CAT | Survivors
Fern Schumer Chapman
The quote from Michel Friedman that resonates with me is “Imagine what it means to be a child of a father and a mother who had been broken. My mother saw how her father was beaten up and murdered. My parents later tried to rebuild themselves from millions of mosaic pieces. As a child of such a family you carry more responsibilities than is good for you.”
Sadly, the Holocaust produced many mother and fathers who were “broken.” Broken parents often raise broken children. As I’ve written many times in this blog, trauma is transmitted in families.
Based upon recent studies of mice, scientists recently discovered that some animals and some people are genetically wired to develop PTSD. A team of neurobiologists at the University of Zurich found that environmental factors can alter genes that can be passed on to the next generation. This study indicates that the children of those who have been traumatized aren’t just affected by living with the disturbed parent; the anxiety can be expressed in the genes. In other words, trauma can be imperceptibly transmitted from parent to child, through nurture and nature.
But let me return to Friedman’s comments. His image of “mosaic pieces” is apt. Someone who suffers from great trauma is left with shards of themselves. Fragments. A deeply damaged self. An individual survives great trauma by denying what happened , insulating himself or herself from the memories, and splitting off the part of themselves that is damaged so that the individual doesn’t remember or feel the pain. But that individual also remains stuck in the moment the trauma occurred. They have not fully integrated the experience into their being.
Consequently, children, who live with a traumatized parent who are stuck in a younger self, perceive the parent’s vulnerabilities. The children worry about the parent’s weaknesses and try to insulate them from pains that they fear will overwhelm their parents. Consequently, we “carry more responsibilities than is good.”
What gets confused is an understanding of boundaries. What are a child’s responsibilities to a damaged parent? What is a child’s responsibility to himself or herself? What does it mean to be a good daughter or a good son? Since the demands of that role are defined by the parent’s needs, and damaged parents expect much more than is realistic, the children feel like failures as sons and daughters when they can’t meet their parent’s inappropriate needs.
Friedman says that “When his parents had died, he had felt he almost died with them.” Here again, he is alluding to a lack of boundaries. He cannot define himself without his parents’ needs or demands. The child’s identity is subsumed by the parents and the child isn’t sure where he or she begins or ends. The relationship becomes so tightly intertwined , the child isn’t sure how he or she will survive without the parent.
New research and recent understandings of trauma and its transmission in families have helped children address this experience. Often, children raised in these families aren’t aware of the psychological dynamic; they only know their own pain. But thankfully, therapists and specialists who are knowledgeable in the field are better able to help children cope with the guilt and shame children like Michel Friedman know all too well.
Michel Friedman: Lawyer, Writer, Entertainer, and the Son of Survivors
Knowing more about someone’s past can be very useful to understand him or her. Many people in Germany know Michel Friedman, who is now 55; he once was the host of a show with two million viewers. He is also a lawyer and a writer, and a well-known liberal member of the Christian Democrats. His life ran into a serious crisis in 2003, when he was discovered with cocaine and when Ukrainian forced prostitutes testified that he had had sex with him. He always was a bit too flamboyant for me, but I feel much closer to him since I read a long and frank interview with him the other day.
Michel Friedman was nine, when his parents decided to move from Paris to Frankfurt, for business reasons. Frankfurt was an ugly city at the time compared to Paris, and Germany the country of the murderers. His parents were both survivors, almost all his other family had perished in the Holocaust. So he argued about the decision with his parents until they died: “Germany was a poisoned country. And those who had scattered the poison were partly my teachers and neighbors, partly judges and politicians. Growing up in such an environment was an extreme burden (Sueddeutsche Zeitung, April 1st, 2011, p. 26, my translation).”
He decided to stay, because his parents needed him, as so many Jewish parents in this generation needed their children: “Imagine what it means to be a child of a father and a mother who had been broken. My mother saw how her father was beaten up and murdered. My parents later tried to rebuild themselves from millions of mosaic pieces. As a child of such a family you carry more responsibilities than is good for you.” Yet he also regrets that he has not left Germany again; mostly when he is confronted with racism or anti-Semitism.
After his “fall”, he had a number of difficult years, including the painful examination of why he “blew up his own life”. He now says he would have died from loneliness and sadness, had he not been caught. When his parents had died, he had felt he almost died with them; and a few months later he had lost one of his best friends who had been a kind of mentor to him. Michel Friedman sees all this as an explanation, not an excuse. He is back on TV, on a smaller channel with fewer viewers. I am sure, next time I see him as a host or as a guest in somebody else’s show, I will view him with different eyes.
What distinguishes the past from the present and the future is that we cannot change it any more. Yet often we still try to control it. In some way we have to, our approach to it will always be selective and it always needs interpretation. Yes, I agree that you and I, the generations of the children of survivors and of the sons and daughters of Nazi perpetrators and fellow travelers, have no alternative but to face the past of the Holocaust and World War II and to integrate it into our lives, intellectually and emotionally.
However we use or abuse individual or collective memory, it will color our current and future feelings, thinking, and acting. This is most obvious in the political domain which George Orwell had in mind, I believe, when he suggested that he who controls the present, controls the past and with that also the future: the control of thought and discourse in all dimensions of time for purposes of deliberate manipulation as well as self-deception.
We are both lucky that we encounter no major problems in our societies when we try to report about the past in our families and societies as honestly and respectfully as we can, and with only one ethical or political purpose in mind: the rights of all men, women, and children to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
This is the bridge which connects the approach to our individual histories and their foundation in the 1930s and 1940s with our current and future activities. Other people (and other generations) may choose different pasts or foundations or may connect them differently. A couple of days ago, we had been invited to celebrate the 80th birthday of a friend of ours. Erika, an ethnologist, was born in 1931 and grew up during the Nazi era. She has revolted against it ever since and been active all her life in many worthy pursuits. One of them was the renovation of Hofheim’s old town center with its roots reaching back into the Middle Ages. In the 1970s, the local elites had planned its demolition and modernization with high-rise buildings. Today, the whole town is happy about its ancient core and proud of it.
Another of Erika’s causes was the rehabilitation of 11 women who had been sentenced to death as “witches” by the authorities at Hofheim in the 16th and 17th centuries. In a resolution of November 3rd, 2010, the city council unanimously accepted an ethical responsibility for the murder of these women and professed to commit itself against violence against girls and women. A plate at a central place in town remembers the murder of the “witches”. It says:
“In memory of those who were tortured and put to death as witches: Where violence rules, peace cannot thrive; healing requires remembering.”
You (and your daughter) raise fascinating questions…questions I’m often asked by students at schools. “Why,” they ask, “do you spend so much time writing and telling your mother’s story?”
I tell my mother’s story for both personal and political reasons.
My personal reasons were captured perfectly in a recent New York Times review of a new book called, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. “Memory is intricately tied to identity; we are a product of our own experiences. What we perceive is shaped by what we have perceived before; what we learn is bootstrapped on past learning. Amnesia seems to many so horrifying because it robs us of our own autobiography, and thus, it seems, ourselves.”
For years, my mother coped with her losses by cutting off her story. In doing so, she inadvertently deprived me of an essential personal narrative to understand her and myself. It was her maternal impulse to insulate me from her own painful history. She believed she was protecting me; instead, I felt alienated from her. Now that she’s shared her story with me and I’ve recorded it, we both feel we have an autobiography.
Still, it’s difficult to balance the past and the present… but it’s critical. Sometimes, like you, I feel the past has overtaken my present and I want to leave it behind me. I simply want to fully experience each moment without worry of my responsibility to tell this story. Yet, when I distance myself from the story and my own history, I feel I have shirked my responsibility to my mother and her family and I have lost part of myself.
Politically, there is an even greater mandate to tell the story. Of course, there is the old adage that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. So that drives me. More importantly, I recognize that it’s important to be one of the many voices that interpret the past.
George Orwell summed it up best: “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.”
So I keep telling our story.
The Past and the Present Time
War has come back into some of my dreams. Since there is always some war going on somewhere, I ask myself why now. I think it is Libya. Fortunately, it is not a major war, but it is nasty; one party is a brutal dictator, it is close, and NATO is involved, with Germany abstaining. Can we make good for past misdeeds by trying to keep out of war, any war? What about the responsibility to protect? I was actively involved in these debates 20 years ago, when they were even more ideological than they are today.
Then there is the natural catastrophe in Japan and the crisis at Fukushima. My elder daughter, who has been active in anti-nuclear energy protests since she has been politically aware, has always felt that topics such as these are much more important than dealing with the shadows of the past. She is more concerned about the shadows of the future.
Maybe this is a false alternative. How we deal with the past is partly a generational question. But I also believe that the reflection upon how we use (or abuse) it in current discourse is of central importance for our well-being and our future. I have read a lot about the politics of historical memory recently, in Germany, in Israel, and among the Arabs, and I would like to write more about it, particularly how the past is abused as a political and ideological weapon. Maybe I can go back to teaching a course on the topic, together with a new friend; an American who lived in Israel for 15 years and then moved to Vienna.
Irene and I saw “The King’s Speech” the other day, in the new cinema in my home town. (The theater even had a presentation of the original version.) We both considered it a wonderful and very humane film; and it was much more political than I had thought. The king’s speech, of course, was the justification of why Britain had declared war on Germany in 1939. I was moved to tears and I know of German friends who also cried, because it was such a powerful justification of a very just cause. (Not that all British wars had been just; these days, new embarrassing official material on Britain’s colonial wars has been published.) The decision which is the topic of “the” speech could have cost my embryonic life, but that doesn’t change my calculus one bit, even though I may one day be able to accept that the deliberate bombing of residential areas in Germany had been a war crime.
Apart from Japan and Libya, the newspapers I read and the German TV program have again been full of material on the shadows of the Holocaust: a new book by Thomas Harlan, who died recently, on his father, the notorious Nazi film maker Veit Harlan (Jud Süß); a documentation on the (normal) German police in the Nazi era, which had (of course) been deeply involved in the dictatorship and the Holocaust – it wasn’t just the Gestapo; reports on the 50th anniversary of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem; an interview with Michel Friedman, a famous Jewish-German lawyer and entertainer, about his life as the son of survivors in post-war Germany; and the story of a German-African survivor whom the Nazis had sent to Buchenwald when he was 14. I will write more about the two survivors, but let me know how you feel about all this and how you bring the past and the present time together these days.