As I write this blog, I am in Jerusalem. I’d suggest that whenever you travel to Israel, you make Yad Vashem a “must-see” site. I have wandered its halls a number of times and every time I observe the stories that tell of the Holocaust atrocities, I walk away inspired by how those captured into inhumane living and dying conditions found extraordinary ways to survive and thrive. Today, I want to ask one question from my experience at Yad Vashem.
What can we learn from the men and women who raised children amidst such pain and grief while they survived in camps, ghettos, while hiding away or who joined the Jewish Partisans to fight against the enemy?
No matter what life throws at you, if you are a parent, you know that parents don’t get to quit. This is true now and it was true for parents in the Holocaust. These parents protected, cared and fiercely loved their children. Their children grew up to tell their stories and we can learn from 3 primary types of emotional memories that they shared. Their emotional memories can help us teach our children wisely today.
1) Conflicting emotions accompany memories
Children’s memories will contain conflicting emotions under normal situations, let alone situations rifled with crisis and trauma. One story told regarding a daughter and mother relationship from one of the ghettos explains,
When we examine Anat’s (the daughter’s) narrative, for example, we see that in spite of the fact she was alone for long periods in the ghetto, witnessed the severe beating of her mother and had several other traumatic experiences as a very young child, Anat also had the positive experience of her mother always returning to her. In fact, her mother remained with her until the last day of her life. While there are signs in Anat’s interview that she also feels anger toward her mother, due to feelings of fear and desertion, these are interwoven with a deep admiration and a strong sense of protection by her mother.
This daughter’s memories evoked strong emotions that ranged from the very positive to the very negative. This wide range of emotions allowed her to build an independent life as a woman, even informing her own role as a mother.
OUR APPLICATION: Conflicting emotions accompany memories
Understand that two very different emotions can exist at the same time and those contrasting emotions then crop up in our memories. Our children will have both good and bad feelings about their childhood and we shouldn’t be discouraged that they express both the good and the bad as they grow older. Listening and working through the memories is what counts more than trying to hold onto a false remembrance of perfection.
2) Emotions interpret memories
For some Holocaust survivors, the emotions that accompanied childhood memories dictated the interpretation of events as an adult. For example, some children who had one Jewish parent and one Christian parent survived because the Christian parent was able to rescue the child. In some cases, the Jewish parent was taken away to be housed in a ghetto or deported to be gassed in a concentration camp. As adult children remembered the separation from the Jewish parent and that parent’s subsequent death, these adult children often resented the surviving Christian parent, even though the Christian parent saved their life. Children remembered the division of the family and the horrible anguish of that moment of separation; that anguish later turned into anger and sometimes, even hatred toward the surviving parent.
OUR APPLICATION: Emotions interpret memories
We need to be aware of how our own emotions get in the way of our recall of past life events
and inform our children how emotions can skew our perspectives. Being aware of this will help us see life in a more balanced and true-to-life way; we need to make sure our emotions help inform our life, but we are not lead nor dictated by our emotions. Emotions can lead us to wrong conclusions. What a great lesson to teach our children!
3) Emotions reflect the relationships within the memories
Some survivors explained emotional memories that while very painful, reflected the physical and emotional safety their parents provided. Researchers who reflected upon one such survivor’s story said,
Even though most of his memories express negative emotions, the intensity with which he speaks leads us to believe that the ability to recall and willingness to openly express negative emotions connected to one’s parent during the Holocaust reflects closeness, even if the parent-child relationship was a problematic one.
OUR APPLICATION: Emotions reflect the relationships within the memories
Even turbulent emotions show a parent-child relationship in which parents are engaged and caring about the child. Even if parents are not always right, showing up and emotionally engaging with our children makes a big difference both when times are distressing and when the adult child looks back. Let’s show up and engage and not worry so much about always having to be “the perfect parent”.
We as families will experience painful times and while most of us will not experience anything close to what the survivors of the Holocaust did, we have the opportunity to learn from the rich emotional memories that survive; even the worst of history can teach us. These brave parents who taught, protected and fiercely loved their children throughout the Holocaust can remind us of some significant truths. May we honor their memories by learning from their lives.
Fondly yours from Israel, Elizabeth