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My Family Survived the Holocaust. Now, the Invasion of Ukraine Is a Trauma Trigger

Last night I had a nightmare… something that in and of itself isn’t newsworthy since one of my primary lingering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms is persistent nightmares. Even the basic narrative of this dream wasn’t particularly unique. There were Nazis, explosions, fire, running, swimming, trying to breathe, attempting to fix or clean things to hide, desperation to survive. I awoke in characteristic fashion —exhausted physically, emotionally, and mentally.

What’s different this time around is when I awoke, I didn’t note my brain was trying to make sense of a past trauma. No — this dream was an amalgamation of past and present. A visual representation of some of the earliest memories I have and what I have been witnessing in the here and now on TV and social media. A confluence of my own lived past trauma, my grandmother and great-grandmother’s horror tales of their living through World War II, the Nazi invasion of Budapest (Hungary) and surviving a year in the concentration camp at Auschwitz (Poland), and the current invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

The stories I was told were traumatizing, no doubt. But when I heard them, they were very much tales of things that happened long ago in a land far, far away. They were firmly in-the-past tales that were told to help educate us on what can happen and why we must be vigilant so they never happen again. And yet here we are, not so long ago and not so far, far away, experiencing what feels like a replay of the stories I grew up with occurring in real time before our very eyes, and it’s exceedingly triggering.

The irony is that Putin’s reason for invading Ukraine to “denazify” the country creates an even more toxic narrative for Holocaust survivors and their ancestors. Anti-semitism has been on the rise throughout the world, but particularly in far-right Christian nationalist groups that have begun to not just take hold but to spread their message that there is a fundamental threat to the spread of “liberal democracy” and that the Jews are somehow at the center of this. Never mind that the President of Ukraine, Vlodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish and is himself an ancestor of victims of Nazis during the Holocaust. The whole thing is mind-boggling.

The thing about intergenerational trauma is the trauma isn’t just about the stories we were told (perhaps at an all too young age in far too much detail) and that we absorbed. There is an actual physiological component to intergenerational trauma that plays a powerful part. Trauma that is experienced by one generation can affect that person on an epigenetic level, meaning it can act like an on/off switch for the expression of certain characteristics on certain genes and cause actual genetic changes that can be passed along to future generations.

The hypervigilance and constant anxiety the trauma survivor experiences can become genetically encoded upon their children and even grandchildren, actually disrupting their ability to cope with perceived threat and hijacking their innate trauma responses. In short, when I experience a threat, my limbic system is wired to go into hypervigilance before I even have the opportunity to react logically or rationally. I’m on the runaway train of emotional deregulation before the threat is even over or resolved.

This reactivity has been a lifelong curse, particularly where built in resilience against my own lived trauma is concerned. But in the case of witnessing the kind of trauma my family members endured, it’s almost like my body remembers how they felt when their doors were being knocked down by Nazis, while they awaited the selections for the gas chamber at the concentration camp or while they feared for their lives in bomb shelters while hearing their homes get destroyed by incoming enemy fire.

So, as images of Ukrainian refugees flooding into familiar (and familial) neighboring countries and explosions/troops invading Kyiv began flooding the media, I could feel my body physically respond to what I saw. The sense of futility, resignation, and demoralization that I feel is both past and present. It’s both individual and collective. An echo and a direct assault on all of my senses in the here and now.

It’s as though I’m reliving the trauma of my ancestors while simultaneously experiencing the trauma that is unfolding actively. I comprehend I’m not physically enduring the war, nor was I actually a survivor of World War II, but the persecution and sense of fear that was and is being felt is very much living within me. And with that comes disbelief and anger. I’m angry we haven’t learned from history, that as a society we haven’t evolved farther. I’m angry people have to suffer through these atrocities and that yet again, families are being destroyed and civilians dehumanized by an autocrat. How is this happening again? What can any of us do to make it OK?

The truth is, I have no control over any of this. Not my memories, not the stories I was told, not the war in Ukraine. My brain can try to process these things in my nightmares and my waking moments all it wants, but none of it will make any more sense than it did yesterday or in the 1930s. And maybe that’s what I have to reconcile… that for as hard as I wish to feel some semblance of agency or authority over my life, chaos and uncertainty is an unbearable and unwelcome fact of life.

Figuring out how to co-exist with the helplessness this engenders within me is the only thing I can master and that’s exactly what I’ll endeavor to do. But in the meantime, I’ll simply hold the pain and anguish of past and present generations of survivors of war within my being, offering them refuge from the assault going on around them, and hopefully someday soon the world (or rather Putin) will come to its senses.

Getty image by Bubbers13

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