WHY THIS CHILD OF HOLOCAUST SURVIVORS WILL VISIT GERMANY, BUT NOT POLAND
Why I broke a promise to my father to visit his hometown, Lodz.
Initially, when I was invited to Berlin at speak at The Healing Summit, an annual conference created by Healing Hotels of the World, I planned on making a side trip to Poland. That’s where my parents lived before being captured by the Nazis. After liberation, mom returned to her hometown, Bendin, and ferreted out exactly how each family member perished. The last time my father breathed air in Lodz was in 1944 as he was shoved into a cattle car with his parents and three younger sisters — destination Auschwitz.
Over 40 years later, when I accompanied him from Queens, New York to Bochum, Germany to offer support while he testified against the SS officer in charge of that cattle car roundup of Jews, the plan was we’d travel on to Lodz. But, emotionally depleted from reliving unspeakable trauma, dad opted for a post-trial overnight in Brussels. I promised him one day I would make his pilgrimage to Lodz.
Somehow, the time never felt right. Over the ensuing decades of working first in magazine publishing, then as a psychotherapist, my most fulfilling vocation was volunteering for Steven Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation. (https://sfi.usc.edu) I visited 67 survivors to take their videotaped testimonies. I also interviewed the filmmaker twice about Shoah for cover stories. He told me during our 2014 conversation celebrating the Foundation’s 20th anniversary, “The original mission of Shoah was a race against time to record testimonies. Now it’s…tolerance education.”
In my 11 years as a therapist I’ve grown tolerant treating patients who often hold opposing values from mine and sometimes carry prejudices that cause acidic roiling in my stomach. But being allowed inside their psyches, seeing the pain and fear that forged their beliefs helps me see the hurt inner child beneath the steely defensive layers. The hurt child is whom I try to reach.
On a one to one basis this philosophy works. But since Trump won the election my childhood nightmares of being chased by Nazis, symptomatic of the Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) that is part of the inheritance of being a child of survivors, has returned. No wonder:the Jewish Anti-Defamation League points to a 37 percent increase in Anti Semitic incidents in 2017 ranging from discrimination to bomb threats.
Weirdly, I feel positive about traveling to Germany. I surmise it’s because I will be surrounded by experts in the wellness and healthcare fields striving to create, according to Healing Summit co-founder Ann Biging, “a truly global influencer community to do good in the world.”
I have searched my soul and foresee nothing good to come from visiting Poland, whose Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki not only claims “Jewish perpetrators” were involved in the Holocaust, but recently pushed through a law criminalizing blaming Poles for being complicit in Holocaust crimes.
A friend and fellow child of survivors recounted her sister visiting Poland in the late 1990s with a group and being greeted by masses of Poles screaming “Go home Jews” and “Why didn’t they get all of you?”
I feel sick breaking a promise to my father. But I know the man who would have given his life to spare me a moment of anguish would hate to see his daughter subjected to a jot of what he experienced in his native land. He once told me his best friend, a gentile, turned on him after the Nazis invaded, calling dad “dirty Jew.”
Yet I need to do something empowering during my trip, to honor my parents, and help quiet the renewed feelings of victimhood plaguing my dreams. I’ve queried Jewish Facebook friends who live in Berlin. My cyber-reporting finds a consensus that while there is a right wing presence (where isn’t there one?), the holocaust is taught weekly to students in grades 5 to 12. Field trips to concentration camps are common. Adults continue to struggle with this “national shame.”
Liv Fleischhacker, the 29-year-old founder of Nosh, Berlin’s first and enthusiastically received Jewish food festival, cautions that as Berlin is “very bohemian, and left-leaning,” it doesn’t necessarily represent thinking in other parts of the country.
More Internet research led me to Milk and Honey, a tour company that will take me on a 5-hour private pilgrimage to sites such as The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (controversial as it contains no specific reference to the Holocaust); the Cattle Car Memorial; Bebelplatz, site of the 1933 Book Burning; and the ‘trains to life-trains to death’ memorial.
I can never fully come to terms with the past, but I will feel safe among Germans, something I once never thought possible.
After I shared my findings to my friend whose sister was jeered at in Poland, she said, “Sherry, wouldn’t it be ironic if we ended up moving to Berlin?”