Sixty-Five Years After World War II: A Family Secret
Sixty-Five Years After World War II: A Family Secret
The Holocaust is well known and has been well researched. The purpose of this study was to evaluate persons 65 years after the Holocaust who remained in Poland and discovered the “secret” of their Jewish ancestry, despite not being raised as Jews. Here, we examine how the secret affected these people and how they dealt with it when they discovered the secret and were finally able to talk about it. The final analysis recognizes that the work these individuals have done in keeping the secret, exposing it, and attempting to heal and work through their lives has significant consequences for the next generation.
With the help of MB from the University of Warsaw, interviews were set up with 20 individuals residing in Poland. Eleven individuals were in their 60s or 70s; 5 were in their 40s or 50s, and 4 were in their 20s to 30s. Fifteen were college graduates; 2 were in university, and 3 were not college-educated. Five individuals were saved from death when given to Polish families from the Ghetto. The remaining individuals lived outside of the Ghetto. None were in the death camps.
Interview Reports: Age Group 60s - 70s
One individual from this group was a 72 year-old retired physician. She was taken out of the Ghetto by an unmarried Polish woman, who looked after her throughout the war. After the war, an aunt tried to take her back, but she refused. A law suit ensued, and she stayed with her adoptive mother. As she became more curious about her identity, she found out that her father was a doctor and that her biological parents had committed suicide in the Ghetto after they gave her away. This woman felt very pleased that she was able to live out her life with dignity, and taught her children to be decent, for example, by instructing them not to think of themselves as special, and not to let distortions grounded in anti-Semitism – such as that Jews were “Christ killers” – affect their lives.
The balance of the interviews with our other interviewees from this age group contain important historical and biographical facts, personal insights, and final perspectives. Excerpts from their interviews are provided in Table 1.
TABLE 1: Age Group – 60’s to 70’s
In their words (translated)
• As a child: “My mother took me in in place of a dead child to help deal with very serious grief.”
• As a child: “The priest told me that I could not leave the orphanage without police supervision.”
• On discovering the secret: “It was no secret that I was 100% Jew.”
• As a child: “I hunted and worked for food or faced starvation.”
• As a child: “My parents were good people and not anti-Semitic.”
•The final perspective: “I am proud of my ancestry and having connected the dots.”
• As a child: “I was taken by the police from the Ghetto at the age of 2.”
• As a child: “When I escaped, it was the nuns who protected me. . . they saved me”
• On discovering the secret: “It made me feel ‘legitimate’.”
• As a child: She and her siblings knew that they “should not ask questions” and these issues were “untouchable things.”
• The final perspective: “Do not stereotype.”
Interview Reports: Age Group 40’s – 50’s
A 55-year-old writer told of how he found out in school that he had a different name, and wondered why he did not have any relatives. His father was captured by the Russians but returned to Poland, and worked in an army school. His father married and was 29 years older than his wife, who was Polish. The writer witnessed while growing up that when his mother got angry at his father, she would call his father a “dirty Jew.” In one of her rages, she told the subject who he was and his origins in an abusive and rejecting manner. Often, as a child, Catholic children would bully him because he was different, and he was taunted by his peers that Jews were “Christ killers.” Despite all of this, he has been able to conduct his life with dignity, though he is still haunted by his personal identity, his social identity, and his future growth.
Excerpts from the balance of our interviews with our other interviewees in this age group are provided in Table 2.
TABLE 2: Age Group – 40’s to 50’s
In their words (translated)
|• After learning of the secret: “It changed the way I lived.”|
|• As a child: “My cousin would call me a ‘dirty Jew’.”|
• As a child: “I did well in school [but] always felt lonely.”
• Growing up: “I had no support from anyone.”
• The final perspective: “Roots are important.”
|• On what induces anger: “Rudeness and a lack of a sense of humor.”|
|• Discovering the secret: “My mother told me before she died the ‘secret’.”|
• After learning the secret: “I was angry and [felt] helplessness… [but] I changed and felt more self-assured.”
|• The final perspective: “I teach my family to just be human.”|
Interview Reports: Age 20’s – 30’s
One woman from this group was a college graduate who was working in the entertainment field. She began to discover that she was Jewish when she overheard Jewish songs while growing up. When she found out from her mother that these songs were Jewish and that she was Jewish, she felt very proud, and felt more connected as a person. She described growing up with her mother as “fun”, and imbued with mutual trust and respect for her own personal views and feelings. She observed that whether people are Jewish, gay, or otherwise different, men and women in her generation will be more likely to accept them once they disclose their secret.
Excerpts from the balance of our interviews with our other interview subjects are provided in Table 3.
TABLE 3: Age Group – 20’s to 30’s
In their words (translated)
|•After discovering the secret: “I went on a birthright and felt inside good [sic.]”|
|•The final perspective: “It’s more what we are afraid of than what really is happening in terms of… stereotypes.”|
|•Discovering the secret: “This was no surprise because my mother looked Jewish and used Jewish phrases.”|
|•Discovering the secret: “After my mom told us our grandparents were Jewish… I got rid of my shame.”|
•The final perspective: “Don’t stereotype.”
All of the 20 individuals we interviewed expressed value in discovering their historical roots. They used phrases such as “connecting the dots,” “feeling whole,” and “feeling human.” The oldest group survived the war and remembered what it was like to be Jewish in a time when disclosing who they were meant risking their own life or certain death. The individuals in their 50s were entangled in the historical events. The consequent challenge for the youngest group was to consolidate their sense of self as they started to struggle with the new aspects discovered as a consequence of the secret. For many participants, discovering their roots meant having to deal with the complicated patterns of their parents.
Personal identity development is shown as always being connected to the broader historical and societal context. The most private parts of a personal life are affected by history, which can leave deep wounds. We are often not aware of how fortunate we are to be living today in relative peace and in a democratic environment without war or ideological terror.
Since Freud and probably since the period of enlightenment, secrets were thought to be valuable if brought to rational consciousness. Family therapy literature1-5 indicates that exposure of the secret outweighs the shame. In the Holocaust literature, many modes of transmission of the trauma have been investigated, from biology, family systems, and PTSD.5,6 Psychoanalytic therapy7,8 and relational models were substantiated in the clinical setting; however, there is much that remains to be understood.9,10
Our report involves 20 individuals who lived and remained in Poland during and after World War II.11 All were relieved by knowing their Jewish origins, which had previously been blocked by the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, and Communism. These individuals had no opportunity to deal with their secrets because of war. The luxury of sharing and dealing with their secrets was not as feasible as it would be in North America. However, the task of integrating their personal and social identities did change12 as they described how they integrated their new-found information.13
The consequences of secrecy reverberates through a person’s life.14 It is important to remove secrecy that only causes anxiety, shame, guilt, and constriction as it perpetrates self-destructiveness15,16 in the present and in future generations. Research17 on the consequences of secrecy is needed, based on the complexity of factors where genocide is involved.
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14. Schneiderman G, Aldous R. The secret and the elderly patient. Humane Medicine. 1992;8(1) 45-49.
15. Schneiderman G. Coping with Death in the Family. New Canadian Press 4th. Edition 1994.
16. Engelking B, Ledciak J. Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City. Trans. by E. Harris Yale University Press, 1992
17. DVD’s from these interviews are now archived in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, DC.