Bread and Worms Survivor Guilt, Moral Injury and Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma

Bread and Worms: Survivor Guilt, Moral Injury and Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma

Instantly a tight pit seized up deep in my stomach, hearing the heavily accented 92-year-old voice on the radio. I did not realize it was International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1945. The voice belonged to Eva Schloss, the step-sister of Anne Frank, whose famous diary has captivated the world for decades since it was discovered. 

Like most everyone, I have read the book several times over the years. But for the most part, I have kept my distance from Holocaust stories, figuring I “know enough.” I remember nightmares of “army men” stomping through the house, grabbing everything, their heavy black boots booming in my ears when I was two. 

In third grade at Hebrew school, they showed us grainy black and white newsreels, of piles of bones and lines of emaciated skeleton-like people pushed stumbling into smoking showers; my father bellowing, “Bread and worms are what we had to eat! You just don’t know what it’s like to go to bed hungry!” 

Our mother was mostly quiet. The story I most remember about her was of her best friend Gikka from one day to the next, turning on her, rejecting her upon joining the Hitler Youth. Our mom’s heart was broken. Although the stories were not my own, they lived in my body and inhabited my dreams as if they were. Only many decades later did I learn there is a term for this: “intergenerational transmission of trauma.”

Although I always retained a profound sense of justice and injustice, and compelled by human suffering, felt a keen desire to “do something” to help Jewish history and causes, Israel and Zionism, I stayed away from all of it. When I was older, I was compelled by Fascist dictatorships terrorizing, torturing and overtaking Latin American countries and the resistance movements that sprang up to fight them. I fixated on the hideous torture stories that were different, but not really. Of course, our dad did not like that or what he knew of it. But that was the way his trauma inhabited me.

Intergenerational transmission of trauma or “vicarious” trauma is a powerful force. It can live in the body in much the same way as one’s own lived experience. Parents’ trauma can also be a wellspring of neglect because, as we all know all too well, the nature of trauma is to “fixate” on the trauma; trauma is not “remembered, it is re-lived.” All these hackneyed truisms of trauma therapy that everyone is so tired of hearing. 

But of course, a parent who is thus preoccupied will not be attentive to me and may even appear to forget all about me. It certainly made it easy for me to feel forgettable and like I did not matter. And also that my relatively placid life left me no reason to “feel sorry for myself.” The refrain of neglect: But nothing happened to me! I have no business feeling so bad! is probably also its greatest challenge.  

I also believe, certainly in my case, that I suffered from “survivor guilt.” I had not earned the noble badge endowed by terrible persecution and victimization. I, therefore, lacked the virtue, entitlement, and value of one who had. What an irony that if one hasn’t been the butt of sufficient devaluation and worthlessness, one is unworthy. But I definitely swallowed that and spent decades trying to “make up for it.”  In later years, I wondered if my father felt somehow similarly guilty or unworthy for not dying in those showers too. 

Intergenerational transmission of trauma or “vicarious” trauma is a powerful force. It can live in the body in much the same way as one’s own lived experience.

“Moral Injury”

It is only recently, in the last two years that I learned about a category of trauma that was new to me: “moral injury.” This is when a person is plagued by guilt, shame, remorse and agony about horrible acts that they themselves have committed, perhaps against their own will, or having had no choice. Like emergency health workers during the COVID 19 Pandemic, who had to make fatal decisions about who got the ventilator, or soldiers who were forced to commit atrocities in the line of military duty and are haunted by the memory. 

Their trauma healing work is as deep and difficult as one who has suffered overt trauma to their own body, or maybe even more so. Because like the survivor of neglect, they can imagine, Nothing happened to me!” We are now having to find protocols and methodologies for healing for them too. 

The challenges of social justice and healing the world stand seamlessly alongside or within the larger umbrella category of trauma. We cannot keep up with the already seemingly endless task of assisting survivors of trauma and neglect if we simultaneously continue producing and reproducing the conditions and the environments that spawn endless cycles of “new” trauma or continue to bequeath our own to subsequent generations. 

Healing our own trauma and neglect injuries is actually a way we contribute to the world, as is participating in the work of social justice, a way that we advance the work of trauma healing. And yes, what a lot of work we have to do. 

Yet as Eva Schloss reflected on her long life, she still remembers daily with grief, her lost loved ones from now nearly eight decades ago. she rejoices in her own three grown children and many grandchildren and still enjoys dancing and singing with them. Let’s work hard to liberate all the literal and figurative, individual and collective Auschwitz’s of the world.

Each time I write a blog, I always try to think of a song that I love that goes with what I’ve written. Today’s is Imagine by John Lennon & The Plastic Ono Band (with the Flux Fiddlers).

My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.

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