Intergenerational Trauma: From the Holocaust to Cambodia

By Skylar Schaefer (a pen name)

Dorianne and I are school friends. We’ve shared some wonderful memories together. For example, I have memories of playing for hours in the schoolyard, our hands frozen by the snow; or walking outside after bedtime on Halloween night.

Recently, Dorianne asked me the following question: “Sky, was one of your grandparents a victim of the Holocaust?”

I was taken aback by such a frank question. It wasn’t in our nature to speak so seriously.

My family is of Ashkenazi Jewish origin. The Holocaust was always a taboo subject in our family, which explains why the only real facts I know on the issue are the following: My paternal grandfather’s family left Russia before the First World War. My paternal grandmother came to Canada from Romania; but no one has ever spoken aloud of when or why.

The Russian side of my family wanted to blend in with the culture, so they adopted a name change to seem more western. To this day I still have nightmares about the Holocaust. I wake up crying. Even though I know this was never something I experienced first-hand, I know that members of family went through it. I have always asked myself if this is a symptom of what they call intergenerational trauma – when the trauma of one generation gets passed on to the next.

After a little conversation on my family history, I became absorbed in the subject of intergenerational trauma. I wanted to know more about its effects, so I suggested to Dorianne that we discuss it. She agreed to.

Skylar: Why did you suddenly get the impulse to ask me that question?

Dorianne: I recently discovered the subject of intergenerational trauma and I asked myself if you feel it…

Skylar: Do you think you suffer from this thing?

Dorianne: I don’t know. Recently, I haven’t stopped thinking about the trauma my mother suffered during the Cambodian genocide.

For the first time I saw a side of her I’d never noticed before. A particularly vulnerable, wounded side. There was a pronounced change in her mannerisms. She held her hands together, played with her nails, and avoided making direct eye contact with me. She told me that it was an interesting subject and that she wanted to continue to talk to me about it, but that at the same time it hurt to talk about it.

We continued our conversation:

Skylar: Who’s the closest person in your family to have suffered trauma first-hand?

Dorianne: My mother, my grandparents, my six uncles and my aunt all suffered in Cambodia. Among them, one of my uncles and my only aunt lost their lives in the genocide.

Lying down on the couches in her basement with two of our other friends, both girls, we listened attentively as she continued to speak of this often touching subject:

Dorianne: I’ll always remember this little anecdote my mother once told me. It happened in the middle of the day. My mother and her family fled the soldiers through the jungle, hoping to escape to Vietnam and become refugees. My mother, the youngest in the family, nestled in her grandfather’s arms when they climbed walls. I can clearly imagine this moment in my head.

She had been my best friend for 12 years, and I didn’t know about this situation. When I met her mother I couldn’t have imagined such a troubled family past. So after this exchange of anecdotes and memories, I realized that I wasn’t the only person living with intergenerational trauma.

Family Repercussions

Intergenerational trauma is not to be taken lightly. It’s understandable that it can make you adopt behavior patterns, to have insecurities, fears and even deep mental problems that affect your daily life. This can have an impact on the lives of the next generations, as we pass down this trauma to our loved ones.

Now, I’m beginning to understand why my father was so severe with me when it came to where I went, the people I hung out with, or even the way in which I expressed myself. He was raised by people profoundly affected by the Holocaust. It was an event that brought a lot of violence to my family, one that haunts my grandmother to this very day. This trauma runs through the veins of my ancestors, and today, it runs through my own veins.  

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What is intergenerational trauma?

Intergenerational trauma is defined as trauma that gets passed down from those who directly experience an incident to subsequent generations. Intergenerational trauma may begin with a traumatic event affecting an individual, traumatic events affecting multiple family members, or collective trauma affecting larger community, cultural, racial, ethnic, or other groups/populations (historical trauma).

Examples of traumatic events leading to intergenerational trauma include indigenous residential schools, being a refugee, or physical or sexual violence.

French version on the Reflet de Société website

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