#386 All my generations
September 28th, 2018
Imprint: A Memoir of Trauma in the Third Generation
by Claire Sicherman
Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin, 2017
$22.95 / 9781987915570
Reviewed by Mark Dwor
My maternal grandparents were survivors of the Holocaust and I am their legacy. Every day I make a choice to keep creating new narratives for myself and to live my life in their honour, in the honour of all survivors, and in the honour of all those who perished in the Holocaust.
She then deals with family members she knows were killed in the Holocaust along with, to the best of her knowledge, how and when they died. The book’s first story concerns Sicherman’s attempt to find out exactly how her great grandmother, Klara, died in August 1942. The family believed that Klara had been shot in the back of the neck but Sicherman found out via Google that she was actually killed in a van fitted out with poison gas and then disposed of without any form of recognition, no headstone, and no marker of any sort. –Ed.
While I was reading Imprint, I came across two magazine articles that resonated. In July 2018, The New Yorker published an article on an archive of songs written in Yiddish during the Second World War. These archives ended up in the Ukrainian National Library where they were cataloged in the 1990s before being noticed by a scholar from Toronto who worked with composers and musicians, including Canadian Jazz Singer Sophie Milman, to record and release some of these songs as “Yiddish Glory.” In a short promotional video for the project, Milman says, “Eastern European Jews, we can’t shake the war. No matter how many generations later, we feel it.”
Also in July 2018, Tablet Magazine reproduced a commemorative speech given at Auschwitz by Menachem Rosensaft, the General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress, detailing how his father survived Auschwitz and the war, and how he and his compatriots lived the rest of their lives. Rosensaft’s address ended with this: “Let us bear in mind that nothing about Auschwitz, nothing about Birkenau, nothing about Shoah for that matter, was logical or made sense. Our task, our mission, today and always, is not to try to understand, but to remember.”
Those themes: The impact of the Second World War-Holocaust-Shoah on generations of Eastern European Jews and their families in North America, and the absolute requirement to remember, not necessarily understand, underlie Claire Sicherman’s fine new book.
Sicherman is named after her great grandmother, Klara, killed by the Nazis in August 1942 in Belarus, a long way from her home in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Sicherman’s son, Ben, was named after her husband’s favourite uncle, Ben Zion, who survived the Holocaust.
Sicherman recaptures the family story of her murdered great grandmother – passed down to her beloved grandmother and to her mother — so she can keep it alive and pass it on, intact and important, to her son. That recapturing and the interplay between memory and history is one strand of this book’s purpose. She continuously confronts the issue of how to talk of this murder to her son, without scaring or scarring him, and also her own traumas: the murder of all but a few of her family and the near-death of her son in her planned home birth.
She has made choices on how to present her memoir. Imprint and its structure are well considered. Sicherman tells the story by a mixture of well-written journal entries and letters to her son alongside seemingly random lists and other methods of storytelling. She readily acknowledges the help she has received in fixing her life and writing about it. The success of these healing and storytelling endeavours, however, is entirely personal.
Sicherman presents herself to the reader with unflinching candour. Her depression, melancholy, rage, physical ailments, pain, and months of no sleep, as well as her hopefulness and achievements and contentment, are laid out with precise clarity.
There is an asymmetry in Sicherman’s descriptions that serves the purpose of telling her son — and her readers — about her family’s life in Czechoslovakia both before the war and before her Grandparents fled in 1968. These stories have become solidified by way of addresses, homes, family history, occupations, and keepsakes. She provides as much detail as possible to hold onto what little she can. On the other hand, her descriptions are a bit sketchy from after the family’s arrival in Canada, but if you know the geography of the Lower Mainland, you can piece together some of the locations and some of the stories.
Sicherman’s acerbic and trenchant wit, which crops up continuously, is shown best in this quote:
On a website that lists ninety important facts about the Holocaust, number sixteen defines it as:
A sacrifice, in which a whole animal is burned. It’s derived from the Greek words Holos or whole and kaustos, to burn.
Millions taken, gassed and burnt. Bodies incinerated. Ash falling from sky.
What god was Hitler trying to please?
Sicherman asks various healers to help her cope and conquer the effects of the third generation of her family trauma. She does not proselytize for any of these types of healings, nor for the theory of epigenetics, although it does come up both by way of quotation and observation. This theory states that trauma can affect one’s genes and that this altered genetic information can be passed on to following generations.
The story about how she stumbled upon the whole idea of epigenetics would, in a slightly different context, be a classic Hassidic tale. Sicherman had gone to a public lecture in Vancouver on hypnosis but did not find that the answers to her questions were satisfactory. The woman beside her wrote a note for her with the single word “epigenetics.” This prescient, purposeful stranger then asked Sicherman questions and described her in absolutely accurate ways. While Sicherman was gathering her wits, the woman disappeared without leaving her name or anything else.
Sicherman knows that her behaviour is caused by things that may be beyond her control. “I’ve decided to blame this hyper-vigilance and over-preparedness on intergenerational trauma,” she notes. She decides that her responses to trauma, how she lives her life, and how she deals with her son are not predestined by her genetics and family history: she can find ways to break herself free from these traumas and act differently and better. She is able to see her namesake’s life as being full of vitality and love, not only as defined by her horrible murder.
In the Book of Exodus, Jews are required to tell their children every year about how God freed them from slavery and the going out from Egypt. One of the questions that comes up in this annual re-telling is, “what does it mean to be freed from slavery?” Is this simply the opportunity to choose to be freed from something? Or is it, more purposefully, the gift of allowing someone to do something with this freedom?
Claire Sicherman has faced this conundrum head on and has chosen the opportunity to analyze, to prevail, and to know that she’s not an unhealed victim of history.
Mark Dwor is Chairman of the Canadian Academy of Independent Scholars, the British Columbia Representative on the Board of Management of the Canada Revenue Agency, and a Member of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.
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 For those interested in epigenetics, aside from the references at the end of Sicherman’s book, I recommend a worthwhile overview published on June 2, 2018 in the New York Review of Books: “Epigenetics: The Evolution Revolution,” by Israel Rosenfield and Edward Ziff.