The legacy of inherited PTSD: Reckoning with a traumatic past


“I don’t live in the past,” a Holocaust survivor once said. “The past lives in me.” This message was recently shared by Dr. Rachel Yehuda, a molecular biologist who specializes in the study of epigenetics – i.e., modifications of DNA caused by experiential impacts such as trauma. I am a daughter of two Holocaust survivors (my father was liberated from Buchenwald concentration camp at age sixteen, and my mother lived through the Vilna ghetto and a year in hiding in the Polish countryside), and I can attest to the unmistakable presence of the past living in me. As we discover certainty about why there is such a thing as inherited PTSD, we must also make concerted efforts to discuss how this inheritance affects all of us, alongside the question of what we can do about it.

The firsthand witnesses to the atrocities of WWII are passing away, and those of us who have absorbed their stories must continue to retell them. This includes the perpetrators and their prisoners, the liberators and the rescuers. Many of the participants are already long gone. Some escaped justice, and some managed forgiveness. Some stories were never told at all, for reasons as varied as denial, secrecy, and the unbearable pain of remembering.

Despite silence, despite repetition, the past changes us as it enters, and changes again as we pass it on. Individually and collectively, locally and globally, literally and metaphorically, we carry the effects of what happened to our ancestors. Violence and terror seem to have especially lasting residue, and if you have any doubt about this, consider the statistics showing that the rates of PTSD among survivors of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia as well as their descendants, even among those who fled to America, hovers around ninety percent.

Indeed, our own country is rife with evidence of the multi-generational transmission of unresolved trauma from slavery, Jim Crow, lynching. Newly opened, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama is one way that we as a nation can begin to address the too-long-denied truth about racist violence and injustice on our own soil. The inclusion of soil samples from specific places where African Americans were lynched is a powerful reminder that we are all standing on bloodstained earth; we are obligated to take responsibility not only for the murderers but also for the witnesses and lawmakers who endorsed them.

Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (which sponsored the creation of the Memorial as well as its companion The Legacy Museum) has said that he was inspired by the stolpersteine in Europe – stumbling stones engraved with the names of individuals murdered by the Nazis and placed on the sidewalks in front of the last-known residences of the victims. This deliberate effort against amnesia focuses on naming their names, just as the suspended blocks of stone marked with the names of lynching victims insists upon rescuing them, one by one, from oblivion.

We now have this necessary and urgent opportunity for a shared reckoning with the past. Even for someone like myself, a first-generation American who could easily claim that the excruciating history of this country doesn’t belong to me, I must acknowledge that along with the citizenship of my birth comes an inheritance of America’s tragic and cruel past. In a similar path, generations of Germans born after World War II are demonstrating to us and to the rest of the world what it looks like when a nation continues fulfilling its obligation to remember and to atone.

Reflecting upon and studying the past isn’t only about the past. The education provided by museums and memorials is about the present and also the future. On anniversaries and on a daily basis, remembrance must be a set of actions. Only through commitment to fearless soul-searching do we as a species have any hope of a more peaceful way forward. Although the prisons of our parents and grandparents will never be identical to our own, we are consciously and unconsciously shaped by what was done to them, and we must find our own ways of being set free. As we are advised by Dr. Edith Eva Eger, an Auschwitz survivor who went on to become a psychotherapist specializing in trauma and its aftermath, “Time doesn’t heal. It’s what you do with the time.”

Elizabeth Rosner is a bestselling novelist, poet, and essayist living in Berkeley, California. Her first book of non-fiction, Survivor Cafe: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory, published in September 2017, was featured on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and in The New York Times, as well as named one of the best books of 2017 by the SF Chronicle. It was a finalist for a National Jewish Book Award. Her third novel, Electric City, was included among the best books of 2014 by NPR. Her poetry collection, Gravity, was also published in 2014. The Speed of Light, Rosner’s acclaimed debut novel in 2001, was translated into nine languages. Short-listed for the prestigious Prix Femina, the book won several literary prizes in both the US and Europe, including the Prix France Bleu Gironde; the Great Lakes Colleges Award for New Fiction; and Hadassah Magazine’s Ribalow Prize, judged by Elie Wiesel.  Blue Nude, her second novel, was selected as one of the best books of 2006 by the SF Chronicle. Rosner’s essays and poems have appeared in the NY Times Magazine, Elle, the Forward, and numerous anthologies. Her book reviews appear frequently in the SF Chronicle. Website:


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