It was the smallest thing really. A little bump on the road. I was driving north on I-36 yesterday when I saw a little clod hit and spun around by the car in front of me. As I passed I saw more clearly: the tiniest bunny stunned by the blow, upright in the center of the opposite lane, its eyes wide with shock, looking into mine. For that one split second as I passed him, our eyes locked.
I made the quickest U-turn possible and raced back. But this is a heavily populated highway. By the time I arrived a minute later, the bunny was nothing more than a soft pink mass.
Collateral damage, I thought. Nobody’s fault. The product of a racing world. But my thoughts kept returning to that last glint of life, the wide eyes peering into mine. They kept talking to me about the vulnerable underbelly of our world.
How do we relate to the suffering all around us, if indeed we even see it? In my safe rural world it’s the rabbits and frogs that I find on the road, a deer or owl maimed by a speeding car. These creatures remind me that not far off lies a world of children living untenable lives, families on the run, homeless people with grave illnesses. Not whizzing by, but taking them into my heart, their eyes open me to the wider circle of helplessness that is part of life.
We have veils over our eyes, perhaps for good reason.
We are nearing the end of our ancestral pilgrimage now. Here I am in front of the Volksopera in Vienna between the feet of the Wicked Witch of Oz, proclaimed dead and powerless amidst bells and revelry.
But the Witch is not dead. Evil is still afoot.
We saw many commemorations to the dead on our short journey through Central Europe. At each stop on our way—Prague, Terezin, Uhersky-Brod, Slovakia, Budapest, Vienna—we learned how lives much like our own were disrupted, how unfathomable atrocities occurred. Decades later, museums and commemorations arose. Iron shoes nailed on the shores of the Danube, walls filled with carefully calligraphed names, gold-squares set at the doors of houses—all beautiful attempts to ring the bell of awareness, to awaken us to cognizance, to give a semblance of honor to those who could not be saved.
Is this human cycle inevitable, I wonder? Deport, Kill, Remember, Repeat.
Will we be doing the same in twenty years time for the Muslim families who are currently crossing continents looking for sanctuary?
My sister and I have seen a lot. But as I walk the streets of Central Europe looking at historical markers, I have found myself asking: What are we not seeing here? What is not in this picture?
This morning my head is swimming at the remarkable events that unfolded yesterday in Uhersky-Brod—a verdant, sweet-smelling town in the Carpathian Mountains of the Czech Republic. This is where our great-great grandparents Moses and Tzilka lived and bore their children, so we rented a car to come see what we could find.
My sister and I were happily taking photos of ourselves in front of town hall (notice the splendid countryside in the background) when a man named Michael approached us. A native of the place, Michael not only knew English but was familiar with the history of his town. On our map Michael showed us where the old Jewish neighborhood and cemetery once stood. “Of course there is not one Jew left,” he said, “but across from the big Janacek brewery is where they once lived.”
Sure enough, in the woody hills across from an enormous beer factory we found a country synagogue, with a big padlock on the door. Through the window we could see an empty floor, on the wall a photographic exhibit behind glass.
This is a picture of my little girl. Her name is Emily and she just turned 30.
I remember looking into these eyes for hours at a time. They were like windows into some heavenly place, a clear and unfettered world that I myself once knew.
Our wide-eyed world gets clouded over all too soon. There are family narratives to contend with and unspoken secrets that we inherit. The world that is wide and endless and full of possibilities begins to shrink.
When I arrived here, the Holocaust still loomed like a cloud of terror over our house. It did not take long for that unnamed fear to coagulate into attitudes and stances. In a thousand ways we were taught to resist, refuse, reprove an untrustworthy world out there. Yet still, to do well in it, to outsmart it, and never to allow Hitler a posthumous victory.
All of this translated into our little bodies. My siblings and I adopted postures that variously defied, defeated, or caved to the odds that awaited us. Like plates of armor many layers of effort veiled our childlike brightness.
It is well known that the borders of a child’s psyche are highly permeable. Like the feelings that echo between people—what we now call mirror neurons—mental images can be transferred from parents and other adults to younger generations. Although actual memories are not transferred, it is not uncommon for parents and caregivers who have experienced extreme psychic trauma to transmit to a child what has been called an image deposit, that is, a mental picture of the excruciating events that they and others from their group have endured.
Mental pictures—like the Twin Towers in flames on 9-11—and the strong feelings that they evoke, can be passed from generation to generation, becoming part of the internal reality of descendants. Imagine seeing one’s home demolished before one’s eyes, or one’s town burned to the ground. These are experiences that rarely dissipate. In my case, the legacy of my father’s trauma at the liberation of Buchenwald—what he saw, the terror he felt, and the rage that ensued over the dehumanization of his people: These all became part of my visceral inheritance.
If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all the generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people.
—Thich Nhat Hanh
I had a friend who—even while in our orthodox high school—began to gamble. He would sneak out at odd times, as if under some mysterious spell, to go bet on horses, blackjack, anything at all. Later he found out that he had an uncle (whom he had never met) who was an incorrigible gambler. He had died young and apparently never finished his game. My friend seemed to have picked up his hand!
All of us carry the imprint of our ancestors, their wisdom as well as their pain. It’s part of being in the human family. For years I ran from this truth. I felt the willies when I thought of the weirdness in my lineage and didn’t want anything to do with it. Now I am learning to face my ancestors—and by this I mean all who have gone before me, like my brother and sister who died young. I am learning to call them by name, honor them, and even ask them to be my allies.
Throughout our lives we store thoughts, emotions and past memories below the floorboards of our conscious minds. And not only our own, but also the stored material of our parents and grandparents live beneath the surface of our awareness in what I call the ancestral realm.
Last night I traveled backwards across the dateline, having slipped behind the exotic curtain of Japanese culture for two eye-opening weeks.
The impetus for my journey was an invitation from the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research to participate in an interfaith roundtable on the topic of Warrior and Pacifist Traditions in the Three Abrahamic Religions and Buddhism.
Our circle was composed of about twenty faith leaders and scholars from around the world—Tunisia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Syria, Norway, Japan, Great Britain, Israel and Palestine—all engaged in some of the most pressing issues on the planet: ethnic violence, nuclear disarmament, post-war rebuilding, massive homelessness.
The ancestral field has its own magical magnetic pull on us. It compels us toward it like a riptide with both the unworked trauma and the accrued wisdom of the past. So you might find yourself doing things that make no sense at all in the context of your own life, be drawn to certain pass times or people, or have a hidden compulsion that riddles your health…until you discover that you are following the pull of an earlier family member, an ancestor’s unfulfilled dream, or undigested tragedy.
Who are your people? Were they refugees or immigrants, farmers or intelligentsia, victims of war or business magnates? Perhaps they struggled with poverty, the shame of rape, unemployment, mental illness, or addiction. Their past experiences, especially when they are not processed completely, leave a residue in the family’s field.
The past does not disappear. The blessings of our ancestors as well as their painful patterns lie dormant in the unconscious field of the family. And since life is constantly trying to heal and complete itself, this residue can land in the lap of the most sensitive offspring.
Despite the astonishing efforts I made to deny them, my ancestors were incontestably alive within me—with all their foibles and fears. Just as my grandparents’ values had coiled down the twisted ladder of their DNA to me—love of the written word, Jewish education, and heavy food—so had the pain and injury of being a Jew been transmitted to me.
When I was twenty-five I dreamt of a slender Hungarian woman in a fur coat. Actually, she was a naked skeleton in a fur coat. The dream came at a time when I felt paralyzed by guilt. On the surface my life was thriving. I had a good job, and had just moved in with my new boyfriend. But I couldn’t enjoy any of it, couldn’t allow myself to buy a teapot or a new sweater without feeling I was betraying someone.
The boney woman in the fur looked at me and spoke in a thick accent. She said:
Dahlink, don’t be a fool! Don’t you think we would be enjoying our beautiful things if we could?
Suddenly the room was filled with many richly clad Hungarian ladies. I had interrupted their tea party. Now they were all looking my way. I knew they were dead, yet they were somehow beautiful and full of life. It was as if they were yelling at me:
Do you think it helps us that you suffer? Not at all! Live the life we could not live!
It took me decades to understand my family’s tragedies: a brother’s suicide, a sister’s psychosis, the callous cutting of ties between parents and siblings, between siblings and each other. What made us so volatile, so unloving?
I had no idea that my family’s intensity had anything to do with a trauma response, that the aggression and force that my parents employed were—at least in part—a clumsy cover to the fear and dread of annihilation that lay at their core. The puzzle I inherited was far from obscure. I had only to decipher the clues.
My father was a born-again Jew from Brooklyn serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps when he met my Orthodox refugee mother. Young and wide-eyed, Kate had just made her way out of Germany on the Kindertransport. Soon after arriving to the US, still faltering in a new language, she met Sol—handsome, mustached and in uniform. They married shortly thereafter.