Step Outside-Into Yourself: Ask the Unasked, Tell the Untold:
As in water, face answereth face, so does the heart of man to man.
Another workshop? Why bother? Who needs them? Sure, it’s important to remember, but weren’t two workshops enough already? Why drag the third generation into it? Isn’t it really time, after 60 years, to move on?
The facts suggest otherwise: applicants had to be turned away for lack of space. Furthermore, participants’ feedback, adult and child survivors, second generation, and, for the first time, the third generation, endorsed the needs for further workshops. We confronted The Untold and the Unasked: Intergenerational Dialogue. After a 2 year hiatus, the dialogue continued under the auspices of Jewish Care, Melbourne. Professor Frank Oberklaid, OAM, launched the day.
For the third time, co-ordinator Tania Nahum welcomed over 40 participants and staff members, Ruth, Andi, Elise, Shelly, Paul and George.
Dialogue seems to be, in many Holocaust families, a risky game of ‘hide and seek’. All the rules of that childhood game are replayed by adults as they seek and search for the ‘other’ who does his or her best to elude, evade and remain in hiding, not be found. It’s a survival game, don’t you see? Little wonder it is such a struggle to speak, not at, or to but with the other.
Barriers to being ‘found’ are preserved, secrets, too risky to be faced, even after 60 years. No wonder that a great deal of preparation was needed to ensure that the workshop would provide an environment that is safe and secure. After all ‘safety’ was the most precious commodity, the experience sought by all survivors. Such a scarce commodity.
This Workshop, like those in 2000 and 2001, was designed to cater for the needs of survivors and their children with a unique addition: the third generation (3G). We believed that this inclusion to be a ‘world first’ in a workshop specifically focusing on dialogue, and its barriers, between the generations.
The organizers tried to incorporate the latest approaches, newest insights gleaned from clinical and research experiences available. In turn, we hoped that the workshop would open up new ways to communicate; inspire on-going scholarship; and add momentum and historical relevance to those undertaking their life journey of discovery.
So many issues to navigate: the troubled waters of intergenerational transmission of trauma; the complexity of repairing old psychic wounds, even if they can not be fully repaired; the quest for personal truth in the face of competing family truth. Such efforts are conflictual yet need to be faced for both family and personal development. These and other issues were addressed. The workshop was based on the belief that speaking with one another is the best way to navigate through family turbulence. With such thoughts in mind, we embarked, prepared to step out of ourselves in order to enter new spaces where we might discover intimate dialogue.
Yes, we did confront predictable questions: don’t all families have problems? Why are Holocaust families any different? Should we not finally move on? Isn’t it better look to the future instead of going back to the past? Each has a response: because…, because…, because…. But to answer a question with an answer risks sidestepping precious dialogue, foreclosing discovery. So rather than providing ‘answers’, let me try to convey the workshop spirit: dialogue. I’ll try to share some highlights of the day.
This act of dialogue is so simple a baby does it naturally, at birth. Even before words appear.
Dialogue is not even second nature. It is instinctive. When the baby first cries, she is signaling, reaching out for a response. Her tears signal upset. Responded to she feels soothed. She settles. This wordless dialogue is complete. The baby has learnt to dialogue with her care-taker, the one who gives care. She takes care to ‘listen’ to her infant’s wordless dialogue.
What has this to do with Holocaust survivor family dialogue? Simply that this most natural, basic instinct ‘to dialogue’ was corrupted in the lives of survivors by massive trauma. Why? Emotional meltdown occurred in the service of their survival.
Survival is the tightrope between Life and Death. Survival mode is not something anyone chooses as a life style. One is driven, forced to adopt the instinctive life style. Over the decades, I have considered the impact of my mother’s and father’s forced survival instincts on their life as parents. And its impact on me as a child.
This workshop revisited and confronted my earlier thoughts, demanded an update. I appreciated the sensitivity of this process for my mother, who took part in all three workshops, as well as for myself, and on our relationship. I was mindful of the dramatic impact an earlier workshop had resulting in my need to write about that encounter (see Kathy Grinblat’s book, Children of the Shadows, 2002). Now, I was mindful of what may lay ahead, during and after the completion of this workshop.
So I have decided to detail the process of the day, to reply to my needs for understanding, to where it would lead me, and others, relating in new ways. I retraced the moments in the workshop that became signposts of my quest to come to terms with my childhood experiences.
Based on those experiences as a child of Holocaust survivors, I struggled to establish new boundaries between my professional work, role as group facilitator, son, which competed for priorities. Layers upon layers: past, present, potential for the future; conscious and unconscious; intimate, private, personal and public; secular and spiritual; and of course the verbal and pre-and non-verbal. How to make sense of it all? Why try?
Workshop 2004 was ‘new’ and ‘old’ both, at once familiar, yet challenging and strange.
Reflections on Parents: survival mode
Survivors honed their ‘survival instincts’ even if meant they had to supplant the instinct to dialogue; to survive they suffocated their sighs and sobs, blocked their tears and decided not to communicate signals of suffering or distress. Why bother! From this vantage point, I began to see the day from new, different perspectives.
I see the workshop as a day of drama and ‘courage’. Why? From the outside, all we did was listen to a speaker tell her story; then met in groups of 10 or so for an hour and a half, exchanging talk before a coffee break and a large group meeting of 40 people plus; then a tasty lunch before another set of four small groups; finally to return to the large group before farewells. Where is the ‘courage’ in that day? True. It seems to be safe enough.
Yet, to step out of life-long patterns of survival, to dare to risk a change with ones loved ones, that does take courage. Why? Because it asks for life changing shifts in personal, intimate habits…but here I go, answering questions, let me return to dialogue.
Sometimes what you see from the outside does not reveal what you hear on the inside, the insider’s dialogue. What we heard from the inside were echoes of cries unheard, unheard for decades. Faint whimpers, gentle sobs, slightly moist eyes, trembling lips and hands, sweaty foreheads anxiously wiping away droplets of stress. We heard cries previously unheard, the beginnings of the dialogue delayed decades, some returning to a long forgotten dialogue from the nursery, others testing the waters of tears for the first time. After promises never ever again to do that, to cry.
We all took some new steps in our dialogue: to listen anew, to speak anew, to hear anew, even to cry anew. Delicate, tender moments of dialogue began. A daughter reached out to her father with a trembling request: please don’t see me as ‘perfect’; see me ‘warts and all’. Her father finally ‘got it’. She spoke. He heard. They spoke with each other. They were in dialogue. They had moist eyes. I cried inside. Cries Unheard were heard across the generations.
He, like so many survivors promised never to cry again. A child of survivors said she promised only to cry alone in a bathroom. Like her mother. Could she betray that family rule? How dare she dialogue in a strange new tongue, to share a tear with another?
Why do I go over these moments, these details the day after? Not to be understood is not grounds for suicide, leaving jobs or loved ones? Or is it?
What is in it for me? Is this my new dialogue? Yes, I think it is. I witnessed those moments of meeting that were life changing for the father and the daughter. I felt inspired, filled with hope that new dialogue, in front of my eyes, was a living proof of a new way to be. To be entitled. To speak silent thoughts. To shed dried up tears. To transform the frozen promise to warmth and sharing, even in front of intimate strangers.
All this dialogue occurred in the space of less than 9 hours, between 8.30 am to 5 pm. What happened in these precious moments, these 500 minutes or so? 500 minutes in a life-time. Is that all it takes? How many seconds did it take to speak those words of tears? A life-time of preparation, but the time was right, ripe. Why? No. No simple answer, let’s dialogue instead.
The day’s task was to dialogue. To dialogue included the need to explore the barriers to this very task. To find, to feel, to feel felt. An essential task.
One barrier to dialogue is the absence of experience, some have never had a chance to dialogue. Really, honestly. They were at a loss what to do, how to be, They never had a tear wiped away in compassion.
Others simply forgot. Rusty dialogue, unused for decades was for them lubricated. How? One couple dared to confront a life-time of blockage due to ‘idealization’. For them everything was ‘perfect’ up till then, or so it seemed. What a treacherous block to real meeting of minds. No space for criticism, for upset, for hearing ‘I’m upset’ always instead trying to make it something else. Better.
Another block was the ‘need to please’ the other. This block barred survivors from hearing their children as much as it diverted their grandchildren from hearing their parents, the second generation. Every one wanted to be right, or the same, different outlook risked criticism. That is not allowed if you ‘love me’.
And then the really dark side of the barrier emerges as well. The ‘s’ word was spoken.
Not just self-directed shame, but the other type. ‘I’m ashamed of you’. Type that if you dare. Risk it at your peril. You may be voted out. Foul. Unloving. Traitor. Who dares speak of non-love!
These were the not-known feelings that are in fact normal feelings, to be talked, dialogued, if you dare. Dare I say other words from past workshops, that froze people before they erupted: ‘jealousy’ even ‘envy’. But that was dealt with years ago. Or was it? Jealousy and envy were taboo words, then. Just a few years ago, before the wall of silence crumbled. We planned to go beyond…that wall of silence. Today we returned, to face another, again.
Stories within stories repeated in the generations. Why don’t you get married, you third generation women. ‘Hitler was our match maker’. You have a flat, a car, a job, but you’ll be lonely in old age. We will, when we fall in love. Until we wake up the next week, out of love.
What is the truth of the generational transmission of trauma? Eva Hoffman observed in After Such Knowledge (2004) that in the psyche, ‘it sometimes seems that no time has passed’ even between the generations ‘ waves of loss beating against the mind’s shore’. We surfed those waves in the workshop.
How can we trust our senses, that they are ours? My mother can not tolerate the German accent to this day. I feel OK with that but, like her, feel so tense around uniforms. Not by direct experience, thank G’d, of encounters with the law. It’s not rational, not logical.
Unless we dialogue the unspoken, it makes no sense. She did not have a chance to process her reactions to uniforms, or accents, or Alsation dogs. I did have very friendly meetings as a 3 year old with an Alsation, and love them to this day. I had neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ experiences with uniforms. The child’s mind does not tolerate a vacuum, so could my mind carry my mother’s unprocessed reactions to uniforms?
Did I absorb her toxic dialogue, unprocessed? A new dialogue might begin. I cried in therapy, sobbed for the first time as a man in my late 20’s. The first time since early childhood. My dialogue with tears took years to finish, a word. I’m ‘up’- (aged 7) ‘set’ (aged 29).
Unengaged tears went into exile, exiled tears return warily. For many this day, as they asked the ‘untold’, told the ‘unasked’, taboos were broken. Old rules confronted because courage was the new order for the day. Courage to feel entitled, to dare to dialogue beyond words.
The tears flowed in both directions: from the past to the present and the present to the past; from sufferer to caregiver and caregiver to sufferer; from those present to absent ones and from those not present to their heirs, present.
These were some of the dialogues that began. Others continued in, and after, the workshop. My writing is my inner dialogue, private transformed to public.
Dialogue, even if disconnected, was a start. Snowflakes, words, silence, tears and sighs. Yes, we did muck up: we talked over each other; interrupted, no apologies; we contradicted and criticized; threatened to walk out; and stayed to hear, we even went out of roles. We cursed in our minds, ‘how dare he…’ blamed the other, never the self; better you than me to change. Yet the snowball started to roll…
Each day it can gather pace. An avalanche of dialogue, we dream, perhaps. Dare we dream such dreams? Of hope? Yes.
In the end, in truth we trust. We know in our heart of hearts that we dialogue each night in dreams, in prayer and song. We yearn to be heard, recognized, to be asked, met, even just half way, to be known, to be seen for who I am, ‘me’, and to be accepted, warts and all.
No more hide and seek. Seek and find is the new game in town. The illusory hiding will be no more. Seek and find. What? Intimacy enduring.
So the dialogue goes, on.