Hyphenated Identities: Elaine Leeder

(Picture credit: Diana Souza)
Elaine Leeder, MSW, MPH, PhD is Dean Emerita and Professor Emerita at Sonoma State University (California). She is the author of six books, speaks nationally about her experiences working in prisons, as a child of a refugee of the Holocaust and about progressive, radical Jews who have tried to make a difference in the world. She can be reached through www.elaineleeder.com 



It begins as I turn out the lights and prepare to settle down for the night. The room is dark, the bed is comfortable and cozy, and I eagerly await my restful sleep. But I am still awake when a cold feeling comes over my body. I begin to be anxious, for I know what is coming. All of a sudden, the fear takes over—visceral and terrifying.
I am falling into a pit; it is large, emptying into an abyss that spirals downward. The spiral reaches to infinity, and my fall down this hole goes on forever, without end. I stay conscious. I begin to think that this life I know will cease, and that everything I know to be reality is, in fact, temporary. The life I live is an illusion, to be shattered and end with no control on my part. I will die; it is inevitable. And the world will go on without me, my existence wiped out in an instant. Completely conscious, I am falling forever into this pit. It is my death, and it will never end.
The pit is dark. The farther I fall, the smaller it gets. There is no one to help or save me. I must deal with it myself, as I have done since the horror began—as I have done since I was eleven years old. My father said I would outgrow it. My husband held me when I was a young woman, telling me he was there with me. Now I have these daymares alone. They have come for fifty-nine years. Will they ever end?


We are sitting in a car in the dark. We are waiting, my brother and I, for our parents to emerge from the apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y., where they went upstairs hours ago. We do not know why we are sitting down here, but we continue to wait. When he went up, my father was hopeful and eager to meet with whomever he had come to see. He seemed wary but anxious.
Many hours later, my father emerges, almost carried by my mother, helped into the car as if he is an invalid. He is weeping, quaking actually. He looks like a broken man, so much did he age in those few hours in that apartment. We don’t know what happened, but we know something horrible occurred. Silently we drive back to Boston, many hours away. We sit in silence, knowing that we should not say anything. Nothing more is ever said of that evening. My family guards the secret well. Over the many years since then, I have tried to understand what happened that night, but the pieces never fully come together.
My father escaped Lithuania in 1939, just before WWII. His family perished when the Nazi’s invaded in June 1941. He did not find out the details of how they were marched to their deaths to a pit outside of their shtetl (village) for almost 10 years after it occurred. When he did, he was devastated, forever having survivor’s guilt, searching for family for the rest of his life. His mother Yenta Leah, his eldest sister Althea and his younger brother (only 17) Hershel were shot, never to be heard from again. As a religious man he prayed every night; by day he was a working-class immigrant with a heavy accent, never feeling completely at peace or at home in this country.
We never spoke of it, but my daymares started the year he heard the news, not stopping until I visited the pit where they died 70 years later. I had done research, spoken to the lawyer for the State Department who deported one of the perpetrators who had entered the US illegally. I was experiencing the intergenerational transmission of trauma that had led to my fears. As a second-generation survivor of the Holocaust, I was carrying the psychological scars into the next generation as well.


I learned through study of children of Holocaust survivors and refugees that it was through the interpersonal relationship with my father that I learned to unconsciously displace my emotions. It might not have been talked about, but the Holocaust permeated our lives. There was darkness in the home; there was great concern that no one outside the house should know what was going on within. The family taught me to trust no one but myself and other Jews. I learned vicariously to take on the sad, depressed state of my parents. In fact, I also learned early on to escape the home, the dark moods and the angst that filled it. I was out of the house by seventeen, never returning to live there again. But I nevertheless have carried my home with me for the rest of my life. The family saw me as rejecting them; in fact, I felt that I was running for my life.
My life has been spent trying to understand the reasons why people commit evil. I work with prisoners who have murdered, robbed, raped and kidnapped. The literature says that such people follow the lead of those who brain wash them or they are “hurt people who hurt people.” It is all true. I am learning to forgive, by working with such people. In the Judaism we talk about “repairing the tears in the world.” By doing work with those the rest of society scorn I hope to be the memorial candle that keeps the memory of my family (and the 6 million who perished with them) alive.

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