The trauma of the Shoah can be passed through the generations

My mother’s cousin, Petr Kien, who was murdered by the Nazis, has been a presence in my life ever since I was a child


Barbed wire fence against dramatic, dark sky.

August 03, 2023 13:36

Can Nazi trauma affect the second and third generations? Can the suffering of an Auschwitz victim actually be inherited? New York pianist Roger Peltzman says the fate of an uncle who died years before he was born has so invaded his consciousness that he feels a personal connection with him.

That man was Norbert Stern, an award-winning pianist murdered in Auschwitz at the age of 21. Peltzman describes in his one-man production, Dedication, which is now set to tour European cities — including Cracow — how his own musicianship has been affected by the anguish experienced by his uncle and how he is haunted by his family’s tragic history in Europe during the Second World War.

While there have been workshops and counselling offered to second and third generation survivors of the Holocaust, Peltzman takes it further and suggests the experience of victims can even create genetic change in their descendants.

Peltzman, a pianist and teacher in New York City, whose mother narrowly escaped the Holocaust but lost her entire family, including her brother Norbert, describes how he virtually channelled Norbert as he moved from playing blues to the full Chopin shebang — beneath a huge projection of Norbert, looming down like a ghost at the opera. The show flier quotes William Faulkner’s intriguing words: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

In 1933, Peltzman’s family fled Berlin for Brussels, where Norbert became noted as the finest pianist in Belgium — until it all came to a terrible end.

A 2015 study found that the children of Holocaust survivors had epigenetic changes to a gene that was linked to their levels of cortisol, a hormone involved in the stress response. It is known as transgenerational trauma.

Rachel Yehuda, director of the Traumatic Stress Studies division at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, came to this conclusion after assessing 32 Holocaust survivors who had either been interned in a Nazi concentration camp, had experienced or witnessed torture, or who went into hiding during the Second World War.

The study also analysed the genes of their children, who were known to have increased likelihood of stress disorders, and compared the results with Jewish families who were living outside Europe during the war. “The gene changes in the children could only be attributed to Holocaust exposure in the parents,” said Yehuda, who described this epigenetic finding in the offspring of trauma survivors as a signal. “It’s exciting that it’s there.”

While the findings were criticed by some who called for broader and deeper research into the genome, Yehuda stood by her conclusions. “It was one single small study, a cross-section of adults many, many years after parental trauma. The fact we got a hint was big news,” she said. “Now the question is, how do you put meat on the bones? How do you really understand the mechanism of what is happening?”

Another characteristic typical of second-generation survivors, researchers found, is a high degree of co-dependence with their parents. Because of the trauma of separation that was forced upon them in the past, survivor parents were not always able to “separate” from their children or to “let them go”. This is an issue that many Jewish people have experienced and may continue to do so in the future.

But does the Jewish experience of extreme trauma actually predate the Holocaust? In her novel, The Dogs and the Wolves, Irene Nemirovsky, who was murdered by the Nazis in 1942, makes this observation on behalf of one of her characters, Ben Sinner: “Perhaps he felt, like all Jews, that vague and slightly frightening feeling of carrying within oneself a past that was heavier than the past of most men”.

Ukrainian-born Nemirovsky moved to Paris and published this novel in 1940, and while her Jewish characters feared the pogroms but did not anticipate the Nazis, she describes something that is at the very heart of so-called inherited trauma. Jews, irrespective of wealth or poverty, could experience the heaviness of the past, persecution, exile, as totally inhibiting factors.

When Peltzman concluded a performance I attended by playing Chopin, with great passion and spirit, there was not a dry eye in the audience. It had not been a polished performance. He often seemed to gloss over emotions that had so deeply affected him. But somehow that raw energy, that lack of sophistication had a power of its own.

Many of the people who came shyly and respectfully to speak to him after the show were not Jewish. Beneath the lingering, projected image of his uncle, the anguish of the performance also seemed to speak to us about the survival of human fortitude, strength, majesty and beauty.

I could relate to that. My mother’s cousin, Petr Kien, was an artist, poet and librettist who wrote the libretto for Viktor Ullman’s critically acclaimed Brechtian opera, Kaiser von Atlantis, (Emperor of Atlantis). It was written secretly and dangerously under the very noses of the Nazi guards in Terezin, their show-case camp, and is believed to be the only such work created under Nazi captivity. When its subversive nature became clear, both of these courageous men were sent to their deaths in Auschwitz.

I grew up hearing my mother speak about the childhood she spent with Petr, in the former Sudeten Czech town of Varnsdorf, about his prodigious gifts cut short by his murder at the age of 25. Both only children, they grew up as virtual siblings, living next door to each other. Their childhood exploits were the wallpaper of my early memories. Petr will be forever the ghost child-uncle I never knew.

Some years ago I went to Prague and Terezin to recover several of his original drawings and a book of his paintings, which I could give my mother, who had been so sad that she did not have a single drawing by him. When I put those rolled-up and dusty drawings, retrieved with considerable difficulty from Prague’s Jewish Museum, in the car and left Prague, I felt I was bringing Petr home.

Did I channel Petr Kien? Did my mother’s loss of him and her mother in the Holocaust invade my creative consciousness? I may never know. I don’t have Peltzman’s certainties. But, I have written a play about Petr, which has been performed on the London fringe and in later revivals, and several articles. Like Peltzman, I have always felt a definite affinity, a sense of wanting to preserve him, to tell the world about Petr, to let his life and his work speak. It is, of course, partly to honour my mother and her grief.

Even now, I have his photo on the wall of my office. I admire his sensitive features and to me he remains a beacon of light and hope in a world which so tragically abandoned him.

Gloria Tessler is the JC’s obituaries editor

August 03, 2023 13:36

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...


Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive