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Breaking the Holocaust Chains

Breaking the Holocaust Chains

Growing up in the dark shadows of the Holocaust.


I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. It was the elephant in the living room that invaded our lives. In my childhood home, as in many homes of Holocaust survivors and their children, there was an unspoken rule never to ask about the past and never to talk about things that were painful. This rule extended to our daily lives where we were trained to not to ask questions, not to share feelings, and not to express any emotional needs. We never spoke about anything that had genuine meaning; we never had any real communication with one another. We were like robots going through the motions of life. It was an emotionally sterile environment.

Because of this, I did not experience any of the joys of childhood -- creating loving connections with other people, learning about the world, discovering my own self. I was given no physical affection and my emotional needs as a child were neglected, though I obviously was not aware of all this at the time. I do not blame my survivor grandparents for what I went through. On the contrary, it is because they chose to rebuild and live on after all their losses and trauma that I was given the gift of life.

I was too young to grasp that love, trust, meaningful connection to others were missing from life.

When I reached adolescence, a panic alarm started to sound inside my mind which I could not silence, no matter how hard I tried. It was an alarm that said to me that something was terribly wrong with my life. But because I was so young, I could not begin to understand what was going on. I could not grasp that certain critical things were missing from my life -- love, trust, meaningful connection to others -- and that was why I felt so much numbness and pain inside. But since I had been trained to be an obedient daughter and never cause my parents any pain, I kept my inner world hidden.

I remember the first time I cried. It was the day before my Bat Mitzvah party. I cried alone in my room, not really understanding why I was crying. After that, crying became a regular part of my life; it became a form of solace to me. It became almost a ritual for me at night, especially after Shabbat dinner, to go to my room, shut the door and cry alone in the dark. As an adult, I now know that I was crying because life did not make any sense to me and because nothing seemed real to me.

My life continued in much the same way for many years. Wherever I went, I carried my depression and anxiety with me. I went to a seminary in Israel, to a prestigious college, and then to a teaching job. While my circumstances changed, I was pretty much the same on the inside -- alone and scared. I had friends, but I never felt safe with anyone and I never let anyone into my inner world. Depression felt like a deep black hole into which I was constantly falling deeper and deeper. I tried to pull myself out but I couldn't. Each time I felt sadness overtaking me, I would turn my anger inward, and hate myself and my existence even more. I blamed myself for my own depression and thought that there was something fundamentally wrong with me that I had to fix in order to lead a normal life.

Israel, My Refuge

I moved to Israel in an act of desperation. I remember riding in a taxi from Ben-Gurion airport to Jerusalem and being seized by a feeling of fear and of being totally alone in the world. I did not know how to give myself words of strength or comfort. I only knew that my life was becoming more and more suffocating and that this was my only hope of change.

For me, Israel has been a gift from God, and it is here that I have been slowly healing the pain of my past which originated in the Holocaust. I have only begun to understand what life is about, to heal my inner self and to truly live.

Four years ago, I started to attend a series of spiritual healing workshops based on Jewish principles. These classes were life-transforming. For so long I had felt invisible to the world, that nothing I did truly mattered, certainly not my innermost thoughts and feelings. The first thing that I learned is that in Judaism, exactly the opposite is true. Every single person has a purpose in the world and everything we say, do, or think can have a positive influence on ourselves and on the world. Using the incredible power of belief in God, of conscious thoughts, and of prayer, I was shown how I could overcome the spiritual darkness inside of me.

I began to slowly replace the guilt and fear -- my chains to the Holocaust -- with love, compassion and forgiveness.

Whenever I felt myself sinking into darkness, I began to ask God to help me. If I felt overwhelmed, like the world was closing in on me, I would go to a quiet place. I would close my eyes, try to relax myself, and then express to God my faith in Him and that only He could help me. From deep within myself, I would call out for help. And when I opened my eyes again, my pain was almost always gone. I felt lighter, empowered to face the rest of my day and to live my life. It was as if I was finally able to penetrate the darkness deep within me, a darkness which had previously been untouchable to anyone and impermeable to any light. I began to slowly replace the guilt, fear, shame and loneliness within me -- my chains to the Holocaust -- with the Godlike attributes of love, patience, compassion and forgiveness.

When I came to Israel years ago, I came with nothing; just the two duffel bags I was carrying. I was an empty shell of a person. Since coming here, I have been blessed with many people who helped me on my journey back to emotional health; people who, though they could not free me from my painful past, cared about me and gave to me of themselves. I have found a husband who is a continuous source of unconditional love, acceptance, and understanding. I have also been blessed with children, who are a continuous source of joy and who help me to keep learning about the meaning of loving and giving.

The Maggid of Dubno, a great storyteller, stated, "If you wish to release a bird from a trap, all you need is to open the trap and the bird will fly out of his own volition. It is not necessary for you to lift out the bird with your hands and help it spread its wings. The bird can do that by itself. Our soul, like the bird, is entrapped in the snare of the evil inclination of our heart. If the trap is sprung by the mighty effort of our willpower, the soul will need no help in breaking free and finding its connection with its Creator."

The greatest of all the gifts that I have been given is the gift of returning to my true inner self and the knowledge that I am filled with life.

Published: August 8, 2009

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Visitor Comments: 22

(22) Toby Trompeter Kraman, February 28, 2011 6:39 AM

I felt like I was reading my own story

with a few differences... my life experience as a daughter of a Holocaust survivor ( 7 camps) and - I never know how to refer to my mother, what? a refugee? She lost 4 siblings and narrowly missed being trapped in the war herself. It is a constant battle that I walk with G-d. We must learn to turn again and again towards the Light and to choose life. Affirming LIFE, and our mission to try and repair the world and restore Hashem's sovereignity... that is the only way to continue to live in this world coming out of that dark abyss... I also found life in Israel and in Torah study, particularly Chassidus, and also had to learn the Aleph-Bet of healthy human interaction. Rivka speaks of the Elephant in the room; well, we lived with that same elephant and I've often said to people that I felt like I was a creature of a different order myself. Like I had a tail.. Every time the subject of the Holocaust came up, my emotions would start to churn and I was afraid that I would somehow slip up and my hidden "tail" would show, and I would be found out. I went under cover for many years. I hope that Rivka and others like us can learn to acknowledge who we are and put our own special sensitivities and informed intuition to good use, with G-d's help. in the words of survivor and Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim A"H, we must work not to give posthumous victories to hitler YeMach Shemo; rather, to learn the depth and beauty of the Torah, our heritage as Jews and identify strongly with your unique soul, our unique people and the One G-d. That is how the Messianic age will be revealed and holiness will envelop all humanity - may it be soon, with G-d's help!

(21) Anonymous, August 17, 2009 6:08 AM

I think this is an important message to share. There are many people who struggle and don't find answers. I am amazed that the author, in spite of everything was able to function 'normally' and accomplish so much. This is a strong statement of the inner strength she had but was unaware of. It is encouraging that she found help and healing and is making an impact: spiritually; with her family; with her students and her readers. I commend her.

(20) Bea, August 13, 2009 6:28 PM

Rivka thanks , very well put

I was born in the USA, married to a Holocaust Surivor. Oh yes my house was very quiet. As one of my sons mentioned talking about the past seemed taboo. As a result I never spoke about my own past growing up in the USA. It took my husband 45yrs. to share his experiences in the camps and as a witness to the holocaust. I sometimes wonder and feel like apologizing to my children because I know as a result, their childhood could not be considered a happy one. After reading Rivka's heart rendering article I thank her for sharing.

(19) Jeannine Poler, August 12, 2009 11:04 PM

Thank you for sharing you said story. Although thanks G-d, you were able to find the right path. I too with four other siblings survived the Shoa. We too went to very similar life experiences. Our mother z"l, was gassed in Auschwitz. Our father was not a father to us. So I can understand your pain and so forth. We are grateful to the LIGHT for taking care of us and still have been able to marry and have a family. All five of us remained with our Jewishness. May G-d Bless you. Shekoach!

(18) Dennis, August 11, 2009 1:20 PM

influenced even in Australia

My Great-Grandparents left Germany and moved to Australia before Hitler was even born, and although our family were not in danger relatives who had not moved disappeared. This had a an effect on our family as they became more assimilated and my siblings and I were all given Irish names (Ireland was neutral) just in case. Even now many family members refuse to acknowledge their heritage preferring to deny any Jewish connection. I sometimes feel that they are giving away their birthright just as Esau did, such a shame. I feel that the holocaust has destroyed the heritage and identity of many even though their bodies were never in serious danger. This story shows how others suffered from the effects of family being damaged by hatred even when not personally being a survivor.

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