The Current·Q&A

Author explores how intergenerational trauma affects children of Holocaust survivors like herself

Marsha Lederman says the trauma caused by the Holocaust doesn’t just affect those who survived it. It also affects their children and even grandchildren.

Marsha Lederman explores how her parents' experience during the Holocaust shaped her own life

A book cover featuring a photo of a woman's face overlain by a torn paper. The author's photo, a smiling woman with straight blonde hair.
Kiss the Red Stairs is a book by Marsha Lederman. (McClelland & Stewart, Ben Nelms)

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Marsha Lederman says the trauma caused by the Holocaust doesn't just affect those who survived it. It also affects their children and even grandchildren.

Lederman's parents survived the Holocaust, with her mother spending time in the the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, and her father narrowly escaping execution. After the war her parents would move to Canada and start a family. 

In her new memoir, Kiss the Red Stairs: The Holocaust, Once Removed, she explains how intergenerational trauma torments the children of Holocaust survivors, including herself, and how she is triggered by reports of antisemitic incidences and war.

Lederman is a journalist with The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She spoke to Matt Galloway on The Current about her experience. Here is part of their conversation.

When you were growing up, when did you realize that your family was different from other families?

Well, as a kid, you only know what you experience. So my house was the way it was, and I thought that was the way all houses were. 

But when I was five years old, I made my first real friend and started spending time at her house. And it was very different from mine. It was alive. It was fun. There were jokes, there was like beautiful chaos. And my house was not like that. My house felt very quiet and I'll say almost dead. 

She also had something that I didn't have, and that was a grandmother and grandfather. And I came home one day from being at her house and asked my mom, "Why don't I have any grandparents?" Because I really liked these grandparents. They would come in, they'd swoop in, they'd be all warm, then hugs. They were lovely. 

And my mother's answer, at least as I remember it, was, "You don't have grandparents because the Germans hated Jews, and they killed Jews by putting them in gas showers. And that's what happened to your grandparents. "

I was five years old, sitting at my kitchen table in the Toronto neighbourhood of Bathurst Manor. I'll never forget it.

An aerial picture showes barracks and buildings of former Nazi German Auschwitz I concentration camp complex in Oswiecim, Poland, January 14, 2020. (Axel Schmidt/Reuters)

How did the Holocaust play out in the years that [your parents] lived their lives here in Canada? How did it shape their lives? How did it shadow their lives? 

Oh, it was everywhere. It was all around us, even if it wasn't really spoken about in detail. Little bits and pieces would come out in stories. And their whole lives were really shaped around this. 

They didn't have much family, but all of their friends were also Holocaust survivors. So our house was filled with all of these people who had survived this horrible thing. And you wouldn't know it. No one talked about how traumatized they were. 

In fact, these people were so full of life, it was extraordinary. But it was very much central to our life what had happened back home, meaning Poland and Germany. 

How did their trauma become your trauma in your life? 

For me, I was brought up in a household that was, as I say, sad. I think I was brought up without very much family — no grandparents. I did have an aunt who survived Auschwitz with my mother, actually, quite miraculously. But really, I felt like it permeated in a number of ways. 

I'm sure it made my parents anxious. I'm anxious. My mother was always very suspicious. I'm suspicious. I'm always sort of waiting for the other shoe to drop. I'm waiting for a good day to become a bad day because things don't turn out well for us. 

And that has coloured my life in many ways. And I'm working on it. I don't want to be defined by a victim mentality, but I feel like in many ways I have been. 

Roses are placed on the Holocaust Memorial on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, 2021 in Berlin, Germany. (Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

What does that term intergenerational trauma mean to you? And you've hinted at this, but how has that played out in your life? 

The thinking is, and there have been clinical and scientific studies about this, that a trauma that is experienced by a person can be passed down in some way to their offspring. It was thought to be nurture, like our parents were so affected by the trauma that they experienced that we couldn't help but be affected in some way, too. 

But in the last few years, more and more studies are looking into this possibility that maybe this is actually transmitted in some way biologically, that it's not just that my upbringing was infected by this trauma, but that there's something going on at the cellular level, too.

In many ways that let my parents off the hook, like maybe their parenting wasn't perfect, but they couldn't help it — their genes were doing something to me. 

Do you worry about, when you talk about that idea of intergenerational trauma and inherited trauma, do you worry about the effect that this might have on your son? 

All the time. I am so worried about that. And you know, how could I stop it? I don't know. But one of the things that has become very clear to me through this whole process of really thinking deeply about it is that if I inherited the trauma that my parents experienced or, some of it to a very small extent, then I also inherited other things. 

I inherited their resilience because they, through luck and circumstance and their actions and, you know, a whole bunch of things that the universe threw together, they survived this horror when most people did not. 

So there is some strength of character in them from having accomplished that. I'm not saying that the people who didn't survive weren't strong. I mean, as I say, it was luck and circumstance. 

But beyond that, they built lives again. They got married. They had kids. They moved to a country where they didn't speak the language. They bought a house, they got jobs. They started again. And that is such evidence of great resilience. 

And I hope that along with anything else I've inherited from them, and that my son has inherited from me, that we have inherited some of that resilience. 

Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.

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