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Rebuilding After the Holocaust


For everything there is a season. A time to destroy. A time to build . . . (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

It all happened in a moment.

The moment my grandmother received the knock in the middle of the night, a fierce pounding that shook the door of her sleeping home and threatened to knock it from its hinges. The moment she was escorted from her home dressed in her nightgown and winter coat, hurried by a Nazi soldier who wouldn’t allow her the time to put on her stockings. The moment her history was stripped to its barest essentials, pared down to the contents of a single overnight bag—a change of clothes, her hairbrush, and the prayerbook she received on her wedding day.

Our common history of our family’s exiles unites us

From that moment, my family has been uprooted.

Two generations, and two continents later, we are still rebuilding.

My grandmother was marched through the streets of her once-familiar village until the town square, where a thousand lost souls waited. Stripped of their names and identities, the entire Jewish community in her town vanished that night.

By the end of the war, my grandmother had no use for Europe. She began again in Coney Island, as a bathing suit designer with no time to swim. For her it was just work, shaping spandex into waterproof outfits for people untouched by war.

My mother was touched by the war. Yiddish-speaking ghosts haunted her nursery, whispering the names of the missing and unaccounted for. Years later, as a mother herself, those same ghosts haunted my nursery. For years, I never knew that anyone living spoke Yiddish. I thought it was the language of ghosts.

I learned about the technicality of the Holocaust in school. I learned about the sheer numbers that defied comprehension. I learned about the terminology of mass genocide. From my mother I learned the personal side of the devastation. My mother was an English teacher who specialized in Holocaust literature. So I read all her books, and sat crying by her side through endless Holocaust films at the local theater. We talked about the books we read, and analyzed the films we had seen.

But I never spoke to my mother about what happened in our home. How each time before we left the house I watched my mother at the gas stove, checking the burners over and over. Surely there were other mothers who also couldn’t leave the house without standing before the oven in a trance. Besides, what did this have to do with the war? My mother chanted as she counted the knobs. “Silver, one, two, three, off.” She always used these same words, while my father paced and gritted his teeth, jangling the car keys and quietly fuming that we would once again be late. Still he couldn’t disturb her, or she would start from the beginning.

My mother knew that you had to be careful with gas and germs. You had to check again that the oven was off, and wash the floor every night with bleach. You had to do these things in order to stay alive. You had to do these things to make sure it didn’t all disappear before you returned.

My mother’s behavior was not unique. To be a child of a survivor means being hyper-vigilant, as though this act of vigilance could keep the wolves from their prey. My husband is also the grandchild of survivors. His grandparents escaped Germany on the eve of the war, and everything they left behind was consumed in the inferno. Our common history of our family’s exiles unites us.

Rebuilding is also how my husband and I have chosen to honor our families’ stories

It would be easy to focus on the losses of the past, especially when their trauma is still being felt. Yet my husband and I have chosen to build our lives in Israel, where we both came as students. In our apartment building we have neighbors from Canada and New Zealand, from Belgium and South Africa. We are surrounded by those who consciously chose to make Israel their home, despite the challenges of learning a new language and absorbing a new culture that this entails. We are grateful to be part of this community of builders.

On Tishah B’Av, the day that is designated nationally for mourning the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, the Holy Temple, we also remember the more immediate tragedies that our families experienced during the war. Yet even on Tishah B’Av, a day designed for mourning, the focus is not exclusively on the past. By midday it is time to turn our focus once again to the future, to the task of building and rebuilding, a task at which the Jewish people excel.

The amazing thing about the Jewish people is our ability to focus on the future, and to never forget our responsibility to future generations. When Jews come to a new place, they are commanded to build a mikvah—a ritual bath—before any other community structure. This commandment forces us to focus on the task of rebuilding.

Rebuilding is also how my husband and I have chosen to honor our families’ stories. It has been sixteen years since I first came to Israel, on the equivalent of my collegiate “junior year abroad.” I was drawn here, searching for something I didn’t quite understand. Yet looking back, I understand what drew me here was this search for a way to honor the past by focusing on building the future.

Tzippora Price, M.Sc. is a marital and family therapist working in private practice in Ramat Beit Shemesh. She is also an acclaimed mental health journalist, and has been writing articles to increase community awareness of mental health issues for the past 14 years. She is the author of two parenting books, Mother In Progress, and Mother In Action, and a psycho-educational novel Into the Whirlwind. She can be contacted via email.
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Hanna Perlberger Merion, PA July 17, 2012

I don't know if he made it up, but the first time I heard the phrase "post traumatic growth syndrome", was from Martin Seligman, the "father' of the positive psychology movement. After trauma, some people stay the same, some settle into a less functional state, but some experience personal and spiritual growth. Just as the trauma of your families' history has caused so many wounds may your journey of growth be a source of healing. Beautiful article. Reply

Anonymous July 22, 2010

PTSD? A lot of what I am reading sounds like the parents had PTSD. I've seen it in people who have lived through car wrecks, their houses burning down, earthquakes, floods, being arrested for any reason, been to war and seen something terrible, been shipwhecked, and rapes and assaults. The rituals that are described provide order and a sense of safety.

The holocaust was surely much worse than what I have listed (first the initial trauma, then the ensuing punishment and dehumanizing conditions) but wouldn't the survivors and their children be suffering from PTSD? Reply

Sharon Levitt North Hollywood, CA, USA July 21, 2010

Build in each generation I grew up hearing stories of my Austria-Hungarian grandfather who came to the US as a 13 year old working as a busboy. He was a peddler in Oklahoma when it was still Indian territory. His kids were survivors in their own way. All of them very smart, but very scared. When I told my mother she was the most fearful person I'd ever met, she screamed at me that she wasn't afraid of anything. I am a survivor of her and my father's fear and criticism.I became a lawyer and eventually a judge. I was afraid everyday for 30 years. I developed compassion for all people. I was curteous, accepting, strong, respectful, humorous and got the job done by listening to people, which was what they really wanted.
Tikun Olam starts with each of us in each generation. G-d isn't done with me while I have a breath left. Baruch Hashem. Reply

Anonymous Richmond, VA July 21, 2010

Great Article I too am a child of a survivor, my mother (OBM). G-D took her young, 67 years old, and many of her problems were a result of what she'd suffered as an infant/toddler during the war, in a slave labor camp. I am a first generation American, but I am Israeli by heart and soul. Reading your article reminded me of the many different things my mother did, all of my life, which set me apart from my friends. I wouldn't have changed this precious woman for all of the riches in the world, yet I knew that there was a part of our lives that was not considered "Normal". At 14 I read a book, by a Psychologist, called "Children of Survivors", and it gave me more insight to my life than anythig else. My mother wouldn't talk about the war, so the book was of great help. Now, I'm trying to make my children understand, something I don't fully understand myself. My biggest issue now is that one by one the survivors perish, and the denialists grow. It's the obligation of all to teach their kids. Reply

Ricardo Boquete, Panama July 18, 2010

Really inspiring and uplifting. Thanks for writing this article. Reply