themighty logo

Why the Capitol Attack Triggered My Intergenerational Holocaust Trauma

On January 6, 2021, as I witnessed the attack on the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., I sat stunned by the sheer terror of it, but underlying my terror was a sickening feeling of dread, a feeling that something I never thought could happen again was indeed being fomented on American soil. Amongst the various symbols on display from numerous alt-right white supremacist groups, one, in particular, sent shivers down my spine: a man wearing a shirt with the words “Camp Auschwitz” followed by “Arbeit Macht Frei” — work brings freedom. This was a direct reference to the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz in Poland, where approximately 1.3 million Jews, Gypsies and others were interned and 1.1 million exterminated during the Holocaust between 1940 and 1945. One of the few survivors was my great-grandmother.

I grew up living with my great-grandmother Irene until she passed away when I was 7 years old. While she was a tiny, frail old woman who hardly spoke, seemingly trapped in the past, she did on occasion tell stories. Many of these were of the horrors she endured at Auschwitz. As a young child, I didn’t comprehend exactly what her stories meant or what the Holocaust was, but what I did understand was that being Jewish was somehow dangerous. Whenever I was asked about my religion, I quickly pointed out that I was baptized Catholic even though I’m genetically over 30% Jewish. 

It wasn’t until I was older and learned about World War II in school that the gravity of what the Holocaust was truly sunk in. All of a sudden, my great-grandmother’s stories became poignant. They were put into a context that was inescapable, that it was possible for humans to dehumanize others so greatly that they could commit atrocities against them and that so many people were not only radicalized but stood by silently and watched without saying a word.

Seeing this man’s shirt and the violence and anger being exhibited during the insurrection brought back the horror and reality that not only have we not learned from history, but rather it is well on its way to repeating itself. Very few survivors of the Holocaust are still alive, so it is up to people like me to tell their stories. To remind people that we can never allow this kind of hatred and dehumanization to occur again and to hold those involved in perpetuating this kind of rhetoric accountable for their words and actions. In this spirit, I will share my great-grandmother’s story.

When the Nazis came to Budapest, Hungary, my great-grandmother was one of the Jews rounded up to be taken away. They thought they were going to work camps, and indeed they were being enslaved to work. But they were also being taken to these concentration camps to be exterminated. To the best of my knowledge, my great-grandmother spent just over a year in Auschwitz. The only reason she survived was because she was extremely clever and always willing to do jobs nobody else would do.

One of her more vivid stories was of one of the last times the Nazis came to do their selections for the gas chambers before the Jews were liberated On this occasion, my great-grandmother spontaneously decided to empty the chamber pots when she figured out what was happening. The Nazis let her through and by the time she came back, they were finished making their selections, thereby sparing her life.

By the time she escaped Auschwitz, she had lost a lot of weight, weak and psychologically traumatized by the horrors she had witnessed and endured. She actually hitchhiked her way from Poland all the way back to Hungary, a feat that took a grueling month, during which she managed to collect bread and other gifts to bring back to her children, who had been spared because their father, my great-grandfather, was not Jewish. In fact, my great-grandfather was the one who turned her into the Nazis, presumably out of fear.

Her children not only endured the trauma of the war but also of believing their mother had been killed and knowing that their father had betrayed her. To say that this had long-term effects on the entire family unit would be an understatement. That trauma has been passed down from generation to generation, not just in terms of the very legitimate fear of being persecuted but in terms of attachment wounding and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

There is extensive research suggesting that trauma can be intergenerational not just because of psychological wounds sustained and then perpetuated upon the next generation, think addiction and neglect, but also epigenetically, meaning it can actually require our brains to work differently by triggering certain genes to express themselves due to the trauma, something that can actually be seen in the DNA of future generations. It’s a new and fascinating branch of neuroscience that is still evolving and that may have profound impacts on how trauma is treated. 

I recognize within my own life the myriad ways in which trauma that was sustained by my great-grandmother negatively affected my grandmother, which in turn negatively affected my mother, which ultimately landed on me. I’d argue that a lot of the enmeshment that exists between my mother and I could be directly traced back to those events. I also believe my brain is more susceptible to hypervigilance and anxiety because it has been an adaptive trait in our family for generations. Understanding this helps me to recognize the ways in which I can break the cycle with my own therapy.

With that understanding, though, comes the awareness of the fact that behavior matters and that silence in the face of evil is complicity. I know the damage that occurs to people who are marginalized and treated as less-than. I comprehend the deep wounds that can be felt not just by those who were directly targeted, but by their progeny. It is because of this that I refuse to simply stay quiet and play nice. To me, this isn’t about politics, it’s about humanity. Those who seek to divide and destroy us based upon racist and xenophobic ideologies must be held accountable. Never again can we allow something like the Holocaust to see the light of day. It’s our moral and patriotic duty to be the voices for those who were violated both to honor their sacrifices and memorialize their existences. In the name of my great-grandmother, I denounce the modern-day expression of extremist Nazism on display at the Capitol and I urge others to do so as well.

Photo by Velizar Ivanov on Unsplash