“A Father’s Journey from a Daughter’s Perspective”
Deborah Donnelly despises the word “closure.”
“I think that this is a term over-utilized by people who are uncomfortable with someone’s strong feelings after any type of traumatic event,” writes Donnelly in her article titled “A Father’s Journey from a Daughter’s Perspective.”
‘A Father’s Journey’ is the story of a Holocaust survivor’s “never ending road of healing” told through his daughter’s eyes. Deborah Donnelly, a social worker of nearly 28 years, was honored to walk alongside her father as he came to terms with the trauma he spent so many years ignoring.
A Father’s Journey from a Daughter’s Perspective:
There is a name for who I am: a “2G.” A “2G” means that my parents are Holocaust survivors. It was an eye opening experience for me when I found out that there was a label that both describes and has come to define a significant aspect of my belief system. It has become my passion to strive to accept people for who they are, and never tolerate, but fight against genocide, ethnic cleansing and the like.
I am going to focus on my father and his journey, through my own perspective. I will not be discussing the portion of his life that was spent in Nazi-occupied Poland, or his horrific experiences in a variety of concentration camps, however, I will reflect on how I view his life afterwards — in his own unique journey in becoming who he is today.
The earlier experiences of my life with my father are embedded in my memories. It is only in recent years that I have seen a major shift in my father’s actions and demeanor. I feel blessed to bear witness that he seems to be more at peace now than he ever was in the past.
As a child there was a sense of doom and gloom in my home. The earliest memory I have of seeing my father with a sadness that I can not even begin to describe — he was almost at a lack of words — was when I came home from school one day, and inquired as to why I only had one set of grandparents. “Where were my other grandparents?”
I could not have been more then six or seven years of age. My father told me that something terrible had happened, and that I was too young to understand. I am a lot older now and I still don’t understand.
When I learned of the Holocaust I asked my father questions from time to time. Whenever I did so, one of two things happened — he would answer a few questions and then yell “I don’t know, stop asking me,” (the questions were typically around the characteristics and qualities of his family) or my mother would come running from another room and tell me to leave my father alone, “don’t upset him,” she would say.
I can’t begin to share the amount of guilt I carried for upsetting my father. To this day, my father has not shared with my sister or me his experiences during the war. However, in recent years, he has been more willing and open in responding to specific questions that I may pose.
There has been a multitude of studies conducted on the impact of trauma on survivors of the Holocaust. There has also been a great deal of research dedicated to “transgenerational trauma,” or how the Holocaust survivor’s experiences impact their offspring throughout their own life span. I find it almost impossible to understand how any human being — including my father — survived the daily torture, dehumanization, inability to protect a loved one and bearing witness to the demise of a friend or family member. Even as a social worker with an expertise in the field of trauma, I still cannot comprehend this. Then again, perhaps I chose not to in an effort to shield myself.
Recently, my father accompanied a group of adolescents to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. As part of this trip, he had to share his own story of life in the death camps, and the events preceding his imprisonment. Afterwards, my father shared with me that this particular speaking session was one of the roughest he’d experienced since he began to share his story with others. We chatted, and through exploration, one of the exhibits in the museum upset him severely. This was the same exhibit that brought me to my knees, sobbing uncontrollably, during my first visit to the Holocaust Museum.
I have to also offer some additional information on my father. He has always operated with feelings of hope in a many situations. He can be somewhat optimistic, and has always been encouraging of me with my various endeavors. He also operates with a sense of denial; however the other side of denial is hope. If you lose hope then you lose it all. This was most evident when my mother was terminally ill. He declined to share that tidbit of information with me that she was going to die. When I told him that a nurse informed me that “mom was dying, he expressed that as long as there was breath in her body, a miracle can occur. I also think he was trying to shield me from the inevitable for as long as he could.
My father never stereotyped people. He never spouted hateful remarks towards the German or Polish people. “There is good and bad in all groups of people,” he would frequently tell me. I always told people that if my father said something bad about someone, it must be true. He has a tendency to find and focus on the positive traits in people, rather than the negative.
Like many families of survivors, there was this proverbial elephant in the room that no one wanted to address. Bringing up the topic of the Holocaust would upset my father. My mother would also echo the same sentiments. “Stop talking about it, your father won’t sleep, you are upsetting him.”
We could be watching television and something sad or happy would happen and my father, rather than cry, would stuff his feelings — he was practically bursting in an effort to hold in his emotions. If I confronted him about it, he would deny that he was feeling anything. So, we went through life pretty much like that.
Very seldom would my father agree to speak to a group on the Holocaust. If he did speak, there was a significant change in his mood in the days before and after the educational lecture.
Almost four years ago, my father decided to relocate. He left the comfort and familiarity of the North East. This was the beginning of as I see his transformation, and as William Shakespeare said, “Giving sorrow words.”
As a trauma specialist, I studied a variety of therapeutic modalities to treat the effects of psychological trauma. In looking at the modalities, essentially the clinician needs to be a supportive entity and a guide through the healing process. I also believe that as human beings we have a wonderful ability within us to gather all of our resources so that we can create emotional healing. We have the capacity to change. If necessary, we are drawn to find that special someone who may help us in facilitating the healing process.
There is one treatment modality that I have found to be the most useful, Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR was developed by Francine Shapiro, PhD. I was most fortunate in studying Part I of the EMDR Institute with her. Something she stated at the training has resonated with me: “You are just the facilitator or the guide for an individual to do the work. Support them and get out their way.” Of course, inherent in all approaches are to establish a strong, caring, relationship where an individual gains a sense of trust, safety and security.
My father did not enter therapy, but he did meet a wonderful person, Rabbi Fred Gutman. Rabbi Gutman took the time to get to know my father, gained his trust and confidence, and as Dr. Shapiro said, he got out of my father’s way. He was the beacon of light that my father needed to begin to look within him, and begin the ongoing journey to some level of healing.
My father began to share his life story. With the support and encouragement of the Rabbi, my father spoke to groups all over his geographical area. At Rabbi Gutman’s invitation, he went on March of the Living three times.
The energies were open. On the 61st anniversary of his liberation by the Americans, we found his brother’s children. My father was led to believe that his brother was mortally wounded in the Russian Army.
I despise the word closure. I think that this is a term over-utilized by people who are uncomfortable with someone’s strong feelings after any type of traumatic event. It is a great privilege to walk alongside someone and bare witness as a survivor strived towards the healing process. Closure is also a great term for clinicians to use in setting up treatment plans, as well as justifying continued therapy to insurance companies.
The best that we can hope for is that a person becomes less symptomatic, and can define, in their own words, what the event has done or means in their own lives in the present. My father will now open up a bit more with my sister and I. When I ask him some questions, he will direct me to his video tapes. I can not get past one point in his history when I listen or watch one of his documentations. During a recent visit with my father, I asked him, “During the time of the Holocaust, was there one memory that stands out as being the worst for you?” He said “yes,” and that is the one point in the video or tapes that I sense and feel his pain so intensely that I turn it off.
My father has not had an easy life. His own father died of an industrial accident when he was an infant. Due to his mother’s impoverished life, he could not live with her until he was 13 years old. Despite all of his hardships, he was and is a wonderful father. He never had a role model growing up, yet he did a great job at being a father. I have wonderful memories of all the things my sister and I did with my father on Saturdays while my mother worked.
Has my dad had closure? No, there is no such thing. He has done a lot of work to give the events of that horrific time a place in his life. My father is on the never ending road of healing. He has chosen how he attributes meaning and what he wants to do at this crossroad.
It was at this crossroad that my father also had unexpected meeting. He was at an event at his temple, when he saw the Rabbi pointing him out to an elderly man. They were introduced, and this man was an American Soldier who liberated two concentration camps. One of the two concentration camps was Ebensee. My father looked at this man, and said, “You liberated me.” Ebensee was the last Camp of my father’s persecution.
Rabbi Gutman was the catalyst in helping my father share his experiences and journey to a better place. Overall, my father appears less constrictive, and will allow himself to experience the great pain as well as the wonderful joy he has in his life. He continues to laugh and cry when appropriate. There is less stuffing of the unpleasant feelings. I am so proud that my father is telling his story. The ending has changed, as he now knows he was not the only survivor. My father has endless energy in a variety of aspects in his life. He is determined to share his story so we will never forget.
Thanks dad for being you!!
About the author:
Deborah Donnelly has written this article to honor her father Hank Brodt.
Deborah has been a social worker for over 27 years. Her credentials include a CTS, CAS (Certified Addiction Specialist), ACSW (Academy of Certified Social Workers), BCSCR (Board Certified School Crisis Response — formerly from AETS) and a Certified School Social Worker Specialist. She is a member of NASW, NJEA, NEA, ATSS, and AETS. She has been employed as a Social Worker with Fair Lawn Public Schools since 1992, and has typically done additional part time clinical work.
She is passionate about the Holocaust and Genocide education. As a “2G” she feels that her responsibility is to never let the world forget all who were murdered during that time — Jewish and non Jewish. Deborah feels that it is also important to fight against what is happening today with ethnic cleansing/Genocide and human trafficking.
Her husband Dan is a Police Lieutenant.