I was born into a family with a history of horror so dehumanizing and pervasive that it felt like I would never escape it happening again to me. It was the transmission of horror so deep that it became known in mental health circles as Secondary Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as profoundly transmitted to the second generation as genetic material.
My parents were both Holocaust survivors, devout believers in a loving God despite the countless horrors inflicted on them during their teen-age years by Hitler and his Nazis. I had no faith that God would protect me from the next Holocaust, because he didn’t save so many better than me, like my maternal grandmother standing naked in her gas chamber “shower,” naked and surrounded by her four youngest children, taking at least twenty tortuous minutes to die of Zyclon B. She was my lifelong guardian angel, a ghost I relied on for comfort and to beseech God to save my life.
Let me count the ways my parents and other relatives were dehumanized, terrorized, and torn from their families, their traumas seeping into my nightmares every night growing up in the same world where I knew it could happen again during my peaceful safe life on the very same planet in a different part of the world, for their lives were once peaceful and safe as well and they never imagined such horrors could happen to them.
I could be forced from my home forever, where strangers would move in and use my family’s possessions.
My parents, siblings, children, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles could once again disappear from this earth and turn to ashes in the wind.
I could be kept for weeks in a giant warehouse, sleeping on cold floors, with little to eat, my future in the hands of the Nazi guards.
I could be squashed into a cattle car, standing room only with other Jews of all ages like a herd of animals, with no bathrooms, water, or food, with people dying around me, for three full days and nights.
I could arrive to a sorting place where my sister and I, as teen-agers, would be selected to go to the right, while an SS guard points my mother and younger siblings to the left to take “showers.”
I could cry out to go with my mother and have a guard tell me, “You stupid girl. Don’t you know your mother and her young children are going to be killed?”
I could stand there not believing this to be true.
I could have my head shaved, just like all the other people whether going left or right so we all looked the same, like cattle.
If I was sent to the left, I could enter the crowded “showers” where poison gas instead of water flowed from the shower heads.
If I was sent to the right, I could have my clothes removed and replaced with clothes with rough fabric that didn’t fit right, randomly doled out, either too small or too big.
I could have to wear these clothes day and night in all weather, winter and summer, often standing in freezing rain to be counted with the others, over and over, while breathing the ashes and smoke of the burning bodies of my relatives in the crematorium.
I could be permanently separated from my family.
I could be starved with deliberately few calories for a year or two or more while being forced to perform hard labor for ten hours a day, like digging up Jewish gravestones to pave roads like my father did or make airplane parts in a factory like my mother did.
I could have my name replaced by a number branded on my arm as if I was no longer human.
Or I could not be branded because I was expected to remain alive as fodder for the gas chamber when they ran out of new train arrivals.
I could end up sleeping in filthy, leaky barracks with no heat and infested with rats, lice, and other disease carrying vermin.
I could end up sleeping on no mattresses or with dirty straw ones on the three-tiered wooden bunk beds with often several people sharing a tier meant for one person.
I could end up in medical experiments on me and my sister because we looked like twins. These experiments were disguised torture and we could end up dead.
I could end up on a death march where those who couldn’t keep up were shot, where we ate dead animals on the side of the road.
I could end up hiding in a hayloft for two years, alone like my father, studying Jewish texts and writing poetry on notebooks a relative in hiding elsewhere gave me on a visit, which I eventually lose.
I could be subjected to regular beatings.
I could be shot to death if I tried to escape.
I could be completely powerless to act on my own will.
I could become so hopeless that I try to kill myself by touching the electric fence that surrounded us, pulling back only because my sister cries out to me that if I died, so would she. I won’t kill myself because I want her to live.
I could be so ashamed of all I went through that after it was all over, I would never tell my new friends in a new country what had happened to me, not wanting to be pitied or judged as deserving of what had happened.
I could live the rest of my life never forgetting what had happened to me.
I could realize that human beings were the only species capable of inflicting such calculated horror on others of its own species, on all other species really.
These are the horrors of my lifelong nightmares, actual events of my extended family’s past that I have feared all my life could someday once again become my future.