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As a Jewish person, I carry the trauma of the generations before me

Whether you believe nature or nurture is stronger, many of us have at least a few – or many – traits from our parents and other members from our family. I’m certainly no exception. And while there are some positive traits that I’ve inherited from my maternal side, like being incredibly hardworking, I’ve also inherited trauma.

Transgenerational trauma, as explored in the book Lost in Transmission: Stories of Trauma across Generations edited by M. Gerard Fromm, is seen as trauma that is transmitted to “the next generation as an affective sensitivity or a chaotic urgency.” In other words, trauma can run through our DNA from one generation to the next.

The maternal side of my family is Jewish.

Like many Jewish families, my ancestors had to endure unbelievable tragedies to get to me being here today. My ancestors had to flee Belarus and Poland during periods of rising antisemitism in the late nineteenth and earliest twentieth, during a period of frequent pogroms – which were violent riots often aimed at Jews. I’m fortunate that my Jewish ancestors were already in the United States and Canada by the time that World War II, but, regardless, I still carry the emotional baggage of my ancestors’ fears and what they had to escape.

So, how does transgenerational trauma present itself? For many, myself included, have symptoms have or have complex post-traumatic stress disorder. I already have PTSD because of traumatic experiences that I’ve endured, but the panic that I feel when there an antisemitic act of or threat of violence occurs just feels different. I witnessed a brutal dog attack when I was 16, so it makes sense that I feel sick when I see signs of aggression from a dog. But I’ve never actually witnessed an antisemitic attack or been victim of one myself.

My ancestors have, however.

As antisemitism surges in the United States and throughout the world, I think to myself that “it is happening again.” The fear from antisemitic horrors that my ancestors were the targets of, witnessed, or heard about from afar runs through my veins. I remember that I could not get out of bed the day after the “Unite the Right” rally in August 2017. Seeing Nazi symbols, the escalation of violence and the death of Heather Heyer made me physically ill. These PTSD-induced attacks have only gotten worse since the Tree of Life shooting last November, and I’m honestly not sure how to cope with them.

While my fears and emotions are valid, I’ve tried to better cope with them.

Both for my sake and my children’s – if I decide to have some – so trauma doesn’t get passed down to them. I’ve found my best way to cope with transgenerational trauma is to talk to other people who deal with it themselves. For me, this means talking to fellow Jews about emotions that they feel when they hear about antisemitism in the news and finding ways to support each other.

Trauma is in my DNA, which may lead to my emotions getting the best of me during surging antisemitism. Before judging my emotional state, recognize the trauma that I carry.

By Julia Métraux

Julia Métraux is a journalist whose work has appeared in Narratively, The Tempest, BUST, and Briarpatch Magazine.