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  • Ruth Rotkowitz

Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself

Updated: Apr 26



I have met so many people this past year in the course of giving talks about Escaping the Whale. Discussing inherited trauma led people to willingly share their own fears which they attribute to being children of survivors. Many of the fears are familiar to me, such as the fear of being in an enclosed space where one may feel trapped, the fear of trains, or the fear of anything that is usually associated with the Holocaust. A number of these fears are mentioned in Escaping the Whale.

In February, I was interviewed by a psychologist who is also a child of a survivor, Lois Berkowitz, for the organization Voices of Hope. In the course of our discussion, Lois mentioned an interesting experience. She and her husband had traveled to Germany, where she felt extremely nervous, and as soon as they got into their hotel room, they both started checking the doors and windows. Knowing that there was nothing to fear did not quell the anxiety. The association and the trauma are simply too strong. Someone else has shared that she began to feel panic in her chest when a conductor on a train in Germany asked for her passport and then took it. She did get it back at the end of the train ride, but she always remembered the fear she felt then. It doesn't take much to fling us back into a state of terror with anything that feels similar to what we know others in our families have gone through.



Anxiety and thoughts of Nazis, I have been told, are often provoked by the sight of tools. These would be tools that are used to do constructive work, such as hammers and saws, but have been and can be used as weapons to harm, mutilate, and kill. This association prevents a person from using such tools and from feeling calm when around them. They are aware that someone could grab this tool and attack another with it.

An audience member at one talk related his experience having to take a Lufthansa flight when a flight he had booked was canceled. As he sat in his seat, he was keenly aware of the doors closing and the air above him coming on. This immediately provoked an association to a gas chamber. He had been on flights before but the fact that this was a Lufthansa flight clearly affected him.


Another fear to which I have been recently introduced is the fear of having to wait in a line. I read of one woman's experience bringing her child to school during the pandemic. Everyone had to line up outside the school door. When they got to the door, their identification was checked. Some people were let in and others were asked to wait on the side. This mother immediately recalled -- and felt she was re-living -- her own mother's experience of having to line up to be evaluated by guards when arriving at a concentration camp. She found she could barely hold herself together during this school event.

At a question-and-answer at the end of another talk, a woman asked if others had difficulty at airports since the TSA has been issuing the Global Entry cards. She had a traumatic moment when her husband was pulled out of line at an airport and she was not. It was because his fingerprint had not been clear, but she said she started screaming that she won't be separated from him. "Is this Auschwitz?" she said she had yelled. Airport personnel ignored her.

I suppose there is an endless variety of fears, each unique to the individual experiencing them. Sometimes, it seems the person relating the fearful experience can actually laugh about it. I believe this is good. Of course, it takes some distance to be able to laugh at oneself, and achieving that distance takes time. I do find that sharing one's fears is extremely helpful, as others can help us put them in perspective, show us that we are not alone, and help us, if not actually laugh, then partake in a wry chuckle.

My prequel to Escaping the Whale, which will be available soon and which is entitled The Whale Surfaces, examines the fears that my protagonist develops in childhood. Why one child in the family absorbs the terror of her parents' early lives and becomes sensitive to the injustices of the world and other children in the family do not is an unanswered question. It simply happens that way as we are all made differently. In both books, the importance of addressing inherited trauma and not sweeping it under the rug becomes apparent.

I look forward to hearing your reactions to the prequel, and your thoughts on how a person who suffers as so many of us do can deal with our trauma so that it does not consume us.












Visit www.RuthsWhale.com to download and read the first chapter now.


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