Trans-Generational Trauma: Passover, The Holocaust and My Grandma

I sit across from my grandmother at the Seder table.

"Grandma," I say, "I'm wondering what it's like for you, as a Holocaust survivor, who fled Germany as a child, to read these words, 'in every generation an enemy rises'?"

She raises her eyebrows and sighs, as if she doesn't have what to say. My grandma has plenty to say.

"It's always the children who suffer the most," she says. "No matter the religion, no matter the crime; children are always the victims."

I remember my grandmother telling me about the bullying she experienced in New York upon her arrival. Here was a little German refugee girl with a heavy accent in an all girls religious school. She was safe but felt like an outsider. She had to acclimate fast.

"Children are always the victims." I think of the 200 Nigerian girls who have been kidnapped a year ago. I sit with my daughter, Ravi, on my lap this year at the Seder. She's almost three and knows the Ma Nishtana, the four questions, but only sings it when someone else is talking.

Early the next morning, Ravi and I find my grandma in the kitchen.

"There was something else I wanted to say last night," grandma says.

She mentions how Passover is linked to her father's death. My grandmother's father passed away suddenly when she had just turned eighteen years old. She found him lying dead on the couch and had to call up her uncle and community members to prepare for his burial. Two days later was Seder night.

"My father was a religious man, traditional," my grandma says. "His observance was so grounding for us amid our physical dislocation and upheaval."

I listen closely, grateful for my grandmother's insight, surprised by her candor. In the background, Ravi sings a Shabbat song, Shalom Aleychem, eating her breakfast.

The next night I ask my grandmother another question.

"In each and every generation, we are required to see ourselves as if we left Egypt," reads the Haggadah.

I think of what it is to be a grandchild of survivors. I imagine what it might be like for my grandparents' generation, enslaved year after year by the haunting memories of World War II, as genocides continue to be perpetuated, as anti-semitism is on the rise in Europe.

"How do you end the cycle of trauma?" I ask.

My mother interjects now. "It took the ancient Israelites hundreds of years for a redeemer to come," my mother says, "for Moses to lead the slaves free. And then it took forty years of wandering in the desert before arriving at the Promised Land. And even so, the generation who was freed from slavery never even entered the Land of Israel; their generation had to die out."

"Pretty bleak," someone says.

"Or hopeful," says another voice. "At least the children get there."

"Or grandchildren," says my grandmother.

Do we? I wonder.

It is Yom HaShoah time now, Holocaust Remembrance Day. On all other nights I feel blessed to feel so close to the elders in my family. On all other nights I feel like my family gave me a gift in teaching me Yiddish and inviting me into a cultural world of which most of the Jewish community knows little.

But this Yom HaShoah, for whatever reason, I feel in between worlds, words in Yiddish are seared into my memory.

"In the Warsaw Ghetto, it's now the month of Nissan," writes Binem Heller in his poem recounting the legendary uprising which began on Passover night.

He writes:

"Over goblets of borsht, matzah of clay,
the people again sing of miracles of old...
Kol dikhfin, let all who are hungry - by covered windows and doors...
Elijah's goblet is full...
As always - the German language of marching...
But no! The Ghetto will not hear more of the curses of Nazis transporting Jews. We will again wipe the doorposts- with blood of the free, blood of the last."

Ravi, will I teach you this poem the way my father taught me? Or will you cry out 'Dayenu'? Enough! Will you read this story of the ancient Exodus and feel as if it is yours? Will you feel inspired, excluded, hopeful and heavy?

The Seder continues with the words of the rabbis, "go out and learn." And so, we try. We hold each other, we listen, we sing. We remember and forget, arguing and aiming to arrive at our promised land.