"Growing up in our house had been like walking on glass, as if the people might shatter at any time."
With these words, 2G author Debbie Levison, in her nonfiction narrative The Crate, describes her childhood.
Explaining that she grew up in a quiet house where she perceived her survivor parents as "fragile," she was afraid to show anger toward them and felt she was always "walking on eggshells." Not only was she afraid to show anger, but she was also afraid to show any type of disobedience or disrespect. There was just too much guilt involved in making them feel bad. She was very close with her parents and felt tremendous love for and from them, yet she recognizes that they were overprotective.
This is understandable. Her father served time in three concentration camps and her mother in the ghetto in Hungary.
In the book, Debbie explains that when she was young, she knew nothing about what her parents had endured. They would not discuss it. In fact, when she found a television program about concentration camps one evening, her father passed by the room and angrily ordered her to turn it off.
A pivotal moment arrived when Debbie was eleven years old and in sixth grade in Toronto. Her teacher gave an assignment to create family trees in the hope of showcasing how Toronto had become a "tapestry of immigrant cultures." Debbie could not write names of anyone on her tree except for herself, her brother, her parents, and her grandmother, who lived with them. The teacher chided her for that. When Debbie explained that she did not know any other relatives and did not even know their names, the teacher was aghast and scolded her.
When she finally drummed up the courage to approach her mother and gingerly ask about their missing family, she did receive answers. Her mother had grown up in Budapest and had had a happy childhood in an apartment filled with books, paintings, and several violins. They were a cultured family. She attended a Protestant school because it was nearby and offered excellent academics.
When the Nazis invaded, Debbie's mother was thirteen, and a series of new rules changed their lives. Her father owned a taxi business but the Nazis confiscated his taxi. Deprived of work, school, and connections with friends, they struggled. Antisemitism greeted them everywhere.
Then, the Hungarian Arrow Cross came to power in October 1944. As her mother is quoted in The Crate: "'I think they were crueler to us than the Nazis.
To show that they were just as tough. They were happy to hurt us.' Within a few days they murdered thousands of Jews from Budapest on the banks of the Danube. She saw it happen. Her teenaged cousin. Her violin teacher. Other people she knew, other fathers and mothers and children. Soldiers lined them up at the edge and shot them, she said, until the river swelled with bodies floating downstream." The young Debbie pictured them bobbing like eggs in a pot.
Her mother then told her of the whispers she'd heard that the soldiers tied groups of three people together and shot the middle one. Thus, all three fell into the river and drowned, and the Nazis saved two bullets.
In November, after the men had already been taken away, they came for the women, and her mother and grandmother were rounded up. She was left alone in the apartment, with hardly any food, for a frightening week. Then they returned for everyone else and brought them to the recently created ghetto, where thousands of Jewish families from all over the country were crammed in, facing horrible conditions -- rampant disease, freezing cold, and lack of food.
Meanwhile, as her mother found out later, Debbie's grandmother, along with many others, had been placed on a train to Auschwitz, where half a million Hungarian Jews had already been dumped. En route, the engineer was told to go back to Budapest because Auschwitz was so full that they could not "process" anyone else yet. Her grandmother, upon returning, looked for her and eventually found her in the ghetto. "Together, we froze and starved and suffered," said Debbie's mother.
Amazingly, at one point, her father suddenly showed up. He had escaped from the labor camp. On the road, he found a packet of onion soup mix. It was obviously old as it smelled rancid and was filled with maggots. Her grandmother cooked it anyway. "We ate it and were grateful," Debbie's mother explained. "What could we do? We had nothing else."
Years later, Debbie recalls a time when she could not manage to eat something her mother had prepared. When she declared that she could not get it down and felt nauseous, her mother responded, "Don't be so overdramatic. Be grateful you never had to eat worms." Debbie understood exactly what her mother was remembering.
Meanwhile, life in the ghetto was growing intolerable. The ghetto streets were littered with corpses and human waste. Screams were heard constantly -- babies dying of sickness and hunger. No food was allowed in the ghetto. Some people had sewn money and jewelry into the linings of their clothing and they could often trade with the Arrow Cross guards for a scrap of food. "The Hungarian soldiers quickly got rich off that business," she said.
As the war progressed and the Russians advanced, the Nazis planned to finish massacring the rest of the Jews and planted land mines around the perimeter of the ghetto. However, the Russians advanced so quickly that they never had time to detonate the explosives before fleeing. In fact, it was the famous Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg who saved the Jews in that ghetto from being massacred by confronting the Nazi officer in charge and threatening to personally see him hanged for crimes against humanity after the war. The officer fled, with his underlings, thus saving those within the ghetto, which they could now leave. (Unfortunately, after managing to save 20,000 Jewish lives, Raoul Wallenberg was imprisoned in Russia after the war, where he died.)
Debbie's mother, with her surviving parents and grandmother, went back to their apartment, where Nazis had been living. The Nazis fled but between them, the Arrow Cross, and neighbors, everything they owned, including the beloved violins, had been stolen. They had nothing, including no food. The family eventually learned of the deaths of all their relatives. Debbie's mother was devastated to learn that her favorite missionary from her school had been killed in Auschwitz for harboring Jews.
Her father died shortly afterwards. He had been so badly beaten, both in the forced labor camps and by youths in the street before that, that his liver was damaged and he died of internal bleeding. Debbie's mother told of learning that her entire family had been killed. "Exterminated," she said, explaining that that was the word used, as if they were mice. She was fixated on the death of her adorable six-year-old cousin Otto, sent to the ovens. "What had little Otto done that he needed to die?" she said.
Though the Nazis had fled Budapest, the Russians were not much better to the Jews, her mother explained, and the Soviets from Ukraine were the worst. She recalled a Russian soldier yelling after them as they exited the ghetto: "Dirty Jews! The Nazis didn't do a good enough job!"
Russian soldiers hunted for young girls, and mass kidnappings and rapes were rampant. One evening, a drunk Russian soldier got into their apartment building and pounded on the door of the apartment beneath theirs, demanding where he could find a girl. The neighbors pointed upstairs. Debbie's mother ran into their pantry to hide as the soldier kicked their door off its hinges. When he looked inside the pantry, she managed to crawl out between his legs. He heard her and tried to grab her but she ran and got away. Her grandmother had yelled for help from their balcony and all the neighbors came out on their balconies to watch. When the soldier lumbered off, everyone went back inside.
The war had left Budapest in ruins. Three quarters of Hungary's Jews had been "exterminated" and the only food to be had came from relief organizations and sometimes from Allied soldiers.
Ultimately, after more struggles and travails, Debbie's parents met and married in Hungary and were able to emigrate to Canada, where they had two children, Debbie and her brother Peter, and worked at building a new life in safety and peace that would allow them to escape the terrible memories they carried within them.
The Crate, which was published four years ago, has won seven literary awards, including First Place in Nonfiction 2019 from Connecticut Press Club, Finalist in International Book Awards, and the Eric Hoffer Award for Excellence in Independent Publishing. It has received glowing reviews, which have called the book "compelling," "emotionally wrenching," "an intense read," and a book that "will leave you gutted." It has also surprised readers who believed they were reading fiction and were shocked to discover that the story is true.
Aside from dealing with Debbie's parents' horrific Holocaust experiences, the book deals with a modern event in their lives as well, and it connects and intertwines the two terrible events. Having purchased a lakeside vacation cottage in Canada, her parents planned to enjoy peace and quiet with their family there in the summers. However, a shocking discovery destroyed their plan.
A large, heavy crate was discovered wedged tightly in underneath the cottage. Pulling out and opening this mysterious crate and viewing its contents initiated a nightmare for the family. To Debbie, who was aware of her parents' Holocaust experiences, the existence of this crate and its contents was a further example of how evil humans can be. Evil from the past meets evil from the present in this true crime thriller.
A yearlong police investigation followed, and Debbie found herself impressed with the skill and cleverness of the detective involved as he doggedly pursued the facts and put clues together. By the time the investigation was completed and the mystery solved, the episode had dredged up painful memories for Debbie and her family and reinforced the trauma from violence that they had already suffered. "The effect rippled on over our lives," she explained.
Did it serve to reinforce the idea that evil is everywhere and cannot be conquered? Yes. But it also highlighted the good in some people and the importance of love in the family bond.
On the subject of inherited trauma, Debbie is certain that it does indeed exist. She cites a study that proves its existence. Known as the mouse-and-cherry-blossom experiment, which was conducted by researchers at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, the experiment involves exposing adult mice to the smell of cherry blossoms accompanied by an electric shock. In a type of Pavlovian conditioning, these mice, after a while, reacted to the smell alone as if they were being shocked.
The researchers went on to expose the offspring of these original adult mice to the smell of cherry blossoms. In spite of never having themselves experienced the connection between the smell and the electric shock, they reacted to the smell alone the same way as the older mice. The conclusion: the trauma was inherited.
Debbie knows from her own experience that trauma is inherited as she has been affected by her parents' experiences. After the publication of The Crate, she embarked on a speaking circuit and prepared for that by doing further research on inherited trauma. This research solidified her belief in the existence of inherited trauma and in the importance of educating the public about it.
She is aware that she cannot help but copy her parents' parenting approaches to some degree with her own children, admitting that she is possibly overprotective and superstitious. The work she has done, however, has created a solid basis for understanding and dealing with issues relating to trauma and for using her book and her speaking engagements to teach others.