November 14, 2018

Tending the roots: Making meaning of the heritage of the Holocaust in my family

I am the grandchild of Holocaust survivors on my mother’s side. Both her parents survived with one sibling. The rest — brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles — did not survive. On my father’s side, though his parents and grandparents immigrated to Israel before 1939, many of his relatives who did not were slain. As a grandchild, this decimation of my ancestors was not visible. I had parents, grandparents, sisters, aunts and uncles. Everything. The damage to our family tree was invisible. Underground, so to speak.

I knew that my grandparents suffered through and survived the Holocaust. My grandfather Chaim escaped from a transport early on and lived under an assumed identity until the end of the war. My grandmother survived several camps, including Auschwitz. I wore their survival as a badge of honor. I know other grandchildren of survivors who feel the same way. It’s a private pride — we are the descendants of those who lived.

It wasn’t until I entered graduate school in psychology that I began to wonder about my family’s past and the effect it had on me. I began wondering about the intergenerational transmission of trauma, this notion that emotional patterns are passed down from parents to children. Did I carry baggage that originally belonged to my grandparents? This was a hard question to answer. I had always suffered from anxiety, even as a small child. So did my sisters. How could we know if it was our anxiety of someone else’s? After all, we did grow up in Israel; we had to scramble downstairs to our apartment building’s bomb shelter and put on gas masks during the first Gulf war; we saw familiar street corners littered with bus parts and body parts on the news in the mid-’90s. There were things to be scared about. But not everyone was as anxious as we were.

I wonder about it. As a young child, I already had certain ideas, ones I had taken for granted for many years, until I realized they were not obvious, to children or adults. Death, for example. I thought about it from early on. Not as an abstract concept, but as a real and imminent reality. I had a very particular image of death — it was the absolute end of consciousness. A truly terrifying image that still rattles me to the core to this day. There was no doubt in my mind that one day my parents would die, and so will I. When this idea crept into my mind, I was stricken with such life-crushing panic that only sleep, when it finally came, could release me from its grip. This imbued a preciousness into time spent with family, even during my adolescence. The funny thing is, even though we never talked about it as children and teenagers, my sisters felt and still feel the same way. So does my mother. So did my grandparents — I heard. It would make a lot of sense that they would feel this way. They lost many loved ones without being able to say goodbye. How fascinating that we somehow took up the same perspective!

It amazes me that this highly specific experience of death and loss trickled down the generations in my family without being explicitly discussed. When I met my wife, I discovered her family had a different culture regarding death and dying from my own, one that sees death as a part of life. It is as if some basic human wisdom about the cycle of life has gotten lost in my family. My grandparents did not get to sit at their own grandparents’ and parents’ death bed. To experience death as natural, timely, even, yes, necessary. What else was lost with the decimation of my ancestry?

My wife shared with me an image that occurred to her in relation to my family — a tree with no roots. The image resonated with me immediately. I could identify with it immediately. There is a kind of security that comes from being deeply rooted that has been lost in my family. I don’t mean necessarily rooted in space, having a place to call our own, though relocation is certainly part of my family’s story, even my own. I mean rooted in time — having a sense of continuity stretching into the past, along with knowledge, traditions, even wisdom, feeding into the present from the depths of the past. How can we not be anxious trying to face life’s weather without being rooted in this way? Holding ourselves up with the power of our will without being able to rely on the ground to support us, anxious at the possibility of a strong wind knocking us over.

I see myself, my sisters and other grandchildren of Holocaust survivors struggle with this predicament. Many highly functioning people straining in the effort to stay upright in the midst of life’s blows.

There is healing taking place, however. As a therapist, I have seen over and over again the human psyche’s natural tendency toward healing. In our case, healing is happening through our efforts to mend our links with our ancestors. This is happening spontaneously, without conscious intention. I’m seeing this drive in many grandchildren, myself included. A pull toward the grandparents, their story, their life. A need to know in an intimate way, in our hearts. A need to feel. We are being driven by a fascination with our ancestors. Driven to reconnect and reclaim. This is an important word. Reclaim. To take back what is rightfully ours, what has been taken from us by the atrocities of the Holocaust.

I see this as a generational task. A responsibility, not so much to right the wrongs that were done to our families — what’s done is done — rather, to reconnect the thread to the past. How this task is to be accomplished is yet to be determined. We must find creative ways into our heritage. We have been tasked with tending the roots of our trees. 

Dedicated to my grandparents Chaim and Hela Hofman.


Nattan Hollander, MFT, is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Los Angeles. He is the founder of Tending the Roots, an organization dedicated to promoting healing from the intergenerational impact of genocide. Grandchildren of Holocaust survivors are invited to continue the conversation in a workshop on May 3: Healing the Intergenerational Wounds of the Holocaust. For more information visit TendingtheRoots.com.