Epigenetics: Embracing the Role It Plays in Your Life


Seventy-five years ago, Joseph Stalin's henchmen (the NKVD) came pounding on my Polish family's door in Eastern Poland. It wasn't until 2012, after a series of serendipitous events, that I decided it was time for me to do some knocking on a few doors myself -- the doors of history.

My journey thrust me into a fascinating new Universe to explore a vivid trifecta that revolved around the themes of "home," "place" and "epigenetics" -- and much more, but it always brought me back to that troika. This was such a far distance away from the work I had been doing for more than a decade as entertainment journalist and editor, covering red carpet events and gobbling up Hollywood. Sure, interviewing the stars like Ewan McGregor, Chelsea Handler and Chris Pine was fun. Probing into Stalin, the effect his decisions had on my family, as well as the former Soviet dictator's mass deportation of nearly 1 million Poles and how my family's own survival of Stalin's insanity could somehow being playing out in my own emotional life? Not so fun.

In a sense, I had gone from Glitz to Gulags.

I wrote about my journey uncovering my family's odyssey in the book, Grace Revealed, which was released earlier this year to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Polish Deportations. Initially, I was going to write a story that was more academic -- this event happened to these people and it went underreported for so many years because Stalin became our ally during World War II and well, what was the point in the United States revealing the truth that more than one million Poles were deported during WWII and sent into slave labor camps when the Cold War was clearly about to play out? But a colleague strongly suggested that I put myself in the story -- discovering this information and how, through a series of interviews with family members who were alive and eager to talk about what happened to them, I came to understand more deeply my own roots. Somebody once told me: "Our histories live on through us." And if that was the case, then to what degree could my own family's past being playing out in my own life, in the Here and Now?

A significant part of my journey took me deep into the history books. Volumes have been written about Stalin -- much of it sobering -- however, simply put: A Russian cobbler and a peasant woman have three sons. Two of them die in childhood. The third son survives ... and the ripple effects changed the world forever. By the time Stalin became a prominent dictator in the 1930s and had aligned himself with Adolf Hitler in 1939, few people could have predicted the terrors that were about to be unleashed from Germany and the Soviet Union.

On Feb. 10, 1940 -- a few months before the Katyn Massacre, itself an event that went underreported for many decades -- under NKVD head Lavrentiy Beria's supervision, the first of several grand-scale deportations of Polish citizens took place. It would become a day of infamy, destined to be forever ingrained in Poland's history and my family's psychological makeup.

Today, more information is being revealed about the exact number of people who were deported. More than 25 years ago, the consensus was that it was nearly 2 million people--this was originally reported in Lucjan Krolikowski's book "Stolen Childhood." However, over the last decade or so, as more records have been made more readily available, that figure has been modified--to under 1 million.

Historical preservation sites such as The Kresy-Siberia Virtual Museum have paved the way for additional information and survivors' testimonies to be housed. According to The Kresy-Siberia Foundation's research, more than 100 trains, each carrying an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 Poles, transported nearly 220,000 souls -- military veterans, settlers, foresters and farmers -- into the glacial abyss of Siberian slave labor on or around Feb. 10. Several months later, on April 13, 1940, 320,000 Polish individuals -- so- called "family system of enemies," mostly women and children -- were also removed from their homes and forcibly resettled in Kazakhstan. In the summer of that year, another 240,000 Poles were deported from Polish territories occupied by the Germans. A fourth round of deportations, this time in the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic, took place in June 1941. These people were sent to POW camps or the Gulags, adding another 200,000 souls to the deportation tally. The slave labor camps were scattered throughout Russia: Archangel, Vologda, Smolensk and Moscow in the north; Krasnoyarsk, Tomsk, Omsk in the east; and Bernaul, Karaganda and Novosibirsk in the south, among others. (As new reports and publications emerge, especially in the coming year, it is believed among top scholars and academics that the estimated number of Polish people who were deported ranges between 700,000 and 900,000.)

At the time of the deportations, the USSR covered more than 17 million square kilometers (nearly 6.5 million square miles). Tallying the long list of those penitentiaries is not a simple feat. In the 1940s, Stalin and his henchmen had already established camps for "criminals and military prisoners," as well as women's and children's camps, and countless others. e majority of them housed Stalin's own countrymen. In Magdalena Maciejowska's thesis, "Deportation of Polish People," penned at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków in 2002, the author reports, as many other have, that Stalin had already been sending his own people to these concentration camps "en-masse since 1929." The cobbler's son had milked his own people for, as Maciejowska points out, "cheap and obedient slave labor" for quite some time.

After Hitler attacked Russia in the summer of 1941, Stalin suddenly decided to join the Allied Forces. Upon Britain's and the Polish Government-in-Exile's insistence, Stalin agreed to sign The Sikorski-Mayski Agreement. The treaty freed the imprisoned Polish souls -- those who were still alive -- and the Polish men -- weak, frail and exhausted from working hard labor in the Siberian forests for nearly 18 months -- were encouraged to join The Reds or locate the Polish Army-in-Exile (particularly Gen. Anders' troops) and fight for freedom. The rest of those imprisoned souls, my Polish mother and her family among them -- still miraculously alive -- wandered south to warmer regions, as did hundreds of thousands of other Polish refugees. Many of these refugees somehow wound up all the way in Uzbekistan, were the Polish Army had been working on maneuvers and trainings. The refugees held onto a hope that they could evacuate Russia with the army. More than 30,000 did (including my family) in two waves of evacuations. Many others were left behind. My family, along with tens of thousands of others, were then thrust into another profound journey, which took them across the Caspian Sea, into Tehran and the eastern stretches of India. From there, these Polish refugees -- many of whom suffering extreme illnesses -- were taken to safer regions, thanks, in part, to the valiant efforts of the Red Cross and the International Refugee Organization.

My family's new home: Tanzania, Africa. They lived in a Polish orphanage there for nearly eight years. In fact, there were thousands of Polish refugees living in Eastern Africa during the 1940s, another thing the history books failed to reveal about WWII.

For me, personally, deeply investigating this section of my family's history thwarted an otherwise jovial mood. In fact, I began hovering just north of Emotional Mess. Something unsettling stirred deep within me and it would not allow me to rest until I uncovered as many details as I could about my family's deportation and the deportations of a million Polish people in the 1940s. I had to make some sense of it -- if that was even possible -- and, somehow, grow personally in the process.

But while growth is a wonderful thing, at times, it is rarely comfortable. (Nobody ever remembers to mention that bit of fine print in The Personal Growth contract.)

Immediately, I turned to my Spirituality Mavericks -- Michael Drury, Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra, Louise L. Hay, Caroline Myss. I meditated. Well, I tried. Quieting my mind seemed an impossible task. I practiced Bikram yoga. I prayed. I chanted on mountaintops. I grunted, groaned and cried like Holly Hunter on the end of a dock in Broadcast News. But what you resist persists. You can ignore it if you wish, but really, once you begin walking along any spiritual path, no matter how many detours you wish to take when things begin to feel uncomfortable, ultimately the Universe will lead you right back to the very thing to which you are destined to pay attention.

I wondered: Why had I become so enchanted with Hollywood and celebrities in the first place? Was it an escape? Did I want to be like those celebrities? Did I feel special writing about them? And by writing about them -- over and over again -- had I lost sight of myself? My family? Had I made a career out of hanging out in a star-cluttered world and telling everyone else's story because ... I was apprehensive to tell my own?

We all arrive here on Earth full of potential -- clean slates, fresh newbies -- but either we forget, or are rarely told, that unless we're willing to look back and fully assess where and from whom we came, we're likely to create a life that is not fully our own. Ever since I decided to confront the past head on, I felt as though I, too, had been tossed onto a Russian sled with my family on that cold February morning in eastern Poland. I rode along with them in the boxcars. I shivered in the sawdust in the barrack. I stood knee-deep in snow underneath a birch tree, my feet, my calves chilled to the bone as I awkwardly attempted to saw through the thick, frozen bark with a large saw I did not know how to use.

I could no longer distinguish whether I was impacted by my family's story or just plain impregnated with it. I walked around feeling as if I was traveling with thousands of Polish refugees in 1942.

I must have Googled "Help Me, My Family Survived Stalin's Wrath, And I Feel the Funk, Brother" for assistance, and I immediately wished I had not. I soon discovered information about the impact of the Holocaust and World War II on the children of its survivors. A term in The International Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma, edited by Yael Danieli, stood out: The Echo Effect.

The idea is this: The children of parents and/or close family members who survived a war are affected on an emotional and/or psychological level by the family's traumatic experiences. The child is said to echo what exists in the parents' inner worlds and, on another level, a child's psychic reality reveals the significant marks of trauma that their war-torn parents experienced -- experiences that their parents and family members may or may not have had the proper psychological tools to deal with, fully integrate, and transform. As a result, these children are left to carry on working through of the trauma -- regardless of whether or not they know this is unfolding within them.

Transference phenomena, to which the traumatic legacy is lived out as one's inevitable fate, also comes into play here. The handbook revealed that a vast majority of children of war survivors have attempted to repair their parents' and family's lives by "eliciting testimonies or writing down the parents' histories." Well, I did need a laugh, even though it sprouted from a kind of sickening irony. It also noted that many of those children are therapists and--for the love of God, really?--journalists "engaged in professions that valorize the spoken word, knowing and the telling of stories as a way to impact others and/or heal."

I had to ask: How, if at all, could this apply to me? A mental game of volleyball began.

First volley: Greg, your family survived life-and-death circumstances during the 1940s, but they came out the other side -- stronger, self-assured, and determined. They arrived in America with nothing and worked extremely hard. They bought homes. They got married. They raised children. They acquired what every immigrant hopes to achieve: The American Dream.

Second volley: Yeah, but have you ever asked yourself if they ever really-- like, really--dealt with what happened to them on a psychological or emotional level?

Third volley: Please! Did they have time? All they knew how to do was to survive--at any cost.

Fourth volley: Nice try, but all the emotional and psychological stuff they may not have been dealt with -- and you may never know what the hell that is, by the way -- guess what? There's a strong possibility that you -- yeah, you and your cousins -- could be carrying all that around. You know, underneath the surface and all.

Game. Set. Match.

Another mind game began. Questions, questions. What are the emotional after effects of being shoved into a crowded boxcar and being sent to Siberia? What is the psychological effect of enduring 18 months of slave labor? What happens to you internally when you're left to wander as a homeless refugee in unfamiliar parts of the world with no assurance of, well, anything?

I was on a roll -- and unraveling at the same time.

How does the past -- our family's, our own -- materialize in our everyday lives? How had it materialized in my own life? The popular Polish saying, "Not my circus, not my monkey," suddenly came to mind. But had I been living that saying in reverse? The whole "Stalin Did Something To My Family" thing now felt as if it was my circus and my monkey. And the convivial ringmaster was having a field day in the spotlight:

"Step right up, step right up. Now appearing on Center Stage: Chubby Polish Kid with Fluctuating Self-Esteem sheds weight and wanders thousands of miles away from home -- yes, thousands and thousands of miles, just as his family did. Watch how he seeks guidance from The Powers That Be in faraway lands -- that's right, just as his family did. Look with wonder at how well he breeds financial instability and fuels a fabulous kind of Lack and Insufficiency (cue: sad accordion chords) -- a feeling of lack and insufficiency his own family probably experienced. Witness how he often feels empty, confined, and trapped, believing there is absolutely no way out of his self-created imprisonment."

I knew there was a good reason I never liked the circus.

How had I not seen any of this before? There were many times in my life when I became engaged in and/or remained in situations I didn't truly desire to experience in the first place. More often than not, I tended to remain in those situations longer than necessary, which made me feel trapped, without a "way out," all the while searching for a "sign" that would help me untangle myself from it and miraculously survive against all odds. Read: escape.

But wasn't that the theme of my family's odyssey -- albeit not as dramatic as theirs? Had they not searched for some type of rescue?

Perhaps I was making too large a symbolic leap. Or maybe not. The emotional vault door had been opened. In a short span of time, I discovered other material, beyond: "The International Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma:" 1973's "Manifestations of Concentration Camp Effects on the Second Generation," 1980's "Separation-Individuation Conflicts in Children of Holocaust Survivors" and 2002's "Enactment" in the Lives and Treatment of Holocaust Survivors; Offspring," which reported findings that children of camp survivors had a compulsion "to recreate their parents' experiences in their own lives through concrete acts."

After "Grace Revealed" was released, I noticed that a number of reports on epigenetics suddenly surfacing. One of them, in The Guardian had a bold headline: Study of Holocaust survivors finds trauma passed on to children's genes. (To which I would add two things: Stalin's also spawned a "Holocaust" and it went underreported, and the study could easily be referring to any children of war survivors.)

Was it possible that, in some way, I became a storehouse for emotional energy that did not originate from me -- at all? Unbeknownst to me, had I become the recipient of a plethora of memories, intense emotions, and, to some extent, unresolved issues invisibly handed down to me from a group of World War II survivors with whom I shared DNA -- emotional and otherwise? Like a sponge, had I absorbed that energy deep into the very fiber of my being -- my cells, even? Did that energy gestate there? Were their energetic vibrations requesting an outlet to be released now? Was my current discomfort a Big Clue to either investigate who I really was and what came before me on a deeper level or, simply move on in another direction entirely?

I could not be the only human experiencing such a thing -- if, in fact, I was actually experiencing it. I had arrived at another fork in the road. Embracing my family's story -- and, to some degree, reliving it -- was one thing. Fully understanding what it wanted to teach me and finding a way to transform and excavate it from the very walls of my soul? Well, suddenly, that required a jackhammer.

At one point later in the year, I returned to The Guardian article -- perhaps for solace and more understanding, and maybe just to learn more. To me, the revelation that epigenetics comes into a play is a no-brainer. Duh. I've lived it. I get it. But what now? What do we do with the information revealed by researchers, some of which included:

* The transmission of trauma to a child via what is called 'epigenetic inheritance'-- the idea that environmental influences such as smoking, diet and stress can affect the genes of your children and possibly even grandchildren.

* Genetic changes "stemming from the trauma suffered by Holocaust survivors are capable of being passed on to their children, the clearest sign yet that one person's life experience can affect subsequent generations?"

These ideas are considered controversial. Let's face it: conventional science notes that "genes contained in DNA are the only way to transmit biological information between generations." And while these very genes are modified by the environment -- a lot -- and some genes have tags that can be turned on and off, recent studies now suggest that some of these tags could be passed through generations, meaning this: One's environment in the Here and Now (whenever that Here and Now took place) could very well have a strong impact on somebody's children or a future generation.

More will be revealed about this rich, fascinating subject. And I remained inspired. The bottom line for this First-Generation Pole? I just look forward to exploring how one can implement a holistic approach to -- for lack of a better word -- "dealing" with and "moving beyond" the often wild and vivid role epigenetics plays in our lives.