Surviving Incest in a Holocaust Family

On Friday nights, I light the Sabbath candles and recite the ancient blessings of thanks to God. I am alone in my contemplation of the spirit, eating in a shrouded silence. Through the loneliness of this weekly ritual, I mourn the loss of my family, the loss of my biological connectedness. Like my parents before me, I am a Holocaust survivor, unwittingly exposed to intense human evil.

It is an irony of my life that there are some memories that keep me alive, just as others challenge my desire to keep breathing, moving, feeling, existing.

On Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and other holidays, I celebrate with my friends and lovers, remembering earlier times when I would skip and jump to synagogue in excited anticipation, my father carrying his prayer shawl, my mother, prayer books in hand, and us—three sisters bringing up the rear, carefully avoiding cracks in the sidewalk. Yet this scene is a mirage, an unreality, a memory chosen to keep me alive. I also have many visual and auditory images of an unwritten Hell, a world so out of context, so terrifying to me that I “forgot” its existence for many years of my life.

I remember Nazi uniforms, barbed wire, gas ovens and bloodied carcasses. These horrifying images, scenery of an earlier era, were implanted upon me as a child. My father often forced me to act as the “humiliated,” introducing me to Jewish bondage in a Nazi world, child bondage in a grown-up world. I was raped many times as a child—the penis hard, pressuring, pumping, burning my throat, ripping my vagina, my anus, breaking my heart, my trust in any adult.

I sought out explanations for my world, but none were available. Jewish families were depicted only as the haven, the refuge, the place of safety when one was confronted by anti-Semitism. I could never figure out where to run when the Jewish father raped his Jewish daughter.

My parents were immigrants in the late 1940’s. They arrived in Canada from the displaced persons camps and were unfamiliar with both the language and culture of “America.” They looked to their children as sources of support and understanding. We children offered them glimpses into the Gentile world, introducing them to Mother Goose and, later, Shakespeare. We were, in many ways, our parents’ parents. And all of us were an isolated unit thrown together by outside forces beyond our control. So how could I possibly cry out “rape” in shame and agony, and expose my parents’ crimes’?

When I finally gathered the courage to leave home at age 17, my father called me the worst name he knew: TRAITOR. This accusation was perfectly consistent with my father’s Holocaust orientation. After the loss of all but two of the one hundred members of his extended family, anyone who left the fold voluntarily could be considered nothing less.

Intellectually, I understand that my father—by doing to me exactly what had been done to him in the camps—was expressing cathartically his own pain and degradation. He was able to relive his experiences in a situation where he had control. Instead of being the child prostitute for the Gestapo, he was now the master himself. Instead of the starving waif hungering for onion and potato skins, he became the careless cook. He literally threw food at me—his hungry daughter—only to beat me minutes later for eating it.

There are days when I still believe that it is 1943 in Auschwitz or Dachau, and I go into a panic. My head aches terribly, my vision blurs, my heartbeat escalates and I am overcome with nausea. I am honestly of two worlds, unreconciled to either.

While my father was truly a victim, I still cannot forgive him his violations upon my body. I am filled with rage that I was made to suffer as he did.

Why did he do it???

There was a time when I assumed that my father was a rapist because of the Holocaust. From my discussions with other children of Holocaust survivors, I learned that many men in situations like my father’s lived through the camps and did not sexually abuse their daughters. I can therefore no longer accept the Holocaust as an excuse for my own victimization.

It is true that after six years of slave labor, my father had an obsessive need to control. Because he is a male adult in a male-dominated, adult-oriented society, he was able to exercise his privilege over us, his young female children. Had we lived in a society that empowered women and children, perhaps my father’s deep-seated need to control would have found a different “socially appropriate” outlet. Perhaps if Jews and other victims of Nazism had been valued beings, the Holocaust would never have occurred. Perhaps if my father had not been so violently tortured, I would not be writing today about sexual abuse.

“Perhaps,” “if,” “maybe,” all suggest a hypothesis beyond pain. I do not know, cannot know, if my world would have been any different. Somehow, still, it remains easier for me to deflect, to blame the patriarchy, to blame the Holocaust, than to look at my father squarely and name him as the rapist that he is.

Ironically, I am aware that the survival skills of my parents, passed on to me, are what kept me alive during the many years of abuse—I have a keen sense of timing, an ability to perceive danger and, often, to avoid it. As a child I maintained a certain detachment that allowed me to move about neutrally in the midst of the macabre, and to display almost no emotion.

When I am asked about the long term effects of my early experiences, I reply sardonically that neither the incest, nor the Holocaust, were “early experiences” per se— rather, they are for me a way of life, their effects continually resonating within me.

I often have flashbacks of specific childhood moments. When I’m having sex, I remember scenes from early rapes; I have many nightmares; as I simply go about life, reading, shopping, eating, I frequently have momentary auditory or visual memories. I cringe at the sight of uniforms, at the sound of police sirens. To this day I am always early for meetings, wanting to check things out, make sure that I will not be in danger once a large group of people gather.

I check obsessively behind the doors and in the cupboards in my apartment, expecting some evil person to jump at me out of the dark. My hands at my sides are generally shaped into fists, perhaps to protect, perhaps to continually drain off a bit of the intense fury I feel at perpetrators of abuse. I physically sense the barbed wire limits of my childhood. Trapped also by the unseen ghosts of an earlier generation, I actually inhabit, at times, the painful past that rightfully is my parents’, not mine.

Analyzing the parallels of incest and Holocaust survivorship, I recognize how my father and I are mirrored reflections of one another. Because my father survived genocide, he feels incredibly guilty. What was it about him that caused him to live, while his relations perished? Similarly, whenever I think of my sisters still living at home, I shudder and feel burdened by an enormous weight. How did I manage to escape the prison that holds them still? Why have I not tried harder to rescue them?

My father and I also share a sense that danger is imminent, that it’s not safe to give oneself up fully to the present. Vigilance is ever with us. He regularly places slices of pumpernickle bread into the pockets of all his jackets, because, he says, “You never know when they’ll come to get you!” For my part, the very fact that my father lives is a threat to me, Even if I choose never again to attend a family get-together, still, knowing that my father is alive and well means fundamentally that I am never at peace, always at risk.

Another similarity between my father’s experience and my own is that we both lacked models of resistance. My father did not know, nor did I until recently, that Jews fought back in the ghettos and concentration camps. Our heroic past was erased; we were portrayed only as victims. As an incest survivor, I too knew nothing of valiant girls or women who fought back, who killed their violators.

Finally, both Holocaust and incest survivors cope with “revisionists”—those who deny that our experience was real. Neo-Nazis insist that the Holocaust is a hoax. My mother tells me that my sexual abuse is in my imagination. These two Hells are so horrific that not only oppressors and oppressed, but sometimes observers as well obliterate all memories.

Betrayal is another Holocaust/incest similarity. Holocaust survivors often talk of being betrayed by other Jews. Incest, of course, is frequently a betrayal of the most intimate human relationship, of parent to child. If those responsible for our well-being choose to harm us instead, then to whom should we turn for emotional support? If not to our own mothers and fathers, then to whom?

So, you see, because of the traumatic events that both my father and I lived through, our psychological patterning is eerily similar. We forget; we deny; we remember; we relive, and then, we forget again. And, of course, it was easy for me to “forget” on a daily basis, because no one at school, or at synagogue, not even social workers, really wanted to hear about incest. Though I desperately sent out distress signals, I was told, over and over, in ways both covert and overt: “This doesn’t happen in Jewish families.”

There was no one who would listen to the secrets of my soul. On my own, with no sympathetic other, I could do no better than “forget.” By the time I was an adult and had retrieved memories of the perversities I’d endured, I could not bring myself to describe these horrors to anyone. Even in an incest survivors’ group, I deliberately withheld details of my childhood traumas. It was too painful to be the “worst case,” to receive the pity of those only slightly less abused than myself.

Recently I joined a group of daughters of Holocaust survivors, and, to my surprise, I encountered a number of women who were raped by their fathers in contexts very similar to mine. Together we examine and reexamine; we journey towards our deeper selves in great trepidation. Because of the support I feel from these women, I am slowly discovering the power of speaking out, of writing about my experience. I still often feel awash in my own shame when I articulate my pain. I still feel guilt-ridden, immersed in the suffering of an earlier era. but—even as I write this— I move towards recognizing that the agony that my parents endured does not negate my own agony. As a second generation survivor, I struggle daily to live beyond the horrors of other times, other places. Slowly I unearth the last remaining images of war.

And weekly I light the Sabbath candles and recite the ancient words, continuing to bless whatever that spirit is that keeps me moving, feeling, existing, alive.

The author of this article was born Chava [Eve], but she changed her name to Lilith in 1975 at the age of 17. Art is by Sandi Carter from an exhibit of paintings by incest survivors.