"Mommy, I was afraid that you died."
"I didn't die. Sleeping. I was sleeping." Holding my cell phone, I propped myself up on the pillow and regained my bearings. I was in an elegant hotel room in Washington, D.C. Judging from the burning sensation in my eyes, I had not been asleep for long.
"I was so worried when you didn't answer the phone." My daughter's small voice trembled.
"I answered the phone, honey. We're talking."
"Not until the fourth ring."
Her sadness and the demands I knew were soon to follow sent blood rushing to my temples. "Mikaela, I'm fine."
"I can't stay here, Mommy."
I took a deep breath and thought fast. My voice softened. "I just dropped you off a few hours ago. We talked about the fact that the first night might be an adjustment. What did you do this evening?"
"Nothing. I didn't eat. I just cried."
She was in Bethesda, about twenty minutes away. "Honey, it was a big honor to be chosen for this leadership conference. You were so excited about going, you have a good friend there, you'll learn all about government, and—"
"Mommy, please! Take me home! I'm only eleven years old, and I'm not ready for this. Please."
"Mikaela, you are ready. You'll be so proud of yourself for sticking it out. What do you want to bet you'll love it there by the end of the five days?"
She was sobbing now. "I won't. I hate it! I don't even feel like myself here. I'm hiding in the bathroom so I don't wake up my roommates, worrying that you're going to die!"
"I'm not going to die. Not for fifty more years at least."
"You don't know that for sure."
I was afraid she would say that. "You're right, I don't. But I eat healthy foods, I exercise, I wear sunscreen, and I don't drink and drive, so I should live for a very long time, right?"
"Can you at least come over here to give me a hug goodnight?"
It's a trap. She'll never let me leave without her. If I had just flown out of town this afternoon, we would not be having this negotiation. "It won't help, sweetie. You'll just miss me more if you see me." By now my head was aching.
"I won't. I swear."
I was not surprised by her determination, but I held firm. "No."
"You just don't understand," she said angrily.
"Yes, I do." I did understand. She was in pain, a kind with which I was all too familiar, and I could alleviate her anxiety just by jumping into a taxi. But it would be a mistake. Even though she had always been apprehensive about being away from me, she had made significant strides as of late. She'd been nervous about a recent two-night class trip to northern California, but had gone anyway and had ended up having a great time. I was certain that this new adventure would also surprise her, and provide further evidence that she could survive without me. After all, she was a survivor. She came by that honestly.
I grew up in 1960s suburban Los Angeles, part of a family who was living the American Dream. My parents raised my siblings and me in a friendly, safe, and well- kept community. Every home on the block and every kid looked more or less the same, with a smattering of ethnic diversity to break the monotony. I loved sports, especially baseball, made friends easily enough, and was a good student. My family ate dinner together nearly every night and took occasional vacations, just like the other families we knew.
Yet some things were different in our family. My mother believed that I could be president of the United States, but she hoped I could make the leap to high office directly from my cozy bedroom, where she knew I was safe. My mother didn't like me to smile at strangers, play outside after dusk, visit friends whose parents weren't nurturing enough, and most importantly, be far away from her. While I bristled at these restrictions, I lived by them. I knew that my mother's fears were birthed by tragedy. She carried wounds whose power I could never comprehend.
I think of my mother as a modern-day Anne Frank. Both my mother and Anne Frank spent two years in hiding during the Holocaust, while the Nazis searched for them. Both were forced to live in an attic with their families, which was highly unusual. Jewish children were rarely able to hide with their families during the Holocaust, and typically, hidden Jews spent only a short time in any one place. My mother and Anne Frank both were kept alive, in large part, because of the courage and kindness of gentile friends. In my mother's case, a Polish farmer and his wife sheltered a bewildered five-year-old girl and fourteen members of her family, including an infant.
There were many similarities between my mother and Anne Frank. But my mother was the only one fortunate enough to survive. For decades, readers have wondered what Anne Frank might have become, had she survived. My mother's coming-of-age story may provide some indirect insight, as well as a glimpse of the long-term impact of the Holocaust on the children who were directly affected by it.
I've begun this book with my mother's story. Her memories from early childhood are unusually detailed, although surely idealized at times. I've taken some creative liberties in reconstructing dialogue, but always with an eye toward accurately reflecting the spirit of the conversations my mother recalled, and the manner in which she remembered family members speaking to one another. In addition to relying solely on the memory of my mother, I was also able to interview six other relatives who hid with her in the attic.
I will never forget the evening my mother and I spent in the living room of my mother's first cousin Sally. Four women, all in their sixties, who had hidden together in an attic as young children, a half century earlier, were sharing recollections. Given how rare it was for children to survive the Holocaust, such a family reunion was highly unusual. And then there was my mother's eighty-six-year old uncle, Max. He had never wanted to share his memories, but that evening, he found himself leading the discussion.
Where most Holocaust narratives conclude, this one gathers momentum. Some of my mother's most unsettling recollections stemmed from the period right after Germany surrendered to Allied forces during World War II. My mother's story illuminates the fallout of the Holocaust as her family wandered throughout Europe for five heartbreaking years before coming to America. Her spirit, deep faith, and endurance against all odds provide powerful—and inspiring—evidence of the resilience of the human spirit.
In the second and third parts of this book, my mother's story becomes our joint account, narrated in my voice, and eventually includes my daughter, Mikaela. The stories of three generations merge in these pages, just as our hopes and dreams have so often in my life. Although my mother's and my experiences bear virtually no similarity, it is in the overlapping shadows that we find common ground. My mother's traumas became my nightmares. Not a day went by in balmy Los Angeles that I didn't feel lashed by what she suffered through in Poland during the war. On the other hand, my mother's hopes and aspirations also sowed the seeds for my ambition and my achievements.
Over countless breakfasts as a child I asked my mother the same questions about her past—the few that I knew to ask. What was it like to wake up that morning and see tanks outside your house? What did you eat inside the attic? Did you have meals with your mommy and daddy when you were hiding? If the answers could ever make sense to me, I believed, my world would finally feel safe. After traveling back to Poland to meet the family who hid my mother, to sit in the attic where her childhood disappeared like an ice cube on a feverish brow, and then spending nearly a decade writing this book, I finally began to understand where my mother came from and how her experiences transformed her. I had to research further, however, to see just how the trauma of my mother's past had been transmitted to me, and then to my children.
My husband and I had always encouraged our children to be adventurous. I worked vigilantly to prevent my fears from interfering with the messages I communicated to them. Even my daughter, who was more tentative than my son and stepson about separating from me, had always cheerfully rebounded as soon as we were reunited. I was surprised, therefore, when her anxiety did not diminish after she returned home from her leadership trip to Washington, D.C.
There was something particularly resilient about the strain of fear Mikaela seemed to have inherited. I came to see that while scientists had found a way to prevent the virulent AIDS virus from passing, in utero, from mother to daughter, no such barrier had yet been discovered to prevent the effects of trauma from being transmitted across generations. I learned that as a result of trauma passing from one generation to the next, it was not unusual to find children of Holocaust survivors, or the "Second Generation," as we came to be known, weighed down by feelings of loss, guilt, and anxiety, and trapped in a dynamic of mutual devotion and overprotection between parent and child. And clearly the fallout extended to a third generation. Like me, Mikaela, too, seemed to be trapped in the vortex of a tragedy that had taken place a half century before she was born.
As for exactly how such trauma might be transferred from one generation to the next, researchers have proposed a variety of theories. Psychoanalytic approaches suggest that emotions that couldn't be consciously dealt with by Holocaust survivors themselves have been passed down to their children. Sociological theories focus on the connection between a survivor's beliefs and fears and their child-rearing practices. Other researchers have looked to the family unit as a whole to ascertain the impact of the Holocaust survivors' experience on their children. They found, for example, that in tightly knit survivor families, attempts by children to establish boundaries are often viewed as a threat to the family's unity.
Finally, other researchers have proposed that memories of fear can actually be carried across generations through biochemistry. Children of Holocaust survivors have been found to have lower than average levels of the stress hormone cortisol, just like their traumatized parents. They also are more likely than average to suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder when exposed to a traumatic event, and more likely to view a non-life-threatening event, such as illness or separation from a loved one, as traumatic. This approach helps explain why children growing up in the same household but with different combinations of genes could be affected so differently by a parent's trauma—why I was more fearful of leaving home than my sister, why my daughter was more fearful of separation than my son. These various theories regarding the intergenerational transmission of posttraumatic stress left me hopeful that we might find new ways to lessen its most harmful effects.
For my mother, at seventy years old, completing this book was bittersweet. Just after she had stoically finished taking me through her life, barely flinching at the most intimate, disturbing details, she plunged into a deep depression. I was left wondering if this project had been a mistake. Thankfully, my mother recovered, and her optimism and hunger for adventure returned. She reminded me that her primary motivation for creating this memoir had never been to help her cope. This book was intended to help others better understand the Holocaust and its impact, and hopefully to also shed light on the potential complications resulting from other tragedies taking place today, around the world. This book was written with the hope that children and grandchildren of trauma survivors—as well as others facing their own challenges—might find inspiration in my mother's courageous story.
Last summer, I agreed to teach a course on the Holocaust at my son Gabriel's high school. One of the teachers at the school, a friend who had grown up in Sri Lanka, came to our house for dinner before the semester began. Between margaritas and slices of homemade pizza, he casually asked me, in his perfect Oxford-bred English accent, if I knew the Latin root of the word "holocaust." "Some of my students will be in your course, and they'll quiz you on this right off the bat," he explained.
I searched my memory. In the past decade I had read scores of books and viewed countless documentaries on the Holocaust. I knew dates of Allied bombings, numbers of victims at each camp, and the names of heroes, villains, and those in between. I was certain I had come across the origins of the word along the way, but it escaped me. If I confessed ignorance, my erudite Sri Lankan friend, who had left behind a successful investment banking career, would be convinced that his Oxford education was superior to my American one. For the sake of the team, I took a guess. I deduced that "holo" sounded like whole, and that "caust" had to do with destruction.
"Something like total destruction?" I asked.
Yes, I thought.
"But not quite." He told me that "holocaust," in Latin, means "burned offerings." It stems from the Greek words "holo" (which as I had guessed did mean "whole") and "caust" (burned). In ancient times, the priests of the Hebrew Temple in Jerusalem would offer animal sacrifices to God. "Holocaustum," in biblical Latin, referred to those offerings to God that were burned in their entirety at the altar, leaving no meat for consumption. Centuries later in the United States, the crematoria of Auschwitz brought the word holocaust to mind. It became synonymous with the destruction of European Jews by the Germans.
Thinking about that ancient definition, I realized it was not an entirely accurate description of what took place during World War II. The fire of hate that the Nazis lit did not consume everything. The earth was scorched, but from the blackened ground new seeds sprouted. Their genes had been affected by the intensity of the heat, but grow they did, and thrive they would, as my mother would put it, "bending toward the sun." This book is for those whose hopes have been dashed, or burned beyond recognition. It is for those who may have been born too late to witness the most traumatic event they would ever experience. And it is for those who are interested in exploring the blurry lines between good and evil, hope and despair, and mothers and daughters. It is evidence that despite the depth of pain and horror we may experience, the will of the human spirit is irrepressible, and the blessing of life, of a new day in the sun, will ultimately prevail.