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.

22 Comments

  1. Aimee Parkison

    Gloria,

    I’m overwhelmed and moved by this writing! You use reveal historic horror, family history, and the horror of atrocity to write an unforgettable prose of witness. It’s so real in its horror that it moved me to tears. From the beginning, you do such a fine job of setting up the reality of the horror by mentioning the family history, the narrator’s personal connection to that history, which is cultural and historical.

    The following detail was so powerful: “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.”

    Wow!

    From there, the writing flows with power from the words of witness “let me count the ways.”

    Your “horror” writing is unique is its cultural focus and in its powerful sense of witness. It is the sort of necessary fiction that readers are craving. I think you should send this to journals right away. My suggestions are Paris Review, Granta, The Sun, Ploughshares, Georgia Review, Missouri Review, Witness, and/or Gulf Coast.

    Thank you for sharing this powerful work! It will linger with me.

    Best, Aimee

    • Gloria Garfunkel

      Aimee:
      Please see my response to your comment below. I’m still just getting used to using these Bending Genres comment procedures.
      Gloria

  2. Emily Bertholf

    I can think of no greater horror, the absolute erasure and denial of humanity. Ugh, I’m sorry. Not pity, but as witness of knower of this ugly truth, that we as humans can be capable of this – tolerant of it – or even complicit, as I am even now when similar horrors unfold near our borders and on battlefields in places known and unknown. Even worse than death. But oh, the power to survive, to still thirst for life, to care still for each other and humanity. That is the light illuminated by this treacherous darkness. Let us never forget the atrocities done, the horror possible. This is powerful and strong and all I can say is thank you for your courage and skill in writing it. Let it see light, and let that ghost light guide us as the narrator’s grandmother and ancestors have in this piece. Hugs and love,

  3. Sara Comito

    Hi Gloria, thanks for trusting us as you delve deep into this index of generational trauma. Clearly, the trauma is no less present for it being “secondary.” Although this is a personal recounting of a very specific, unthinkable family history, many readers will feel validated in acknowledging all the ways the world can wreck the sense of our right to be in and of it, and what a tragedy that is.

  4. Gloria Garfunkel

    Aimee:

    I feel like crying with gratitude for your intensely powerful and validating response. I was a little worried that actual historical horror might not meet the criteria of the workshop, and that my story was a little too long, but this is in fact a horror I have lived with all of my life and all other horror pales by comparison. I have recently completed a childhood memoir that I have just started sending around to agents to try to get published. Much of it began as flash memoir stories in various small online journals as long as ten years ago, some of which were read by Meg Tuite at Connotation Press where she long ago interviewed me which was also incredibly validating. She has always been a loving supporter of my writing. I’m just at that nerve-wracking stage where I don’t know when or if I can get an agent who wants to publish my first book.

    This particular story is written in a completely different style and point of view from the memoir. I wanted to write a list story. And the fact is that the word “Holocaust” was not really used or invented when I was a child. Everything I knew about the Holocaust was based on references to lists of details of events, like the words Nazis, Hitler, showers, gas chambers, cattle cars, hiding, concentration camps, and of course Auschwitz. That’s why I felt a list story would be a good vehicle for conveying the horrors I grew up with second-hand from my survivor parents. Each little reference they would make in the course of casual conversation was like a punch in the gut and often caused me to panic.

    Also, I have never sent my stories out to the sorts of highly prestigious journals you are suggesting, so it blows my mind a little that you think those are appropriate venues to try. That completely changes my perception of what I have written. Like other Bending Genre teachers, you are exceptionally kind, emotionally supportive, wise, and generous in your comments. Bending Genres seems to have a special gift for offering such emotionally “safe” environments for writing, experimenting, and taking emotional risks. The importance of “safety” when writing such emotionally wrenching real-life “creative nonfiction” material does not exist in all workshops. Bending Genres also has the most organized, consistent standard format across all of the courses that stands out as exceptional in the writing workshop world, especially rich with material that can be mined long after the course is over.

    Thank you so much for your enthusiastically encouraging and kind words. I will try all of those journals though it still feels unreal to me that one of them might actually publish my work. I am extremely grateful for your response.

    Gloria

  5. Gloria Garfunkel

    Emily:

    Thank you so much for your loving and supportive response. I, too, feel complicit when I see the chain linked camps of immigrant children separated from their parents at our borders, traumatized for life, many of whom will never be reunited with their families. And thank you for calling me courageous for expressing the generational grief of my family that has taken me so long to write about. I so appreciate your pointing out the illumination of the ghost of my beloved grandmother I never met in the darkness of my family’s past. And the hugs and love as responses are much appreciated as well. I love the generosity expressed in Bending Genre workshops so much.

    Gloria

  6. Gloria Garfunkel

    Sara:

    Thank you so much for noting the trust it takes to expose one’s own personal traumas to a whole writing workshop. I had an extremely traumatic experience recently with a story I wrote about the personal trauma of my husband’s death in another journal’s workshop where the response simply compounded the trauma and I ended up withdrawing the story. That was how I found Alina Stefanescu’s grief workshop halfway through at Bending Genres where Alina’s loving and detailed response also helped to undo some of the damage done to me and my writing in the previous workshop and allowed me to continue to work on the story rather than set it aside. It was the first story I had written about that loss in the six years since his death, so I was terrified. Writing about personal trauma in creative nonfiction can easily be re-traumatizing as in my previous workshop or extremely validating and strengthening of one’s writing as in this workshop. I am very trusting of the attitudes and atmosphere created by the consistent and excellent structure of Bending Genres workshops and the emotional intelligence of the editors who choose emotionally intelligent teachers who create an atmosphere of mutual respect and support among the members in their workshops.

    Gloria

  7. Meg Tuite

    Hi Gloria,
    It is what needs to be remembered over and over again. And yes, the trauma that generations after took on. And how so few people look back anymore and if you don’t look back, then events tend to repeat themselves. This is so powerful and heartbreaking and the horror upon horror of the evil done in fucking broad daylight while a multitude turned their heads away. Thank you for writing this amazing hell that your family endured. And the millions of others! WOW! Brave and necessary writing! LOVE YOU!

    • Gloria Garfunkel

      Meg:

      Thank you so much for calling my writing brave and validating the horror. You were one of the first people who read my very first stories about my childhood with Holocaust survivor parents in Connotation Press. You were so incredibly supportive and interviewed me with so much love and respect that I credit you with helping to give me the courage to keep writing about it in those early days, about ten years ago. You have always had the capacity to beam out so much supportive love for my writing that it feeds my courage and I love you back so much.

      Gloria

  8. Jennifer Fliss

    Hi Gloria, I know these nightmares so intimately. When you enter a house and wonder, where would you hide? What friend would you turn to to hide you? The trenches of Babi Yar. The kids in Theresienstadt drawing their hopeful drawings. There are general horrors the greater world knows, but I think when it’s literally part of your DNA, it’s an entirely different thing.

    True horror is what has taken place in real life. You capture this and the repetition also serves the narrative. The repeated beating downs, the repeated trauma, the circle from one generation to the next. <3

    • Gloria Garfunkel

      Jennifer:
      Thank you for validating the difference between knowing in general about the horrors and having it as part of your DNA. I appreciate that you like the way the repetitive beats capture the trauma well and its repetition from one generation to the next.
      Gloria

  9. Kathryn Kulpa

    Hi Gloria,
    What a brave and unflinching witnessing of personal, familial, and historical trauma. These are the real horrors that resonate beyond one family, country, or time period, and I was struck by the way you move from the specific (the death of your grandmother, the experiences of your mother and father) to the universal, as you describe your child self picturing all the terrible things that could happen to you, even years later in a ‘safe’ place, “for their lives were once peaceful and safe as well and they never imagined such horrors could happen to them.” So the repetition of “I could be,” is doubly powerful, because it conjures up terrors that are not safely confined to the past, but are still with us.

    I recently read a horrifying news story about a school district in Texas that told teachers they had to pair books about the Holocaust with other book offering ‘opposing viewpoints.’ That kind of ignorance, attempts to deny history, and the persistence of white supremacist beliefs make narratives like yours even more necessary.

  10. AJ Miller

    Gloria, this is so moving and such brave writing. These historical horrors need to be told and you’ve written such a powerful piece. I think your list structure serves this piece well and I thank you for sharing your personal story. Such a dark time in human history and it pains and terrifies me to think of what some humans can do to others. I feel this story and appreciate that you shared with us. It will stick with me.

  11. Gloria Garfunkel

    Kathryn:

    Thank you so much for your kind and insightful response, noting the contrast between the general horrors and ways they affected family members. I love it that you called me “brave.” Living with so much anxiety my whole life, being called courageous is an especially high and valued compliment, one I don’t feel I deserve, but greatly appreciate hearing about my writing. It took me ten years wavering between anxiety and courage to write my Holocaust childhood memoir I have completed and am now starting to try to publish. That’s a big chunk of my lifetime. But completing it has allowed me to feel braver in writing more about the Holocaust. I’ve been recently asked to write a foreword for a collection of writings by the second generation of survivor families that I feel I can tackle smoothly and easily at this point. And, as you know, I am just starting to tackle my terror of writing about my husband’s death six years ago as I have been literally sick with grief all of this time. It was finishing my memoir that gave me the courage to finally write about my husband’s death, something I couldn’t even speak of until now. Yes, writing can be extremely healing, but writing about one’s most profound horrors need the context of people helping with the writing to be validating as well.

  12. Gloria Garfunkel

    AJ:

    Thank you for also using my favorite compliment to get about my writing, bravery. I’m glad you like the list structure. I’ve been playing with it lately and suddenly this just poured out in that form, naturally. I’m glad you could feel this story and that it will stick with you. I appreciate your very kind and encouraging words.

  13. Lucy Logsdon

    What an amazing piece. I admire the way you take the personal and weave it into the historical. I am so impressed with the way you have taken what can easily become for us a distant horror, documented in history books, and brought it back to life–making the reader see and imagine that horror, that evil, actually happening to them in this day and age.

    • Gloria Garfunkel

      Lucy:

      Thank you so much for your kind, supportive comment. I’m glad I succeeded in making the historical more personal. That’s a nice way to think about my piece. I also loved your stories and was happy to read them in this workshop. During my 35 years as a psychotherapist (now retired) I worked with many severely, traumatically abused women and children and so your “horror” stories hit a reality chord for me as well. They will stay with me.

      Gloria

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