family trauma.001

(Reprinted from the New York Times)

Our Secret Auschwitz

My childhood home had been like this, too. Our quiet house on a quiet block in a quiet city brimmed with silence — not a peaceful silence, but a heavy pall. Because so little was said, the running dialogue in my head took on particular importance, keeping me company, a steady reminder to myself: I’m real, I’m alive, I exist.

My grandfather often sat in the living room of our house, impassive and impenetrable, coming to life only to yell at one or another of us who had interrupted his television program. His yells, though terrifying, also came as a relief, the riddle of silence solved, at least momentarily.

Something was wrong, but it was better not to ask. If I was silent, I couldn’t hurt anybody. Survival rested on an understanding that dialogue took place in different registers. The unspoken messages were the urgent ones, the ones that needed to be decoded. “Go clean your room,” my mother instructed out loud, while her expression said: I’m sad. I need to be alone.

My therapist turned out to be a silent type, too, the kind who mostly listens and doesn’t answer direct questions. I spent a lot of time on her couch sitting in silence, wishing that the unending dialogue in my mind could be communicated by osmosis, implanted directly into her brain without words. It seemed that I could not break the family taboo against speaking what felt really real inside.

Then one day I told my therapist a story from a time when I was 12 years old. I had gone to a Holocaust exhibit with my class, and when I got home my mom asked me, “How was school?”

“Fine,” I said. “We went on a field trip to see an exhibit on Auschwitz.”

“You know Grandpa was there, right?” she asked.

“At the museum?”

“No,” she said. “At Auschwitz. He was in the concentration camp during the war.”

“Oh,” I said. No one had ever told me this. Still, my face flushed with shame at not knowing. I couldn’t think of anything else to say, and the conversation ended there. I absorbed the information as if just another fact, before returning to the safety of silence.

When I told my therapist this story, I could sense her shifting in her chair.

“What?” I asked her.

“You know that the Holocaust was a huge trauma,” she said. “The kind that affects every life it touched.”

“But it didn’t touch my life,” I protested. “That was my grandfather.”

She didn’t respond to this, and we sat quietly until the session ended. But what she said stayed with me. In the next weeks, I attempted to have conversations with various family members about the impact of the Holocaust on our lives. But they were not interested in talking about it. The secret pact of silence was safer.

I started to research the intergenerational transmission of trauma, looking for anything that might explain my experiences. I learned that massive trauma resists being put into language because of the enormity of its impact, often leaving a confounding silence and absence in its place. Because the trauma of the Holocaust cannot be fully verbalized, it gets re-enacted in families. Some are cast in the role of victim, some as perpetrator, others as rescuer.

My family unknowingly repeated my grandfather’s trauma and rescue again and again. We were trapped in history and did not understand how or why. Confusing things happened without explanation. We didn’t celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, graduations. We somehow knew not to try to get close. Intimacy was painful because you never knew when someone you loved would be taken away. The pact of secrecy kept us safe from the horror of the past, but it also kept us from moving on, draining the present of its vitality. Our roles never evolved.

After ruminating on this for some time, I summoned the courage to ask my therapist the question that had been nagging me: “Do you really think the trauma of the Holocaust impacted my family, impacted my life?” I did not expect her to answer my question directly, but she looked at me with a frank expression, and with blunt certainty simply said “yes.”

It is hard to know what it is that therapy does, or what is exactly therapeutic about the whole therapy process; to know which moment changed all the moments that followed. But I feel lucky that I have the memory of one such instance, the time my therapist spoke the word “yes” out loud.

This yes has helped open me up to a cascade of other yeses — yes to life, yes to hope, yes to human connection. The reverberations of that reply officially ended the stranglehold of silence, so that I could finally begin to speak my family’s lost and forgotten history, to begin to put it into words, out loud and in a voice all my own.

Rachel Sopher is a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist in private practice in New York.