Sometimes I think of footprints. The imprints of dinosaurs. Tyrannosaurus Rex, huge steps that once sent tremors through the earth, now sit silent, petrified. I think of footprints at a murder scene. Work boots, their impressions left in mud, betraying the identity of a killer.
I think of stamps. Not my father’s collection, collecting dust somewhere in the attic. But stamps upon the soul. Shame scrawled in marker on our very being. I think ink. The branding of cattle. The numbers on a survivor’s arm.
All this comes to mind when I hear the words “intergenerational trauma,” the fallout from the original wound. Its dust never settles, traveling, instead, on a path from father to son, mother to daughter, to grandkids, to their kids, and so on. Handed down through the ages, family trauma is a stubborn, unwelcomed gift, a gift most often wrapped in a secret.
“This is not the book I intended to write,” begins the preface to The Survivors: A Story of War, Inheritance, and Healing, Adam P. Frankel’s recent memoir. Frankel, a former speechwriter for Barack Obama, set out to tell the stories of both sets of grandparents, but especially those of Zayde and Bubbie, on his mother’s side, Holocaust survivors who met at a displaced person’s camp after WWII. Frankel does this quite well. Yet he doesn’t stop there. He tells a different story, too, the story of the aftermath, the trauma visited upon generations to come.
There’s a sense of urgency here. Frankel mentions a curious page on Wikipedia called “List of last survivors of historical events.” Entries include the last survivor of the Trail of Tears and the Battle of Gettysburg. But, he writes, “there is no entry on that Wikipedia page for the last living Holocaust survivor. Not yet. Those names will appear soon enough.”
Frankel is determined to record the details of his grandparents’ Holocaust experiences, yet it is not the events themselves fueling his urgency. It’s their legacy, the trauma “bequeathed to us, their descendants, a part of our inheritance” that he grapples with throughout the book.
The Survivors is divided into three sections, within which several interrelated braids mingle. In “War,” Frankel recalls the history informing the rest of the narrative, the horrors that laid the foundation from which additional trauma swelled. We learn of Michalishek, the small town forty miles from Vilna, where Frankel’s maternal grandfather Zayde spent much of his childhood. We’re told of the inhuman progression, the town first occupied by Nazis, then its Jewish ghettos liquidated. Trains filled with Jews stopped by the edge of the woods, passengers forced to march in front of giant pits where they were shot into their own mass grave.
Frankel writes of his grandfather’s imprisonment in several concentration camps, including the little-known Stutthof. Zayde, after only four days at the camp, was convinced Stutthof was by far “the worst.” How then, Frankel wonders, had he never before heard of the place his grandfather called the “planet of death?” His answer reveals a tragic irony: “the least well-known sites were often the most deadly because there were fewer survivors to preserve their memory.”
Zayde experienced a spate of “good luck” while he was at Dachau. Because of his watchmaking skills, he was moved to a subcamp in a nearby town to provide his services to Nazis and their sympathizers. Walking down a long hallway on his way to the workshop, he saw another man nearby. “Who’s this? I wonder,” Zayde asked himself. He realized, after a few moments, he had been looking at a mirror. “He walked up to it,” Frankel writes, “raising and lowering his arms, not quite believing that the reflection—gaunt and pale—was his own.”
The scene echoes the last page of Night, where Elie Wiesel recounts his own first encounter with a mirror after his liberation from Buchenwald. Wiesel, stunned by his reflection, sees a corpse looking back. These shared images are powerful metaphors; after experiencing severe trauma, one may, in fact, be unrecognizable to oneself. The survivor is left to ponder whom he has become.
For survivors of trauma and for the generations that follow, identity is often a slippery beast. Secrets born from trauma can cloud identity even further. Frankel’s family held many secrets, including, even, their names. Zayde, born Gershon Gubersky, changed his surname to Perecman. Many immigrants at the time made similar changes, opting for names easier to pronounce or more American-sounding. But Zayde’s reasons were veiled in mystery. “I don’t remember anyone telling me explicitly not to reveal Bubbie and Zayde’s true names and identities,” Frankel writes. “I simply knew, from the way people talked about it—quietly, when no one was around—that their true names were a secret that our family was expected to keep.” Keeping this secret was his family’s “unspoken mandate,” yet the “story remains unclear. To this day, the circumstances surrounding my family’s transition from Guberskys to Perecmans remain murky.”
We learn of other secrets, other “unspoken mandates,” in “Inheritance,” the second section of The Survivors. Frankel’s mother, Zayde and Bubbie’s daughter, suffered from mental illness, but Zayde and Bubbie never reached out to anyone for help, nor did they talk about her struggles. Frankel doesn’t directly address the reason they chose to keep this a secret, but earlier in the book, he mentions that “appearances mattered to Zayde,” and then wonders why. “Was such concern with appearances rooted in his wartime experience? A refusal to let others detect even a trace of weakness?” In the camps, any such trace would most likely be a death sentence. To Zayde, then, it would make perfect sense to ensure his daughter’s depression, even her suicide attempt, remain unnamed.
Silence pervaded much of Frankel’s childhood. His parents divorced when he was four, and, although his father remained very much a part of his life, most of Frankel’s days were spent with his mother, who often closed herself off in her room. Frankel’s mother had also experienced “benign neglect” as a child. “Mom would later tell me that, growing up, she and her siblings had always felt protective of their parents,” Frankel writes. “Bubbie and Zayde had endured so much, she’d say, that it was her job, their job, to protect them from any further pain.” And just as Frankel’s mother felt compelled to protect her parents from pain, Frankel felt responsible for hers. “I could sense, in a way that children can often sense unspoken truths, that my mother’s emotional health was somehow tied to how much of myself I was willing to give.” “You’re all she has” was the refrain he’d often hear from her siblings, an incredible burden for any child to bear.
This role reversal, where children parent their parents, Frankel found, is a common pattern in families of Holocaust survivors and survivors of other unspeakable traumas. Frankel consulted with several experts on intergenerational trauma to learn how his grandparents’ experiences impacted his mother’s mental health, and he skillfully weaves science and psychology into his personal story. Dr. Yael Danieli, a forerunner in the field, talks about one prototype of survivor families, one that fits the Perecmans’ profile well. “Victim Families,” according to Danieli, are characterized by “depression, worry, mistrust, and fear of the outside world.” Survivors’ children take on the parental role in an attempt to “heal their own parents.” In the process, they develop generalized anxiety disorder, depression, and PTSD.
Attempting to shoulder the burdens of their parents, Frankel and his mother bore heavy psychological loads. But his mother also carried her own deep secret, the truth of Frankel’s paternity. It was not until he turned twenty-five, a few months before he began his speechwriting tenure with then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, that Frankel learned he was not the biological son of the man who raised him; his biological father was, instead, his mother’s former professor, with whom she had a long-term affair.
Uncovering the truth of his biology shattered Frankel’s sense of identity: “I wanted to climb out of my skin,” he writes. “I felt disembodied.” And then Frankel takes us back to the mirror: “Sometimes I’d walk up to a mirror and lose myself in it. Five. Ten. Fifteen minutes would pass as I stared at my reflection. Who is this person? … In my face, I saw a stranger.”
Having myself grown up in a family that kept many such secrets, I had a visceral reaction to Frankel’s story. It rocked me. My own father was born in Cologne, Germany in 1922. He was incredibly fortunate to have been able to leave the country before the death camps, but he was still living in Germany when virulent anti-Semitism took hold. (As a young boy, he received multiple stitches to his head after being attacked in the street by an adult man spewing anti-Jewish slurs.) My family’s legacy of secrets, however, stems from my mother, who lived an Oliver Twist-like existence growing up in a poor orphanage in Jerusalem. My mother, like Frankel’s, let her children know in a clear yet unspoken language that it was our job to protect her from her pain. She also, like Frankel’s mother, had an affair that produced a child. The undercurrents of that secret pulled fiercely at us all until the truth was disclosed over twenty years later.
Family secrets make one feel different, in some unnamed manner apart. But reading Frankel’s journey connected me to a vast number of others who have also spent a good deal of their lives in hiding. These are the universalities inherent in intergenerational trauma, regardless of the differing storylines.
We walk beside Frankel through the darkness in the third section of The Survivors, aptly called “Healing.” There are many poignant moments here, possibly the most moving of which is Frankel’s conversation with the man who raised him, Stephen Frankel, the man he’ll always consider his dad. As Frankel comes to terms with his and his family’s past, he leaves us with more questions than answers:
I’d always prided myself on being loyal—to my friends, to my family … And yet this whole experience was making me wonder, what does loyalty even mean? Was it loyal of Mom to lie about my identity because she felt like she was protecting me? Or disloyal because I had a right to know? Is it disloyal to write a book like this … And if I am being disloyal, so what? What’s the price a person should pay to adhere to a family’s code of loyalty? If an act of disloyalty is the best path, the only path, to healing, is it necessary to be disloyal?
The question of what one owes one’s family is difficult under any circumstance but exponentially more challenging when there’s intergenerational trauma at work. Boundaries are fuzzy or nonexistent, making it hard to determine where one begins, where past generations end. Then there are the questions of forgiveness. How is it possible to forgive?
While The Survivors certainly has its share of heavy moments, there are lighter, faster-paced moments as well. Frankel brings us inside the life of a presidential speechwriter; he shares lovely interactions with Obama, along with an insider’s view of our forty-fourth president and how he treated his staff. (Spoiler alert: generously.) Frankel writes about his close relationship with his hero Ted Sorenson, JFK’s trusted speechwriter and advisor, and with his accomplished, politically connected paternal side, the Frankels. (Members of the family tree include Karl Marx, Martin Buber, and Felix Mendelssohn.) Their love and support provided Frankel with a well-needed anchor that steadied him throughout his difficult childhood.
In the end, The Survivors is a story of hope. While Bubbie and Zayde’s Holocaust experiences produced a challenging legacy, the very fact of the Perecmans’ survival is a testament to human strength. Frankel quotes Rachel Yehuda, director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, who believes we need to spend more energy looking at “‘what we gain from trauma, not just what we lose from it.” “Children of Holocaust survivors,” Yehuda explains, “are often moral torchbearers in their communities, working in helping professions and sounding the alarm in times of crisis.” Frankel sees these traits in his mother. “Mom always felt a certain affinity with the poor, the forgotten, the old and infirm, strugglers of every stripe.” There is real good that can arise from pain.
The footprints of trauma are not marked in sand or snow. They do not wash away with the tide or melt in the warmth of the sun. Healing the wounds of trauma takes work, hard, deep, excruciating work; it’s not easy to integrate all the messy pieces. Frankel reached out to experts to gain understanding. He read voraciously about intergenerational trauma and borderline personality disorder, the diagnosis he believes best explains his mother’s behavior. He met with his biological father and steadfastly worked on his relationship with his mother, despite its painful ebbs and flows. That work continues to this day.
By writing The Survivors, Frankel brings into the light what had been long hidden, enabling him to see—and accept—the many variations of gray. “I’m not only the product of stories that make me proud,” he writes. “I’m also the product of stories that disappoint me. Stories that break my heart. The beautiful, the ugly, the heroic, the tragic, the noble, the shameful—my identity has expanded to accommodate them all.”
There is much to relate to in The Survivors for many of us. For others who have not personally experienced intergenerational trauma, the book provides a moving look inside a troubled but loving family and demonstrates the possibility of healing, of breaking a cycle. Frankel closes the book with this powerful passage about his family: “They had not only passed on their scars and sorrow, I understood at last. They had also passed on their sense of hope—defiant and unbounded. They had not only passed on their trauma. They had also passed on something else. Resilience.”
Frankel is clearly resilient. While the effects of his grandparents’ trauma have reverberated through three generations, Frankel is determined to stop the echoes before they “make their way to the fourth.” He has a deep “resolve to heal myself… for my own sake, yes, but also for my marriage’s. My children’s.” For Frankel, there will be no more secrets.
I firmly believe him when he says, “The trauma ends with me.”