathetic. Other times I was filled with contempt.  I was angry, and overwhelmed for being connected to my mother’s ongoing grief.

I tried to understand how my parents’ family could just be gone, completely gone.   My mother visibly mourned her five nieces and nephews, repeating often, with emotion, “so young and innocent, they should be among the living. They were all taken away and murdered.” And I grieved with her although I had never even seen any photographs.

In truth, I could not comprehend how her family could just be gone.  I have never seen any concrete images that my mother once had an extended family.  I was frightened, confused and ashamed that I did not believe my mother. In my heart I was sad but in my mind I decided her family had never existed.

I was also envious of my mother’s incredible adventures.  Overwhelmed by the tragedy, I found that I could feel safe when I focused on her Russian stories.  I loved the glimpses of hope and excitement that my imagination turned into exotic tales.  I pictured her living in a foreign place, in the desert, under a hot sun and riding camels.  I never imagined her going hungry or being sick.  From those early childhood stories I decided I wanted to be like her, to travel and visit unusual and far away places where she was heroic and a pillar of strength.

I also did not understand my mother’s fearful and anxious behavior.  I remember her being especially intensely anxious and fearful during Christian and Jewish Holidays.  She seemed to want to make us invisible.  This was a time to stay indoors, to be mistrustful, afraid of a possible mob mentality.  The baffling, unexplained, anxious behavior only intensified the fear in my child’s imagination.

In Poland, where I grew up, people had a deeply rooted belief that Jews were responsible for killing Christ.  Jesus’ birth at Christmas and his resurrection at Easter was a time of great fear for Jews.  The Jewish holiday of Passover was a time of anxiety too.  The wide-spread rumor was that matzoth was made with the blood of Christian children.  It was not until I got to the United States and was in college that I learned that Jesus was a Jew who was crucified by the Romans.  To this day I do not have any emotional attachment to holidays, but now at least I understand how this disconnection came about.

* * *

My very first memory is the sensation of fear.  I believe I was born being afraid.  I believe the Holocaust left in its path a darkness and despair that enveloped both survivors and their children’s consciousness.  I am convinced that the fear my mother experienced was passed on to me through the sinewy strands of chemical inheritance known as genes.

As a child I had an abnormal fear of people.  When people came to our home I hid under the large kitchen table covered with a linen cloth that reached to the floor.  I refused to come out until the guests departed.

I remember the trauma when I was five years old and our town held army maneuvers in the city square right in front of our house.  Although I understood that they were just exercises and celebrations for showing off what the Polish army could do, I was inconsolable.   I often wonder if my over-sensitivity that day to the sharp sounds of gunfire and tanks rolling through the streets had anything to do with my mother surviving the bombing of Warsaw.

I was six years old when my mother took me to an art exhibit that had come to our town.  My sister was in school.  The exhibit was a tribute to mothers and children who suffered during the war.  The art showed SS soldiers ripping children from mothers’ arms and killing them, mothers being killed and mothers begging for mercy.   I remember how my mother cried when we walked through the exhibit.  I was overwhelmed with both her tears and because the art was frightening. When I think back to that day, I realize my mother had no idea the exhibit would be as traumatic as it was. She also probably thought I was too young to really understand.   Her tears were enough for me to see and know the horror of what the work depicted.

The next morning as I was waking up I had a hallucination.  An SS soldier was standing on each side of my bed. I was not allowed to move.  If I did, they had orders to shoot me.  I remained motionless, afraid to take a breath until my mother came looking for me. I never burdened her with my terrifying waking dream because I remembered how she cried that day.

I was seven when I learned that being Jewish meant that I was different from my Polish friends. On September 1st 1958 I attended my first day of school.  It started happily enough.  My mother allowed me to approach the school alone.  As I got closer I was confronted by some of my future classmates who proceeded to taunt me. “You are Jewish, Poland is not your country, and Palestine is where you belong.”   I didn’t understand. This was the first time I’d heard that my home was in Palestine.  It also was the first time I realized that being Jewish and Polish could not be combined. Suddenly that day that began so happily for me dragged on.  I could not wait to run home.

I remember that I was crying as I opened our kitchen door. I needed an explanation. My mother sat with me by the kitchen window and explained what it meant to be Jewish.  I can still remember the sadness in her voice and the tears in her eyes.  At the time my mother’s reaction was not important; it was eclipsed by my amazement.  Our true homeland was in Palestine.  My response was a simple one, ‘let’s go where we belong.’

I still remember going to the train station on so many occasions to say good-bye to friends and people we knew.  It was always someone else leaving for Israel or America.  I could not understand why it was not us.  I was intensely angry with my parents because it seemed they had chosen to stay behind.  It wasn’t until I was an adult that I found out my parents secret and why we could not leave Poland.  We had to stay until my father died in 1961; he was only forty nine years old.  He died of the tuberculosis he had contracted in Saratov in 1940.  As Jewish families were leaving for other countries we were denied entry because of his illness. Even Israel would not accept him because of the advanced stage of his tuberculosis.  My parents concealed the seriousness of father’s health.  My sister, who was four years older than me, was able to finally figure out the reason. I never did. In my anger I saw them as weak, indecisive and helpless.

My father, Abram Ejbuszyc, was silent about his past. He never uttered a word about what happened to him during the war or even about his life before the war.  I cannot help but wonder if this was a form of self-imposed punishment.  Studies have shown that there are two kinds of parents among survivors: those who can not connect and those who can not separate from their children.  My father detached himself and didn’t talk, as if afraid to make a close connection and lose loved ones again, as if to contain his trauma within himself and spare his children.  He lived behind a wall of silence. That was his shelter.  He took his burden to his grave.

* * *

In New York, in order to survive, we each went in different directions, and the family that we had been in Poland disintegrated.  Our lives became turbulent as our notions of how things should be collided.  My mother worked in a factory. She got up at six in the morning and took the one-hour subway ride from the Bronx to Manhattan. With an address scribbled on a piece of paper, she managed to ask for directions and got to work and back home again. She was a fighter and a survivor.  She was not going to succumb to her fears.  She was determined to make the best life possible for herself.  And so, at age 50, after working in a factory all day long, she enrolled in night school and soon became fluent in English. I watched her navigate through her new life, never giving up.  She did not burden us with her fears and problems, she buried those deep inside her.  Two years later she was working in a bank.

I took classes at City College in the department of Jewish studies.  One of my professors was the famous writer and survivor Elie Wiesel.  It was in Professor Wiesel’s classes that I realized the importance of my mother’s story.  I persuaded her to write about her tragic life.  My mother listened.  She understood the importance of history and of remembering, not just with regard to the Holocaust but also for the Jewish legacy in Eastern Europe.  She wrote her story in Polish.  My huge regret was that I did not get to translate her memoir while she was still alive.  Somehow we never had the time to journey and emerge together from her trauma as adults.

I went back to Poland in 1972 when I became an American citizen. I was still haunted by the memories of our departure from Poland when my mother was inconsolable.  I had to return.  I was looking for something, a piece of me I believed I had left behind.  The rationale for going back had to do with nostalgia for my homeland, and the belief that my father was calling me back to the tiny, overgrown Jewish cemetery where he was buried. The ghosts of my past were clamoring for some attention.

I traveled through Europe and Israel. I lived in the desert, under the hot sun, in a tent.  By 1979 I moved to the West Coast, far away from my mother in New York. I saw her a few times a year and we talked on the phone every week.  I often remembered that when I was a child all I ever wanted was to follow in my mother’s footsteps.  I wanted to go to exotic and far away places.  I turned her stories about surviving in Russia into heroic journeys.  Traveling made me feel courageous like my mother.  She passed down to me her pessimism about life, suspicion of others, and assumptions about everything turning out for the worst. However, traveling always put me in touch also with my mother’s strengths. It temporarily wiped out the negative themes that played on in my mind.   While on the road, surrounded by unusual, new places, I was happy and at home. At the same time I had an overwhelming fear of putting down roots.  I did not want to have them severed in the same way my mother had.

The trauma of loss, the disconnection from community and my frightened family influenced how I chose to live my life.  Like other children of survivors, I developed a self-preservation defense.  I built a wall around myself to protect me from the traumatic home that I grew up in.  I was torn between letting go and staying connected.  At times my mother’s gloom was almost too intense for me, but I continually found myself being pulled back into her world anyhow.  My conscience would not allow anything else.  With my mother’s death, remembering carried a deep and sacred meaning.

* * *

I feel that it is not only my obligation to remember the Holocaust, but also to carry the burden.  I was raised in its shadows, inheriting my mother’s trauma which in turn shaped my personality, and will continue to burden my daughters who grew up with my emotional experiences of loss and abandonment.  My daughters knew about my Jewish Polish history, but years went by before I shared with them my family’s dark secrets of surviving and perishing in the Holocaust.

In the summer of 2008 I took my two daughters to Poland to keep our Jewish history and heritage alive. They were twenty-one and eighteen.  I wanted them to see the country of my birth and where I spent my childhood and teenage years.  We went to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Auschwitz had been turned into a museum and it does a credible job of telling what happened to our people.  When you enter Birkenau you go into shock.  The sheer vastness of the place, with the train tracks in the middle, made me gasp for air.  It was the reality that the Nazis intended and almost succeeded to annihilate the Jewish people in Europe.  My mind saw the trains coming and going, the selections taking place, the gas chambers and ovens working.  I heard the cry that went unheard. I saw the guns, the dogs, and the killing machine going at full speed.  In Auschwitz-Birkenau alone millions died, ninety percent of them Jews, among them my father’s family.

We went to my mother’s city of Warsaw, my father’s city of Lodz, and to visit his grave in the city of Klodzko.  We went to Poland to pay homage and ended up mourning.  I went to remember what my family had lost, to face my own exile and my need to reconnect to my roots. It was only with my mother’s death that I truly understood the magnitude of the loss and suffering she and her generation endured, and the importance of never forgetting.

Born in Poland, Suzanna Eibuszyc graduated from CCNY where she took classes in the department of Jewish studies with Professor Elie Wiesel, who encouraged her to translate her mother’s memoir, Bashert: It Was Meant to Be, into English. You can read an excerpt of Bashert in an earlier posting on the Jewish Writing Project: https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2010/09/27/devotion-to-faith/

This essay is an edited version of a longer chapter, “Afterward/Epilogue – Our life in Poland after the war and my insights about family trauma and how it is transmitted to the next generations,” which appears in Bashert: It Was Meant to Be.

All rights reserved “On Transmitting Family Trauma to the Next Generation” by Suzanna Eibuszyc.  No part of this work may be used or reproduced without written permission of the Author/Translator/Rights-Holder. For more information about the work, write to: suzanna_eibuszyc@yahoo.com


Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity

2 responses to “On Transmitting Family Trauma to the Next Generation

  1. I’m just back from over two weeks in Germany where I was on a book tour for my memoir “My Germany” and much of what you write resonates in one way or another with my own experiences.
    I especially think the early loss of security, the knowledge that someone killed our families and wanted to kill our parents, and the sense of being
    ineffably different are extremely common in the Second Generation.

    We all respond to these experiences in different ways. I do not see myself as passing the burden on. I have worked hard in my writing and speaking on three continents to share the past and share my own experience, but I feel freer now of the pain than ever before. Surprisingly, it was going to The Heart of Darkness, Germany, that made the difference. My work, my travels are tikkun olam.

  2. Thank you for sharing your story. I read many familiar emotions and behaviors with regard to my own parents and the Holocaust. My mother, Dorothy Goldman Preisler, was born in Bad Landeck, but grew up in Glatz (Klodzko). They lived at Wassertorstrasse #6. This is now Ulice Woda I believe. My mother remembers the night the synagogue burned and when the Gestapo picketed my grandparents beauty salon & barber shop. When we were in Klodzko in 1997 we found it to be a charming little city with many bittersweet ghosts. We visited the Jewish Cemetery and found it in near ruins. I understand that it has been partially restored and cleaned up by a non-Jewish Polish youth group in the area. Thanks again for sharing your story.

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