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Warsaw Ghetto Wall
photo by Dr. Catherine Chatterley

From the Umschlagplatz Memorial in Warsaw
photo by Dr. Catherine Chatterley

Ghetto fighter's memorial, Warsaw, Poland

Polish Jewish Author: On Transmitting Family Trauma to the Next Generation - Born and Raised in Poland I assumed my mother's Holocaust burden

by Suzanna Eibuszyc, October 29, 2012

[Editor's note: I am grateful for having  received this very thoughtful article to post on the Winnipeg Jewish Review from this author who has seen that the Winnipeg Jewish review has been publishing Holocaust related submissions, which began as a result of my publsihing a book review of "I Sleep in Hitler's Room."]

On Transmitting Family Trauma to the Next Generation

Born and Raised in Poland I assumed my mother's Holocaust burden

by Susana Eibuszyc

[Note: On the day of my mother's death in 2006 I found a box containing the pages of her diary, covering 30 years of her life. In a thin, shaky handwriting she recalled heart-searing memories that began in Warsaw in 1917 and ended with WWII, her return to Poland after surviving throughout remote corners of Soviet Russia. When my mother died, I first contacted Elie Wiesel. He encouraged me to start translating the memoir and not be afraid of the journey ahead. We need to rescue stories like this from obscurity and share them with future generations. "We must bear witness,"? he said. "Silence is not an option."] 

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 past and future. I realize now that my mother chose me to be that 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. She escaped Warsaw in order to save herself, only to be captured and enslaved by the brutal Stalinist regime. Surviving in the remote corners of Russia, extraordinary courage and the hope of reunion with her family, kept her alive. In 1946, almost a year after the war ended, she was allowed to leave Russia, forced to settle in southwestern Poland. Still hoping to be reunited with her lost siblings, she made her way to Warsaw “ only to witness the city"s devastation and the annihilation of her family.

My mother never forgave herself for saving 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 is impossible to recover from such a tragedy. They carried on with their lives, but the Holocaust was being played out in their minds every day. Understanding this became crucial in my understanding of myself.

I grew up in Poland, in a home where my sister and I experienced my parents daily quirks. I sensed my mother's abandonment and helplessness. I 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 these shadows made me a witness to what had happened. Sometimes I was sympathetic. Other times I was filled with contempt – angry and overwhelmed at 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."? I grieved with her.

And yet, I could not truly comprehend how her family was gone. I had never seen any photographs, 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 believed that 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 by focusing 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, riding camels under the hot desert sun. I never imagined her sick or hungry. From those early childhood stories I decided I wanted to be like her, to travel and visit unusual and faraway 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 tense 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. Christmas, Easter as well as the Jewish holidays was a time of anxiety. Rumors that matzah was made with the blood of Christian children still circulated. 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. The Holocaust left in its path darkness and despair that enveloped the consciousness of both survivors and their children. I am convinced that the fear my mother experienced was passed on to me through the sinewy strands of chemical inheritance known as genes. I was born being afraid.

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.

When I was five years old, our town held army maneuvers in the city square right in front of our house. Although I understood they were just exercises for showing off the Polish army, I was traumatized. Was my over-sensitivity that day to the sharp sounds of gunfire and tanks rolling through the streets related to my mother surviving the bombing of Warsaw?

At age six, my mother took me to an art exhibit that had come to our town. 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. Mothers begging

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