Updated: Jul 24, 2022
Peggy Wonder was not born with the last name "Wonder." She chose it. While working on a craft project at the age of 27, she was struck with the realization that she highly values "curiosity, awe, and delight." She knew she wanted more of those things in her life. Thus, she officially changed her last name, which aptly expresses who she is.
Growing up with a survivor mother who was emotionally cut off, Peggy worried that she would be that way as well. While many survivors are overly protective of their children, Peggy found her mother Elisabeth to be the opposite. A child when she survived a concentration camp, Elisabeth cut off all connection to her emotions. Peggy grew up with a mother who did not seem nurturing to her children and who was emotionally cut off.
We are used to hearing of survivors who cherish their Jewishness and try to impart Jewish beliefs and practices to their children. Peggy's mother denied her Jewish heritage and distanced herself from the Jewish community.
Peggy's experience as a 2G therefore differs markedly from that of 2Gs whose parents smothered them with love and attention and who embraced Judaism in their homes. Despite that, her 2G status has had a profound effect on her. As she grew up and recognized her own values, Peggy was able to pursue her own life goals, accepting her childhood with equanimity while living according to her needs.
Peggy, on the right, with her younger sister Tanya.
Here is Peggy's story:
Peggy's mother Elisabeth was five when she became an inmate at Bergen-Belsen for about a year (1944-45). Bergen-Belsen was extremely over-populated and Elisabeth acknowledges seeing piles of corpses. Her father perished in the camp but Elisabeth and her mother survived. Peggy believes her mother shut out all these experiences and as a result, became an emotionally detached person, lacking in empathy.
While Peggy's younger sister Tanya questioned the way their mother was and rebelled against it, Peggy accepted it. It took a while for Peggy to recognize the difference between her mother and other children's parents. For example, she remembers realizing at some point that when other children got sick, their parents took care of them, taking them to a doctor, getting medicine, providing chicken soup, etc. Her mother shoved them out the door to go to school, no matter how sick they were.
Peggy's father, who was not Jewish, was cold in a different way. He was very smart and placed a high value on intelligence and intellectual achievement. Peggy had another sister, Ellen, who was a bit slow intellectually and could not keep up in school. Their father was frustrated and angry about this and was not kind to this sister. At the end of high school, Ellen had a nervous breakdown and Peggy saw this as her sister's salvation -- her ticket out of the house. Ellen went into an institution and then a halfway house. Now supported by the mental health system, she received medication and emotional support. These were things not available to her at home. Both parents came around eventually.
Peggy's mother did not identify with her Jewish heritage and did not practice any religion; in fact, she disliked Jewish people. When she met Peggy's father, he was getting involved with Christian Science and Elisabeth adopted that as her religion. It was a package deal -- a husband and a new religion. Peggy believes her mother was looking for something, and Christian Science fit the bill. Peggy explains that Christian Science denies the importance and reality of the physical world, which contrasts sharply with Peggy's beliefs. Christian Scientists generally avoid medical treatment -- hence, Elisabeth's reaction to Ellen and to the other children when they were ill. Sickness and the material world are viewed as illusions.
"It struck me," Peggy explains, "that my mother had denied her Jewish origins, as many did who hid their identities. In most ways she assimilated fully, but by choosing Christian Science, she chose a way of life that stood out (the way the Jews did) and was ripe for criticism and possible persecution." Over time, Peggy became more aware of the role of denial in her mother's life and communications. She attributes her mother's "blind spot" --- her lack of empathetic connection -- to her Holocaust experience.
When she first learned about the Holocaust, Peggy feared that she herself could be either a perpetrator or a bystander. She did not think she could be a victim because, as she saw it, her family had already been victims and since that had already happened, it would not happen again.
When Peggy was 19, she realized that her grandmother (Elisabeth's mother) was Jewish and had friendships with other Jews. It dawned on her that if her grandmother was Jewish, she must be Jewish too! This was a pivotal moment for her. Since Elisabeth had closed herself off from that, the grandmother's Jewishness was never discussed in their family. "My mother's denial was so intense," says Peggy, "that we were not aware that we too were in some way Jewish." Though the family had not been practicing Judaism in any way for a couple of generations, the grandmother acknowledged her Jewish heritage while living with Christian practices.
Once Peggy gained some knowledge of the Holocaust as a child, she felt embarrassed to tell anyone that her family was from Germany, believing others would assume they had been perpetrators. As she grew older, she felt proud of her mother for being a survivor and would tell people about it. However, from the reactions she received, she concluded that telling her story was a type of "self-serving sensationalism," so she stopped. She now likes the idea that she has a direct connection to an important historical event, though she recognizes that this could appear a bit creepy.
If being a Holocaust survivor was the cause of her mother's lack of empathy, Peggy worked hard to be an empathetic person. Her mother's blindness to her children's distress, physical and emotional, was a powerful symbol of all Peggy did not want to be. Peggy feared that she was broken and would be incapable of empathy and would automatically be like her parents. Her mother's devotion to orthodox Christian Science was intense, and she imposed it on her children with no regard to the cost. Christian Science, it seemed to Peggy, stood for valuing concepts and teachings over people. Peggy always had a strong inclination to spirituality and therefore cannot condone a religion that denies the importance and reality of the physical world. She wants to experience the world and her body and therefore knows that her parents' religion is not for her.
When Peggy was in her twenties, she noticed how she felt when others cried. She felt their pain too, and that is when she realized she was indeed a normal, empathetic person. She committed herself to the process of reversing habits of emotional numbness and distancing -- habits she'd learned as a child. This was another pivotal moment for her.
The Holocaust experience that seems to have influenced Peggy in a positive way is the story her mother told about her liberation at the end of the war at the age of six. She perceives that day as a "magical day in her (mother's) life." Elisabeth and her mother and other inmates were on a train from Bergen-Belsen. After living in the camp, Elisabeth's memories were all "gray." They all believed that the train would be parked on a bridge that would be blown up. Instead, the train stopped in a place where they saw green grass and wildflowers. Little Elisabeth delighted in the colors. This was the day when her memories turned from gray to "full color." That sense of full color representing beauty that exists in life stayed with Peggy. Perhaps it became the inspiration for her own appreciation of wonder.
Elisabeth's positive associations to that day extended to the American soldiers who liberated the train. She was immediately enamored of America.
Elisabeth's mother had a brother in El Salvador, who was able to arrange for them to come and live with him after the war. Other Jews they met there kept saying: Never forget. Young Elisabeth did not understand that, as she wanted to forget. This contact with other Jews who emphasized remembering the horrors of the Holocaust perhaps pushed Elisabeth away from any desire to be part of a Jewish community.
Her mother's immigration to El Salvador and her grandparents' immigration to the Netherlands haunted Peggy when she visited Uruguay ten years ago. Knowing that her mother's parents had to pay a hefty exit tax to leave Hamburg, Germany in 1937 and enter the Netherlands, where they thought they would be safe from the Nazis, Peggy re-lived the fear of that experience when crossing through customs at the border into Uruguay. Confronted by uniformed authority, Peggy became nervous and felt overwhelmed. This reminded her of the arrest of her grandparents in the Netherlands when her mother was five and was left alone for a while before being sent to the camp where her parents were being held. Recognizing that it was ridiculous for her to feel guilty or in danger of being "found out" when she had not done anything wrong clearly connected her Uruguay experience with a Holocaust victim mentality.
When Peggy was in high school, she took a class about the Holocaust period in history. Her mother offered to speak to the class but because she had been so young at the time, she had very few memories. While Elisabeth was in that classroom, the teacher shared information about the gas "shower" rooms. Elisabeth had not been aware of any of that. Peggy saw that her mother was stunned and became more interested in Holocaust history afterwards.
Peggy is someone who works at finding what she values. She values freedom. Explaining that she knows she is free since she is not in a concentration camp, she yearns for "freedom from fear and ego oppression." She defines ego oppression as a force telling us we are not good enough. She wants to achieve peace and freedom and live a spiritual life -- "free in mind, not plagued by fear, anger, or mind noise." She wants to be "in the present, to think freely, to enjoy life."
In pursuing her goal, Peggy has lived in what she calls "intentional communities." These are living arrangements where one chooses to live with other people -- a type of group living. Every community is different. Peggy has lived in one community in Staten Island, New York, where everything was shared, including bank accounts. In other communities, Peggy explains, people might have their own homes but share common areas. Other communities have areas that can be rented out and the renters can participate in the living project. Peggy refers to her Staten Island community as an "American kibbutz."
Peggy left this community to go into a co-housing place with her partner in 2016. She now lives in Philadelphia, where she moved to be closer to her sister Tanya, who was going through metastatic breast cancer treatment. Her proximity to Tanya enabled her to be there for her sister and help care for her during difficult periods of her illness. Unfortunately, Tanya passed away recently, and Peggy was there with her.
Was Peggy drawn to intentional communities as a way of building empathy through closeness with others? That is certainly possible. She credits her parents with encouraging open-mindedness, which allowed her to feel comfortable choosing an unusual lifestyle. At one point, she feared that her community would be attacked from the outside. When she made a connection between that fear and the Holocaust, her fear and stress melted away.
Peggy's choice of career may also be related to her goal of living empathetically, as it involves working closely with people who need her help. Peggy is developing a professional organizing business. She helps people sort, declutter, organize, and dispose of things. This involves working with other groups of people who help with packing and moving. She enjoys combining efforts with many teams. They often help people clear out relatives' belongings and help people downsize. In addition, she helps people with their "emotional stuff," and that may just be the most significant aspect of this work.
Peggy believes that her awareness of the Holocaust has led her to prioritize survival skills. "Anything can happen," she states, "so one must be prepared to survive." Cooking, sewing, construction and retail skills would be useful in a major disaster such as wartime, and she wanted to learn these practical skills.
Peggy believes her attitude toward consuming meat has been influenced by what she knows of the Holocaust. "I had considered eating fewer animal products many times," she explains. "My Holocaust studies influenced me to take this more seriously. When I read and see how animals are raised for food, it strikes me that the conditions into which they are forced are the same as concentration camps -- as if they are being punished. I choose to minimize my participation in such inhumane actions, to do as little harm as I can."
She faces an inner conflict regarding her connection to society. On one hand, she sees the terrible violence all around and therefore does not want to be part of society. On the other hand, she seeks and values connection with others. Through her kibbutz-like living, she has formed deep connections and real relationships. "It's truly remarkable, Peggy says, "how socially free and at ease I am now. In two and a half years in Philadelphia, I have developed a tremendous network of friends here!"
Peggy has come into her own in many ways. She now even identifies as Jewish to some extent. At two of the urban communities where she has lived, Jewish people were at the core, and she learned quite a bit about Jewish culture from them. When living in San Francisco, she became involved socially with a group of Jews, and learned from them as well. She attended a gathering of survivors at one point and realized that many survivors are not comfortable with spontaneity. This explained to her Elisabeth's need to plan everything and know what is happening ahead of time. Peggy always found her mother's controlling and denial "quite annoying." It took her years to find ways to circumvent this cycle inside herself. Her ability to understand these qualities in her mother must have helped her in that regard.
Peggy watched as her sister Tanya, before her death, was able to heal from her pain and anger with their mother and eventually accept the mother for who she was. Peggy herself seems understanding of her mother's issues. While Peggy felt her mother did not listen to her or her siblings when they were growing up, she can now note with amusement that her mother worked as a mediator, of all things. This ability to calmly accept and move on has helped Peggy live her intentional life.
Peggy is now noticing changes in her mother and is "amazed" by her mother's "depth of dedication to learning, growing, and improving. She has done a lot to become more sensitive to others and she has become very generous in many ways. She's amazing!"
Does Peggy believe in inherited trauma? "Yes, certainly," she responds. "It's just hard to distinguish - in myself - the impact of the Holocaust from the infinite number of experiences passed down through the whole of human history." Peggy's goal is to achieve "inner calm, stability, confidence, and ease." These constitute peace that is more than the absence of war.
Her realizations regarding trauma and using that trauma to reach for worthy goals can be summarized in Peggy's dedication "to bringing love to the world." Though we all strive for that, perhaps in different ways, we can certainly all agree on its importance.