|Alison Pick: 'My family had repressed the horror of the gas chambers.|
The unfelt grief had been passed from my grandmother
to my father to me, like an heirloom.
domingo, 28 de junio de 2015
Auschwitz, memory and truth: how trauma passes down the generations
I was a Christian child. I went to Sunday school. In the cool church basement, I drew pictures of Jesus and his disciples. Then one day, in the playground, another child approached me. “Your dad is Jewish,” he said. “No he’s not,” I replied instinctively. But deep down, in some profoundly buried part of myself, I knew this was true.
I knew it was true while at the same time not understanding what it meant. Jewish was something that belonged to my friend Jordan – the one who had accused me – but what did it mean to be Jewish? Jordan brought matzah (unleavened bread) to school on Passover, and went to Hebrew school. He was studying for something called a barmitzvah. That was all I knew.
The year passed. Despite the fact I was almost 13, the Easter bunny still came. My younger sister and I hunted for eggs in the rooms of our suburban home.
Easter, I knew, meant rebirth. It meant dying and coming back to life. I felt, deep down, that rebirth could happen to me too.
I came to know the truth about my family’s history slowly. I first learned the facts – my great-grandparents died in Auschwitz; my grandparents came to Canada and hid their true identities. They had been assimilated, non-practising Jews and Canada in the 1940s was hugely antisemitic. They wanted no part of it.
Later, as a teenager, I understood this more profoundly – what it meant to hide who you are. The effort that had gone into their charade, and the sacrifice.
Even later, I came to understand it on a bodily level, deep in my cells below my rational mind. I suffer from depression. My family had repressed the horror of the gas chambers. The unfelt grief had been passed from my grandmother to my father to me, like an heirloom.
Intergenerational trauma can be difficult to make sense of. It is like saying that, 80 years ago, my grandmother tripped on an apple core and now my ankle is sprained as a result. This transmission of trauma has been corroborated with research. The legacy of the Holocaust was influencing – three generations later – my daily experience of being alive.
I set about to reclaim what had been lost. Judaism resonated for me at a profound level, and I studied to convert. As Judaism is matrilineal and my mother isn’t Jewish, I had to take a year-long intensive class and meet monthly with my sponsoring rabbi.
For me, this was frustrating and challenging. My relatives died in Auschwitz. Shouldn’t I already be accepted as Jewish?
But I was pleased to do this. I wanted to belong.
Both were true.
Every family story has a thousand other stories contained within it, like an unending series of nesting dolls. I set about learning more about my ancestors, and who they had been. I have a cousin, a historian, who I respect deeply. She is a decade older than me; 10 years of extra conversations with our grandparents. I told her how drawn I was feeling to our family’s lost Judaism. She empathised, and told me she had gone through something similar. We talked about my grandfather; she remembered, she told me, that he used to hate Christmas. “He looked so sad and despondent among all the presents,” she said.
This made sense to me. Our grandfather was Jewish. There must have been part of him that resented pretending otherwise, even if he believed it was for the safety of his family. Later, though, my cousin changed her mind. She had been thinking and had revised her opinion. “He loved Christmas,” she said. And, when she said it, I realised this was true too. We have pictures of our grandfather not despondent, but laughing beside the Christmas tree. And though I was just a child when he died – not yet batmitzvah age – I remember this too.
I had a deep desire to settle on one version of the story. As a writer, I had a semi-conscious hope that by organising it into a consistent narrative, I could finally heal my pain. But the problem with words is that they are fixed in time, in a way that history and memory are not.
A family story varies wildly between members. I knew this. What it took me time to understand was the multiplicity of stories that existed within me.
The depression I suffer from has always felt pre-formed, ancient, like it was given to me in its entirety at birth. My father experiences something similar. He calls it “the bad blood” as though there is a faucet deep within him; when the faucet is turned on it floods his body with weight. His mother, my granny, was melancholic too. When I was a child we spent our summers with her. I remember her crying at the end of August when we loaded up our family car and said goodbye. She told me she hated being alone.
Later in life, she took Prozac, which helped. But Granny had been exceptionally close to her own mother, Marianne. We have pictures of the two of them skiing in Europe before the war, their arms thrown around each other like sisters. Marianne was murdered in Auschwitz. How could Granny not be depressed? My cousin objected to this depiction of Granny too – and, again, she was right. I went back, remembering again. Granny was the life of any party. Dripping in jewels, she was feminine and strong. A flirt, a worthy opponent on the tennis court, an excellent conversationalist for anyone on any topic.
She loved being alive.
This was true too.
To wrestle with a family story is to be humbled as a writer and as a person. You cannot include everyone’s versions. Sometimes you cannot even nail down the truth as it exists within yourself.
More years have passed. I have converted to the Judaism of my father’s family. I have a five-year-old daughter who I take to synagogue on Saturdays. In the basement of the shul – so much like the basement of the church where I grew up – there is a miniature ark stuffed with toy Torahs. The leader asks, “Who can help me open the ark?”
My daughter rushes forward. She prises the door open and chooses the biggest stuffed Torah she can find. With the other small “Israelites” she parades it around the basement proudly. She has done this for years, and every time I cry. I see myself in her; I see my cousin, who I love dearly, and my granny, who was changeable and full of human contradiction. I see my great-grandmother Marianne, who I never knew, who died in the gas chamber.
A long line of women bent low with history’s weight; a line of joyous women celebrating their stories. Both are true. And nothing can change that.