The Holocaust, C-PTSD, and Recovery From the Past

Concentration Camp“It used to be thought that the events that changed the world were things like big bombs, maniac politicians, huge earthquakes, or vast population movements, but it has now been realized that this is a very old-fashioned view held by people totally out of touch with modern thought. The things that really change the world, according to Chaos theory, are the tiny things. A butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazonian jungle, and subsequently a storm ravages half of Europe.” ― Neil Gaiman

The National Center for PTSD defines C-PTSD as follows:

What types of trauma are associated with Complex PTSD?

During long-term traumas, the victim is generally held in a state of captivity, physically or emotionally, according to Dr. Herman (1). In these situations the victim is under the control of the perpetrator and unable to get away from the danger.

Examples of such traumatic situations include:

Concentration camps
Prisoner of War camps
Prostitution brothels
Long-term domestic violence
Long-term child physical abuse
Long-term child sexual abuse
Organized child exploitation rings

When I first saw this definition, I was shocked that Concentration Camps were part of the same list as a child abuse concept like Bullying. How could the effects of both be the same on the individual? But it got me thinking of a story that is appropriate to share at this time of year, where Holocaust Remembrance Day is this week.

Part of what my son had to do during his Bar Mitzvah was something called “twinning”, where you do your Bar Mitzvah for a child that died in a concentration camp prior to turning thirteen. Living relatives write testimonials of their lost ones and these are made available through the Holocaust museum. I worked with my son and we worked to find a name. Since his name begins with “Z”, we found another young boy who died in a concentration camp named Zygmus Kowadlo.

Our next task was to read the testimonial about him that was given to the Yad Vashem Holocaust database. It was written by his sister, Eva, who escaped with her boyfriend, Moshe Berman through the underground from Poland and ended up in Australia. Eva lost the rest of her family, but some cousins also were able to escape to Australia.

So, here we  with this were, with this information and the next assignment was to try to find Eva and any surviving family and invite them to my son’s Bar Mitzvah to celebrate and honor Zygmus. With only Eva and the last name Kowadlo to go by, we decided to start my search for Zygmus’s family on Facebook.

During the first search for anyone with the last name Kowadlo (a unique name that I had never heard before) the name of someone with the last name Kowadlo in Australia came up. We thought that it couldn’t be this easy. But we reached out to him and sent him a message asking if he was related to a Zygmus Kowadlo that died in the Holocaust.

‘Never heard of him, old chap. Sorry about that’, the man replied. We knew it couldn’t be that easy. But the man asked us where we got the information. We told him about the testimony of Zygmus’s sister, Eva Kowadlo, who has escaped to Australia and married a Moshe Berman, so now, might be known as Eva Berman.

The following note from this man in Australia with the last name Kowadlo shocked us.

‘Eva Berman is my cousin’, he wrote. ‘She lives only a town over. Unfortunately, she now has dementia and lives in a home, but I will visit her this week and find out more for you’.

This was really happening! We couldn’t believe it, but it bothered me that the man still indicated he didn’t know who Zygmus was and the one person that might be able to help, his sister, now had dementia. But we waited. The man wrote back to me about his visit. His cousin, Eva, was having a good day. He told her our story and he said she lit up. She went over to a box and pulled out an old picture she had. It was her family, prior to the Holocaust, and there was little Zygmus. She told her cousin how, when they fled the Nazis that she vowed to forget her family that died and start life anew. She had never shared with her younger cousin anything about Zygmus. That’s why he didn’t know. They tried to forget the past, but as has been discussed before, the past cannot be forgotten, only accepted. The family also chose to give up their Jewish identity. I found out that Eva had a daughter and we were able to friend both her and the cousin we met on Facebook. We invited them to my son’s Bar Mitzvah, but with them half way around the world knew it would be hard. Because they couldn’t come, we asked them to send us a letter to read on the family’s behalf.

We would be shocked again to get the letter and the picture of the Kowadlo family before the Holocaust, with little Zygmus. The family wrote the letter in Zygmus’s voice as if he was speaking.

“I am writing to wish you Mazel Tov on the occasion of your Bar Mitzvah.

I’m so happy that you chose me as your ceremonial twin. I can see that you are a person who really cares about others by the time and trouble you took in making the amazing Tallis and plaque for me and for honouring me at your Bar Mitzvah. I’m now here with you in Spirit…”

It went on to tell his family. We realized the power that the actions we take now can affect the lives of others, even half way around the world. Thanks to the magic of Facebook, I still have contact with the Kowadlo family and bring some peace to their lives and a conclusion in honor of Zygmus.

The most interesting part of the story, to me, is how the spark of Zygmus’s name to his sister brought her back to the now from the pain of dementia. It makes me wonder what damage we do by supressing the pain of our past? Are we bringing on physical ailments, due to trying to bury the pain of the past? This has actually been studied and is known to be a mental ailment. So, we must find a way to release the pain of our pasts.

I believe that this is where C-PTSD plays in both the idea of concentration camp and bullying survival. While the differences in situation are obvious, the effect of these situations may bring about the same mental pain in both victims. This is what we must understand and focus on the individual, because we never know how one small act can change a life.

For Zygmus!

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About Alan Eisenberg

Alan Eisenberg is a Certified Life Coach, Bullying Recovery activist and author of "A Ladder In The Dark: My journey from bullying to self-acceptance" and "Crossing the Line". He has been writing and speaking to various audiences about the issue of C-PTSD and Bullying Recovery. Mr. Eisenberg has been featured on several print, radio shows and podcasts on this issue, including NPR and in the Boston Globe. He is currently working toward his Master's Degree in Mental Health Counseling.
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  1. Pingback: The Holocaust, C-PTSD, and Recovery From the Past | Bullying Stories

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