Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, when we remember the six million Jewish men, women and children murdered in the Second World War, and all victims of persecution and genocide around the world.
Author Anna Fodorova grew up in a family where everyone except her parents had been killed in the Holocaust. Both in her career as a therapist, and as an author, Anna explores the notion and experience of being a Second Generation Holocaust Survivor. To mark Holocaust Memorial Day, and to remember all the lost families, Anna has shared this blog post with us.
In 1968 I was a student at the Prague College of Applied Arts. Being a Jew in post-war Czechoslovakia seemed then like a dangerous secret, but it was an exciting time – there was hope that the reform of the totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe was possible, and it was the first year that we were allowed to travel and work in the West. When a fellow student showed me the Butlin’s holiday camp brochure picturing a palm tree against the sea, I imagined myself as a barmaid somewhere in the Bognor Riviera and, though I didn’t speak a word of English, I felt I had what it took: I was young, had long hair, wore a miniskirt and intended to purchase some stick-on eyelashes as soon as I got paid.
On arrival in Bognor Regis, the first thing I noticed was that Butlin’s was surrounded by a tall barbed-wire fence and powerful searchlights. I was issued with a uniform and a card with a mugshot of me holding a number that I had to show every time I left or entered the perimeters of the camp. I slept on a bunk bed, and at night I watched the security guards walk around with their scary dogs.
Bizarre though my experience in Butlin’s was, I remained blind to its obvious echoes. I left Butlin’s hoping to hitch-hike around England but then the Russians invaded my country, and I became an emigrant.
Years later, when I started to train as a psychotherapist I gathered the courage to talk about what it felt like to be born into a family where everyone except my parents had been killed in the Shoa. Around the same time I came across the term ‘Second Generation Holocaust Survivors’. When I mentioned it to my mother she looked at me surprised: What second generation? You were born after it was all over, nothing happened to you.
I became puzzled by that nothing. The nothing that we carry inside us, and that formed us in our childhood. I attended conferences about the transgenerational transmission of trauma where, to my amazement I met people who, though coming from different countries and circumstances, had similar experiences of silence, denial and guilt. I published a paper about it in Psychodynamic Practice journal called Mourning by proxy: Notes on a conference, empty graves and silence. The same journal also printed another paper of mine called Lost and Found: The fear and thrill of loss. As a part of my research I visited the London Transport Lost property office and, seeing piles of toys, shoes, suitcases, push chairs (what happened to the child?) and other personal belongings who lost their owners, my internal associations were no longer a mystery to me.
I realized that the loss of someone or something and the search for them was going to be a theme that stayed with me. Another theme I wanted to explore was heritage, both psychological, and the one we carry in our genes.
My new novel, In the Blood, explores the impact of history on the personal lives of three generations – a mother, a daughter and a grandmother. My main protagonist, Agata, is the only child of Czech/Jewish parents. She grew up in Prague, believing that all her relatives perished in the Holocaust. Now living in London with her English husband and their daughter, Agata discovers astonishing news: not everyone died.
Like Agata, I too believed that my mother was the only member of her family to survive the war. When, to my incredulity, I found out that it wasn’t quite so, I tried to understand why this was kept a secret. What was there to hide?
Eventually I realised what that secret was: it was trauma, but in my novel Agata sets out to discover ‘the truth’.
Through her subsequent search for her surviving relatives, she meets a young man, the grandson of a Nazi who is writing a thesis about the transmission of trauma to the descendants of the perpetrators as well as the victims. They form an odd relationship. Soon Agata’s pursuit turns into an all-consuming obsession that alienates everyone around her. Yet for Agata, despite her quest risking the tearing apart of not only the family she already has, but her very own identity, finding out what happened in the past seems vital, the past that we all need to understand, whether that is to come to terms with the transmission of trauma, or as in Agata’s case, to put names and dates and faces to all the lost families, and to discover the not so lost.
To find out more about Holocaust Memorial Day you can visit www.hmd.org.uk. At 4pm today people across the UK will take part in a national moment for HMD by lighting candles and putting them in their windows to remember those who were murdered, and to stand against prejudice and hatred. You can take part as an individual and share a photo of your candle on social media using #LighttheDarkness.
You can read a first chapter extract of In the Blood in this blog post from earlier in the year.