The “hierachy of suffering” is a powerful and painful concept. It encapsulates the idea that compared to the suffering engendered in Nazi concentration camps, every other type can only be lesser. The term has been coined very recently, by Maya Lasker-Wallfisch, a psychoanalystic psychologist and educator, whose new book Letter to Breslau explores the intergenerational traumas of her celebrated musical family’s Holocaust legacy.
The book (currently only out in German, the English version still awaiting a publisher) intersperses the author’s memoires with a series of letters addressed to her maternal grandparents, who were murdered by the Nazis in the Izbica concentration camp. Her mother and aunt, Anita and Renate Lasker, both survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Anita Lasker-Wallfisch’s memoir, Inherit the Truth, related the story of how her cello playing saved her life when she was deported to Auschwitz and found herself playing in its women’s orchestra.
Maya Lasker-Wallfisch is the second of Anita’s two children, born in 1958. Even as a toddler she experienced problems that she had no way of understanding, including terrible attacks of separation anxiety would strike her whenever her mother, a member of the English Chamber Orchestra, went away on tour. “I was two years old,” she says, “self-harming and obese, because the only comfort I could find was in being over-fed,” she says.
Moreover, she was the only non-musical member of a family that otherwise lived and breathed classical music. “My mother thought I might be a talented flautist,” she says, “but although I learned the instrument, I didn’t like it and I wasn’t much good at it.” Her brother, Raphael, is a celebrated cellist. Their father was the pianist Peter Wallfisch: “I only felt like his daughter when I was in the Wigmore Hall, selling programmes for his concerts.”
Then there was the “hierachy of suffering”. “If you are a child and you feel ill, and then it is said to you, as it was several times to me, ‘Are you about to die? Have you got parents? Are you starving? What’s your problem?’ — you’re left with complete confusion. How do I figure out what I feel, need or want when I’m being told those things don’t exist? It’s a complete disavowal of one’s experience, which becomes irrelevant or inconsequential; and although not intended, that has the impact of making one struggle for identity and any kind of legitimacy about one’s personal needs. If everything is recorded against the backdrop of what my parents had been through, you can just forget it.”
For her, though, that backdrop was not even present — because it was, she says, only in the 1990s that her mother began to talk and write about her experiences. As a child in the early 1960s, Maya knew nothing of it. Nor did anyone else: “Nobody asked her about it. They didn’t know what questions to ask.” Everything was pushed underground.
Maya’s litany of despair grew with the years. She dropped out of school and became prey to alcohol abuse and drugs. Finally, after a long period of addiction, she ended up in Jamaica, married to another addict who had walked out on her, leaving her homeless. It was her mother who saved her. The book tells of how she sent money for a flight back to London and organised her subsequent rehab. “My mother saved me, for sure — many times,” Maya declares.
The road to recovery was far from straightforward. Alongside her training in psychotherapy — “the degree was supposedly postgraduate, but I hadn’t even been to school!” — she married again, now embracing her Jewish background: her husband was David Jacobs, the son of Rabbi Louis Jacobs, and the couple, now divorced for some years, had a son, Abraham. A visit to Auschwitz with her mother, filming a documentary, left her feeling “totally traumatised”. But an advertisement in the JC pointed her towards a support group for children of Holocaust survivors. She had never previously encountered such a thing. “It was the first time that I met anyone who was just like me.”
A new slant has since appeared in the chain of cause and effect where Holocaust trauma is concerned. “Recently, research in a very new field, epigenetics, appears to have shown that traumatic experience can produce changes in DNA, which are then inherited by the next generation,” Lasker-Wallfisch says. “When I first heard this, I was relieved: it would potentially explain a great deal.” Yet how can you distinguish the physical causes from the psychological? “You can’t,” she says wryly.
Today, Lasker-Wallfisch still practices psychotherapy, but combines this with her creative work: “I had an epiphany a couple of years ago,” she says, “when I realised there was so much else I was longing to do, and was capable of — including writing this book.” She has also created and presented a narrated concert, together with her mother, brother and other musicians, relating the family history through readings and music (a performance from the Jewish Museum of Berlin is viewable on Youtube).
“The most interesting people I am working with now are actually the second-generation descendents of Nazis,” Lasker-Wallfisch adds. “My first fan letter came from the son of a Nazi who told me in the email — and he’s a psychiatrist — that through reading my book he has finally been able to make the connection with the missing bits in his own life. That was so moving and powerful. I don’t see this as just a Jewish problem. I see it as a human problem.” She has recently taken German citizenship as a way of closing the gap between her heritage and the tremendous losses her family has experienced.
She was determined from the start that the book should emerge first in German. And ultimately, she says, her motivation in writing it was to honour her grandparents. “I longed to have three generations of Laskers in the same place,” she says, “because my grandparents could never be in a room together with us. Now they have a home in my book. Though there is no cemetary to visit, I hope I’ve given them back, the Laskers of Breslau, a place to be.”
Maya Lasker-Wallfisch’s Briefe nach Breslau (Letters to Breslau) is out now, published by Suhrkamp