Excerpted from the Child in Mind blog on boston.com.
My 51st birthday is approaching. My father is 87. Yet it was not until this spring that I learned details of the story of his childhood in Nazi Germany, his escape to America as a teenager, and his dramatic rescue of his parents from the concentration camp Theresienstadt when he returned to Germany as a soldier with the US Army.
It took his grandson, my 13-year-old son, to get him to break this silence, when my son requested that his grandfather speak to his eighth-grade class following their visit to the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C.
My father’s story is one of not only survival, but of triumph in the midst of unimaginable horror. He would never use the word “trauma” to describe his experience. Bits of the story had emerged at times. But in general he ascribed to Elie Weisel’s notion that it was a horror so great it could not be spoken of.
French psychoanalysts Françoise Davoine and Jean-Max Gaudillière have a different adage on the cover of their book, “History Beyond Trauma”: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one cannot stay silent.” They argue that personal stories of war and societal trauma, if not told in words, emerge as symptoms, sometimes as mental illness, sometimes in subsequent generations.
Davoine offers a wonderful example in a story of her own family. She and her husband were on a trip with their young children when she discovered a growth in her abdomen. Despite a fear of cancer, they decided to say nothing to their children and finish the monthlong trip. Shortly after the discovery, her son developed severe anxiety around bedtime and refused to go to sleep. It emerged that, being highly sensitive to his parents’ emotions, as children can be, he was worried, but didn’t know what to be afraid of. When his parents explained about the lump, his sleep problem resolved.
In my behavioral pediatrics practice, I often hear stories like this from parents.
I am blessed by the fact that my father is alive and in good health. I am hopeful that we now have the opportunity to write a book together telling of both his remarkable life, and also how his experience came to be known by me and my children. It will serve as a dramatic example of a story that needs to be told.