Secrets & Ghosts

The Ericle regards himself as a relatively positive person, who generally embraces what life has to offer cheerfully and enthusiastically. Yet, most mornings I wake up with a sense of fear and dread. This soon disappears as I engage with what the day has to offer, but still this is very much a part of my daily existence. I first acknowledged these feelings when living in the USA in the late 1970s and where I submitted myself for the first time to therapy. Twice in my life however, both overseas, I have found myself in a broader dysfunctional mental state that left me requiring short term chemical intervention and longer-term talking therapy. (See here).

As a consequence of the above, I am no stranger to the concept of inherited Survivor Guilt; the idea that a parent, who has experienced major trauma in their lives can transmit anxieties to their offspring either as a direct consequence of their actions or subconsciously as a result of their own subconscious psycho-dynamics. The effect on my parents of fleeing Austria, as a result of persecution, at a most formative time of their lives certainly has been fertile ground for my own personal investigations. They both coped with their personal survivor guilt in different ways. My mother – who lost her father, stepmother, stepbrother and numerous significant other family members to the camps – scarcely spoke a word on the subject. My father, who similarly lost his sister and other relatives, was more stoic and open.

In September, I concluded my most recent and intensive period of therapy that spanned a four-year period since my second major crisis. During this period, I’ve spent a great deal of time coming to terms with my early family life; especially the relationship with my mother whom I’ve come to understand was, almost certainly, very depressed for the whole of our lives together. Good therapy – and I believe that I have been fortunate to receive the best – enables one to realise that, though one can never fully understand or indeed control one’s emotional core, one can contextualise feelings within a sense of the whole. The process of acknowledgement and understanding of their sources, together with coping mechanisms, have helped me to embrace my darker feelings more comfortably within my emotional whole. In writing all this, I am very conscious that every person inherits emotional baggage from their parents – that’s why parenting is such a damn hard job, perhaps the hardest of all – but that sometimes, for some people, this baggage becomes literally unbearable. I am very fortunate to have been able to reach for help and to have received it. And in the end, it’s not a ‘blame game’ but an act of survival; the taking on of self-responsibility in order to gain better control of one’s life.

The above, is an overlong preamble, to a trio of overlapping recent journeys – one physical, one literary and another academic – which have left big impressions on me.

Last May, I travelled to Prague on a study trip, organised by my synagogue. My only previous trip there was in 1969; one year after the ill-fated, so-called, Prague Spring. I was keen to revisit as my mother’s immediate family originated from that part of the Hapsburg Empire; most recently from Brno. It was a marvellous, and very emotional, voyage into the distant and recent past of the European Jewish experience. We extensively explored The Jewish Quarter – with its AltNeu synagogue, the oldest standing in Europe.  – and made a trip out to Trebic, not far from Brno, with its World Heritage Jewish ghetto. Despite the noteworthy differences in the recent histories of what are now Austria and The Czech Republic,  the symbiotic relationship between the two countries and their capitals translates to a very strong personal experience for any direct descendant of middle European ancestry; the feeling that one is touching the very roots of one’s immediate and past genealogy.

We also visited the site of the Terezin/Theresienstadt concentration camp. It is a strange truth that for me, and for a great many other Jews, nothing brings one closer to one’s Jewishness than visiting a site where the most abominable atrocities have been visited upon our ancestors. Almost certainly many of my relatives passed through Theresienstadt on their way to Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and other similar terrible places. Do you ever catch yourself being one of your parents in everyday life? For me there are moments when I feel that I am actually speaking, moving or thinking as if I am my mother or father. Visiting Theresienstadt was somewhat like that for me; an inner ‘other body’ experience when, at times, I had difficulty separating my personal realities with those that had the misfortune to directly suffer from crimes committed upon them. The particular horror of Theresienstadt is its singular scale of design and abominable purpose. Originally a garrison city constructed at the time of Empress Maria Theresa, Theresienstadt, with its walled ramparts was usurped by the Nazis as a holding place, prior to the onward deportation of its inmates to other camps. The terrible fiendishness of Theresienstadt is the callous efficiency with which its business was carried out – a sort of ‘Mephistophelian normalcy’. Theresienstadt, today, is uniquely awful in that it was – and still is – a city. It’s hard to believe that people actually still live in the place. There are shops, cafes and even a hotel; though how and why any visitor would, and could, stay in that place is beyond me.

A visit to Theresienstadt also features centrally in the book, Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald, which I was told that I must read by a member of a book club that I belong to. Pat, for it was he, was right. For those of you not familiar with it, this is the story of Jacques Austerlitz, who at the age of 5 was sent on a Kindertransport to live with a Welsh Calvinist minister and his wife; a most austere childless couple. Austerlitz’s story is gradually revealed to the narrator, with whom he has a chance meeting in Antwerp in the 1960s. From the off, one has the strongest sense that Austerlitz is a troubled individual who is avoiding scrutiny of the life within. After a series of intermittent and infrequent encounters, built around a mutual intellectual interest in architecture, it is not till the late 1990’s that Austerlitz reveals details of his personal story. It is a story of a life full of discomfort, isolation and disassociation; a melancholic biography told via a stream of consciousness, long sentences without a single paragraph break, meandering hither and thither slowly revealing Austerlitz’s discovered truths. After suffering a mental collapse, Jacques is prompted to seek out more information on his first 5 years of life; an exploration that takes him to Prague where, via research and good fortune, he is reunited with Vera, a close family friend and his babyminder. His journey of discovery takes Austerlitz from Prague to Theresienstadt, following the journey that his mother herself had been forced to take. Austerlitz’s description and experiencing of Theresienstadt, (told in part via a single sentence of almost 8 pages!), is a major nexus of the book and strongly resonated with me.  As it happens, Austerlitz’s story is almost certainly a composite one of a number of lives melded together, cunningly reinforced by images that suggest a derivation from a personal photo album. It is a tour-de-force that wanders from a macroscopic view of the self-destroying power of grand architecture be it Antwerp railway station or Theresienstadt

…. I came to the conclusion that in any project we design and develop, the size and degree of complexity of the information and control systems inscribed in it are the crucial factors; so that the all-embracing and absolute perfection of the concept can in practice coincide, and indeed ultimately must coincide with chronic dysfunction …

to the microscopic perspective of the often potentially major impact on individual lives of unrealised happenstance and serendipity

… we take almost all the decisive steps in our lives as a result of slight inner adjustments of which we are barely conscious ….

For Austerlitz, his visit to Theresienstadt represents a point in his life which re-defines both his intellectual and personal journeys. Sebald, via a most casual parting of ways of the narrator and the principal subject, does not permit the reader to know how these cathartic realisations impact on the rest of Austerlitz’s life but one surely must conclude that cause and effect are better served by knowledge and awareness, rather than the absence thereof.

The notion that ‘the truth must out’ was also centre stage of a conference that I recently attended at The Centre For German-Jewish Studies at my alma mater, Sussex University, to commemorate World Holocaust Day. The afternoon comprised of two parts – the first a very academic presentation by a linguistics professor of a research project on what and how holocaust victims pass to their children. The research was gleaned from a series of ‘Kinderjause’ – biannual meetings that have been taking place in Vienna among children, born between 1940 and 1955, of Holocaust survivors. The presenter, Ruth Wodak, explained that these children have adopted a range of coping strategies to deal with what their parents have told them – or haven’t – of their experiences. This has resulted in ‘epistemic uncertainties’ in remembering and acknowledging what they have been told and what they have not. The lecture was followed by a harrowing first-hand account from a remarkable woman, Hannah Lewis now in her mid-eighties, who had miraculously survived the war in a Polish concentration camp; living through many terrible events, including the murder of her own mother. One of the most impressive dimensions of Hannah’s story was the stoical and matter-of-fact manner with which she gave her account. The two presentations seemed to come together in an acknowledgment that the human being has a capacity to come to some form of accommodation with known facts, but it is the unfilled space between feelings & knowledge that is the most dangerous psychological territory.

In the end, you can only live the life you inherit. One can surmise a different course that life may have taken for Austerlitz, had his foster parents or the authorities been more pro-actively open with him as to his natural parents. I can understand what motivated my mother not to tell me until I was well into my twenties that she had been married before she met my father and that her first husband was alive, running a well-known delicatessen shop close to where we lived. I can sympathise with the over-bearing nature of my father – a man who had his union card taken way, when other qualified returned from the war – who bullied me to pursue a profession not of my choosing. These are facts, but what of the emotions? Therapists say that, though we have a measure of control over our thoughts and actions, our feelings are largely beyond our control. The emotional disposition of a parent must, in some way, impact the nature of their child; especially in the nurturing years. Extreme trauma, as experienced by those directly impacted by the Holocaust, raises the potential of inherited angst to another level. We are fortunate to live in a society and in times that can devote some understanding and resources to the consideration of such matters.

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