I write this from a train, rumbling through the Czech countryside on our way to the tiny towns where our grandparents and families lived and died.
Yesterday, a day spent at Terezin, the Ghetto/Concentration Camp Terezin that held over 55,000 Jews. Terezin was not a death camp, per se. And there is no way to compare Terezin to say, Auschwitz or Matthausen, where hundreds of thousands were brutally tortured and gassed. Terezin was its own special animal—a transport center from which “unusable” Jews would be shipped east to their death. But it also provided the Nazis with a propaganda front to show the world (like the Red Cross) reasonable Jewish habitation. (It actually looks like a little village, and indeed it is a fortress originally built in the 1780’s to house political prisoners.)
But the place still reeks of suffering. Behind the pretty façade, the living conditions were horrendously cramped, full of lice and bedbugs, typhus and dysentery. 58,000 people were stuffed into the space of 7,000. Hygiene, food, and medical care was so paltry, that 33,000 died there. And 8,700 of these were children.
My sister and I had an exuberant day in Prague today, on our feet for nearly seven hours as we drank in the sumptuous sites of the Prague Jewish Quarter. Jews lived here in the thousands from the Ninth Century, with an abundance of synagogues—six beauties still stand—and a rich culture that seems to still vibrate with life along the cobblestone paths. Seems to. So much life abounds: thousands of tourists from around the world—kids in baseball caps and elegant Asians, Spanish speakers, Italians, and Brits pour in to see the gorgeous tile work of the Spanish synagogue, the Chevreh Kaddisha (sacred burial society) and most famously, a courtyard where 12,000 gravestones stand and lie at all angles demarcating Jewish culture that thrived here from the 1400’s.
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.
A beloved teacher of mine in the world of Jungian psychology once told me this dream:
I am in an unrelenting storm of whirling energy. Everyone is panicking, running about helter-skelter, desperately seeking shelter or escape. Every so often, a bolt of blue electricity tears through the crowd like a buzz saw, threatening anyone in its path. In the midst of the pandemonium I stop to notice that this spiral nightmare is like a crazy amusement park ride, and that everyone has a seat. I quickly find my own and climb into it. No sooner do I click into my place then everyone around me stops running and finds their own seat. Things slow down. The blue bolts of lightning soften and stop and calm takes over.
How like the world these days! Faster and faster we spin, breathless to keep up, to outpace what feels like an inevitable calamity ready to strike at any time. When we are out of our seat, our center, askew from the ground of our being, the world around us can be too much to bear.
But if we—like the dreamer—can take a minute to stop, notice, and click into our own selves, come back down into our authentic place, we may notice that the world around us responds in like measure.
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.