Intergenerational Trauma

Unpacking the Enduring Impact of Intergenerational Trauma

“The great journey of transformation begins with the acknowledgment that we need to make it. It is not something we are undertaking for amusement, nor even for the sake of convention; rather, it is a spiritual necessity.” –  Alan Lew

Increased awareness and recognition of the prevalence and impact of trauma have made it a buzzword in recent years. The term refers to experiences that cause psychological distress or harm, such as physical or sexual abuse, emotional neglect, or witnessing violence. Research has shown that trauma can lead to anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and other adverse outcomes. Consequently, more individuals are seeking treatment for trauma-related issues, and mental health professionals are improving their ability to identify and treat trauma.

Intergenerational trauma, also known as transgenerational trauma or historical trauma, is the transmission of trauma effects from one generation to the next. This transmission can occur through parenting practices, cultural traditions, or social structures that perpetuate the effects of trauma. Trauma can result from a variety of events, including war, genocide, slavery, forced migration, and other forms of oppression. Its impact can extend beyond those who directly experienced the event, affecting their children and grandchildren.

Over the years, I’ve returned to this essay multiple times, revising and refining it because it’s and will remain a work in progress as I continue to grapple with the complex legacy of intergenerational trauma.

Shame: The Cunning Devil That Took Over My Life

A good place to start is by telling this anecdote; during a conversation with a good friend who shares a similar family background, he said to me, “With the Holocaust, I am done!” I couldn’t help but wonder, “Yes, you may be done with the Holocaust, but is the Holocaust done with you?”

For years, I was clueless about what was going on inside my head. Suddenly, that annoying voice would start playing, whispering, “Something’s wrong with you.” I now realize it was shame all along. Let me tell you, shame is a tricky little devil. It can sneak up on you when you’re not looking and take over your entire life.

I could give you countless examples of how shame has taken over. Like when I opened up to someone and felt terrible afterward because I’d revealed too much. Or when I couldn’t let go of my past, I felt like I was forever stuck there. Sometimes, even talking about shame could make me feel ashamed. And then there’s the important stuff, like feeling ashamed of my heritage, as if I’m carrying the weight of my persecuted nation on my damn shoulders. And let’s not forget anger – feeling ashamed of feeling angry, like I should suppress it and accept whatever life throws at me.

When I shared my experiences of shame, I often found that my words were misunderstood, which left me feeling frustrated and annoyed. It was already challenging to open up and discuss such a sensitive topic, and being misconstrued only added to my frustration.

People would sometimes question whether my shame was similar to guilt, but I would often refer to a quote by John Bradshaw, who has had a significant impact on my understanding of shame for over three decades. He said, “Guilt implies that I have done something wrong, while shame suggests that there is something wrong with me. Guilt suggests that I have made a mistake, whereas shame implies that I am the mistake. Guilt implies that my actions were not good, while shame suggests that I am inherently flawed.” This quote captures the essence of how shame differs from guilt and helps to clarify the nature of my own experiences.

Embracing the Darkness: Breaking the Silence

There was a moment when I realized that enough was enough – I couldn’t keep going like that. But the question remained: how could I tackle all the baggage weighing me down? How could I fully embrace my story, past, anger, and everything that shapes me as a person?

Carl Jung said, “There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid confronting their own Souls. Enlightenment does not come from imagining figures of light, but from acknowledging and accepting the darkness within ourselves.”

It was only after I mustered the courage to face my shame head-on, which some call “the shadow,” that I began to experience a sliver of light and a glimpse of freedom. To achieve this, I had to confront and find compassion for the “little Jew” within me – the helpless, frightened, and mistreated one whom I had long denied and repressed.

This was a vital step in attaining self-awareness and making peace with my father, who had always been closed off and buried his shame in silence, yet emanated an intense aura of agony and torment that I could sense even as a child.

Beyond Witnessing: Remembering the Holocaust Through Art

In the essay “A Legacy of Survival,” published in Narratively, Ms. Marisa Berman writes:

“I did not witness the most important events of my life,” says artist David Gev.  “They happened before I was born, yet their memory persists. How does one take on the memories of another individual, let alone the collective memory of millions?”

Gev was born in Be’er-Sheva, Israel, in 1960. His father, Baruch Ginzberg, was a colonel in the Israeli Army, a post he took up after surviving four different concentration camps during the Holocaust. Ginzberg spoke little of his experience to David or his younger son Israel in hopes of protecting them from the suffering he endured. In his artwork, Gev returns repeatedly to the view he imagines his father had through the slats in the cattle cars that transported him to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sachsenhausen, Bergen-Belsen, and Dachau – each ride filled with fear, starvation, and death.

Artist David Gev’s work is meant to evoke the European landscape as seen from inside a train car on its way to a concentration camp. Gev did not directly experience this suffering, nor did he himself look out from the trains or feel the pains of hunger and cold, but still, he witnessed these things through pieces of stories told to him by his father. Without knowing all that occurred, he was forced to formulate images in his mind of what his father might have seen.” (Berman, 2013)

Attachment Theory and Intergenerational Trauma: The Search for Connection

I wrote and paraphrased the following in the third-person language because if I need to describe my psychological analysis, I would rather have it explained by a highly qualified expert. Professor C. Fred Alford is a renowned expert in psychology, particularly in the fields of trauma, ethics, and political psychology, having authored numerous books and articles and made significant contributions to the understanding of the psychological impact of the Holocaust on survivors and their offspring.

In the book “Trans-generational Trauma and the Other” Professor Alford writes, “As one looks at photographs of glass art by Gev, one is surprised by how pretty the abstract scenes are. If one did not know what they represent, one would be hard-pressed to guess that they represent horror.”

Gev’s experience offers a powerful insight: “We survive by forming relationships and adapting to the minds of others.” For second-generation survivors like Gev, the silence surrounding their parents’ experiences compelled them to imagine the horrors, their parents endured. This allowed them to connect emotionally and break through the barrier of silence that prevented human connection and attachment. Despite their love for their children, parents unable to share their experiences or emotions leave their children with a sense of something missing. For second-generation survivors, this search for connection with their parents’ experiences frames their perspective.

Gev found a creative way to imagine his father’s experiences, not to memorialize the Holocaust but to come to terms with his own experiences. Children want to understand their parents’ emotional experiences during traumatic times and to be let in.

As D.W. Winnicott famously put it, when parents deny their children this experience, it feels like being dropped by the mother’s mind. Attachment theorists Erik Hesse and Mary Main explain that traumatized parents may re-experience their trauma during child-rearing, leading to episodes of detachment and confusion.

The child, unable to understand the source of the parent’s distress, may blame themselves or try to comfort the parent. Role reversal, where the child comforts the parent, is common among children of traumatized or disturbed parents and a marker of ambivalent attachment.

It’s odd for the child to feel abandoned by the parent who won’t share their horror, but that seems to be how it works. The search for connection and attachment continues throughout life as we try to find a secure place to just be. The process can be challenging, and it can feel as if something is missing when we are unable to connect with our loved ones emotionally. By acknowledging and understanding the impact of intergenerational trauma and attachment theory, we can begin to heal and build stronger relationships with ourselves and others.

Lessons Learned from My Life’s Journey

Reflecting on my journey so far, I’ve realized that it’s been marked by significant personal growth and development. I’ve acquired valuable skills and honed certain character traits that have helped me navigate life’s challenges. These skills and qualities have been instrumental in shaping who I am today, and I am grateful for the lessons learned along the way.

One may encounter feature lists with numbered points and snappy titles in self-help and self-development literature. These compilations of wisdom are undeniably helpful, yet I propose sharing my roster of lessons learned from my battles and challenges.

Finding My Voice: The Healing Power of Storytelling

I have an obligation to recount my own tale, to bring it to my lips and articulate it, to find the right words and utter them aloud. Similar to my father, for many years, I kept silent, presuming that burying it deep within me was the appropriate approach. I was unaware that he, too, may have done so simply because releasing it could have pulled him into a bottomless pit. However, with the help of others and their encouragement, I have now given myself permission to delve into the vulnerable and delicate, the secretive and murky recesses of my mind. I must introspect and comprehend the profound bonds that link me to my past, present, and everything else.

From Isolation to Companionship: The Power of Shared Trauma

I came across a group of individuals, both men and women, who provided a secure environment for me to share my story in all its revealing and sometimes enigmatic aspects that manifest themselves in my day-to-day life. Having friends who are also children of survivors has proven to be an invaluable source of support since they comprehend my morbid jokes about taboo subjects in a way that nobody else can identify with, let alone appreciate or find amusing. These are friends who, when I mention “having trouble deciding between left or right,” grasp the significance of my allusion to the selection process at concentration camp train stations and the depth of my inner struggle at that moment.

Surrendering to Acceptance: Overcoming Pride and Ego

The acceptance process can be likened to the age-old joke: how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. With each “bite,” I have learned to create space for the challenging emotions, urges, and sensations I tend to reject or evade. I have realized that instead of resisting and pushing them away, accepting them allows me to conserve my energy and move on more smoothly.

I recall going through a difficult breakup some time ago, during which anxiety frequently overwhelmed me. My instinct was to push it away, but that only intensified its grip on me. Once, I called a friend amid an anxiety attack. He instructed me to lie down, breathe, stop thinking, and allow the thoughts to pass through me without resistance. Within minutes, I felt much better. It was a powerful experience I have shared and practiced numerous times ever since.

Learning and practicing acceptance is the most arduous and biggest obstacle on my journey. I had been conditioned to fight and could not fathom the idea of surrendering, which I saw as humiliating. My pride and ego were in charge. But when I hit rock bottom, I realized that acceptance was the only way out.

From Silence to Empathy: A Personal Reflection on Active Listening

As I’ve listened to countless people share their life experiences, I’ve noticed something striking: often, they tell my own story better than I ever could. Through this process of active listening, I’ve learned to cultivate empathy and the ability to truly understand and appreciate another person’s perspective. In fact, I’ve found that empathy is quite similar to the practice of Mindful Self Compassion, which involves a three-step process to manage negative self-talk. This process includes acknowledging and accepting our thoughts, recognizing that we are not alone in our struggles, and being kind to ourselves.

A particular memory stands out from my early twenties. I was driving with my father in the mountains when a herd of sheep crossed our path. Out of nowhere, my father said, “That’s how we walked to the gas chamber.” His words stunned me, as it was the first time he had given me a glimpse into the depth of his shame and survivor’s guilt. I looked at him, lost in my own thoughts. I regret not being more empathetic toward his pain. In hindsight, I wish I had possessed the emotional intelligence that my children, now in their twenties, seem to possess naturally. Instead, I was closed off, trapped in my own survival mode.

A Legacy of Resilience: How My Father’s Story Inspires Me

Resilience, like trauma, can be passed down through generations, and my father’s stories of endurance and perseverance have left an indelible mark on my ability to cope with life’s challenges. During an interview with Yad Vashem, Israel’s shrine to the Holocaust victims, my father claimed that only luck had spared him. However, I refuse to accept this. I have heard his stories of stamina and determination, which embody the utmost resilience in the face of unimaginable adversity. Here are some highlights:

At just 14 years old, in his first concentration camp, he managed to secretly barter for small amounts of food, defying all regulations. Later, in another concentration camp where he worked in an oil refinery near Birkenau, he rebelled against the rules. He crafted a makeshift insulation layer from an empty concrete bag under his striped prisoner’s uniform to withstand the bitter cold.

One of the ultimate stories of resilience in my mind was during the infamous Death March. The guards forced the prisoners to march for miles in heavy snow to evade the Soviet forces who were coming to liberate them. The snow clung to the soles of his wooden shoes, making them cumbersome, but his father warned him not to stop. The guards would shoot them if they did, pointing to the lifeless bodies strewn along the road. So, they pressed on.

After surviving the Death March, they were taken to Sachsenhausen concentration camp before being transferred to the Messerschmitt Aircraft factory near Dachau. On the way, they spent several days at Bergen-Belsen, which my father described as the most dreadful place he had ever encountered. Piles of lifeless bodies were scattered around, and people were on the brink of starvation. During a chaotic scramble for a few loaves of bread, someone attempted to snatch the bread from my father’s grasp, and in self-defense, he wielded his knife. I have always been amazed by his bravery in holding onto the weapon.

Throughout the entirety of the war, from 1939 to 1945, my father and his father remained together, enduring four different concentration camps, hard labor, the Death March, and cattle trains. Tragically, they were separated two weeks before the American Army liberated Dachau, and they never saw each other again.

Despite all he had been through, my father went on to join the Israeli Army, where he rose through the ranks to command the IDF’s food logistics. He retired after the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

In addition to his military career, he also raised a family and overcame the devastating loss of a child. My father’s incredible ability to adapt to extreme and challenging situations is a testament to his remarkable resilience. If he does not embody resilience, I do not know who does!

Having been exposed to these harrowing experiences from a young age, I have developed strong resilience and an unwavering determination to overcome any obstacles that come my way. Whenever I face challenges or difficulties, I remind myself of my father’s incredible fortitude in the face of unimaginable adversity. Compared to what he endured, my own struggles pale in comparison.

Finding Peace Beyond Words: The Unifying Force of Faith

Faith in a higher power that unites the universe is an eternal spring of hope, strength, and confidence. It’s like visiting the place Rumi described, a field beyond the concepts of wrongdoing and right doing. When my spirit enters this realm, and my soul lies down in the grass, the world becomes too full for words.

Optimism as a Choice

I strive to seek out the affirmative in all situations, believing that the glass is half full rather than half empty. This determination requires daily conscious effort, as it does not come instinctively to me. Likewise, contentment and a positive outlook necessitate a deliberate mindset. Do I always accomplish this objective? Certainly not, but I persist in my efforts.

Art as a Vehicle for Transformation: Finding Hope in the Darkness

As an artist, I utilize my craft to process and communicate powerful emotions. By creating and appreciating art, I can tap into a sense of awe and mystery that helps me grow spiritually. Although my work may seem abstract at first glance, it always carries a specific narrative fueled by a deep desire to tell a story. By acknowledging the most profound human atrocities, we can prevent their recurrence, and my art serves as a means to achieve this objective.

My ultimate goal is to transform pain into beauty through my art. To achieve this, I have spent many years creating works using hot glass and other materials to produce two-dimensional sculpture pieces. These pieces explore the beauty of the landscape, even during the most horrific events, such as train rides to concentration camps during the Holocaust. I named that body of work: The Train from Auschwitz – a Journey from Shame to Self-Realization. Despite the darkness of these experiences, I am constantly striving to uncover beauty and hope in the world, and my art reflects this optimistic outlook.

In the blog post: Healing Trauma Through Art: The Transformative Power of Art, I recount my creative process.

The Gift of Gratitude: A Pathway to Success and Happiness

Gratitude is the fountainhead of all virtues. Practicing gratitude has profoundly impact my life. Focusing on the present moment and appreciating its blessings helps me unlock the door to abundance, leading to a happier, more successful, and fulfilling life.

Holocaust Survivors and Forgiveness: A Father-Son Story

The subject of forgiveness naturally arises in an essay dedicated to a Holocaust survivor. Some may presume it pertains to forgiving the Nazis, but that’s not what it’s about. Personally, I side with Eli Wiesel, who expressed, “Who am I to forgive? I am not God. No, I cannot forgive.”

Instead, I wish to recount my own experiences of making amends with my father and forgiving myself for my past ignorance. It wasn’t until I learned and gained new insights that I could see what I didn’t know before.

My father loved soccer. English League games were his jam, and he had a soft spot for Arsenal (while I leaned more toward Chelsea). Sometimes, I’d sit with him to watch a game, hoping for a meaningful father-son chat that never came. We sat in silence, side by side, in the living room, and I couldn’t help but feel his absence even when he was there. It hurt.

A while back, I went to visit him at his final resting place. I made amends for my expectations, for not being present, and for not appreciating who he was. It took me some time to realize that expecting too much can only lead to resentment. Accepting what is can bring you more peace. Now, when I watch soccer, I picture him sitting on a comfortable sofa chair up above, still in silence. And that’s okay.

This essay is dedicated to my father, Baruch Ginzberg (1925 – 2007)

September 2020


Alfred, C. F, (2017). Trans-generational Trauma and the Other, edited by Sue Grand and Jill Salberg, 12-15

Berman, M. (2013).  A Legacy of Survival, Narratively, September 2013

Book Recommendations

Trauma, Culture, and PTSD, by C. Fred Alferd

Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory, by Elizabeth Rosner 

Children of the Holocaust, by Helen Epstein

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel van der Kolk

It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle, by Mark Wolynn

Maus, by Art Spiegelman

Our Holocaust, by Amir Gutfreund

The Monster of Memory, by Yishai Sarid

The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell