by Cherie Brown
A major barrier to building a progressive Jewish movement in the United States is the unhealed internalized terror in the Jewish community, which often plays an important but unacknowledged role in the lives of Jewish activists and the communities we hope to influence.
Recently, a colleague of mine sent me a video clip from This is Your Life, a popular, nationally broadcast television program that aired in the 1950s. This particular video clip from 1953 featured a Holocaust survivor, Hanna Bloch Kohner. Consistent with the format of the weekly television show, the host, Ralph Edwards, introduced, one by one, various people from Ms. Kohner's life to reminisce with her, including a woman who had spent time with her in Auschwitz. Hanna's parents, her husband, and untold others who were dear to her had been killed by the Nazis only eight short years earlier; yet Ralph Edwards told the horrific story of her life in surreal, lighthearted tones. It is my understanding that this was the first time the story of a Holocaust survivor had ever been aired on national television in the United States, and the program treated Ms. Kohner's story as just another made-for-television soap opera. If this was how the non-Jewish world treated the survivors of the Holocaust in the 1950s, what hope was there for the Jewish world to find a place to grieve?
Watching the video clip led me to reconsider episodes from my own family narrative, recognizing similar dynamics in relating stories without acknowledging the terror that accompanied them.
In 1917, my grandmother escaped from Russia and came to the United States to start a new life. She had been raped by Cossacks, and her family decided it was worth the risk to allow a twelve-year-old girl to come to America alone, leaving all of her family behind in Russia. My grandmother was sick my whole childhood, and I never understood why. No one in my family spoke a word about her violent childhood experiences in Russia or what it must have been like for a twelve-year-old to leave her whole family behind.
In 1942, in the middle of the Holocaust, immediately after marrying my mother, my father went to the courthouse to change his name from Brownstein to Brown. The letters from his family in Europe had suddenly stopped coming, and as he later learned, all of his mother's family who were left there had been killed in the Holocaust. As a young adult, I questioned his motive for such a sudden name change, asking him, "Daddy, did you change our family name from Brownstein to Brown because you were afraid of anti-Semitism?" For over twenty minutes my father vehemently defended himself, saying that anti-Semitism had nothing to do with his decision. He said that he had just thought it would be easier for us children (who were as yet unborn) to have a shorter name in school. He couldn't admit even to himself his fears of anti-Semitism.
In 1953, the same year in which Ms. Kohner appeared on This is Your Life, the Rosenbergs were executed. A few years ago, I saw a film that presented the event through the eyes of an eight-year-old child. Thousands of Jews were standing in Madison Square Garden, listening in terror as the bells tolled announcing the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The barely masked anti-Semitism so embedded in the McCarthy period, with its red-baiting and blacklisting of so many Jews, coupled with the execution of two Jews accused of being Russian spies, added a whole new layer to the terror already internalized by so many Jews so shortly after the Holocaust. Jews in the United States were asked to simply ignore the fact that their hero, Franklin Roosevelt, had refused to bomb the train tracks to the death camps or to save lives by opening U.S. borders to Jewish refugees seeking asylum. Instead, Jews were invited to fully embrace their new home with total loyalty and fervor. Jews, along with many of our allies, could not speak out and challenge effectively the anti-Semitism behind the red-baiting during the McCarthy period; this anti-Communist fearmongering undoubtedly contributed to Jews' abandonment, soon thereafter, of a long and proud history of Jewish radicalism.
Has the need to deny the horrors of the Holocaust and the need to deny any U.S. complicity in the death of so many Jews during World War II kept us from being able to look at the remaining layers of fear and unhealed grief? Was the response that many Jews chose after the Holocaust -- to assimilate, to escape into comfortable lives and seek upward mobility as a possible vehicle for safety and well-being -- a silent cry for help when no one around could reach out to a decimated people? Could anyone listen to their stories and help them to heal from those events? With neither adequate time nor a methodology for healing from the horrors of these events, many Jews have been abandoned to internalize a level of terror and then unintentionally pass it on to their children. That experience now makes it all the more difficult to build a truly progressive Jewish movement in the United States, one that proposes not merely a comfortable, reformist agenda, but a transformational program for change.
A few months ago, I led a class on healing from the scars of the Holocaust at a weekend workshop for twenty-five young Jews, ages thirteen through twenty-five, who came from all over the United States and Britain. The young people had asked me to lead a class on the Holocaust, and I was surprised to discover how many of them carried just as much terror as many of the older Jews I know. For some, it took a bit of digging to be able to un-numb and feel anything about the Holocaust, but it soon became clear that thirteen-, twenty-, and twenty-five-year-old Jews, if listened to attentively, have just as much unhealed terror from the Holocaust as do many of their elders.
This terror, which is sometimes covered over by seeking comfortable, easy lives, can seep into every aspect of Jewish activism. We seek liberal solutions when a more radical agenda is needed. We train young people to provide social services as a Jewish value, but we do not challenge them to also recognize the root problems in a U.S. economy focused on greed that make these social services necessary. We may be willing to accept a limited, United States-sponsored, Israeli/Palestinian peace process (saying anything is better than nothing), but we are still too fearful to face what is really needed for a long-range, viable solution for Israel and the Palestinian people.
Healing this fear may take many forms. It may come from listening with attention to one another as we recount the things that still make us terrified. It may mean participating in a support group, workshop, or synagogue retreat where the focus is on facing the fear together, allowing ourselves to grieve, and then moving forward, empowered, to think with greater, relaxed clarity about social justice issues.
The Pogroms are over. The Holocaust is over. But the internalized terror from these events lives on for many in our daily actions and decisions. It is time to stop pretending that we are not a traumatized people; only sixty-five short years after the Holocaust, we still need time to heal, to allow us to think afresh. Building a progressive Jewish agenda in the United States demands that we take time to heal so that we can come up with fresh thinking, unencumbered by internalized fear.
Cherie Brown is the executive director of the National Coalition Building Institute. She has also been active in Jewish peace work in the United States for over forty years.
Source Citation: Brown, Cherie. 2011. Unhealed Terror. Tikkun 26(1): online exclusive.