I recently read a book called The Butcher’s Daughter, a memoir, by Florence Grende. Florence is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. Her story though is not of a family who survived the camps, but who escaped to the forests prior to being sent from a ghetto to a camp and the effects that life had on her parents and herself.
The book is a short read and I read it within a couple of days. It is intense, but not so intense that you have to put it down and walk away for days before returning to it.
I was drawn to this book because Florence discussed it in a Holocaust Educator’s group on Facebook and made the comments that writing her family’s story helped her discover who she was. This really hit home for me because that is one reason I research – to know better who I am and who my family was. To heal the present and past. To create a better future. Many of my clients are also asking for answers to questions through the research which impacts who they are and the cause an evaluation of who they thought their parents were, and who they see them as after discovering those things which could not be talked about.
Many of us hold secrets from the past. Traumatic events, places, and the evils of this world cause many of us to shut down. Keep those memories as far away as possible. We often do this thinking it will protect the people we love. Does it really? I think if we were brave enough to open the door to the past more often and talk about what scares the hell out of us, what tore us apart, what made us want to die or live……would heal so many things.
Will it be easy? No. Will it change us and the world? Yes.
Florence takes us on a journey through her life in brief chapters which hit on a topic and then she moves on. Her story is one of sacrifice, abuse, the trauma of war, how one family dealt with the ghosts of the past (or did not) and how that affected their children who did not live through the war, but certainly felt its effects. In her chapter called Flesh, Florence describes her struggle with weight. As a teenager she wished to not only fit into her family and world, but also be SEEN by her family. To do so, she chose (unknowingly at the time she said), to transform her body into looking like a skeletal camp survivor, in an attempt to close the chasm between her and her parents. How many of us have turned into our parents or someone else to be seen, acknowledged, and to feel as if we fit into the world about which they cannot speak?
Maybe the most powerful part of the book for me, something I struggle with in learning more about my family’s past and that of those who fought in the war, she says,
Dare I say it? I envy their war experiences, their proof of their grit, the solidity of their pain. Like Yiddish, it belongs to them, not me. My fears are empty, inherited without the legitimacy of memory. I feel the terror of their war too, but it rides on the back of a phantom. How can my fears ever measure up to theirs? (The Butcher’s Daughter, pages 70-71).
How many of us feel this way about something in our family’s past that haunts us through the generations? In my family one of those topics is the mental state my grandpa returned from WWII in. Stories were told in the family about what he endured (I later discovered those likely had no basis in fact.) My grandma would never talk about it when we discussed family history. At that time I also didn’t know what really happened to him or what his medical records contained. We always say, “If I had only asked…..” yet we don’t always know what would be helpful to know so we could ask. My dad knew only the stories. My uncle who was much older that my dad would also only tell me the stories he heard. Otherwise it was a family secret.
I understand why it was a secret. Looking at the period after the war through a historical lens, we see that no one wanted to discuss it. There was a lot of shame, guilt, sadness, and many other emotions surrounding the war and what men had experienced and could not or would not discuss. Families wanted to be happy and move on.
This book has such depth, I could talk for hours about it, going through each chapter and commenting on something that hits home for me or I’ve observed in my clients. I highly recommend this book. It is one you can read more than once and learn something new about yourself and your family each read.
How much can we heal by witnessing other’s experiences and looking at ourselves and our families? What kind of world is possible if we confront the ghosts of the past and allow healing to occur?
© 2017 World War II Research and Writing Center