LIVING THE HOLOCAUST
Updated: Jan 20, 2022
If a parent glosses over her Holocaust experiences, how does that affect the child? Tanya Seaman has been dealing with that question her entire life. From growing up removed from any Jewish community to memories of feeling cold all the time, Tanya has grappled with an upbringing she has come to view as dysfunctional. Her mother's trauma, she believes, has been passed on to her, and she has devoted years to understanding and overcoming that. Recalling her childhood treatment as cold and dismissive, Tanya has worked hard to understand her mother and can now appreciate some of what she gained from her. She has also found a therapeutic tool that helps her deal with her own trauma.
My mom was born in 1938 in Rotterdam, after her parents had been in The Netherlands for about a year after fleeing Germany. My maternal grandfather ran a branch office of his father’s business until it was Aryanized and taken over by the Nazis. My grandparents fled almost immediately afterward. They moved around some in The Netherlands, and eventually were arrested by the Nazis in April 1944. My mother, who was six years old, wasn’t with them at the time but was sent later to join them. They first went to Westerbork and then Bergen Belsen, where they spent the remainder of the war. In January of 1945, my mother’s father died of typhoid and starvation.
A few days before the liberation of Bergen Belsen, my mother and grandmother were on a train (“Train to Farsleben”) that was abandoned by the Nazis and discovered by American soldiers. My mother remembers the colorful wildflowers she saw once they left the train. Her memories before that are in black and white.
After liberation, my mom and grandmother were taken care of to restore their health and eventually went to London, where my grandmother’s twin sisters and mother were living. After six months, they went to live with my grandmother’s brother, who lived in San Salvador. My mother attended the American school there for seven years before they moved to the United States, to Berkeley, California.
My father and generations before his were born in the US and are from England and Ireland. They were poor subsistence farmers. My parents met as students at the University of California, Berkeley.
1. My childhood:
Do you remember when and how you first realized your mother was a Holocaust survivor?
I do not recall how I learned this, but I learned it young – and most likely from my grandmother. My mom didn’t talk about it and said she remembered very little of it. I don’t know if the knowledge of the Holocaust affected my childhood so much as its lingering effects did. I read a lot of novels and non-fiction books about it to try to understand what about my mom made her the way she was – the Holocaust or something else? As kids (there were four of us), we were curious about the Holocaust and about our grandmother’s childhood, and we did ask them questions. Unfortunately, my grandmother died when I was 19, so I didn’t have a chance to ask her the deeper questions I’d have now.
How was your childhood affected by this knowledge?
My childhood was most deeply affected by my mom’s being a Holocaust survivor, but I don’t know that the knowledge itself affected me since I knew very little about what she went through. Understanding the impact of the Holocaust came more as I underwent therapy for most of my adult years and learned what was “normal” and what was dysfunctional about my family, especially my mom.
Growing up, did you know other children or have friends whose parents were survivors?
I knew no other children of survivors, most probably because we were raised as Christian Scientists and weren’t particularly close to anyone. We mostly spent time with other Christian Scientists. My grandmother had Jewish friends, I believe, though she was fairly assimilated in Hamburg, where she grew up and was not raised Jewish. I don’t think they were raised Christian, but her birth certificate does not reveal that she came from Jewish ancestry, though she did.
My father was not Jewish and my mother was not raised Jewish so she never felt Jewish. I believe she was always looking for something else, some form of religion. In Salvador, they lived in a German Jewish community but she did not connect with the others. She had a negative attitude about Judaism, and said that she did not like Jewish people, especially those who were outspoken or obviously Jewish.
When my father got interested in Christian Science and introduced it to my mother, she embraced it. We had somewhat of a community through Christian Science and their church, but they did not form any close attachments.
Being raised by Christian Scientists meant that I was exempt from classes about biology and disease, and received no immunizations as a child. My mother was in denial. If I or one of my siblings got sick, we were never taken to a doctor or offered medication. My parents would pray and read the Bible and the book written by the founder of Christian Science. I believe she was brainwashed by Christian Science dogma.
Considering my mother's lack of concern for her own children, it is amazing that, while we lived in California near Stanford University, my parents hosted intern students and took in foster children. With her own children as well as the foster children, my mother would not give things children need, such as blankets to stay warm in the winter. She gave them only as Christmas gifts.
I attended my first (and only) Yom HaShoa service in New York City a few years ago. It was incredibly painful to attend a service where the music was totally foreign to me and where I felt like such an outsider. The loneliness of growing up so isolated from others who’d experienced what I had was almost too much to bear.
Did being a second generation (2G) make you feel different from other kids when growing up?
Everything about my childhood made me feel different, but not being the child of a survivor. I did not think it was a factor until I started to examine my life more when I started therapy soon after college. As a kid, being a Christian Scientist made me feel more different than anything.
Did your mother openly discuss her experiences? Or did she deny, dismiss, or gloss over them?
My mom still glosses over her experiences – and when I was older, I asked my dad how he thought it affected her and he said he didn’t think it did. I almost fell over when he said that. My mom’s Holocaust story is about five minutes long, and then she says it spurred her to become a mediator and then she says how many kids and grandkids she has. She talks to school kids about bullying and doesn’t understand that the Holocaust was much bigger than that – more akin to institutionalized racism and hatred. I persuaded her to do some research with me to learn more about the context into which she was born, reviewing family letters and other documents with a translator.
In the last 10 or 15 years my mom has met some of the Americans who rescued her train, and she has accepted invitations to go to Bergen Belsen. I have declined all offers to go because this affects me deeply and I don’t want to be around her cheerfulness in such a venue. The pain the Holocaust has caused me indirectly is not something she had known about until I told her a few months ago.
I had asked her if she’d ever gone to therapy to deal with the Holocaust. She said she never felt the need to do so. I asked her if she would consider going now to therapy to discuss how the Holocaust affected her. Her response was: "Why would I do that?"
I told her that she passed along her pain and trauma – and she had no idea that was a thing. She didn’t deny that it was possible. And most likely she’s forgotten that I even told her this. She tends to forget anything unpleasant. Generally, she can’t hold onto another person’s pain.
Did you want to hear their stories and memories?
I most definitely wanted to hear their stories, but they were hard to come by. I listened in on my mom’s Shoa video interview and heard horrific things I’d never heard before. They were incredibly painful to hear, but I did not want to acknowledge this pain to my mom because I can’t be that open with her after how cold and dismissive she’s been to me most of my life.
2. Pros and Cons
Did your feelings about your mother and her experiences change as you got older?
Through therapy, I had some really rough times and went for periods of not speaking with my mom because of how she’d treated me. I went back to her after gaining some empathy for her and what she’d been through. But it’s hard to be close to someone who has closed herself off and consequently her heart to the hardships of others.
Did you feel there were advantages to being a 2G? Were there strengths you gained?
I think being a 2G (and all the therapy that has come with it) has brought me a level of empathy I might not otherwise have had – or that I might have had with different parents. I was terrified of having a president who condoned hatred, and saw the coming again of a Hitler to power.
I have taken on projects that were very difficult; when someone would point out the obstacles I would just say, okay, now I know how high the wall is. Let’s do it. Not that I’ve taken on every fight, but I take things very seriously – like climate change -- and feel like it’s important to make a strong and positive impact while I’m here. I don’t see life as fun and games, so I’m not exactly happy-go-lucky. I do try, however, to see the positives when I can so I’m not upset about everything all the time.
Do you feel that you have suffered being the child of survivors? Were you scarred in some way by being a 2G? Has your life been hampered by being a 2G?
Most definitely. I had to learn to be a full human being, how to be a friend, how to have empathy, how to communicate well. I learned none of this from my parents.
As an adult, how has being a child of survivors influenced or possibly defined you?
My mom didn’t seem to care that we were cold in our unheated bedrooms in winter, and I couldn’t get her to buy me warm enough clothing. (She knew what standing on freezing ground was like, so our being cold apparently meant very little to her.) The warm clothing was for the very occasional ski trip.
One of my current passions is knitting and writing knitting patterns for others to knit my designs. Now it’s my own fault if I’m not warm enough because I have quite enough shawls, hats, hoods, sweaters, socks, and mittens. It feels good to be able to do this for myself.
Tanya, displaying one of her shawls. Her most recent design, it is entitled "Staggered Stripes."
I also didn’t know how to make friends or be a friend because I was critical and dismissive of others. I definitely learned this from my mom, as that’s how she treated our problems. Ignoring them rather than feeling them and wanting to do everything to help us take care of them was her way of being. I was lonely a lot unless I happened to find patient people who befriended me. But I rarely hung on to them very long.
I’m still surprised when people genuinely want to help me and be friends with me. Now that I am dealing with metastatic breast cancer, I’m aware of who wants to be in my life and not, and it’s been a really pleasant discovery. I don’t think anyone’s really walked away, and several have come closer.
Do you now feel different from non 2Gs?
I think so many of us come from traumatic childhoods that I don’t feel different or somehow deserving of anything special because of what I went through. I think if I were raised in a Jewish community I might feel differently, but I wasn’t.
3. The “inherited trauma” question
Do you think there is such a thing as “inherited trauma”? Do you see it as a form of PTSD?
Yes. I think people learn behaviors from their parents based on their experiences and think this is how you live in the world, whether or not these are healthy behaviors.
Are you now concerned with the world’s perception of the Holocaust? Are you interested in Holocaust education? Have you worked for Holocaust causes? How do you feel about that?
I am very concerned that people believe the Holocaust didn’t exist, because I know that I live in relation to it. I am interested in Holocaust education to the degree that I’m glad people are teaching about it, but it’s not something I’ve wanted to do myself. That said, I want my mom’s fuller story to be told, but unless I write it, it’s not going to happen. My current therapist asked me if I might write my own story, as perhaps it is important in furthering this education. I have considered it and have written a little bit.
(If you are a parent), How has your parenting been influenced by being a 2G?
I am not a parent for many reasons, one of which is that I definitely did not want to pass along my dysfunction to any kids. I don’t think I ever had the patience to be a caretaker (something I definitely didn’t experience from my mom) and I knew that I wanted more for my life than what my mom had. She was a full-time mom but seemed depressed and by the time I came around, was tired of raising kids, especially me, her youngest and most challenging. I wanted a bigger life than that and knew I’d be impatient raising kids and being tied down in that way. For me, it was the right decision.
I have realized that my mother's concentration camp experience put a shield into her heart. Nothing as horrendous as what happened to her affects her. Everything is the same to her; she seems to have no feeling, no perspective. She was not emotionally present for me. While growing up, I often wondered: "What in my mom's craziness is due to Christian Science and what is due to the Holocaust?"
In my early twenties, I finally heard my mother's Holocaust testimony. She was being interviewed by a film crew and I listened from another room. She told a story of seeing a young girl in the camp watching her mother getting shot at the concentration camp fence. She also talked about how they had to stand on frozen ground for roll call. At one point, the film crew wanted me to say something about growing up with her and I refused. I was crying; hearing these stories was so emotional for me.
When my mother was a child, her goal was "to create peace in the world." As an adult, she became a mediator. She was so naive and such a terrible listener and so lacking in compassion that I can't believe she chose this career.
However, she did pass on to her children idealistic goals, and three of the four siblings are involved in work that is beneficial to the world. Living in Philadelphia, I spent many years building and running a highly successful nonprofit car-share organization called Philly Car Share. Helping the city in this manner was my passion and I loved it.
When I left my position there, I was still dedicated to helping my community, so I run a neighborhood committee whose goal is: make streets safer for bicyclists and pedestrians. It is part of an international movement -- Vision Zero -- and I am so happy that lots of professionals in my neighborhood are active participants of it.
Years ago, I got a job at a yarn shop. I realized then that I did not know much about knitting and I forced myself to learn as much as possible. I found the knitting to be incredibly therapeutic. When I knitted myself a shawl, it received many compliments and I was asked to write the pattern for it. Now, in addition to knitting, I write patterns, which I find intellectually stimulating. (My interest in being intellectually challenged comes from my dad.)
My sister Peggy and I realize now that we gained our love of making things from our mother. She taught us how to sew and passed along the ethos of creating things. When we were little, she did crafts with us and she sewed dresses for my two older sisters.
Recently, my mom was showing me a Christmas stocking she was making and she expressed how much she likes to make things. She said that I probably know exactly what this is like since I do so much handiwork. She has always done a lot of baking and enjoys that. She is also proud of my designs and always tells me when she gets compliments on the many items I've given her. She seems happy.
In spite of the cancer I am currently experiencing, I am happier these days and more full of gratitude than I was before. These are not my mom's rose-colored glasses; these involve looking at issues and trying to solve them. It involves not getting anxious about upcoming scans ("scanxiety") but waiting for the information. It's about perspective and deciding what is important and what is not.
Many of my metastatic peers at or near retirement age find themselves lost with regard to how to spend their time. I have already worked that out and I know how I want to spend my time. I am fortunate enough not to have lost my capacity to continue working in my areas of passion. The cancer is part of my experience, but it is not all of who I am.
My mom is continually surprised by my strength and dedication to my work, and my strength and positivity as I live with this terminal illness.
Aside from my passions for knitting, writing patterns, and community work, reading has played a large role in my life. Reading has enhanced my perspective as it has opened my world to the lives of others. I have read many true and fictional accounts of Holocaust survivors, resistance fighters during WW11, personal stories about life behind bars and of the lawyers working on behalf of prisoners. These help me to recognize my place in the world of suffering and allow me to see my privilege in comparison. I am neither running to achieve freedom nor am I being persecuted because of my heritage or skin color. I just happen to be sick. No one is doing this to me. I gained this perspective because of years of reading and incorporating my reading into my being and into my world view.