How Our Mothers Nursed Us: The Children of Holocaust Survivors Revisit Their Infancy

Naomi: Recently my mother told me what happened when I was born. Unlike her other pregnancies (all of which had ended in miscarriages or premature stillbirths), with me she stayed in bed for months.

It must have been very hard for her, because she’s like me, full of energy and always running around and doing things. She said that as soon as she felt me beginning to move within her, she got right into bed and didn’t get out again.

I never knew—perhaps because I didn’t want to know— how partial and unsatisfying the relationship between my parents was, how little togetherness was really there. This week, when my mother told me about her pregnancy with me, I was able for the first time to really feel and to identify with her terrible loneliness. She added one very poignant and telling sentence: “If my mother had been with me then, at my side, everything would have been different.”

I am named after my grandmother, who was shot and killed on the death march, and my young mother continued to march. . . .You know, I was born on my grandmother’s birthday. No, not exactly, actually it was two days later. But my mother told me that during her entire pregnancy she planned to give birth on the day her own mother was born. And when that day arrived she actually had contractions and went to the hospital to give birth, but it was only false labor. The doctors sent her home, and I was born two days later.

Still, my mother always says that my grandmother and I were born on the same day. She also told me that the moment I was born she immediately noticed that I had long fingers, and right then she decided that I would play the piano just as my grandmother had.

Hava: My mother breast-fed me for about two months. Then she stopped. I don’t know exactly what happened. Perhaps she ran out of milk. Perhaps she ran out of patience. She immediately went out to work and I was left with a baby-minder.

My mother was only twenty years old, and my father tells me she had no idea what to do with me. She was constantly tense and anxious, and when I would cry—and apparently, from what I’ve heard, I cried a lot—she couldn’t hold me in her arms. She would give me to my father to hold because she had no idea how to calm me down. She would get into a state of such anxiety that she wasn’t capable of functioning at all. She wasn’t happy with me.

Henia: My mother told me over and over—for years— that she nearly died when I was born. The birth lasted three days, and there were very many difficulties along the way, so that it wasn’t certain if either she or I would come out of it unharmed.

After the birth she was so weak and depressed that she was forced, or chose, to lie in bed for several months, and she was almost unable to function. I apparently cried quite a lot and didn’t want to eat.

When I was about nine months old they decided to put me in a WIZO [Women’s International Zionist Organization] institution, and there, according to the stories, I started to eat a little, but I stopped crying completely. My father told me once that he came to visit me and saw me standing in the crib for hours and rocking, with a frozen expression on my face—I almost stopped reacting altogether. I was there more than half a year and then my mother recovered and they brought me home.

Mordechai: My mother told me that she breast-fed me in the hotel where we were living four families to a room before we immigrated to Israel. I don’t know how it really was. She was always so restless. Even now she can’t sit quietly, just relaxed, and enjoy something. She’s always running around, always going from here to there.

When I try to imagine the situation there, in a quarter of a room in a hotel, with only a hanging blanket separating the families, I think it must have been very uncomfortable. I can imagine my mother sitting and holding me and nursing me, but she’s not looking at me, her glance is traveling from place to place. The tension and anxiety she still feels today must surely have been even stronger then. Everyone was tense in those days, because no one knew exactly what awaited them.

They had indeed succeeded in escaping from hell, but they had left so much there. There wasn’t a moment of silence for this baby—which was me—and I certainly didn’t have my own crib. There was no chance for intimacy at any time.

To this day, it’s hard for me to get really close to my mother, it’s hard for me to really talk to her. When I try, I feel a lot of tension. If I do talk, it’s more with my father, or when the whole family is there—it’s very hard for me to talk to my mother alone.

Ahuva: My mother told me that when I was born she stopped working and stayed home, to be only with me. She tried to nurse me but she didn’t have enough milk. She tried so hard, sitting for hours and squeezing the milk from her breast drop by drop, then holding me out far on her lap and feeding me these drops with a spoon.

Malka [the therapist’s aide] : You know, it seems very strange that she fed you that way, with a spoon, on her lap. When I was nursing my son, even when I didn’t have enough milk and I gave him a bottle, I always held him close to me, this was the most important thing for me and I think for him too, to feel him close.

Ahuva: Yes, but she tried so hard.. . and she would sit for hours and squeeze her breasts. Perhaps it’s connected with the fact that her first baby died of hunger in her arms, there in the ghetto. . . . She once told me that there wasn’t any food at all, and she had no milk to give her and so she died. . . . I don’t know exactly what happened there.

Shimon: [with an embarrassed smile]: I don’t know, this story of Ahuva’s doesn’t sound so strange to me. My mother told me a story a like bit like that. She said that when I was nursing she had problems. It hurt her to nurse me because she had sores around her nipples. Perhaps I bit her too hard.

She took a kind of tube that the milk from her breasts would be pumped into and I sucked on this long tube. Today it actually does seem very terrible to have been connected to my mother through this tube and not directly.

Zippora: I can’t even imagine nursing from my mother, or even sitting quietly on her lap and enjoying it. Even picturing it makes me tense. I have pictures of myself as a baby, and I look terribly fat, with such a round, full doll-face. The only thing my mother gave me was food. More and more food. But my face in the pictures is empty, totally expressionless.

Itzhak: The feeling or memory I have inside me, in my innermost feelings—and I don’t know exactly where this feeling comes from, after all it’s impossible to remember from such an early age—anyway, my feeling as a baby was that my mother was around, nearby, but she didn’t hold me really close to her. I wanted so much all those years— this I remember from a later age—to feel held, to feel her body. All in all I’ve always felt very lonely.

Arye: I remember that when I was very little, my mother woulld often sit in a closed, dim room, with the shutters half-closed, and chain-smoke. Or sometimes she would sit on a chair and hold my sister on her lap, when she was a baby, and rock her for hours and hours. Even when she hadn’t been crying. My mother would hold her to her breast and murmur all sorts of vague things, something between speech and crying, or a kind of repeated incessant groaning.

When I would come in, I would stand in the corner and stare at her quietly, and she wouldn’t even notice that I was there. Finally, when she would pick up her eyes, she would look at me with this strange sort of look. Her expression seemed to be frozen, and her eyes frightened me, she had such a glassy and empty look, as if she didn’t recognize me, as if she were somewhere else, far away, scary.

Of course I didn’t know then what this was doing to me. Now, when I see my mother with this look sometimes, it makes me angry. It makes me want to shake her. Now I realize that it arouses quite strong anxiety in me, or some kind of disquiet—heart-pounding such as I feel sometimes here too, and sometimes in various situations in my life.

And then I cut myself off, I run away from this anxiety, I don’t know what I’m afraid of at these moments. Now, for the first time, I can connect this somehow with my mother, with her frozen glassy look. She doesn’t respond to me, she doesn’t sense herself or me. Her loneliness became mixed with my loneliness.

Hava: As a baby, they tell me, I screamed and cried. I cried for days on end, and my mother didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t cope with my crying. To this day I’m not sure why. Perhaps I also had a feeling of loneliness like what Itzhak describes.

Ahuva [very pale and agitated, rejoins the conversation]: I was a terribly good baby. I didn’t cry at all. My mother says that when I was a few weeks old she taught me to not cry, and I learned quickly and never cried. Actually, until this very day, my whole life, I almost never cry. Even when I want to very much I feel that I can’t do it. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve shed tears in my life. Even in therapy.

(The therapist responds that she had Indeed sensed that even here, in therapy, Ahuva doesn’t allow herself to cry, and she comments that crying is a way of expressing strong feelings and that for a baby who doesn’t have any language, crying is the only way to ask for what she needs.)

Malka [the therapist’s aide]: If my baby didn’t cry, I wouldn’t know what he wanted or needed. I wouldn’t be able to respond to him in all sorts of situations. How do you understand this, Ahuva, that your mother didn’t want you to cry, how did she manage to communicate with you?

(The therapist comments that perhaps Ahuva’s crying caused her mother intense pain because it reminded her of her first baby, who cried and cried and died of hunger before her eyes, and she couldn’t save her.)

Ahuva begins to sob quietly. The other members of the group are very moved, and some of them begin to cry with her. Then Ahuva begins to murmur through her tears: “Perhaps that was why my mother couldn’t hold me close to her. It was like holding that other baby once again.”

Indeed (writes the therapist later), if Ahuva’s mother had held Ahuva close, and had let her cry, she too would have begun to cry. Not only for her dead baby, but also for her parents and her sisters, for her young husband and her grandfathers and grandmothers. And if she had begun to cry, she might not have been able to stop at all. 

 This article was excerpted with permission from Memorial Candles: Children of the Holocaust by Dina Wardi (Tavistock/Routledge, 1992).