Scars without wounds?

„Memory goes first down to the grave …”
(Anna Frajlich)

On December 10, Judith Beerman Zeligson, a psychotherapist, gave a lecture in the Jewish Community in Copenhagen on the “Survivors’ children” topic.

The children of the survivors are the descendants of those who survived the German occupation in concentration camps or managed to hide, escape and survive in one or another way. The common denominator of this group was the loss of closest family members and an attempt to build a new existence.

Part of the lecture was the screening of a documentary from a one-day session with the survivors and their adult children, which was shot 25 years ago.

To start with, two sliced snapshots:

Judith’s story

Judith’s father survived the war only because he was imprisoned and sent to Siberia to a labor camp. His wife and three children were not so lucky and were murdered by the Germans. After the war, he landed in Sweden, where he married a Swedish Jew.

They decided to raise their daughter as Swede and gave her a non-Jewish name of Britta, hoping that she would “melt in” and avoid some possible persecutions. However, the daughter, as an adult, felt less and less associated with this name. Maybe because of the story of his father who was not willing to talk about it? And one day she told her father that she decided to change her name to Judith. The father stood frozen like a pillar of salt and said, “That was my youngest daughter’s name.” The daughter immediately changed the subject and understood that she could not be called that. But the next day, the father phoned to her work and told the secretary that he wanted to talk to his daughter Judith! Neither Judith nor father returned to this topic anymore, but it seemed that something in his and their family history had found its place. Judith was the above-mentioned speaker.

Steffen’s story

Steffen’s mother was a Hungarian Jew. During the war, she and her family found herself in the Auschwitz concentration camp. She survived 10 months there, sorting clothes after the gassed victims. She was the only one who survived because they sent her to Dachau. After the war, she found herself in Sweden, got married and gave birth to Steffen. She was always a recluse and had periods when it was difficult to get in contact with her. Steffen felt that something was wrong, but he learned to live with it. He could not quite understand why his friends had so much family around while he did not. No aunts or uncles. Only grandparents on father’s side who lived far in the north of Sweden. Riding a train and staying with them was the most beautiful experience of his childhood. For some time he even seriously considered becoming a train driver. Over time, he collected the crumbs of his mother’s stories. After finishing school, he took an extra physical job to raise money for a trip to Israel. However, his many months in Israel did not give him any answer to the question of who he is or whom he should feel. By coincident, he went to a lecture organized by the Jewish Community in Stockholm. And there he met people who had exactly the same experiences. There he understood who he was and was very lucky to share his problems.

The survivors

The people who have gone through the Gehenna. People who lost their families and were uprooted from their places of birth and everything they knew. People who had to start their life from the very beginning again.

How this could be done?

Only very few were able to really come back to life.

The rest who survived were still walking dead. They lived and live only as physical bodies. Mentally, they have died a long time ago.

They clenched their teeth and went on living as if nothing had happened. They have thrown away everything that hurts.

And they were silent. For years.

Of course, there were those who did not remain silent. You had Auschwitz for breakfast, Auschwitz for lunch and Auschwitz for dinner.

However, such were few.

When did the others start to speak?

The first group after 40 years. As if in the image and likeness to their ancestors released from Egyptian slavery, they had use for that much time to recover.

During this time, the generation born after the war grew up with a hole in the memory.

Not knowing why their parents are not quite “normal”. Not understanding their behavior. Not knowing their roots.

In childhood, it was not a problem. Maybe a little unpleasant when one of the parents unexpectedly came out of the “normal” role. A bit of astonishment when one heard some unrelated crumbs of stories about some non-existent family members and some non-existent life in the shtetl. Untold to the end. Cut off in the middle of a sentence.

Over time, there was a feeling of indefinite absence. An absence of a part of one’s personality.

And sometimes the questions came too late.

Because the daily life required its own.

Because the parents’ generation slowly began to crumble.

Because there was no one else to ask.

Because born, the third generation had to be brought up.

And protected from one’s own hidden trauma.

Exactly. Trauma. Why?

These are not open or healed wounds. So where are these scars on the soul from?

Scars without wounds. Sometimes invisible, sometimes bothering, sometimes annoying.

What to tell the children? To transfer this inheritance or protect them from it, as the parents did, and remain silent for the next 40 years?

Do not tell means to cut off a piece of their being. Maybe sometimes unwanted, but after all being their integral part.

To talk means to pass these scars over. To convey the feeling of otherness. Maybe necessary, maybe unnecessary.

To speak? Not to speak?

It seems to me that there is no clear answer to this question.

Can anyone help?

Alex Wieseltier
December 2019