How the past catches up with you

The memory of the Holocaust haunts my family to this day.

How the past catches up with you
The holocaust hall of rememberance in Jerusalem Photograph: Getty Images

The invocation is zachor – remember. But memory is often less a question of what you hold on to than of what will let you go. I know this: on one side, I am the grandchild of Polish Jews who lost their entire family in the Holocaust. On the other, I’m the daughter of a psychiatrist.

Growing up, I didn’t think much about my maternal grandparents’ experience. My grandfather had died before I was born and his widow was an unhappy, uncommunicative old lady, in marked contrast to my warm, nurturing paternal grandparents. She got on badly with my mother and my mother got on badly with me. All my family had fled eastern European anti-Semitism and settled in Australia but my father’s parents had left much earlier. The horror, for them, was at one remove.

If I thought about Safta (it’s Hebrew for grandmother; she never spoke Polish again), I presumed her situation was the same. All her family were killed – but she was in Australia by then, with two children in her immediate future. I never considered that this escape might be damaging.

Despite growing up in a house humming with therapy-speak and feeling, like most Jews, that I didn’t so much learn about the Holocaust as leave the womb with that knowledge already implanted, I didn’t ponder its impact on my family. If my mother was different from my friends’ mothers – unpredictable, unempathetic, disengaged – well, she just was. By the time I was 15, she had literally disengaged: seven years after my parents’ divorce, she left and my father moved back in to raise my sister and me.

Years later, I talked to my cousin, a documentary-maker who filmed the Australian testimony for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation. The survivors, she said, were open and welcoming and had come to terms with their past. It was their children who were a mess.

Troubled inheritance

I started reading up on what some experts refer to as the intergenerational transmission of trauma. (Others deny that trauma can be transmitted. Hey, we’re Jews: unanimity is even more treyfe to us than pork.) I found my mother everywhere in the testimonies of second-generation survivors.

They were overprotected, they said, by anxious parents who had suffered inconceivable losses but they were also given short shrift: how could they call anything they experienced a problem, compared to what the generation before had gone through? They were not secure; it could happen again. But they were expected to make sense of the incomprehensible, to do well in order to justify their parents’ survival. And they were pulverised with inherited guilt.

They became adults who were determined to distance their own children from their troubled inheritance. We are back to zachor, remembrance, only some forms of which are voluntary. My mother didn’t talk about the war; she refused to teach me Yiddish, the language of her childhood.

But you cannot pass on what you never had – proper nurturing, for instance. And sometimes you transmit things you never intended. This, too, is zachor.

It seems a harsh irony, given Judaism’s focus on family, that our sense of it has been warped by actions perpetrated against us because we are Jewish. Family, says one grandchild of survivors, has a sadness to it; the past feels like a big hole. The tapestry was rent and two generations are insufficient to repair it.

I knew my mother’s childhood was unhappy but she had told me very little. Now I asked. Her father never spoke about the war, she said; her mother never stopped talking about it. I had known she was overprotected, forbidden to visit friends’ houses. I had not realised that negative feelings were also forbidden: “We were lucky to have food and a roof over our heads. We weren’t supposed to complain.”

At this year’s Jewish Book Week in London, a French novelist, Fabrice Humbert, claimed that the second generation had felt unable to discuss what their parents went through but that “the third generation is free and we can speak”. I disagree. (Of course I do. See above.)

We can speak, yes: how could a psychiatrist’s daughter not believe in a talking cure? There are memories that fester if not aired and surely the legacy of genocidal hatred counts among them. The survivors were silent for 40 years, with few exceptions; once they started talking, though, they couldn’t stop. Thanks to a multitude of books, films and testimonies, they never will have to. But their descendants, too, have a lot to deal with, if the Holocaust is ever to be neutralised. Note: I don’t mean forgotten, but positioned in our history, something we remember as and when we choose, as we do, say, the Spanish Inquisition or the destruction of the temple.

I am not a victim; I have received many wonderful gifts, genetic and otherwise, from both my parents. But am I, as Humbert suggests, free? Oh no, I don’t think so. Not yet