Holocaust in My Body:
Healing Personal and Cultural Traumas from the Inside Out
by Steve Sisgold
As I rode the train to Auschwitz, many images flooded in, brand new, yet hauntingly familiar. In my mind, I saw faces of the people who were forced into the cattle cars. With my eyes, I watched elderly Polish farmers lifting their heads to see the train pass, just like they had watched other railroad cars clatter by fifty years ago - trains that journeyed one way full of people, but always returned empty.
Waves of feelings coursed through my body - sadness, anger - and surges of energy, elicited by the personal transformation that was happening to me.
As an author and teacher in the self-help and improvement movement, trained in body-centered psychotherapy, I knew through powerful experience how important it was for me to embrace my past trauma and express what I felt in my body. Committed to healing myself, I was on a personal quest to explore, understand, and release many concealed emotions.
Now, my own moment of truth had come. It was time for me to embrace the dark and illuminate the light. Many times in the past, I had imagined taking this train ride. This time it was real. I was on my way to heal a personal trauma that lived inside of me for forty years.
Flashback: the year was 1957. I imagined that I was my hero, Brooks Robinson, playing third base for the Baltimore Orioles, my real-life home team. I stepped up to home plate (a cardboard box), threw my Pensy Pinkie ball way up, and punched it with all that I had as it came down. It was a blast, way over the outfielder's head.
But I didn't get a chance to celebrate. Instead, my mom yelled, "Stevie, I need you to go the store." She sent me off to Aaron's Grocery for a fresh rye loaf and a few dill pickles from the barrel.
When I arrived at the store, I noticed that Mrs. Margaretten was there. I felt a funny feeling run down my spine. I was a little uncomfortable around her, because she was different than the rest of us. She was one of the new immigrants from Europe - people said they were "refugees."
It was one of the hottest days of the summer. Mrs. Margaretten always wore long sleeves, but today, shopping in the store, she had rolled them up. On her arm, I saw a sickening, bluish-green tattoo of numbers that looked as if it had been branded into her flesh. Feeling nauseous and afraid, I left without my bread and pickles and went home and asked my mother about what I saw.
She looked uncomfortable and suggested that I go back to my baseball game. When I persisted, she told me that the Margarettens and a lot of other Jewish people had been held prisoner and killed by Germans called Nazis. She said I should just forget about it, like she and everyone else had decided to do.
But I couldn't. In that moment, my childhood world of innocence and trust was shattered by my first knowledge of the Holocaust. Millions of Jews had been murdered. But for quirks of time and place, I could have been one of them, I suddenly realized.
All my life, I had lived in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, where I had felt safe and loved. At Aaron's Grocery, I had received my first introduction to anti-Semitism. Like my family and neighbors, I now knew that there were people elsewhere who didn't like Jews.
Now, many years later, I decided with my friend Gay Hendricks to visit Germany and Poland to face my inner trauma.
First Gay and I visited Berlin, where we met and talked with many Germans about the war. I learned how many Germans still carried the effects of the Holocaust in their bodies, just like I did as a Jew.
Here I met with Jorg Presslaber, a practicing psychotherapist in Austria and the son of a German officer who fought in World War II. Jorg told me that he always wanted to know what his father had done as a soldier in the war - had he committed any atrocities? At the same time, Jorg feared how he would react to the truth - what if his father had been a murderer?
Working with Gay, we moved from seeing each other as representatives and symbols of "Jews" and "Germans" to empathizing as people with similar issues.
From Germany, Gay and I traveled to Poland, from where my grandparents had fled in the 1890s. Now, we visited the concentration camps where they almost certainly would have died had they not had the courage to leave their beloved homeland.
As we drove from Warsaw across the Polish countryside, our interpreter, Malvina, told us about an abandoned Jewish cemetery near where my grandparents used to live. Once, there were over three million Jews in Poland; now, only about five thousand remain. We decided to detour to see it.
The cemetery was located on the outskirts of a tiny village named Karczew. Graves had been vandalized; now, forest reclaimed the site, moss growing inside the engraved Hebrew letters on the upturned and shattered tombstones.
Instead of just feeling sad, I probed more deeply into my feelings. First, they changed to anger about my grandparents having to leave their home at the turn of the century. Then, I came to a greater understanding and appreciation for them. I imagined how sad and angry they must have felt leaving Poland. I appreciated that they left so that my dad could live - and eventually father me. I started touching the soil and stones, then began clearing debris and lifting many stones upright.
I left there inspired and committed to informing people about abandoned Jewish cemeteries in Europe. I felt pride in my family, and a sense of purpose. In a strange way, it was almost as if my bubby and zeyde (grandmother and grandfather) had left Poland so I could come back here to tell their story.
Auschwitz (in Polish, Oswiecim) is located about forty miles west of Krakow in Eastern Upper Silesia, a territory annexed to Nazi Germany following Poland's defeat in September, 1939. The first concentration camp was built shortly afterwards. A second site, known as Auschwitz II or Birkenau, was built in March 1941 about a half-mile from the original camp.
At Auschwitz, people worked till they died. At Birkenau, people were simply murdered - children, the elderly, the disabled. Over one million people died here, ninety percent of them Jews.
Like millions of Jews before me, I rode the train from Krakow to Auschwitz, accompanied by Gay. The metallic cacophony of shrieks and whistles contrasted with quiet farmlands and homes.
When I arrived at Birkenau, I went into shock. My eyes blurred; it was too big to take in. Both Gay and I gasped, agreeing that it was the darkest place we had ever felt or seen.
Everything has been left exactly as it was when the Allies liberated the camp. As writer Primo Levi, a Birkenau survivor, describes from his 1980s visit, "Nothing has changed. There was mud and there is still mud; here nothing has been prettied up. Rows of wooden barracks intact, its sheer size is terrifying, stretching out as far as one can see."
I knew I could never feel what a survivor had undergone, but I wanted to come as close to the brink of the experience as possible. We went into one of the barracks, where I lay down on a hard wooden plank, which at one time would have accommodated five men or more.
Overwhelmed by the shocking reality of where I was, I felt my breaths grow shallow. Despair overwhelmed me. I felt frozen stiff. I said, "I want out of this place, but it's no use." I was temporarily blinded. Everything outside of me reeked of death and destruction. I lost all sensation of my body, and began retreating deeper and deeper inside of myself.
Suddenly something changed. The more I focused within, the greater the feeling of peace that came over me. Then an inner voice told me that no matter what happens in my surroundings, I will always find safety inside - with God. It was one of the most profound spiritual experiences I have ever had.
After a while, with Gay's guidance, I started breathing deeply. Now other feelings started to emerge: grief, changing to outrage and anger. Gay suggested I try to move. I started slowly, but then all of my rage surged forward.
Leaving the barracks, I ran wildly toward a prison watchtower and kicked it so hard it cracked. I felt great. It was as if I had wanted to strike back for forty years, and now I had. I felt the Holocaust's grip on me loosen.
I also wondered how often my pent-up anger might have been misdirected at someone else in the past: an authoritarian teacher, a girlfriend who innocently made a joke about Jews. My own situation provides a vivid example of why people want to clear up the "holocausts" in their bodies. Like me, they could be misdirecting repressed feelings from the past at others today.
My last night in Poland, we went to a dinner/klezmer concert at Arrielle's in Krakow. A former mikvah (bathhouse), it is now renovated as a kosher restaurant with a stage and live entertainment.
In the corner of the restaurant, an antique sideboard displayed kosher desserts. My eyes met those of the dozen or so other Jews in attendance. I felt so proud of the people who continued to celebrate their heritage even amid the obvious anti-Semitism that still exists in Poland (the International Herald-Tribune reported that a Jewish cemetery near Warsaw had been vandalized on the day I left).
A lit Shabbos (Sabbath) candle was clearly visible from any seat in the restaurant. To me, its flame, slender yet burning intensely, symbolized the victory of Jews against the forces of evil that tried to snuff them out forever: light, not darkness; life, not death.
I recognized new meaning in the Holocaust: the triumph of the human spirit. We all have our personal "holocausts" within us, but I realize that when we take action and heal those traumas, we free ourselves to live more joyfully in the moment.
Steve Sisgold is an author, consultant, and speaker, with an M.A. in communications and marketing, B.S. in business and journalism, and certifications in body-centered psychotherapy and relationship counseling. He has authored three books and produced three audiocassettes, and leads seminars and workshops across the country. For more information, please call (808) 875-1595, e-mail <email@example.com>, or visit <www.onedream.com> on the Internet.