Redeeming and retelling, the personal story, as a healing aspect / Estie Marve Li-dar

The following, is a a group process description, dealing with inter- generation transmission, of feelings of loss, mourning, and secondary trauma.

 All of these, are worked out, while seeking redemption through the process of retelling the "personal and family stories"

Part 1

I am the daughter of holocaust survivor parents, a Jungian analyst and a story teller.

These three, are intertwined, they have deep roots and are directly connected to my personal narrative: being born and growing up in the shadow of deep and massive trauma.

Both of my parents survived Auschwitz. My mother was 16 when torn away from her family in Czechoslovakia. She was transported with many other 16 year old girls from her country to build Birkenau. She never saw her parents, 4 siblings and grandmother again. She survived 3 long years of hunger, slavery work, torture and humiliation in Auschwitz, which culminated in the bombing of Auschwitz and the death march.

While being in rehabilitation program in Sweden, (an initiation of Count Bernadot) after the war, she remembered being indifferent, apathetic and emotionally disconnected – she did not know where she belonged, where to go, nor did she try to find or contact other relatives of her family. Along the years, she came to learn that no one of her parents, 4 siblings and her grandmother survived.

My father was 19 when he became an underground activist. He hid under a false identity and lived practically on trains. He saved many Jews, adult and children, until he was caught and sent to Auschwitz. He lost his large family except his mother and 2 siblings.

 All his life, He blamed himself for what happened to them. In his eyes he considered himself responsible for the loss of his father and his youngest brother. He suffered from what is called "the survivor guilt"..

In spite of all those losses, I was looked upon, as a very lucky child, since I was the only one in the neighborhood to have at least one grandma. All the families were so tiny, with almost no uncles, aunts and grandparents.

I am only one of many second generation children, who grew up like me. We breathed and experienced unspoken traumatic events of our parents.  We all sensed, guessed and fantasized traumata that could not be put into words. Some parents did not talk at all, some told only what they were able to tell. Some did it through gestures, whispers and sobbing at night, and some told their story in a horrifying, inappropriate and emotionally detached way.

 this silence is known to have had a tremendous effect on their children who actually experienced their inner traumatic, tortured world, through what we call the "nonverbal intergenerational transmission",

We children sensed their trauma nonverbally: the loss, their state of mourning, the sense of degradation, their longing for their families and homes, the shock of the new culture they had to adopt to, after the culture they were born to, was completely destroyed. We felt their rage, their guilt for surviving, their shame and helplessness.

We sensed all, without the help of words, not knowing why they screamed at night, or why they were so anxious, whether over food left on the plate, or when they had to part from us when we left for a school trip, or God forbid, when we were sick.

We could only sense, that it had to do with "There". And "There" seemed to us, while exploring the very few photos which were sent usually by relatives in America, to be so black and gloomy.

most of us children , learned to live in two split realities.

 The one was inside home, which was dominated by "There", and was most of the time sad, full of silences, shadows and secrets. Secrets belonged to "There".

And there was "the outside", where we played with our friends under the bright Israeli sun. Unconsciously we tried to be this new generation of happy, safe, free children our parents wished us to be. As children, we never spoke of what was going inside our homes. We believed that this is the way things should be.

Dina Vardi, who was the first to write about the second generation in Israel, talks these children who were "chosen" to carry on the memory of the about "memorial candles": murdered family members and become an emotional, cultural and familial substitute to them. These children were all named after the victims' names. They connected their past with their present, became the carriers of the survivors' guilt and conflicts, and at the same time, the proof of their victory over Hitler.

  Yolanda Gampel, uses the word "radioactivity" – as a metaphor for the violence of the Nazi regime and its deep effect. This radioactivity, which influenced the H.S., disperses in time and space as a radioactive fallout which can spread and infect the environment over several generations…. "The radioactive transmission is a model for an unconscious phenomenon which can take infinite forms in the 2 and 3 generations." (2005, p.1)

As for me, being a psychotherapist, who was as well affected by the intergenerational transmission – It took me some years in analysis to connect my need to treat people with the wish to "save" my parents, the way my father saved others. Many second generation children choose to be in the helping profession, and while being in therapy, their wish to heal the wounds of their parents comes up to the surface. This was the constellation of the "wounded healer" archetype, which sent our souls not knowingly, on this mission. Our parents' wounds became ours through identification and through the process of the "nonverbal intergenerational transmission".

 All what we wished was to see our parents smile. To be Normal. Not to be bitter, anxious or depressed as they were. Don’t we want it all, for our patients as well?

When we were frustrated with our parents or disobeyed them, we felt guilty for adding pain and worry to their pain. And what was their pain? As children, we could usually only guess, sense, or feel using our growing ability to fantasize, to hunt for clues and secrets, when they whispered or used foreign languages.

To most of us our parents seemed to be fragile. Somehow we understood that they had been treated very cruelly and had been helpless and unable to defend themselves. Along with the disturbing feeling of not being safe with them, we felt the need to protect them somehow, and to be careful not to ask too many questions. .

Thus the children of the survivors became the listeners of silence, identifying with the unspoken horrors and learning to be emotionally detached as well, in order to survive any further loss. Like their parents.

The price those children of the second generation, had to pay throughout their maturation, was the difficulty to achieve individuation. This necessary developmental task enables emotional independence and separateness of the ego in adulthood: owning ones feelings, ideas, meanings and aspirations, without having to experience them through the traumas of their parents and through their expectations.


   Part 2

Here I want to speak about the issue concerning Story Telling, which leads into my main topic.

Dina Vardi talks about the expectation of us children, to reconstruct the disappeared families of the past, to fill in the empty space. This can be understood psychologically as a way to gain control over the unknown, but I suggest, that there is more to it. That it has an additional purpose.

What is the main emotional experience concerning trauma?

Be it a mass trauma: nature disaster, terror attack. Or a personal trauma: An accident, a sudden loss of a loved one. All of those events create a "black hole". This hole is described by all survivors as "black out", shock, forgetfulness. Something is suddenly missing. The daily routine has stopped as if "snatched away". There is a feeling as if life will never be the same, as if one has been forced to live in a certain situation he did not choose and has no control over it. Very often, there is no memory of what had happened, except of flashbacks, nothingness, Black hole.

Those who experience the trauma, react differently to it. Some appear to be resilient, presenting no symptoms. The other, do have traumatic symptoms, which are presenting themselves differently, on the scale of P.T.S.D. symptoms. Another group shows a full blown symptom of P.T.S.D. (9 per.) but, those however, who seemed to be resilient, never spoke and functioned normally, tend to show post traumatic symptoms after certain triggers, as retirement, the "empty nest", illness, loss, ect.

 Usually, those who suffer an acute trauma, has a need to tell again and again, the details of a traumatic event. This might appear to us as a compulsive, exhausting tendency, but actually, this is the psyche`s way to try and figure out, what had happened, to try and redeem those "last special minutes before". To redeem that lost part of the personal story, in order to regain wholeness.

(This is done through work with images coming up in dreams, active imagination, using technics as "Far see C.B.T. drama, storytelling, ect.)

According to the Jewish tradition, after the death of a close relative, the mourner has to sit for 7 days at home, while people come to express their condolences. Usually even nontraditional Jews honor this custom, saying it has a strong healing effect on them, and why? Since, during those 7 days, the same story about the deceased is retold time and time again in great detail, as well as the feelings and reactions to his death. The visitors usually add their own stories, which very often are unfamiliar to the mourners and thus, expand their knowledge about the deceased and their own story.

C.G. Jung writes: "the personal layer ends at the earliest memories of infancy, but the collective layer comprises the pre–infantile period, that is, the residue of ancestral life…" (1928, pr.118)

When psychic energy regresses beyond layers of early infancy, like in the case of trauma and black holes, we can create a breakthrough (using active imagination, dreams. Ec), into the legacy of ancestral life, where mythological images, the archetypes, might awaken, and help reconstruct the story.

Jung meant that both the conscious and the unconscious need to be in contact with each other in order to let the psyche become fully aware and individuated. Just the way the tree needs its roots in order to produce fruit. In the case of trauma, according to Jung we feel that we lost something emotionally. We need to delve back into the unconscious, to reach our psychic source. We need to return with archetypal images, and to transform them into personal meaning. This will heal us.

 This ability of ours, can be compared to the ability of our body to regenerate new tissues, or to create a new bypass.

Mircea Aliade, talks about the archetype that expresses the human need to return to its origins, its sources, in order to keep in touch with his own self. ("The myth of the eternal returning", 1949)

I have mentioned previously that children of survivors often need to use their imagination, to fantasize, in order to be able to fill in the gaps, the black holes. They need to create lost worlds a new, discover the old myths, songs, rituals, meet faceless relatives, get to know daily habits and food. All which was lost.

I loved to create stories about those places and people. To search in "There land", in this grey-black, foggy, hostile place, for my lost grandma, who had vanished and after whom I was named.

 Being named after the dead family members put a tremendous responsibility upon us children. I remember how my mother, watching me, would sigh and say "oh, your grandma would be so pleased to see you now!" or, "this is not like her at all. Remember where you came from!"

 Touching the past of my family, by digging, asking, imagining,  gave me a sense of completion, belonging, and of being close to those faceless people.


Part 3

I would like to introduce you to my work with groups of the second generation –  the offspring of survivors, in order to describe what I mean by "redeeming and retelling the personal narrative" and point out the healing aspect they carry with them.

13 years ago, I was asked, to conduct a group of second generation children of survivors, and teach them how to narrate the holocaust story of their parents. Until lately, many of the survivors themselves, used to tell their personal story as  "living witnesses". Gradually they aged and passed away. Their off springs felt the duty to pass on their parents stories to the next generations.

 From the onset of the first group, it became clear, that the stories reflected the emotional experiences of the "children" as well: coming out of their own early memories, anxieties, confusions and impressions, as direct witnesses to their parents' trauma. I felt, that it was my Call, to help both generations stories, those of the survivors and those of their off springs, to become intertwined. This was the only way, for both generations to be authentic and emotionally connected.


The group process:

Inner conflicts started to emerge already on the onset of the first session, when the group was asked to choose the parent and story they would like to work on. Feelings of guilt, responsibility toward the "disserted and betrayed parent", came up. There came a flood of associations, emanating from their parents' trauma: the "selection", the need to choose, to decide whether one stays or goes. All of this was strongly present in the room. It was as if the room, turned out to be "the railway station from There".

Different feelings started to surface: mainly, the idealization of the parents, thereby not being able to relate to their own self, and feelings, as the ones who witnessed and suffered as well.

Some of them felt like "betraying" their parent by telling his or her story. They feared the group would judge the parent as a coward, as selfish, as exploiter, as a "nebech". Others felt that they betrayed the parents wish, to keep silent.

 "How can I talk?"  Issac sobbed.  "Daddy did not talk at all. He took his story to his grave. All what I know, comes from documents and from what I was told at the "Shivaa", how can I do this?"

There were times, that anger, despair and pain, were all directed toward me, the aggressor, who "forced" them to talk and disclose secrets and feelings, unspoken and unknown,

 I had to distinguish the great value, of their personal experiences and emotions, which comes as an highly important addition to that of literature, movies, documentation and researches, dealing with the holocaust. What does it mean to bring the personal aspect into the collective one.

At this point I was totally convinced that I have to use my therapeutic skills in order to enable them an emotional process, leading towards a deep inner introspection, leading to individuation.

The group started to work.

 When trying to tell the story of his father, Abe stopped and gave a loud scream.

"How could you daddy? How could you? This question is chocking my throat for years…how could you leave them, lying there dead…all of your little ones, and run for your own life?"

The group gathered around him. His lament echoed deeply through their souls. Each of them asked himself the same question. How would he, himself react in such a horrible situation? How did their parents deal with these monstrous ordeals?  Leave everything behind?  Separate from their children?  All those impossible separations, fatal decisions, which were never spoken about at home, which were buried under a heavy blanket of silence, guilt, got their emotional dimension and were felt now by all the group members.

Those were questions which had never been asked before. Now was it possible to experience both rage, wonder and compassion.

  As the story developed, secrets started to surface. As if pulled out by the fisherman's net, memories were brought out of the void of oblivion.

There came, these dead little sisters and brothers that had existed somewhere in the dark, hidden inside the Yiddish, polish, Slovak, Hungarish, in the tears and nightmares at night.  "ghost Children", who no one dared to talk or tell about, nor mourn. Silenced, hidden, lost children.

The group gathered around Rachel. At first, she told her story about her lost sister, in a laconic, detached way. With the help of the group she started to share: All her childhood, she heard her mommy, calling the child`s name, while lighting the Shabbat candles. She could not ask her mother who this child was. This was a story she carried with her, and which she vaguely knew, never daring to ask for more details. After being able in the group, to relate to her pain, rage, sense of loss and acknowledged her wish for a sister, she begun as well, to wonder what she looked like. Did she have a name? How did she die? What would she like to tell her if she could? Now, Rachel was able, to mourn her sister, talk to her, and then tell the story with her, own authentic feelings.

One by one, babies and children stepped out from the dark, into the circle. Old photos were brought and being looked at, as if they were the children of all of us.

 Nelly's mother, helped to bring up to the surface the depressed mothers, who lost maternal support and guidance, who carry with them stories of abuse, who lost their children. Who could not sexually mature, under safe and loving conditions. They could not become the good enough mothers to their daughters.

 Perla was 2 years when her young parents hid with her in a chicken coop. Her young and delicate mother, was fear stricken and in shock, having to leave the house in an abrupt way, with no cloth, food or blankets for little Perla. Apparently, she was not able to calm down her first baby who was crying for food and comfort. Perla could tell this story only the way she heard it. Still, while telling the story to the group, being helped to come closer to that far away experience – the danger, her mother`s fear, her father`s rage and dismay, the coop, the cold and moist darkness, and her mother`s hand shutting her mouth, she started to chock, smelling the odors of the chicken coop, as if she was still there, experiencing uneasy bodily sensations. This helped her understand her aversion to the smell of chicken . For her, it was like touching her early history for the first time. She was able to feel and sense herself in the arms of her paralyzed mother, who was emotionally detached then and later.

Again, this was an opportunity for group members, to disclose the difficulty of their mothers to touch them, To have a close body contact with them.

Goldy , choose to tell the horrible story of her father. Upon listening to this story, we could understand her cynic and bitter personality. When asked about her mother story, she kept silent. Gradually she came out with her pain, saying that her mother never loved her. "She was too wounded to be able for that…I had only my daddy…"  Goldy was the only member who left the group after her disclosure. I felt like not being able to protect her, betraying her, like her mother did.

Survivor mothers, felt very often unfit, damaged, desecrated. They felt very often dead inside, guilty and detached. They had no support system around them. No mother, sister grandmother or an old wise woman to initiate them into motherhood. All wise old women had perished. Those mothers did not feel capable of giving any joy or love to their babies, except of holding them close to them, feeding them anxiously, keeping them too warm, being extremely fussy about any illness or other bodily threats.

 After telling their mothers stories, some members connected the trauma of their mothers to their own depression and inability to connect.

Gradually, group members felt safe, daring to share more of their childhood experiences, which were connected to their fears, sadness and loneliness.

"evil, witches and wolves, exist not only in fairy tale."

 feelings and memories, that emerged out of their parents' stories, were delicately embroidered into the personal narratives of their children.

Lost grandparents, uncles and aunts stepped out into the circle as well, becoming very real, with contour and character. Pieces of anecdotes, songs, festive dishes, holydays rituals, filled the space, flowing out of unconscious memories, as well as from their parents' yearning for the past.

It became safer, to bring up. Conflicts and questions, as, "where was God? Is it safe and wise to love? Would I be able to survive? How important it is to have a Homeland? And how conflicting it is? "Are there any good Germans"?


Since the dawn of humanity, storytelling was the way to express and pass on traditions, histories, myths and rituals to tribes, families and communities. The stories, provided humanity, with a sense of wholeness and continuity.

The SHOA had caused a "Black hole", containing loss and "nothingness" – the destruction of the Jewish cultural and familial story in Europe. This "Black hole", also caused an emotional void, transmitted to the second generation through the trauma of their parents. The need to retell the story and go back to search for the roots, relates to the myth of "The Eternal Returning". Going back to our sources, explore them emotionally and historically, reviving them by bringing back  colors, scents, tastes and rituals, is healing. In a way, it is "Anti-Shoa".

The personal story expands this inner space, where it becomes possible for the individual and the group to verbalize the yearning for explanation and meaning. It is possible to give it a Meta meaning.

 There is a need for a reassurance to what they experienced as well as a permission to be happy. Live without hate, without fear, being able "to leave a full plate". To be able to travel through Europe, with no associations nor fears.

The personal story, according to Dina Vardi, C.G. Jung and others, helps to develop the individuality of the narrator, and as such, it enables him the necessary individuation from his traumatized parents and other symbiotic ties. Only through searching and creating his own myth conceived in this Black hole, can he pull himself out, can he become individuated at last.

This is critical for me to emphasize again, that this work, on "the personal story", was carried on with people who did not seek for treatment. They came to tell a story, not knowing to which extant this story is paralyzing their psyche. They found themselves amid a process which carried them into a personal journey, when being in the prime of their life, being parents, grandparents and having carriers.

 It is impossible for me to predict, to which extent this work would be possible with psychotic or dis functional patients, or when the trauma is still acute, it takes a trauma to reside in the psych for a while, before it is possible to touch upon its emotion.

Jerusalem, 2021

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