Stopping the Trauma Train

Stopping the Trauma Train


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.

Dad died at 65. It was only upon reading his obituary that I learned he had taken part in the liberation of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp in 1945. Hidden away in his files were the shocking photographs he had taken of atrocities he had witnessed: the vermin-infested conditions of the barracks, decaying corpses, abandoned Nazi warplanes.

While these lethal images had been concealed from us and from conscious conversation, the emotional impact of his experience never left him and it flowed into us. Unprocessed trauma emits its own brand of poison. Even without pictures, facts, or explanations, the charge behind traumatic experiences transmits itself.

I held and beheld Dad’s vile pictures and I understood more about the high-voltage he carried inside himself all those years. The sepia images of ravaged human corpses and the squalid conditions of their enslavement horrified me. Yet they were also strangely familiar. Long before I ever laid my physical eyes on them, I had picked them up in the shared ethers of my family’s post-Holocaust Jewish world.

And I began to realize that what had unfolded in my siblings’ lives and in my own was no accident.

I have come to understand how a family’s trauma experience rumbles through history like a train, depositing its load, car after car into newborn skin. We are carriers of our ancestors’ legacies. Parts are upright and positive. Parts are shot through with panic, rage, and stark terror. We inherit trauma both environmentally and organically. Most of us are unconscious of our inheritance. But at any moment, we can wake up and stop the trauma train.

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  • Reply Sandra Hollander January 20, 2016 at 10:20 am

    Dear Reb-Doctor Tirzah, (How do you prefer to be addressed?)
    I appreciate your work very much, and look forward to more, as it unfolds and is shared with us. I have long been puzzled by the harshness in my family — and, certain that this must come from long standing trauma of Jewish history. But I don’t have particulars, just a general knowledge of Russian and Czech Jewish history. I believe your work will help to fill in some of the missing pieces.

    • Reply Tirzah Firestone January 24, 2016 at 1:20 am

      Thank you so much Sandra, We are doing this work together.

  • Reply Sheryl Paul January 20, 2016 at 11:44 am

    Brilliant. Fyi: The image isn’t coming through on the site.

    • Reply Tirzah Firestone January 24, 2016 at 1:16 am

      Hi Sheryl….Good to see you and E. last night.
      I am sure you didn’t stay for the talk, but glad you came for a while.

      Let me know if the images are clearer now…Will have another post up on Monday.
      Much love, TIrzah

      • Reply Sheryl Paul January 24, 2016 at 7:30 am

        We actually did stay for the talk. E plugged his ears for the dark parts, and I loved every minute. What vitally important work you’re putting into the world. Image still isn’t coming through me. I’ll try on a different browser.

        • Reply Sheryl Paul January 24, 2016 at 7:32 am

          Image is coming through on Firefox. The problem must be on my end ;)/

        • Reply Tirzah Firestone January 24, 2016 at 10:04 pm

          Wow that is totally amazing of Everest. Was he alright?
          So he knows how to provide himself with self-care filters.
          That’s excellent.

          • Sheryl Paul January 25, 2016 at 9:02 am

            Yes, he’s learning how to utilize self-filters. So good. And yes, he was fine. I think his love for you and Judaism outweighed his fear of the content.

  • Reply Sandy Pond January 20, 2016 at 1:31 pm

    My mom was abandoned as an infant. Her father had a stroke and could not care for 7 children, my mother the youngest. HE SPENT 30 YEARS in a single room. She was adopted out to many different homes, raped, used as a scapegoat for the other children, tied up, whipped, and lied to that her own brother, who left for the war, was really her uncle.
    Her daughter, had to abandon her 2 children, then pregnant out of wedlock gave her next child up for adoption, at the same time her daughter at 15 was pregnant…now her daughter ( my mothers great grand child) is unmarried with 2 . So yes the train goes on… until …we ….

    Learn from work derail teachers like you.
    Thanks for the post, I look forward to allowing the healing to flow.

    • Reply Tirzah Firestone January 21, 2016 at 12:31 pm

      Need to talk to you about this. I cannot believe my eyes. Pls call me? TF

    • Reply Stephanie Tucker, MD January 25, 2016 at 3:14 am

      So sorry to hear of these horrendously difficult times. It must have been so scarry. Was anyone able to contact CPS (Child Protection Services?) Hope you all find some family healing together in beautiful ways

  • Reply Naomi Ehrich January 23, 2016 at 1:33 pm

    Thank you for your contribution to stopping the trauma train!
    My Zaddy’s name was Sol, also known as Shlomo.
    Love you!

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