By Dr. Elya Steinberg. M.D.
When I grew up in Israel, as an Israeli Jew, the Holocaust enveloped us all the time. But as I had no other experiences, I was never actually aware of it. My mother would never listen to Wagner. We did not buy German products and horrid stories were floating around; those stories may have just floated around, but their full emotional content was never addressed directly. The message was clear: the Germans were the bad guys and the Jews were the good guys. We lived in this simple dichotomy of bad people and good people.
When I was a teenager, I realized that I lived on two planets, and I seriously struggled to integrate and make sense of my life. One was the reality in which I went to school in a democratic, free Jewish country, had friends and felt that I had all options open to me as a proud young Jewish person.
The other planet was in the shadow of the Holocaust, where food could disappear at any moment, and I had to carry mountains of it on a regular basis. A planet where I was force-fed just in case it all happened again, where dangerous people could always re-appear from the undefined past. Where the bodies of people in the shadows were reappearing in my life as disembodied souls, pulling me with their emaciated hands towards the dark world of helplessness and depression.
One planet was the here and now. The second was in the Holocaust, many years ago.
We lived the past during the now in a strange and distorted way, stuck in transposition. In mathematics, transposition is “a permutation which exchanges two elements and keeps all others fixed” (Wikipedia). The two elements in my life that had seemingly been exchanged were the Now and Then-in-the-Past – a past I never lived through, their reality. A past full of fears and terrors that were passed down to me via transgenerational and intergeneration transmission, mainly from my mother.
It pushed me to start to make sense of my life, to make sense of living on those two planets, as maddening as it felt. Back then, I was sometimes unsure of what was real and I could not bridge between the different parts of my life. This experience would later send me on a long expedition of learning about myself and about the psychotherapeutic field which developed around the subject.
Many years later, in 1995, I moved to London to learn Biodynamic Psychotherapy; I explored several schools, one of which was managed by three Christian German people. Two of them interviewed me to see whether I was suitable for the school, as part of the regular procedure. That interview was the first time in my life meeting German non-Jewish people, and it was an overwhelming experience. The dichotomy of bad and good people that had engulfed my life up until that point did not work so well in the reality of a comfortable room with two kind men, and it created cognitive and emotional dissonance in me.
Throughout the interview, I felt my internal struggle to make sense of that dichotomy, in which I had been unaware that I was still captured, like an internalized trap. At the end, they asked me if I had any questions for them. My heart raced, my temples hurt, and I had to ask the only question that emerged from within me and filled every space in my mind.
I said quietly: “I am a second-generation Holocaust survivor and you are the second generation of the Other side. I had many years of therapy to make sense of this experience – how does it feel for you to teach me?”
One of them responded by asking me: “Why is it important for you?” His answer angered me; I felt dismissed. I thought, wasn’t it clear why this was important for me? From a place of frustration and anger I said, “This is my time to ask my question and if you don’t want to answer, say so directly, but don’t ask me questions in return.”
The second person, a tall blond man who easily reminded me of an SS soldier, looked seemingly quietly into my eyes and asked me, “How do you think it feels to be the son of a murderer?”
My entire body shivered.
Dr. Elya Steinberg, MD, is Co-Director of the Centre for Biodynamic Psychotherapy (London School of Biodynamic Psychotherapy). She is a medical doctor and biodynamic psychotherapist who integrates body-psychotherapy, Gerda Boyesen methods and bioenergy with psychological trauma work, martial arts, conventional allopathic medicine and complementary medicine. She interweaves alternative and conventional approaches to allow a person to grow as a holistic complex and improve their well-being. In partnership with Gerhard Payrhuber she facilitates the group ‘Attending to the Silence’ for second and third generation Shoah survivors, perpetrators and bystanders.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org; www.biodynamic-bodypsychotherapy.co.uk