Recently, my Dad, went to visit my 87 year old grandmother, “Nana”/Magda, in a nursing home in Florida. These visits are infrequent and short in duration…the last time my dad visited Nana, after traveling from Texas to Florida, he stayed for an hour total and then headed off to the casino. He got in and out and then needed a gambling fix.
Magda was born in Sátoraljaújhely, Hungary. We have no clue how to pronounce the name of the town where she was born and raised until the age of 15; the age when she was put on a freight car and taken to Auschwitz Birkenau. In fact, we are not sure she even remembers how to speak Hungarian anymore – the only language she spoke her first 15 years of life.
A few months ago my 13 year old daughter, Avery, was talking about school one day and began discussing some interesting details she had learned about the Holocaust. She mentioned that the majority of Hungarian Jews perished in the war and I mentioned that Nana, (Magda), is Hungarian as well as her Papa. She had no idea that she was part Hungarian and was excited to tell her teacher she had rare and special Hungarian genes.
This conversation left me feeling really curious about the details of Nana’s story/circumstances/journey and filled me with a desire to know more about our family history – a topic rarely explored in my own childhood.
“Nana” / Magda, at age 6, in Hungary, before the war
Growing up, the relationship my family had with Nana was estranged and limited. We are fairly certain that she shared very little of her traumatic Holocaust stories or any childhood memories with her 5 sons or 12 grandchildren. Our family history was all but forgotten – practically erased as if it never even existed…which I suspect was what Magda was hoping to achieve – if you don’t speak of that elephant in the room, maybe the elephant will actually disappear and cease to exist. But as I’m learning, not unpacking the trauma dooms you to get stuck in it, and perpetuate the trauma in your own life and the lives of your children.
Inspired by the conversation with Avery, I discovered candid interviews by Magda about her childhood in Hungary and Holocaust experience on the Shoah Foundation website, an effort organized by Steven Spielberg. Spielberg’s goal was to preserve the stories and truth about the Holocaust, while the survivors are still alive. Consequently, my family has been able to learn our history over 60 years later.
Avery with my Mom and Dad – her Papa & Mimi
I’m not sure what kept my grandmother from ever sharing her story with her family. Maybe it was “survivor’s guilt” or to protect herself and us from the likely post traumatic stress symptoms she endured. Now that I have viewed a 2 hour snapshot into her years of torture, I feel fairly certain her scars were deep and the suffering has endured for the rest of her life.
You may be wondering why we never thought to uncover the details before now. The answer lies with Magda’s 5 sons.
My dad left home at 16 and practically never looked back. He married my mom at 21, had kids very young and created his own family. We heard very few stories about Nana or his childhood and had essentially no contact with her. He describes Nana as “a more violent version of Mommy Dearest”, which paints a pretty vivid picture in my mind. Magda’s traumas definitely came out in her relationship with her own children,
To this day, my father does not want to look back to his own childhood. While he didn’t experience trauma like Magda’s, the trauma he did experience involves a deep desire to numb, escape and avoid dealing with “the ring of fire” just as Magda did. Thus, the cycle repeats and this is how patterns continue to exist within families throughout time.
We have a very close knit immediate family but there were certain patterns, (yelling, anger, blame…fear based behaviors), passed down that probably originated with Magda and the unconscionable atrocities she endured. I believe uncovering her story has and will provide a great deal of healing for our family and help us to put the old dysfunctional patterns to rest where they belong. Understanding and healing seem to be a productive byproduct of digging up these roots.
The importance of family has always been a cornerstone in the Jewish religion and culture, as it is in many other religions and cultures in various parts of the world. Trauma of all kinds crushes families, causes harm and division within families. I long to see families healed of their generational traumas and return to healthy, nurturing patterns. I believe it’s possible for your family too. All it takes is one brave person to start telling the truth and it becomes contagious within your family and spreads rapidly. A new epidemic and no vaccinations are needed…”Past Pox”.
Randi, Scott, our 3 kids, my parents