How Trauma Travels
“The great journey of transformation begins with the acknowledgment that we need to make it. It is not something we are undertaking for amusement, nor even for the sake of convention; rather, it is a spiritual necessity.” — Alan Lew
“Recovery begins with embracing our pain and taking the risk to share it with others. We do this by joining a group and talking about our pain.” — John Bradshaw
With the COVID-19 pandemic yet to be resolved, the entire planet is going through a trauma. The causes and effects of trauma have been a topic of discussion and research for many years. Recently it has been proven that parental trauma, like extreme stress, can alter how genes are passed down. Trauma leaves a chemical mark on a person’s genes, which can then be passed down to future generations. This applies to children of genocide survivors, and I dare suggest, to the African American community at large, descendants of slaves. The big ‘Aha!’ moment is that although the trauma never goes away, becoming aware and educated of its weight on our being is the first step towards healing.
This essay is a personal psychological examination of how trauma was passed down to me from my parents: a meditation on memory’s fragility and the affliction of inherited pain. It is also an exploration of the commonalities found in the children of survivors. I wrote and re-wrote this essay a few times over the years. It probably won’t be the last time, as it’s work in progress.
A good friend with a similar background said to me once: “With the Holocaust — I am done!” to which I thought, “Yes, you may be done with Holocaust, but is the Holocaust done with you?”
I am fascinated by the unconscious manner by which trauma inflicts my way of thinking and being. It’s a miracle and a blessing that sometimes I am aware of it in real-time, but it’s not always the case. I remember a discussion during an art class I attended at Santa Monica College over 15 years ago, when I said something about how the work, the creative work that is, makes me feel free. One of my classmates, who kind of knew my story, looked at me with intense staring eyes. You realize she said, that was the infamous welcome sign at Auschwitz’s entrance gate — Arbeit Macht Frei (work sets you free).
Next, I will attempt to explain and understand the connection between Intergenerational Trauma and Attachment Theory as they relate to Second Generation Holocaust Survivors. A few sections are written in third person language because they are excerpts from C. Fred Alford’s book and Marisa Berman’s article, as they are telling my story. I did not ask for their permission, but I figure that it might be okay since I am the subject. I can’t tell you how honored and acknowledged I feel to have my story told in books, alongside that of Art Spiegelman, the author of the famous graphic novel Maus, a classic in the genre of Holocaust books. It is a tale of survival, not only of the survivors but also of the children who survive even the survivors. In this preface, I also need to point out that in the greater talk about trauma out there in the world, much has been written and said on this subject. Thus, the terminology may differ at times, but the bottom line is the same: Intergenerational trauma is very real.
For many years it caught me off guard, and I did not know its name. That tape in my head would suddenly blare a version of “something is wrong with me.” It’s called shame. I often say that shame is the most cunning and deceiving muthafucka of them all. A sense of shame takes over me with no warning at unexpected moments. Here are some examples: shame for sharing my story with others, shame for not being able to move on and put this history aside, shame for talking about shame, shame that my father and my grandfather were treated like slaves without a fight, shame for belonging to my persecuted nation, shame for my anger and my rage. This list could go on and on, but I think you got it!
When I describe how shame torments me, I often find my words misinterpreted, which aggravates and annoys me; as if it’s not hard enough to touch and talk about this tender place, I am also misunderstood! Sometimes, people ask me: “Is your shame a feeling of guilt?” I will answer with a quote by John Bradshaw, whom I am forever grateful to for opening Pandora’s Box for me over 30 years ago. He said: “Guilt says I’ve done something wrong; … shame says there is something wrong with me. Guilt says I’ve made a mistake; … shame says I am a mistake. Guilt says what I did was not good; … shame says I am no good.”
Carl Jung said: “There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own Soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” Only when I gained enough courage to look straight into my shame (some call it ‘the shadow’) and start the process of accepting the parts I pushed away or held in denial, a small crack opened, revealing a sliver of light and a glimpse of freedom. I had to come to terms with and find compassion for the ‘little Jew,’ the helpless, frightened, mistreated one because he’s also part of who I am. This “coming to consciousness” was also the initial step in making peace with my father; the person who sealed himself off and buried his shame in silence, yet always in my eyes seemed to carry intense energy of agony and torment hovering over his head.
Below are excerpts from a magazine article by Marisa Berman and a book by C. Fred Alford.
“I did not witness the most important events of my life,” says artist David Gev. “They happened before I was born, yet their memory persists. How does one take on the memories of another individual, let alone the collective memory of millions?”
Gev was born in Be’er-Sheva, Israel, in 1960. His father, Baruch Ginzberg, was a colonel in the Israeli Army, a post he took up after surviving four different concentration camps during the Holocaust. Ginzberg spoke little of his experience to David or his younger son Israel in hopes of protecting them from the suffering he endured. In his artwork, Gev returns repeatedly to the view he imagines his father had through the slats in the cattle cars that transported him to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sachsenhausen, Bergen-Belsen, and Dachau — each ride filled with fear, starvation, and death.
Artist David Gev’s work is meant to evoke the European landscape as seen from inside a train car on its way to a concentration camp. Gev did not directly experience this suffering, nor did he himself look out from the trains, or feel the pains of hunger and cold, but still he witnessed these things through pieces of stories told to him by his father. Without knowing all that occurred, he was forced to formulate images in his mind of what his father might have seen.”
“As one looks at photographs of glass art by Gev, one is surprised by how pretty the abstract scenes are. If one did not know what they represent, one would be hard-pressed to guess that they represent horror.
The general insight suggested by Gev’s experience is that: “We survive by forming relationships and adapting to the minds of others.”
Gev, and second-generation survivors, seem to have felt forced to imagine the horrors their parents went through in order to reach through a barrier of silence that was also a barrier against human connection, human attachment. Parents can love their children, but if they cannot share themselves with their children, if large portions of their minds are permanently closed to their children, if their Auschwitz emotional experience is wholly unavailable, then something will always be missing. It is this search for this missing piece, the lost connection with the mind of the parent that also forms and frames the mind of the second-generation survivor.
Gev seems to have found a particularly creative way of imaging the experiences of his father, melding the bits and pieces of what he was told into beautiful form. Gev is not memorializing the Holocaust but coming to terms with his own experience of the Holocaust, via his father.
Children want to know about their parents’ emotional experience during the Holocaust, or other traumatic times. They want to be let in. To be denied this experience is the equivalent of being dropped by the mind of the mother, as D. W. Winnicott put it. This can happen at any age and with either parent. For holding is not something that begins and ends in infancy and childhood. It continues throughout Life, as we try to find a place in which we are secure enough to just be.
Erik Hesse and Mary Main, leading attachment theorists, explain the process slightly differently. During the normal course of child-rearing, traumatized parents will reexperience their original trauma, leading to episodes of parental detachment and confusion. This is the case even with good, generally competent parents. Incapable of understanding the source of the parents’ distress, the child will either blame itself or be drawn into compulsively trying to comfort the parent. Role reversal, the child comforting the parent, is a common attachment strategy undertaken by children of traumatized or disturbed parents. It is a leading marker of what is called ambivalent attachment and is considered a response to unpredictably responsive caregiving.
How odd it is for the child to feel abandoned by the parent because the parent won’t share his or her horror. But that seems to be the way it works.”
Reflecting on my journey, I have learned skills and strengthened a few character traits, summarized as follows:
Tell your Story — I must tell my story, bring it up to my lips, find the words, and hear them spoken aloud. For many years I did not talk, just like my father. I thought that keeping it inside is the right way. I did not see that he simply could not, because if he dared, it might have swallowed him into the Black Hole. With lots of help and encouragement, I now allow myself to touch the vulnerable and tender, the hidden and dark shadow parts of my psyche. I need to look inside myself, learn, and understand the deep connections that bind me to my past, my future, and all other things.
Find a Community — I found a community of men and women, a safe venue to share my story in its illuminating ways, and sometimes mysterious ways, as they show up in my daily life. I have found that having survivor’s children as friends is extremely helpful because they understand my macabre jokes about the forbidden subject in a way that no one else can relate to, let alone understand or find funny. Friends that, when you say “I have a hard time today choosing between left or right,” will understand my reference to the selection process on the train docks of the concentration camps and the depth of the internal challenge I feel at the time.
Make Space for Acceptance — The acceptance process is like the joke: how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. With each bite, I have learned to make space for the difficult emotions, impulses, and feelings that I tend to deny or avoid. I have found that as I stopped fighting them and pushing them away, I no longer waste too much energy on them and can move on more smoothly.
Some time ago, I went through a painful breakup, where at times, I was flooded with a wave of anxiety that was kind of terrifying. And all I wanted to do is push it away, which only increased its hold on me. I called a friend, and he instructed me as follows: laydown, he said, breathe, breathe again, stop thinking, stop fighting, let the thoughts flow through you and out. It only took a couple of minutes, and I was back on my feet. It was a fantastic experience, and I have practiced and preached it many times since.
Eating the elephant was the most extended leg and the most significant barrier on my journey. I was conditioned to fight, and I could not fathom the notion of surrendering; I perceived it as a humiliation. My pride and ego were calling the shots. And then I reached the bottom, where there was only one way out — acceptance!
Increase your Empathy — I have the privilege to witness and listen to many people sharing their life stories. Often, I hear something that would make me think; they are telling my story better than I could ever have. The more I listen, my ability to imagine myself in someone else’s skin is growing — this is the definition of empathy.
In some ways, I find empathy equivalent to Mindful Self Compassion, which is a three-step process to apply when the self-beating noise gets excruciating: 1. Acknowledge and accept your thoughts 2. Know that you are not alone, and 3. Be kind to yourself.
I remember once in my early twenties; I was driving a jeep up in the mountains; my father was sitting next to me. We were on a dirt road, and a herd of sheep came across our path; out of the blue, my father said: “that’s how we walked to the gas chamber.” I was stunned; it was the first time he verbally gave me a window to the depth of the shame and survival guilt he was carrying. I looked at him; he was in his own space, gazing straightforward. I could only imagine the images that crossed his mind. I regret not being more empathetic; I kept quiet. I wish I had more of the emotional intelligence I so often see in my children, who are in their twenties. I was a tight fist, lost in my survival mode.
Have Resilience — Not only is trauma inherited, but resilience is too. In an interview with Yad Vashem (Israel’s official memorial to the Holocaust victims), my father said that he attributes his survival to luck alone. After hearing his anecdotes and stories, I would have answered differently. I heard that to survive the bitter cold in the work camp near Birkenau, he, against all rules, took an empty concrete bag and cut it in such a way that he could wear it under his prisoners’ striped outfit. Being a very young teenager, he was assigned a job that enabled him to make small food trades. And when the Russian Army started bombarding Auschwitz-Birkenau, the guards made them march for miles in the heavy snow to a train station, so that the Nazi armament machine could employ them in another work camp; this was the infamous Death March. He told us that the snow stuck to the sole of his wooden shoes, which made them heavy, he wanted to stop to scrape it off, but his father said to him you cannot stop because if you do, the guards will shoot us, look at all the dead bodies along the road. So, they marched on.
My father, being a professional military man, was very attentive to his uniform. He was dapper, always wearing a necktie, even in retirement. He had a dedicated drawer for shoe polish creams and brushes. In that drawer, he also kept a piece of metal that was very old and had some resemblance to the shape of a knife. I remember being a young child, curious about the adults’ drawers, seeing that strange object for the first time. It took time and pasting together a few anecdotes that the story of the knife became clear.
From Birknaue, after the Death March, my father, always with his father, arrived at Sachsenhausen concentration camp, from there they eventually arrived at the Messerschmitt Aircraft factory near Dachau. On the way, they spent a few days in Bergen-Belsen. Bergen-Belsen, he said, was the worst place he experienced. Mounds of dead bodies were lying around. People were starving. At one point, the Germans threw a few loaves of bread into the crowd. Someone tried to grab away the piece of bread he caught. My father stabbed him with the knife. I always wondered how daring it must have been to keep it.
All through the war (1939–1945), my father was together with his father from the age of 14 to 20. Together in four different concentration camps and hard labor, together through the Death March, together in the cattle trains. Only to be separated two weeks before the American Army freed Dachau, never to meet again. Surviving all that and then joining the Israeli Army before the Independence War to climb the ranking ladder, command the IDF’s food logistics, and retire after the Yom Kippur war (1973). And not to mention, to raise a family and to lose a child. A measure of resilience is a person’s ability to adapt to extreme and challenging situations. If my father was not the embodiment of resilience, then I don’t know who is!
Growing up with these kinds of images strengthened and increased my ability to meet life’s challenges and trials with inner quietness and persistence to keep marching. In my mind, whatever problems come my way, they are nothing compared with what he had to go through. Not that this is a healthy way of thinking, but it is what it is.
Have Faith — Having faith in something bigger than myself, call it a higher power that unites the universe is an eternal spring of hope, strength, and confidence. When my spirit travels into this space, it’s like visiting the place Rumi talked about when he said: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing there is a field. I will meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.”
Be Optimistic — I always try to look for the positive. I believe the glass is half-full instead of half-empty. It’s a choice to be made every day and does not come naturally to me. Similarly, happiness and optimism take conscious effort and mindset. Am I always successful in this? No, of course not, but I keep trying.
Find Purpose and Meaning — I have been creating art to process and communicate powerful forces. Although my work is abstract, it tells a specific narrative. I carry a sense of purpose and mission in this pursuit because the most profound human atrocities must be acknowledged so that their like do not happen again. Through the work, I intend to transform the pain into something aesthetic and beautiful. The two main series of my work: Fused Glass on Plexiglass Panels and Fused Glass on Printed Aluminum, are focused on one dimension of the train rides — the beauty of the landscape was always there, even during the most horrifying moments.
I recount my creative process in the blog post: Materials and Process — How Vision got Materialized.
Practice Gratitude — This might be the parent of all virtues. I believe that when I take a moment to reflect upon present blessings instead of past shortcomings and misfortunes, I open the door for all the abundance in the world.
Forgive — When the subject of forgiveness comes up in an essay dedicated to a Holocaust survivor, it is natural to think that it is about forgiving the Nazis. I don’t believe that forgiving the Nazis is my job, and it’s not the subject. I am with Eli Wiesel, who said: “Who am I to forgive? I am not God. No, I cannot forgive.” I want to share my experience with making amends to my father and forgiving myself for not knowing what I didn’t know before I learned it.
My father was a big football fan, not American football, but soccer. He enjoyed watching English League games; his favorite team was Arsenal (mine is Chelsea). Sometimes I would sit with him to watch a game. I always wished that somewhere during the game, we would have a heart to heart conversation, you know, the kind of a father-son talk, I imagined, should be. It did not happen, silence, I tried, to no avail. We were in the same living room, sitting nearby each other, and yet I missed ‘him’ even in those moments. It was painful.
A couple of years ago, I visited him at his gravesite. I made an amends to him for always carrying an expectation, for wishing for more, for not being fully present to the beauty of the moment, and to who he was. And he was more than just okay. There is a saying “an expectation is a premeditated resentment.” It took me a long time to realize that I will have fewer disappointments when I learn to accept instead of expecting. Today, when I watch soccer, which I often do, I imagine him watching the game with me. He sits in the most comfortable sofa-chair somewhere above, still in silence, and it’s okay.
I will end with this quote by Joseph Campbell:
“Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived. Follow the path that is no path, follow your bliss.”
My Reading Recommendations
Trauma, Culture, and PTSD, by C. Fred Alford
A Legacy of Survival, Narratively — September 2013, by Marisa Berman
Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory, by Elizabeth Rosner
Children of the Holocaust, by Helen Epstein
Trans-generational Trauma and the Other, edited by Sue Grand and Jill Salberg.
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel van der Kolk
It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle, by Mark Wolynn
Maus, by Art Spiegelman
Our Holocaust, by Amir Gutfreund
The Monster of Memory, by Yishai Sarid
The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell
This essay is dedicated to my father, Baruch Ginzberg (1925–2007)
More photographs and other impressions at https://davidgev.com/my-blog/how-trauma-travels/