My parents came from tiny villages a few miles apart on the Russian border that Ukrainians, Poles, and Jews populated.
My mother, Fanya, enjoyed a stable, traditional Jewish home life. She was intelligent and bookish. During the Holocaust, Sidor, a kind farmer, and a Ukrainian militiaman, Jan, who fell in love with Fanya, conspired to save the family from certain death by hiding them for several years. Fanya’s father, faced with this choice-less choice, told his daughter to be friendly and comply with Jan’s wishes.
My father suffered serial childhood calamities. In effect, he was doubly orphaned by age six. Chance, grit, and the kindness of strangers enabled him to survive childhood. Then, during the war, he was on the run—like a feral hunted animal.
My parents met after the war, married, and had two children while living in Germany and ended up in New York, ushering in a new era. The first US-born American citizen in the family, my personhood became an emblem of hope, recovery, opportunity, and freedom.
I slept in a crib, then on a cot in my parent’s room, in earshot of muffled whispers and much shushing, as they surreptitiously recounted their war stories. I knew they had been through a terrible “Hitler” that killed Jews, including most of my relatives. My parents’ life experiences were filtered entirely through the lens of trauma. Looking back, I can pinpoint when my worry and vigilance began. I was watchful, waiting or hurrying to get somewhere or nowhere, as I sensed something impending. I came to recognize that this foreboding emotion is anxiety. I was four.
I memorized the titles of Fanya’s books that filled my childhood room. I wanted to tell my own stories, remember my life’s events, and have them in my head. Just in case we had to run away without books. Eventually, I understood that my father’s narrative was capricious because traumatic memories are often schematic and ephemeral, the details elusive. I couldn’t imagine not having parents, not even a photo, or not knowing my birthday. So, I began constructing a mental record of my life by silently recounting what happened each day.
My sequential memories consolidated and updated my life narrative by reviewing the past and maintaining chronology. It made me feel closer to my dad, knowing what it was like to remember everything—a refugee mentality about portability supports that we can take our brains and stash of cash anytime and run.
My parents were ill-equipped to parent effectively because a highly stressed individual frozen in survival mode is unable to focus beyond self-regulation and survival. Individualism in their children was, to them, irrelevant to survival. Preparing to run for life required immediate access to portable goods, cash, and passports. My mother always had a sandwich in her handbag, even on our way to a feast.
My mother casually shared stories extemporaneously; whatever was on her mind, it seemed, was game. Searching for her missing father in a mass grave, as we bit into steak at dinner. Then another story. My father howled in the night from nightmares. Then, during his somnambulistic wanderings, I awakened to a crescendo of long, bone-chilling, wolverine screams and nebulous Yiddish mutterings. His cries harmonized with the plaintive wails of stray kittens. As a child, I thought human babies made those sounds! Projecting what I thought was my father’s childhood experience and my nameless terror, I worried that the mother had died or was abducted but did not intend to abandon her babies. Then, petrified beneath my covers, I coaxed myself back to sleep.
I finally asked my mother why baby children were left outside at night. She chuckled and told me they were stray kittens. Yet, somehow, I still worried about them. It just didn’t seem normal.
My brother and I shared a pact to be a united front of surviving our survivor parents. Temperamentally compatible with similar fundamental capabilities, we saved each other from lunacy. When not competing, commiserating, or comparing notes for reassurance, we had fun playing and hanging out together. Our parents did not know how to play!
When we were with families and friends of other Holocaust survivors, we engaged in competitive kerfuffles about whose family was the craziest and which one of us had the most challenging life. It sounded just like our parents when they got together.
Serious problems that required attention were so overwhelming that my siblings and I were guilty of adding needless insult to our parent’s injuries. Once, I slipped into a strong undercurrent near a cascading waterfall in a river during summer camp when I was eleven. Luckily, just as I was losing consciousness I hit a boulder, giving me something to climb up on. All I could think was: I can’t tell Mom and Dad—they would kill me and then they would kill themselves. “Damage control” became my new mantra.
Traumatic memory hits you over the head, more so if it’s not your own but was donated or psychically deposited. Entangled with my mother’s plan of becoming a doctor was a multi-generational directive deposited onto me. I became the surrogate for derailed destiny, missed chances, and buried dreams. I became a doctor, a psychiatrist! I practiced privately for many years and came full circle: I’d become a doctor for my mother, and then stopped practicing to help care for her in her final years.
Even harmless, quirky beliefs, superstitions, and behaviors that seeded my inherited trauma load make sense when put into words. When I was growing up, my father refused to allow me and my brother to run up and down the stairs, yelling that the vibrations from our feet might shatter his porcelain figurines. His treasures, safely stored in a sturdy cabinet, were not endangered. At the time, it seemed a ridiculous, arbitrary rule.
Recently, while sharing stories, my sister reminded me that when the Nazis first occupied his town, Dad declared expertise at sorting and packing eggs. If an egg sorter broke a single egg, an officer shot him dead. This story reveals the importance of story-sharing, introspection, and self-reflection in mitigating the impact of generational trauma. Had he been able to explain the peculiarity, or had I empathetically understood the symbolism that our life seemed as fragile as a porcelain figurine or an egg for my father, I would have had a rational understanding—and could have relaxed.
With empathy and understanding for our loved ones and other humans, traumatized or not, we can appreciate them and their narratives. We don’t need to damage, alter, or act upon those narratives. We should update our own stories to meet the current context and further our emotional well-being. There is always time to connect the dots.
It’s no surprise that I’m a worrywart and that Humpy-Dumpty still gives me the creeps. I can live with that.