Generational Trauma: Moments of Knowing & Recognizing Pain

We carry it deep within us in spaces that we don’t even know are there, in the corners of our eyes and buried deep in our calcified bones. Perhaps it’s carried by blood pulsing or at the bottom of our exhales. It’s hidden, perhaps like an early tumor, but ebbs to the surface and erupts quietly without warning.

I sat in a dark theatre recently with my mom and the previews started. We opened our candy and silenced our phones and debated if my chosen seats at the end of the isle would somehow give us the whole isle. It did, but perhaps that was due to the small crowd. I don’t really remember the first preview, but it seemed loud. A second preview started and at first it seemed innocent, the reshowing of a children’s film about honoring differences (“Wonder”). Yet as the preview continued, I watched the creators of Wonder introduce another film about finding hope in the midst of evil, a sequel or prequel of sorts. And then I felt it. Something heavy in my stomach. A knot. A sharp knowing inside.

An image of young girl standing outside of a school flashed on the screen. People in army clothes driving fast and maybe shouting. An older lady (Helen Mirren) speaking of sharing her story, finally. A tear ran down her face.

There were no swastikas. No images of starved people with sunken in bodies and hollowed faces.

The army officers looked nondescript, but I knew.

The girl had brown hair, but nothing that shouted that she was Jewish.

But I knew.

Was that a picture of a menorah in her schoolbook on the screen? I can barely recall.

A white butterfly floated by the screen and two young lovers embraced and the narrator remarked of how in the darkest of times, we live in our imagination.

The word Jewish wasn’t said. Nothing explicitly told viewers that the guards were Nazis.

But I knew.

It was just a movie; just a preview of a movie hoping to become a box office hit by reminding viewers about the magic that was “Wonder.”

Yet to those of us that hold a painful knowing in our chests and an invisible recognizing of horror and a pain of recognizing hate in a two-minute preview, it was so much more.

They say trauma lives in our bodies. That we recognize trauma unconsciously. Perhaps in the same way we can understand love and peace. I know the other side of the story too, how I can find solace in a synagogue in a foreign city and how Jewish communities are mostly a place of hope and connection, wherever they are.

Yet, sitting there in that movie theatre on a $5 Tuesday with my mom, I felt that sharp knowing. A danger. A gut pain. I think my mom did too. It was hard to breathe.

I am not sure if anyone else in that theatre would have immediately known it was about the Holocaust. But when you carry the trauma of hate, we know.

We know that Covid was particularly devastating to Holocaust survivors and their children and how it re-traumatized many.

We know that there are acts of anti-Semitism all the time.

We know that there are police officers stationed outside of my daughter’s preschool sometimes.

We know that there are many allies and stories of strength and joy and love and overcoming the odds.

We also know that not all stories end that way; that not all is hopeful, despite what a movie trailer might show.

We know horrors and hate have happened and will continue to happen.

I know that my daughter will someday learn of this hate. And I can’t stop her pain. And someday she too might sit in a movie theatre and without the words, she will feel the ugly reminder of a carried trauma that exists in all who know.