Forgive me if this article comes out of total left field but sometimes I can't help myself. I read something and it touches me so deeply, that the only way I can feel better is to write about it and hope my words can do something.
A few weeks ago my friend and mentor sent me this article about the atrocities happening to the refuges in Greece. Reading it, all I could think about was my father. My father, who at the age of 14 was taken to a Auschwitz. After enduring his time at the camps, he was released with many other refugees, into a "displaced persons" camp in France.
All I knew about this when I was a kid was a photograph I found of my father, his first wife and two other boys, sitting on a rock in a forest. They look skinny, and much younger then they actually are. Like middle schoolers, when I know from the chronology that they were almost 18.
When I think about camp, I think about Summer Camp. About camping in the woods with friends. Some of my best memories are about camping or being at camp. I am so lucky.
Sleeping outside after being in a concentration camp was probably not like summer camp. I can imagine never feeling warm. Never feeling full. I know, because I am so tall, and my brother and grandfather are so tall, that at 5'10 my fathers growth was most likely stunted by his time in the camps. He should've been 6'3 like the other men in my family. When he died I was 14, and almost as tall as he was.
After enduring the ghettos, followed by the completely impossible to fathom horrors of the concentration camps, it seems inhumane to think that we sent them to "displaced persons" camps. Nobody wanted to take in the refugees, even after the horrors they were exposed to became public knowledge. These survivors were forced instead to sleep outside, confined to yet another "camp", sometimes even staying in the concentration camps where they had been imprisoned. I can only imagine this wasn't by choice.
It makes me heart ache just to think about it.
Refugees are such a contentious and hot button issue right now. People are scared. Fear based decision making is horribly flawed. It sends ripples of pain out into the future, where it only grows and morphs into something more horrifying than we can possibly imagine.
In my final paper for my B.A. in Middle Eastern studies, I wrote about the similarities between children of Holocaust survivors and children of Palestinians displaced in 1948 and 1972. Modern history is harder to study and quantify empirically, and this was in the early 2000s when the internet was not something you could quote as a source. What I found was this: the two groups shared two distinctive and measurable factors - an incredibly high rate of literacy (higher than all the other middle eastern countries combined) and a deep and abiding sense of fear.
I somehow managed to get my hands on a study done in Israel, during the peace talks at Camp David, amongst people living in towns that either bordered or would be absorbed into Palestine during the Road Map to Peace. The researchers asked these people if they were afraid, trying to find common factors that inspired fear in these residents. They studied over 15 potential fear triggers (including location) but found that the only common denominator between a high level of fear was a relative or close friend who was a Holocaust survivor. They remembered or had been exposed to the legacy of that experience, and with it bore that fear into how they viewed the path to peace with their neighbors. A more recent study from 2012 found the same high levels of fear not only in children but also in grandchildren (gawd, how much do I wish we had the modern internet when I was in college?!?)
The second and third generations of the Holocaust are easier to study because they are well organized groups. There are resources. There are mailing lists. Scholars who want to study us don't have to look far to find us, en masse. But it's also incredibly easy to see how these patterns, these studies, this research, could also be so easily applied to any group that finds itself under violence, then turned away by all the more affluent communities that so easily have the ability to help them.
Children of holocaust survivors, of which I am, remarkably one - are fed on fear. Be prepared if they come for you. Never have less than a full tank of gas. Don't throw away spoiled food because you never know if you'll need it. Don't even say the word lice unless you think you'll look good with a buzz cut.
The Second Generation was studied widely, if not widely known about. They shared hauntingly similar stories about how what their parents endured shaped their childhoods, and then their lives as adults.
We live in an era of those children grow up. They have become leaders, they carry their fear into the decisions they make. The future suffers as a result.
I called it the theory of inherited trauma, a term I found in another book I will never be able to lay my hands on again. What happens when the defining moment in your life is something horrible that happened in your parents generation? What happens when the lesson you learn is that only you can defend yourself, because nobody else is going to help you? How does that lesson grow and expand and become even more horrifying as it ripples out into the future? Don't just think about the refugees in Europe now, think about the groundwork you are laying for the future, spanning endlessly, generations and generations to come.
If you are lucky like me, then the horrifying event that your parents endured becomes the source of possibly your best quality. You learn a deep sense of compassion and empathy. You learn to see the power of a story to inspire people to make decisions that will send ripples of compassion and empathy into the universe in the place of violence and fear. You learn that when something unimaginably horrible happens to you (ahem, cancer, ahem) that you can find in your voice the ability to make people less scared, more compassionate, more grateful for the blessings they do have, more willing to see the humanity and sameness that defines us all at our core.
I see the perfect emblem of this in one of my favorite memories of my father, Andrew.
Andrew had a print shop in San Francisco across the street from a place that made and sold fresh bagels. This bagel shop had the habit of putting out any bagels they couldn't sell for the large homeless population in SF to come and take as they needed. The neighborhood organization for this little strip of commerce was having a problem with littering and decided that the vagrants and the bagels were to blame. They tried to pass a community regulation banning the leaving out of food on the street.
My father, strong and tall and bushy-mustached, stood up in front of the crowd of his peers at this meeting. He said,"I don't think any of you know what it's truly like to be hungry. I know. I was in Auschwitz. I think about what I would do for a 3 day old bagel at that time and I am ashamed. I can't imagine anyone who has ever known what it's like to be hungry who would suggest throwing away food instead of giving it to people who would otherwise have nothing else to eat."
The measure was shot down unanimously. Even the person who suggested it expressed his shame at thinking about it. Instead they allocated some additional spending for more trash cans on the street.
It's a small decision. A microcosm of the much larger, and much more overwhelming decision we now face. I get that.
I understand deeply what fear can do. It can make you selfish. Protect what's yours, we think. We don't have enough to take care of other people, we have to take care of our own people first! I get it. I'm scared too. All the time. But then I remember just how much I actually have. Just how truly lucky I am (cancer and all) and it reminds me that all I can do is move past that fear. Put it aside. Identify when I'm feeding that monster inside of me and starving the one that teaches me compassion and empathy.
I watch this video and I think - if 8 year old Francine starving in a holocaust camp can give her chocolate, what could I do?