Tuesday 5 May 2015

Spaces of Blue: Week Three: War traumas

I would highly recommend reading the following article by Ian Brown that explores how trauma can be genetically passed on to later generations. If you are not able to access it, I have reproduced it below.

A memorial concert reawakens the story of an artistic uprising in the Nazi concentration camp, Terezin, where a chorus of 150 inmates confronts the Nazis face-to-face - and sings to them what they dare not say.

"Defiant Requiem is an incredible story of the Nazi concentration camp at Terezin, wherein many talented Czech artists were imprisoned – and it specifically tells the story of one Czech composer, Raphael Sch├Ąchter, who's idea it was to lead a performance of Verdi's "Requiem" inside the camp. And it tells the parallel story of music conductor Murry Sidlin who decades later went back to Terezin with the Orchestra of Terezin Remembrance, specifically to perform "Requiem" again, quite beautifully, this time with survivors from the camp. I don't really have the words – let me just say this story was completely new to me and had a profound impact on me, particularly the incredible interviews with the survivors.

When the film was over, the whole crowd stayed still and silent all the way through the final credit, before breaking out in applause. It was such a profound experience to be educated on something completely new relating to the Holocaust, and for the subject matter to be told with such depth and compassion, but also restraint. The story was sensational enough, the filmmakers wisely chose not to be manipulative (which would have been easy in this case) – they just told you and showed you this story with honesty, clarity and genuine beauty….This is what true documentary film making should always be like." A film-goer's review,

The Verdi Requiem will be performed by the TSO on May 21, 22, 23

Bettina Goering, grandniece of Herman Goering, has long tried to bury the dark legacy of her family history. Painter Ruth Rich, a daughter of Holocaust survivors, cannot resolve her deep-rooted anger over the suffering of her parents and the loss of an older brother in the Holocaust. Bettina seeks out Ruth in an attempt to confront her enormous guilt and her fear that the capacity for evil is in her blood. When the women meet, their hidden guilt and rage clash in a series of intimate and extraordinary meetings.

Provocative and deeply moving, BLOODLINES by Cynthia Connop follows Ruth and Bettina as they face the past in their quest to heal the future. Their meetings are interspersed with individual interviews, powerful images from Ruth’s paintings “Songs of Darkness” and archival photos. This contemporary film brings to light, in a way never before seen, the unwritten cost of war and genocide on future generations of both victims and perpetrators. Given recent events in Darfur, Rwanda and Serbia, this film provides relevant and timely insight into the difficult process of reconciliation and forgiveness, and the long-term consequences of hatred.
At a time when vast rifts between groups are tearing the world apart, this gripping and ultimately hopeful film is a beautiful testament to the power of reconciliation.
Bloodlines was filmed in Australia, USA and Germany and produced in the Northern Rivers, Australia.

Chanoch Ze'evi's documentary follows the descendants of notorious Nazi figures as they struggle to live with their lineage.

Chronicling the emotional struggles of five descendants of top Nazi figures to overcome the horrific legacy of the “sins of their fathers,” Israeli filmmaker Chanoch Ze’evi’s Hitler’s Children is a haunting addition to the Holocaust film canon. Few will be unmoved by this film’s subjects, including the great niece of Herman Goering and the daughter of concentration camp commandant Amon Goeth, as they relate the heavy burdens stemming from their fateful lineage.

Katrin Himmler, the great niece of Heinrich Himmler, principal architect of the death camps, describes how she learned several languages so she could more effectively hide her German roots. She married an Israeli Jew, the son of Holocaust survivors, and wrote a book that was cathartic for her even as it alienated many of her family members.

The elderly Niklas Frank, the son of the governor general of occupied Poland Hans Frank, has devoted his life to excoriating his father via a scathing book and educational lectures to German schoolchildren about his crimes.

Several of the subjects have clearly suffered greatly, such as Bettina Goring — bearing an eerie resemblance to Herman -- who retreated to a reclusive life outside the grid in New Mexico and who casually comments that both she and her brother underwent sterilization so as to end their family’s bloodline.

Monika Goeth, whose father was brought to notorious prominence when he was played onscreen by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List, relates how she was initially unaware of her father’s true role at the camp until she made a casual remark about him when meeting a survivor, only to be met with a horrified reaction. One of the film’s more harrowing moments is her description of suffering a panic attack while watching Spielberg film’s in a Nuremberg movie theater.

Perhaps the most pathetic figure on display is Rainer Hoess, the grandson of Rudolf Hoess, the commandant at Auschwitz. Looking with horror at childhood pictures of his father, who grew up right outside the camp, playing in a toy car made by one of its prisoners, he later makes a visit to Auschwitz accompanied by Israeli journalist Eldad Beck, where he’s afraid of being recognized. In a later segment featuring him talking to a group of Jewish schoolchildren, he bursts into tears upon being embraced by an elderly Holocaust survivor who reassures him, “You weren’t there, you didn’t do it.” The fleeting moment doesn’t seem like it will be enough to assuage his irrational guilt.

For a review of  The Railway Man, you might wish to consult my piece at Critics at Large

We will not have time to show clips from the following:

"Dealing with thorny issues in a thoughtful, insightful way, Israeli filmmaker Fox and his cast create vivid, recognisable characters who dare to grapple with untouchable topics. And even if the story is a bit formulaic, the film is gripping and vitally important.

Eyal (Ashkenazi) is a Mossad hitman struggling to cope with his wife's recent suicide. So his boss (Shemer) puts him on a simple job: play tour guide to German tourist Axel (Berger), in Israel visiting his sister (Peters). Their grandfather was a Nazi officer who might still be in hiding. As Eyal spies on the siblings, he begins to examine for the first time some deeply held views and prejudices ... in more than just racial-political areas.
The plot is complex and layered, constantly surprising us and taking us places we don't really want to go. And it's perhaps the weakest thing in the film, since it plays a bit too closely by political thriller rules. What makes the film essential viewing is the character development, as they express honest, provocative views on a variety of issues, all while living out the central conflicts in their interaction--racism, politics, religion, sexism and even sexuality.
The central friendship between Eyal and Axel almost startlingly authentic. Ashkenazi and Berger get it note perfect--physically, mentally, emotionally--as their layered personalities mesh and clash and each discovers something surprising about himself. There are several moments when we fear it might all go horribly sappy, melodramatic or stupid, but the script stays on just the right side of that fine line, pushing the characters to the brink, but not over it. At the core this is a clash between pessimists and optimists, fanatics and liberals.
It's powerfully introspective, emotional and intelligent, but it's also lively, witty and often quite cynical about the world we've created ('They always play sad songs after a suicide bombing,' Eyal snaps, retuning the car radio). Music plays an important role in the film, encouraging the characters abandon their denial and face the truth about the world. Perhaps this film can do the same thing." Review by Rich Cline   (I highly recommend this film.)

Another film I would highly recommend is The Flat. The following is a review which I will reproduce.

"Borne on the generational ripples of a painful history, Arnon Goldfinger's The Flat is a true-life detective story that uncovers much more than the tangled roots of its maker's family tree. The flat in question is the cluttered Tel Aviv apartment of Mr. Goldfinger's recently deceased grandmather, a German Jew who, along with her husband, emigrated from Berlin in the 1930s. Among the antiques, letters and almost a dozen mink stoles was a commemorative coin bearing a swastika  on ones side and a Star of David on the other. This bizarre artifact would come to symbolize a slowly unraveling mystery, one that would eventually lead to  drowsy German suburb and the daughter of of a high-ranking Nazi propagandist.
Maintaining a gentle, self-effacing presence and bracingly direct style, Mr. Goldfinger determines to learn what the past can offer a family that,like his, "lives only in the present." Tirelessly prodding the scabs of denial and the bruises of  Holocaust memories, he wonders why his strangely incurious mother, Hannah, never questioned her parents too closely about the war. "What for?" Hannah responds, and the question reverberates through the film that begins as a family quest but evolves into a gripping study of know-don't tell reticence."

The Holocaust’s long reach: Trauma is passed on to survivors’ children

Franci resumed a mostly solitary life in Prague – her parents and husband had been killed by the Nazis – until she married Kurt Epstein, a 41-year-old former Olympic water-polo player and fellow camp survivor, and in 1947 gave birth to their daughter, Helen – Helen, after Kurt’s mother, also killed. After the Soviet-backed Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948, the Epsteins moved to Manhattan. About 92,000 Holocaust survivors emigrated to the United States. An additional 25,000 headed to Canada.

Thirty-one years later, Helen published a book. It was a story no one had ever told before, at least not in a book meant to be read by everyone.

Children of the Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors – published to widespread acclaim in 1979, 35 years ago last fall – made a then-astounding claim: that the harrowing trauma of the Holocaust, and the symptoms that marked survivors, had been passed on to their children – a generation that wasn’t even alive during the war.

Today, having identified post-traumatic stress disorder, we take this as a given. And the transmission isn’t just psychological, as psychiatrists have pointed out for more than a century; it’s physical. Rachel Yehuda, a pioneering psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, has found that children of mothers with PTSD are three times as likely to have it as are other kids, and almost four times more likely to be depressed and anxious. As Judith Shulevitz pointed out last fall in The New Republic, the children of survivors often have unusual levels of cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress – which was also true of infants whose mothers were pregnant and near the World Trade Center on 9/11.
Emotional and physical trauma can become genetic.

I reread Helen Epstein’s book a few days ago, as we came up on Easter and Passover, the annual celebrations of forgiveness and freedom and resurrection and renewal that take place this weekend. Reading it, you can’t help but think of all the agony that has been stored up and passed on – by survivors not just of the Holocaust, but of Hiroshima and of Cambodia and of Rwanda, of residential schools and wars and countless other public and private calamities.
But the more we learn about how deep and far a wound can travel, the more we seem to want to forget it. The world is plagued by genocide (Islamic State, Boko Haram), ethnic wars (Ukraine, Mali, Burma), physical, sexual and racial abuse (disappearing aboriginal women, men’s fraternities in Oklahoma). It made me want to remember what Helen Epstein noticed 35 years ago, and how the world responded. Because 35 years from now, another generation’s scars will be rippling to the surface.
Helen Epstein was a student at Israel’s Hebrew University in the late 1960s (she’s 67 now) when she first felt a connection to other children of Holocaust survivors – multilingual citizens of a global array of countries whose parents were all Central European survivors of concentration camps.
“I wasn’t even thinking about trauma then,” Ms. Epstein remembers. “I was just thinking, ‘Here are all these people who speak European languages like me.’ And I was connecting with them.” Never before – not at school in New York, not playing music (she is a widely published cultural journalist and biographer of, among others, Vladimir Horowitz and producer Joe Papp), not in the Brownie Scouts – had she ever felt part of a community.

Her sense of isolation was itself a symptom. Until then, the Holocaust had been what Helen believed was her private secret, a “black box” within her where she stored the details of her parents’ life in the camps, and her own vivid, almost hallucinogenic mental images: piles of skeletons and hills of suitcases, barbed wire – none of which she had seen with her own eyes. She lived within a “floating sense of danger and incipient harm.” Manhattan’s Seventh Avenue subway line was a cattle car on the way to Poland. A smokestack was always attached to an imagined crematorium. She often felt angry and violent, but had nowhere to park those feelings.
In hundreds of interviews over the next decade, including a two-year stint of research in Toronto, she discovered how common and debilitating these fears were. They recurred again and again in the lives of children of survivors.

The parents of one of her closest friends never left their house, for fear it would be looted or burnt down: This seemed like a reasonable concern to Ms. Epstein. Many children of survivors married other children of survivors: Raising a family took on “cosmic significance.” Some hid their Jewishness; many never talked of the war, “because talk meant accepting that the war had happened and, more than anything else in the world, I wished it had not,” as one subject explained. Many were named for murdered relatives. Many were enormously accomplished people, but they still felt like replacements, with all the burden that implied. Hardly anyone discussed these matters.
Most of all, they had to deal with their parents, who had survived unthinkable Nazi torture to give their children a life free from it. “For most kids of survivors, there’s nothing except your parents,” Ms. Epstein told me recently from Lexington, Mass., where she writes and lives with her husband, Patrick Mehr, an e-book publisher and himself the son of French survivors, “There’s no grandparents. No aunts or cousins. What does that mean? It means, first of all, that your parents have no context. There’s no one to say, ‘No, your mother didn’t do that, your father’s wrong.’ It essentially magnifies the power of the parents.”

Quite apart from hearing harrowing stories of murdered relatives – proof, as Ms. Epstein says, “that something went really wrong in your family”– the children of survivors had no allies. The ensuing pressure to cause no trouble, to outperform others, to make up for all the losses of the war, was overwhelming. Some had trouble settling on a career; many figured any choice would fail; many were anxious. “I often wonder if I could have survived myself and I doubt whether I could have,” one interviewee tells the author. Says another: “We had to be gentle with our parents. They appeared to be very strong people but we had to be gentle with them because they could shatter very easily.”
Every time Albert Singerman, one of Ms. Epstein’s subjects, disobeyed his mother, she screamed “Enemy of Israel! Enemy of the Jews!” He responded by trying to see how long he could hold his breath in shower stalls, and later enlisted and fought in Vietnam.

Ms. Epstein herself often felt numb, as if she had no right to be angry. Her solution was to dissociate from what was happening. She longed to hear her family’s stories, but she was loath to cause her parents any pain in the telling. Everything took place under a curtain of secrecy – and in a mixture of Czech and German, to boot. “I heard all this in a language that wasn’t my adult language”– loaded words like lager and kapo and achtung, which didn’t seem to have any precise English equivalent. “It made it feel like a different world,” Ms. Epstein says today. “And maybe that speaks to why no one knew. It was like another planet.”

Thirty years went by before these problems were identified in the children of survivors. Ms. Epstein estimated there were at least 250,000 children of survivors like her. Today, there are, conservatively speaking, somewhere between 10 million and 52 million refugees on Earth, people who have been ripped out of their lives and families for the crime of being who they are. Presumably their offspring will have a few issues themselves.

For all the corroboration Ms. Epstein found, there was very little acknowledgment of the syndrome scientifically. By 1978, fewer than two dozen studies of children of survivors had been published. The first, a casual description of three patients, was written in 1966 by Vivian Rakoff, the brilliant professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of Toronto (and later director of what became the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health), who at the time was an assistant director of research at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal, another gathering city for survivors.
“The parents are not broken conspicuously,” Rakoff wrote, “yet their children, all of whom were born after the Holocaust, display severe psychiatric symptomatology. It would almost be easier to believe that they, rather than their parents, had suffered the corrupting, searing hell.” Two of his three subjects had tried to commit suicide.

Twelve years later, Rakoff and two colleagues published the first systematic study of children of survivors. He was violently criticized for pathologizing them, and while he now points out that “the vast majority of the kids of survivors do okay,” he sees nothing surprising in his original thesis. “It’s not surprising that a tremendously traumatic event would be imparted to successive generations. Human beings are shaped by experience. And experience becomes part of memory. And memory is what we impart to our children.” (Dr. Yehuda’s theory, that stress reactions caused by severe trauma are genetically inheritable, has run into skepticism as well.)

That changed as Helen Epstein’s book appeared, first in the form of a New York Times Magazine story. Some survivors hated it. “It really upset Holocaust survivors who were invested in normal children, and in not giving Hitler a posthumous victory.” But the 500 letters that arrived in response – detailed seven- and eight-page single-spaced accounts of similar experiences – proved her hunch had been right.

Children of the Holocaust has been in print ever since. Germany, Italy and Japan, three countries of the Axis, were the first to translate it outside the United States. It still hasn’t been published in Israel.
“Israel has always been extremely ambivalent about the Holocaust,” Ms. Epstein said, over the telephone. “In 1967, when I was starting my inquiry, Israel was 19 years old, exactly as old as I was. So it was a very new country, and they were really trying to differentiate between Israelis and Diaspora Jews.” Israel was trying to re-establish a stronger, healthier, prouder, fitter image of Jewishness.

As well, Ms. Epstein added, “Everyone in Israel is some kind of survivor,” whether of 19th-century pogroms in Russia or of more recent Jewish exoduses from North Africa and the Middle East. “So you have a country that’s totally populated with people who have PTSD. Why would they be more interested in my parents’ history than they would be in their own? Plus, my family’s story doesn’t fit the Zionist narrative, because my parents emigrated to America.”

These days, with her husband, she runs Plunkett Lake Press, a non-fiction publishing company with a focus on Jewish writing (including Heda Kovaly’s Under A Cruel Star, one of the most gripping Holocaust memoirs ever published, which Ms. Epstein discovered and translated.) Plunkett Lake was the spot in the Berkshires where Kurt Epstein liked to swim after he came to America.
Ms. Epstein has two grown sons. They grew up with relatives, so “they’re not as preoccupied by history.” The transmission of historical trauma from generation to generation can be halted, it seems, provided one works to becomes conscious of it.

But history keeps grasping for us anyway. Ms. Epstein is now finishing the last in what has turned out to be a trilogy of memoirs about the long and often invisible hand of the Holocaust in her life: All she will say is that it uncovers sexual abuse, an affair her mother had, and our astonishing ability to “forget” what we most need to remember.

Trauma is trauma, whether it is besetting children of Holocaust survivors or children of families shattered by atom bombs, civil war, terrorism, domestic violence, sexual abuse, addiction, or even illness and disability. The stories keep emerging: in Heather Connell’s Small Voices, a film about the children of survivors of the Khmer Rouge killing fields; in Peter Balakian’s memoir Black Dog of Fate, written as the son of survivors of the Armenian genocide; in Michael Arlen’s Passage to Ararat, also about Armenia. (Memoirs by the children of Rwandan survivors are rarer: They’re just becoming adults.) The details of each oppression make it unique, but the effect of the trauma always follows the same path.

“I don’t feel possessive about my PTSD at all,” Ms. Epstein says. “I think it’s nearly universal.” To which Vivian Rakoff adds, “I think the transmission of trauma has to be admitted to. That when you do something terrible, it has effects. You can have psychic transmission of disorder in the same way you can have microbial transmission of disorder.”

Now we are learning that the horror can be passed along physically, and perhaps even genetically. Efforts are being made to interrupt that fateful flow: At Mount Sinai in New York, Dr. Yehuda has a theory that hydrocortisone might stymie the establishment of PTSD. There are also encouraging therapies and experimental programs, as Judith Shulevitz reported in The Atlantic, in which pregnant women at risk for PTSD receive counselling to help them through the thickets of child rearing.
Trauma and the atrocities that cause it are unavoidable. Parliament’s decision to expand Canada’s war against the Islamic State is, at least arguably, a legitimate and necessary evil. But the children of the soldiers and victims who fall on both sides in that war will feel its trauma regardless, in some place too dark to see. Then will come the hard part. Because once we notice trauma, and inquire after it, we are apologizing for it, and admitting to some sense of responsibility.

Maybe this is why we try so hard not to to notice other people’s pain, why we resist the idea that formative experiences are passed along in physical form as memory, conscious or collective or otherwise. We know we’re connected to one another in ways we can’t see or control, inconvenient as the fact often is. “Much of history is written in blood,” Helen Epstein writes in Children of the Holocaust, “and experiencing some degree of trauma seems to be a part of experiencing life. What that means to me is that it is not ‘other’ but, to various degrees, ‘us’ and that we need to learn to use that insight toward connection rather than separation.” Human pain turns out to be not very private after all.

Judith Herman, the Harvard psychiatrist who in 1993 wrote Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, observed that “the study of psychological trauma has a curious history – one of episodic amnesia.” Why? Because “to study psychological trauma is to come face to face both with human vulnerability in the natural world and with the capacity for evil in human nature.”

We want to remember, and we want to forget. We are who we are. But sometimes we can’t bear to admit it.

No comments:

Post a Comment