Серце Воїна: Ukrainian Diaspora and Transgenerational Trauma. Part 1.
by Roman Torgovitsky
My story is not unique…
Many families have lived through tragic times. But the tragedies of Ukrainian families, in particular, are of historic proportions – generation after generation, Ukrainians have barely had time to heal before their wounds were made to bleed again – anti-tsarist revolutions followed by Holodomor, communist repressions, war…
My grandmother was an amazing and fierce woman, a true survivor.
She grew up in Belarus, in a small village, and was sent to study dentistry in Minsk. She later joined the military to serve as a nurse.
She was 22 when the Nazi troops invaded the Soviet Union. Her battalion was destroyed within the first weeks of the war and she spent the next three months trying to escape advancing German troops.
There were days when she did not have anything to eat. She had neither money nor friends alongside her. She was all by herself. Sleeping in forests and eating berries and whatever else she could find. Sometimes she would get lucky and a villager would share food with her.
But most times people did not want to endanger their families by aiding or hiding a Jewish woman.
She survived those three months and managed to outrun German forces.
She was lucky that her family had sent her to study dentistry and that she later joined the military. The rest of her family stayed in the village in Belarus where they were eventually murdered by the Nazis.
Having survived once, she then had to survive endless interrogations by the Soviets and miraculously escaped the bloody teeth of NKVD (Soviet secret police), while thousands others who escaped the German occupation were sent to Soviet concentration camps.
She spent the next four years in the military as a nurse; it was there that she met my grandfather, a military physician.
They got married after the war and had a daughter – my mother.
While my grandmother physically escaped the war, the war never really escaped her.
For her, life never got to mean anything more than survival; protecting her husband and daughter became the sole purpose in life and, in some ways, an obsession.
She cared deeply about her family, but she could not create a sense of emotional closeness, warmness, acceptance and love, so much needed by her child.
My grandfather adapted to post-war life much better than my grandmother, and in fact, it was my grandfather who was providing unconditional love and care to my mom.
In 1953, the Soviet government accused prominent Jewish physicians of plotting to assassinate Soviet leaders – the infamous “Doctors’ plot.” My grandfather, who was a professor of physical therapy at the time, was fired from a medical university and shortly thereafter died from a heart attack, leaving his wife and daughter in shock.
My mother’s life had never been the same since then…
Her father was everything to her.
My mom started running away from home not being able to find understanding from her mother.
A few years later, she fell in love. With it came the glimmer of hope, a dream of creating her own family, of having her own space and escaping the perpetual survival mode of her overly controlling mother. My mother got married and soon had a daughter.
She got a divorce a year later – her husband turned out to be psychologically unstable and abusive.
Soon thereafter she met my father, fell in love again, and got married. She was thrilled to finally build a normal, loving family – a dream my father had cherished since childhood. He lost his mother to hunger during WWII.
My parents had me, and ultimately my grandmother moved in with us to help my parents take care of two small kids.
Two years later my parents divorced… I was 4 years old at the time.
My grandmother’s survival instincts were great for survival, but not so good for building a family…
My parents had a horrible divorce. Unfortunately, nobody taught conflict resolution skills to married couples at the time.
Being 4 years old at the time, I remember a divorce judge asking me with whom I wanted to stay – my mom or my dad…
I chose my dad…
My dad became both a mother and a father to me.
My dad was amazing and he tried very hard to give me everything and be everything for me, but it was simply impossible for him to replace a motherly figure and provide that special kind of love and care that women share with their kids.
I saw my mother once when I was 12 and then again when I was 23…
I saw my grandmother several more times. I remember visiting her shortly before she died; her will to survive was unwavering: when she was 95, a doctor told her that eating green peppers was good for her. You guessed it – ever since that day, until the day she died, she ate green peppers every single day!
Her life story is proof that historical cataclysms can make us stronger. But these cataclysms can also scar not only us, but our descendants, as well. This is what PTSD researchers call “transgenerational” trauma.
To Be Continued…