Family makes meaning of Holocaust trauma, generations on

 abc.net.au  4/21/2017 8:18:24 PM   ABC Science by Natasha Mitchell and Tiger Webb for

Updated April 22, 2017 07:33:39

Monday is Yom HaShoah, the international day of Holocaust Remembrance. Here, two generations reflect on the surprising ways in which trauma lives on in families.

As a child, Anthony Levin would cover himself in blankets. Even on the hottest of Sydney's summer nights, he would make sure his arms and legs were entirely swaddled.

The quilts were a form of protection — from the chainsaws he was convinced were going to remove his limbs, the strangers ready to abduct him while he was sleeping. His fear was palpable, and continued for years.

"That's not your normal childhood bogeyman under the bed," Anthony says.

Anthony thinks his visceral imaginings came from hearing family stories from the Holocaust.

"You're vulnerable, it's in the dark, it's when you alone. It's all the things that resonate with the Nazis coming in the night to take you away."

"They're absolutely not the same thing, but to deny some kind of psychological connection is folly."

For Anthony, the Holocaust was always present — though not always identifiable. Even as a child, he had an understanding of what the genocide was through the experiences of his grandmother, Olga.

"An entire side of our family tree is charred, and reduced to ashes, literally," he says.

"One can only barely conceptualise what it means to be a member of a family that was almost exterminated. It's too big.

"As a kid you feel it, I still feel it now. I do my best to intellectualise it, but it never fails to overwhelm me."

Sculptures dot the garden and courtyard of the house Olga Horak has lived in for over 60 years.

Olga studied under the guidance of experimental artist Lyndon Dadswell, and these looming works — and many smaller ones inside — are works of her own design.

The forms are elongated and thin: they are all to do with families.

"Whatever I did with sculpting came out relating to family groups," Olga says. Early on in her artistic explorations, when she tried to paint flowers in a landscape, Olga would find herself drawn to dark skies.

Flowers, at her brush, would turn to skulls. "There was always something — I couldn't help it."

Olga was 14 when World War II broke out. Her sister Judith was amongst the first children taken by German troops to Auschwitz, and murdered.

Later, Olga would be forced into a cattle car with her parents and taken to the death camp herself, where she remembers SS guards waiting with dogs.

Upon arrival, Olga's father Hugo was immediately separated from his family on a directive from the notorious Nazi doctor, Joseph Mengele. The family never saw him again.

Olga and her and mother Piroska survived multiple camps and a long, hellish death march — but miraculously managed to stay together.

Their final destination was the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Northern Germany. By then, they resembled living skeletons. "Dead people were lying on the ground, bodies like mountains," Olga recalls.

Moments after the camp was liberated — after years of fevers, lice, and frozen winters — Piroska died in Olga's arms.

Back in Olga's garden today, three featureless bronze statues are locked in embrace.

Remembering Piroska still moves the 90-year-old mother of two and grandmother of three to tears.

"It's easy, you know, when people say, 'Don't live in the past, live for the future'. I don't live in the past, the past lives in me."

Much of Olga's extended family died in the war.

Many Holocaust survivors chose to never talk about the experience again. That silence was loudly felt in the lives of their children: who are, in a sense, a second generation of survivors.

Olga says she slowly began to reveal her story after her young daughter started to ask questions. "Why don't we have grandmas like other children, where are they?"

Over time, Olga says her daughters tired of hearing of her Holocaust stories. But Anthony believes his late mother Evelyn never forgot their potency.

"My mother's life was difficult. Much of her adult life was full of pain, some of it self inflicted. She was a very talented, bright, vivacious young woman," Anthony says.

"But there was something about growing up in the household with two survivor parents — one of whom had been through a number of concentration camps, seen death and survived — that leaves a person undeniably scarred."

Anthony remembers his mother talking about an sensation of unspoken, unresolved trauma within their family.

"That probably made her a very nervous person," he says.

"My childhood was protected — I wasn't allowed to catch a bus on my own."

He saw non-Jewish children allowed to do things that he wasn't.

"That seemed very strange for me."

Olga's stories of the Holocaust, Anthony says, shaped his empathetic nature — and his career choice. As a human rights lawyer, his work involves supporting refugees, stolen generations, and survivors of torture. He takes his responsibility as the custodian of his family's Holocaust legacy very seriously.

"Who else can do it, if not the descendants?" Olga says.

"If he wants to ask questions, I'm here still.

"But many young people never ask, and when they are interested, it is too late."

Survivors, not victims

Frank Furedi, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent, also grew up with the spectre of the Holocaust at home.

His Jewish-Hungarian parents survived, but most of his family didn't. His mother, never comfortable being described as a Holocaust "victim", resisted assumptions her life had been defined by the experience.

"She always felt: we survived, we had a really hard time, but we are not going to allow those things to change who we really are."

Recent scientific efforts — motivated, in part, by survivors — are trying to understand whether the trauma of the Holocaust might have biological effects on subsequent generations.

Professor Furedi is deeply sceptical of these efforts, and particularly how their findings might be misconstrued by survivors. To him, it becomes a form of neuro-determinism.

"It's almost the case that our behaviour, and the way we relate to our children and our parents, is pre-given by certain physical, biological attributes.

"Most Jewish people see the Holocaust as the singular moment of Jewishness ... it fossilizes Jewish identity."

His ultimate concern is that this view doesn't account for individual resilience. In claiming the traumatic experiences of their grandparents as their own, he says, families members can become fatalistic.

Read more from ABC Science: how your life could change the cells of your grandkids

As a third-generation descendent, Anthony Levin understands Professor Furedi's concern.

"It's risky territory," he says.

"One must make a strong effort, ethically, to resist any secondary identification with [the Holocaust]."

But it's possible, Anthony says, for traumatic events of Jewish history to inform an identity without overwhelming it. For him, that tends to be the difference between the second and third generations.

Like Olga, Anthony, makes sense of history through work in a creative endeavour: poetry. His poems focus on family relations, and are coloured by trauma — a title of his collected works was called House of the Collected Subconscious.

He also organises events for third-generation descendants to meet and share their experiences.

For Anthony, the Holocaust is a touchstone. "You have a distance from these events — and yet those events led to your being."

Olga is circumspect about the idea that her offspring in any way inherited her trauma — biologically or psychologically.

"Of course there are people who are affected by sad stories," she says.

"But today the lifestyle is so easy, you can get counsellors, you can get help. We never received counselling. We had to do it ourselves."

Telling her story can be difficult, but Olga remains matter-of-fact. "Don't think for one minute this is good therapy — because it's not!

"The main thing is not to hate. Hatred brought on this horrible tragedy. People don't realise how harmful that one word was or can be."

Both Olga and Anthony are determined to share their story. "You remember, not to forget," Olga says.

And Anthony, for his part, sleeps easier today.

Topics: world-war-2, family, sydney-2000

First posted April 22, 2017 06:18:24

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