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My Father's Trauma from the Holocaust, and the Trauma That's Happening Now

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I have been really triggered, angry and anxious by the death of George Floyd and what I am seeing in our streets. I understand I am one of many, but I have been trying to understand why it is affecting me the way it is. Why I am keeping panic attacks at bay? I think it has to do with my experiences with my father and growing up hearing stories of the Holocaust. Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not making a comparison between these two traumas — I am just trying to understand my own responses.

My father sometimes told stories with an intensity driven by survivor guilt and shame. Sometimes, I was prepared to hear them. Sometimes, I wasn’t. As he got older, he told more stories of resistance, resilience and pride. I didn’t always agree with my father’s politics but understood them as stemming from that same place of survivor guilt.

One of the stories he told with intensity and frequency was his experience of Kristallnacht on November 9-10, 1938. He was at a Jewish boarding school in Kaputh, Germany. A beautiful resort village outside of Berlin. It was an agrarian school run by idealistic young Zionists who did their best to protect their charges from the outside danger. On Nov 9, crowds of Germans gathered outside their school yelling, “Jews, get out,” and began throwing large stones through the windows. He described their civilian clothing, but said their Gestapo boots gave them away as Nazis. Hitler was trying to stage a “spontaneous” uprising of the German people against the evil Jews.

I could see those boots in my dreams.

He had always told me about a beloved German Shepard that lived with them and followed them around. The German Shepard kept the Nazis at bay long enough for him and his classmates to escape in to woods. They met up with a teacher, hiked through the woods and took a train to Berlin arriving in the late evening/early mornings of November 10. He said it looked like daytime because the skies were lit by all the burning synagogues. His teacher marched through the streets with his charges looking for homes to take in students who were not from Berlin. My father wasn’t from Berlin and it took a some time to find safe haven. “I saw a lot,” he told me at 89, but he didn’t elaborate. I saw in his eyes that I shouldn’t ask for details. He told me about the experience of walking through the streets. He said it was like walking on “diamonds” under the soles of his shoes because of the shattered glass from the Jewish stores.

My heart breaks for the people who will experience post-traumatic stress disorder from this event.

It’s dangerous to compare traumas of different oppressed people. But folks, it is a foot in the door kind of thing. We have to stand up to oppression and racism and defend our constitutional democracy. But let’s not forget the soldiers and the trauma they will bear. I believe there are some traumas that take generations to recover from. I fear this is one.


Getty image via nito100

Originally published: September 28, 2020
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