My mom kept telling me, “They’re coming back. Make no mistake about it. Doesn’t matter what you THINK you are, they are coming back for you. You are a JEW.
I’m not. I’m an atheist. At 5, I told her so, thus putting a divisor between us that went unresolved, even with our last goodbye, when she died of lymphoma 14 years ago.
Thing is, she turned out to be right.
Not about coming back. In my family, then, and now, the Nazi’s never left.
They were with us all the years I was growing up, with my mother’s constant warnings. Her fear was warranted. She’d lived through WW2, saw the rise of fascism allow the murders of 6 million of her family and faith. She was old enough to witness Hitler’s speeches ignite the ignorant German underclass to hate, and blame everyone but themselves for their poverty. She saw the world forever changed by our ability to destroy it, with the advent of the nuclear bomb.
I didn’t feel afraid the Nazi’s would return. I argued, “We’ve learned, mom. That’s the best thing about us. When we’re standing on the precipices of disaster, we DO change!”
I was so confident in our uniquely human ability to ‘rise above’ ourselves and our misfortunes, I married the son of a Holocaust survivor. My father-in-law was 13 when his family was forcibly removed from their suburban home in Poland, and imprisoned in the Warsaw ghetto. He was there for eight months when his father, mother, and two younger sisters were murdered in front of him, and he was put on a train to Auschwitz. A prisoner for five years, his teens were spent as a slave, watching people murdered, and committing suicide daily, until the concentration camp was ‘liberated’ by the Soviets in 1945.
My father-in-law came to the States as an immigrant several years later. He settled in New Jersey, close to his remaining family reunited after the WW2, started his own business, and then married. My husband was born a year later, his sister, three years on that.
The kids knew vaguely of their father’s plight. Each was given a brief explanation when they awoke, frightened by the “horrific screams,” of their dad’s nightmares. As my husband described it, “My dad talked about when he was “in camp,” and I had a problem with that, as I had gone to summer camp, and I knew that this was not the same thing.”
My husband was in his last year of college when my sister-in-law gathered her family, and recorded their father’s experience in Auschwitz for a history assignment. The ‘kids’ were both adults when they discover the details of their father’s youth, during this singular interview. They never spoke of it again.
The Holocaust was not discussed in my husband’s household. Growing up, he didn’t dare drill down on the details, though his father’s nightmares woke him many late nights during his formative years. His father’s screaming frightened him, especially as he grew, studied the Holocaust in school, and learned, even in the abstract, what may have happened to his dad. His parents had made it clear by their silence— in almost all things of relevance— they were not open to discuss virtually anything beyond the day-to-day logistics of living.
My father-in-law learned young that the only way to survive was to avoid conflict at all costs. His wife, my-mother-in-law, having experienced her own traumatic youth, had adopted the same position on the safety of stoic silence, likely long before they met and married. Over 50 years together before he passed, they did not discuss their life experiences with their children, or with each other. Neither went to counseling, ever. They ran a small business, raised their kids in their loving, yet separate way, never really letting anyone in, too afraid to get intimate.
Understandable, with where they came from. But, oh, so very costly.
Feelings don’t just GO AWAY when we don’t talk about them. More often than not, when buried— hurt, frustration, sadness, fear will resurface, and manifest as unwarranted aggression, especially towards the people we love, since it’s likely they’ll still love us, regardless of the slight.
These powerful feelings of anger and fear, buried deep in my mother and father-in-law, prevented them from validating their children’s feelings, forcing their kids to bury their own feelings under the suffocating weight of shame associated with having any. For the 20+ years I’ve known her, my husband’s sister won’t watch a sad movie, read a sad book, and has never admitted to feeling sad, even through her son’s ADHD hardships, or during her very contentious divorce.
Hitler is still powerful, present, and residing in our house, the hate he ignited still reverberating almost a century— three generations later, embodied in my husband every time he shuts down to avoid conflict, dismisses or ignores his feelings, or mine, or our kids, as his parents taught him to do. The fear the Nazi’s instilled in so many has been passed through the generations like a genetic disease.
My mother carried this fear with her to her grave. As a matter of course, she made me afraid, of all people— our ability to abandon our humanity, and turn our backs on neighbors we once held dear, in response to fear. I got lucky, though. My mom felt passionately about so much, and shamelessly displayed feelings of joy, anger, fear, and sadness at times, gifting me the opportunity to acknowledge and express mine.
My husband works hard to connect with me, and our kids, continually battling his pervasive feelings of isolation, separation, and auto-response of self-protection, well known among the ‘Survivor’ community. In moments, when he wins the war with himself and surrenders with me, we touch intimacy. And in those moments, which, gladly, are more and more these days, we stop Hitler’s legacy at our doorstep.