A Jew's Letter to Her Murdered Grandparents
For the past two years, the Londoner Maya Lasker-Wallfisch has been living in Germany, the country where her mother Anita was born. When she walks down the streets of Berlin, she sometimes notices passers-by glancing at the Star of David she wears as a necklace.
"In London, I would never think of hiding my pendant," the author and psychotherapist told DW. Sometimes, this attention makes her nervous. At some point earlier this year, she even thought, "Oh God, this country is full of Nazis!"
Shortly after that, she bought a house in her native England, out in Rye in East Sussex, a picturesque village not far from the sea with a population of about 4,000. But since she barely spends time there, she says she will now be selling it and is considering buying a flat in Berlin. Indeed, despite the uncertainties related to antisemitism, she wants to live in Germany.
"I've always felt like a refugee in England," she says. "A life in Germany was my birthright." As the child of German grandparents, she feels that she should have been born in the country, not in England, where her mother Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who survived the Holocaust, found refuge after World War II.
Maya Lasker-Wallfisch has written a book about this aspect of her identity; the title translates as "I'm writing to you from Berlin: Returning to a new home." It has just been published in German, under the title: "Ich schreibe euch aus Berlin: Rückkehr in ein neues Zuhause."
The trauma of second-generation Holocaust survivors
It took years for Maya Lasker-Wallfisch to find out about the fate of her family.
Maya's mother, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, and her aunt, Renate, had emigrated to Britain in 1946, after both having survived the Auschwitz extermination camp — Anita by playing the cello for the camp's orchestra, and her sister Renate, by serving as a camp messenger for the SS. Their parents were murdered. The two sisters definitely did not want to dwell on the atrocities they had been through.
It was only after the death of Maya's father that Anita Lasker-Wallfisch opened up to her daughter to tell her about all the unimaginable things she had experienced.
The testimony helped Maya to better understand her own struggles with mental health issues. "This echoes the intergenerational trauma that has overshadowed my entire life. As children, we rely on our parents to help us make sense of the world, within us and around us. That didn't happen with me."
These lines can be read in her book "Letters to Wroclaw: My story over three generations," which was published in 2020.
A stable life never seemed possible for Maya Lasker-Wallfisch until she dealt with her family history. By writing this book of letters to her late grandparents, she was able to anchor herself in her Jewish family history and find her own identity.
Germany is 'impressive and frightening'
Today, Maya Lasker-Wallfisch is an internationally recognized trauma expert. Tracing her family history, she seeks to feel at home in Germany. "I came as someone who wanted to pick up a thread, to tie up the broken thread of the unlived," she writes in her new book.
IIn "I'm writing to you from Berlin," Lasker-Wallfisch wrote further letters to her grandparents, whom she never got to know. In this second book, she digs even deeper into her family history, writes about her mother Anita's life, about her aunt Renate — and about living as a Jew in today's Berlin.
Her account is as impressive as it is frightening — two words she also applies to Germany. Finding her place as a Jew in Berlin, between the Weissensee Jewish Cemetery and the synagogue on Pestalozzi Street, is the impressive part, but the frightening aspect is how she also encounters everyday antisemitism and constant reminders of Auschwitz, where her mother and aunt were imprisoned.
"Both sisters carried their secrets from the terrible time in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen with them," writes Maya Lasker-Wallfisch. "There is the story of the piece of chocolate Renate got from someone in Auschwitz and wanted to share with her sister, but then couldn't wait and ate it alone because she was so hungry." She also portrays her grandmother's last attempts to protect her children before being sent to her death.
Maya Lasker-Wallfisch's book is an important contribution to understanding the effects of Holocaust survivors' trauma on the lives of their children and grandchildren. She follows in the footsteps of her mother, who decades after the events broke silence to tell the world about her experiences in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp. "My mother passed the baton on to me," says Maya Lasker-Wallfisch. "Now it's my turn."
This article was originally written in German.
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