This year marks the seventieth anniversary of the Wannsee conference, where Nazi officials gathered in a suburb of Berlin and approved the "Final Solution," a plan for the extermination of European Jewry. Seventy years might seem like a long time ago, but the magnitude of those wartime events was so wide-reaching that they continue to have powerful impacts. The Nazis have become a symbol for those who still want to perpetuate their agenda of hatred, blind nationalism and domination of the minority. And for those of us who stand for tolerance, human rights and compassion, the Nazis have become a symbol of what to oppose.
There is still much to oppose. As I write this article, Lithuanian officials are actively involved in promoting Holocaust denial and treating war era anti-Nazi resistance fighters as war criminals. It should be noted that almost all of Lithuanian Jews were exterminated, during the war, and many Lithuanians assisted in this process. (For more information about Lithuanian Holocaust denial, see the chilling trailer for a documentary about it at http://rewriting-history.org/.)
Here in the United States the forces of hatred are alive and well, in the form of neo-Nazi's, the Klan, and the alarming amount of people who believe that immigrants inherently pose a threat to the good moral fiber of the United States. Ever since 9-11 too many people have made the absurd conclusion that foreigners inherently pose a threat or mean us ill. I see many immigrants in my psychological practice, and I can assure you that they are just people, pretty much as good as the rest of us. The great majority of these immigrants that I have seen are honest, hard-working, moral and responsible.
April 19th, 2012 is Holocaust Remembrance day. It is a time to reflect and ask ourselves what we are doing to oppose the forces of hatred. In service of that introspection, I offer a short passage from my book, Never Forget My Soul. The passage describes the musings of David, a psychologist, after he discovers that two members of his therapy group (Joe and Adam) are children of Holocaust survivors. In this passage, he stays up late at night, researching and trying to understand the multigenerational effects of the Holocaust:
David let his eyes drift over his desk, until they came to rest upon a book entitled “Inherited Memories.” Inherited memories—Joe and Adam were burdened and driven by memories that they had never directly experienced, oppressed by a life they themselves had never actually lived. Of course that was a simplification. Joe and Adam were driven not only by their parents’ suffering, but also by the way their parents behaved towards them. Adam’s parents had been emotionally broken people, lacking the accessibility and emotional aliveness that children yearn for, and, in the case of his father, with a quick and sometimes violent temper. David was unsure about Joe’s story, but suspected that it was similar. From David’s reading, there was something to this idea of inherited memories. Children of survivors were often very intuitive and seemed to sense their parent’s Holocaust experiences, even without the parent ever discussing them in front of their children. He thought of one case history of a woman who suffered from low sexual desire for ten years. Whenever her husband would approach her sexually, she would seek a reason to argue, in an unconscious attempt to be protected from physical intimacy with him. She worked for years with therapists on this problem, and the therapists used a great variety of techniques, but made absolutely no progress with the problem. The breakthrough came when her mother told her that the mother had been raped in a concentration camp, and had never been able to trust men sexually after that. When the daughter connected with the inherited memory of the rape, she then had a context in which to work and was finally able to overcome her sexual difficulties with her husband.
As David continued to consider the words “inherited memory,” an image came to his mind. It was a picture of his father in military uniform, which had been in the family photo album when he grew up. The face had been proud, young and strong. His father had fought in the Second World War. Once, his mother had wistfully pointed out that picture to David and said, “Your father was a brave man. He sacrificed his life so others could be free. He was injured badly in the war. He was never able to work after he returned. He became weaker and weaker over the years, and then his body just ran out of strength to live.” That was the extent of what his mother had told him about his father’s wartime experience. But that memory started David wondering. What wartime action had his father seen? Was his father’s history somehow more intimately intertwined with Adam and Joe than simply sharing their forebear’s war? Had David’s father been involved in the liberation of the camps? David did not know, and at this point it was all speculation. His mother had been dead for ten years.
David put aside the book that he had been reading and reached for a book entitled “A Pictorial History of the Holocaust.” As he leafed through the pages he saw pictures of crowded Jewish ghettos; marching lines of Jewish prisoners, flanked by German soldiers; shaven-headed, emaciated concentration camp prisoners; and piles of naked corpses. Suddenly he stopped, transfixed on one picture. It was a photograph of a United States soldier, standing beside a just recently liberated concentration camp prisoner, who was seated on a bench. The former prisoner was painfully thin, with sunken eyes. He had an expression of dull emptiness and disbelief in his eyes. The American soldier appeared tall, well-fed and strong. But there was something haunting in the soldier’s face. David’s eye widened with a realization. He arose and went down to the basement, where he stood on a chair and removed a box from a shelf. He searched through the box until he found an old, brown, imitation-leather-covered photo album. He brought the album upstairs to his desk and turned the pages until he came to a photograph of his father after the war. There it was! The look—the same haunting look that was on the face of the soldier in the Holocaust book. It was a mixture of world-weariness and disbelief. Disbelief—that was the commonality between the three people—the former prisoner and soldier in the book and David’s own father in the album. The disbelief, thought David, is about the magnitude of horror that man can inflict on man. And the disbelief was double for the former prisoner—disbelief about the extent of the horror to which he had been exposed and disbelief that it had finally come to an end.
“It’s all my own imagination and supposition,” David warned himself. He did not know whether his father had liberated a camp. He did not even know if he was accurately reading the expressions of his father or the American soldier. Perhaps David had so immersed himself in the Holocaust era, over the past week, that he was really seeing his own reactions, reading them into the faces of those soldiers. But David did know the following: his father had fought in a terrible war and had suffered near-fatal wounds. The war had forever changed his father’s life and had eventually robbed David of his father. So what David did know was that Hitler’s mad hatred had brought destruction into David’s ancestral past, just as it had to Joe and Adam. What had his mother said? David’s father had “sacrificed his life so that others could be free.”
“Maybe that’s what draws me so much into this subject,” David thought. “I’m continuing the work that my father did. He exposed his body to the war’s destructiveness in order to fight and overcome evil. If he was willing to do that, the least I can do is expose my mind to this evil, to help the suffering next generation find liberation. That’s my inherited memory. I’m still fighting my father’s war.”
There are many ways to oppose hatred. We all should ask ourselves how we can use our knowledge, connections and individual talents to build a world were such inhumanity will be a thing of the past.
Michael Milgraum, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, whose new novel, Never Forget My Soul, follows the lives of two Holocaust survivor families. Dr. Milgraum is a child of a Holocaust survivor. He is in private practice, in Silver Spring, Maryland. He provides group, individual and couples therapy and performs psychological evaluations. He can be reached at (301) 588-5861 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © Apr. 18, 2012, Michael Milgraum. All rights reserved.