The Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma – Part 1

Diane Leffer’s account of the Inheriting Genocide symposium will be published on the ImaginAction website in five parts every month.

In 2015, Hector and I produced Second Chances, a play inspired by Theater of Witness techniques. Torture survivors portrayed themselves and their own stories onstage alongside family members of survivors—spouse, children—who had also been affected by the trauma. No surprise then that I was grateful for the chance to attend the recent symposium, Inheriting Genocide: Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma. The day’s program focused on children and grandchildren of survivors of the Holocaust and of the Armenian Genocide, all of whom deserve our loving attention. But I also suspected I would hear a lot that could be applied more broadly and shared with the wider ImaginAction family.

Dr. Natan Kellermann has worked in Israel since 1980 with Holocaust survivors and the second generation. During his keynote address, he came onstage and from a carrying case removed a hunk of bread. When you’ve experienced hunger and starvation, he said, you always have to be sure you’ve got food. But “all of our parents have been through a lot, whether survivors or not. How are we affected?” We all carry something. “What’s in your bag?” he asked. “How did it influence you? Not at all? A little? A lot? Major influence?”

A day earlier, I would probably have rushed to say “not at all”, or “a little”. But the question made me stop and think.

My parents and grandparents were not Holocaust survivors. Though members of our family most likely were killed, they were people we never knew. In that sense, the Holocaust wasn’t directly personal, but as I thought about my bag, I remembered lying awake as a child, terrified, waiting for the knock on the door which would mean the Nazis had come for us. Growing up in multiethnic New York City, for me the threat out there wasn’t just about Jewish identity. The background music of my life included Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” with the smell of burning flesh and Black bodies hanging from the poplar trees. From Irish Americans I heard the song of freedom fighters hanged for “wearin’ o’ the green” till I was sometimes afraid to go out in the street when dressed in my favorite color.

My parents grew up in an era when they often saw signs on buildings, No Dogs, No Jews. They remained distrustful, always expecting that a friendly face hid deep-seated bigotry. They wanted to raise us, their children, free of such fears, but on the other hand kept warning us to be guarded and always ready to deal with the worst.

At age 10, I rode my bike into a neighborhood where Jews could not rent apartments or buy homes. I walked into a corner store just to see what would happen and quickly left and rode away. These, and many other memories, including very recent ones, came flooding back.

Dr. Kellermann and other speakers affirmed, we are all a mix of vulnerability and resilience. Today, international events and Trump’s policies hit me with overwhelming feelings of impotence and visceral hurt. That probably comes from my history. But that same history also motivates me and steels me to, as best I’m able, stand up for justice.

In the months that follow, I’ll be sharing more of what I learned at the symposium. For now, I’ll wonder what perpetrators and their children carry. What about bystanders and witnesses?


And to close, one simple question: What’s in your bag?

Thanks for reading!

Diane Lefer