A Tale Of Terror

Ronald Tobias
Media and Theatre Arts

Kaneohe, Hawaii, 1988

My grandmother died at the age of 83 in a rest home near Kaneohe, Hawaii, as unlikely a place as you could imagine for a woman who grew up in the petite-aristocracy of Vienna. She spent her last few years in a delusional state, undergoing electro-shock therapy. The central character in her delusional life was Adolf Hitler. She imagined herself, a Jew, being nailed to a cross by Hitler himself. Her anguish, although mental, had all the force of the physical. Her ability to relate with the world diminished as her delusions gained a fearful velocity.

The attending psychiatrist told us that such visions of persecution weren't that unusual in aging Jewish people who had survived the Holocaust. It had to do with a lifetime of suppressed survivor's guilt that was now making itself manifest in graphic, dramatic ways. She focused her latent rage and guilt on the person she held accountable for her suffering: Adolf Hitler. The electroshock therapy muted her symptoms, but did not erase them, and she died without coming to terms with her suppressed guilt or a rage that she had meticulously camouflaged for decades during a docile, domestic life in America. When my mother told me of my grandmother's descent into dementia, I had a hard time reconciling the lifetime image I had of her as an even-tempered, gentle woman who took great pleasure in fussing over those she loved. Looking back, I don't know if I was being willfully blind to clues that might have alerted me to the terror incubating within her or if there were none. But when her breakdown did come, I couldn't make sense of it.

The Border between Austria and Hungary, 1940

Until my grandmother concluded her dark, torturous journey, I thought of Holocaust survivors as people who had been in concentration camps and managed to survive. Although the majority of family on my mother's side had been exterminated during the war, a precious few survived. My great-uncle and great-aunt survived Auschwitz. But my grandfather and grandmother and my mother, who had escaped what I had imagined were the extreme horrors of the Third Reich, seemed to me normal, well-adjusted, perhaps even happy people within the context of American middle-class society.

In 1940 my grandfather, already in America, made provisions to have my grandmother and my fourteen-year-old mother smuggled out of Austria and across the border to Hungary. Once safely out of the country, they could make their way overseas. That was the plan. But my mother and grandmother were picked up by a Nazi patrol before they reached the border. Within days, they were packed into a truck with other Jews. That truck became part of a caravan of other trucks loaded with other Jews, all of whom were headed for "final solution."

Somewhere along the way the convoy stopped. Armed Nazis opened the back of the truck my mother and grandmother were in and told the huddled people inside the truck to get out. They climbed out slowly, unsure of what to expect. Once the truck was empty, the Nazis told them to run. The command didn't register at first. They stared at the guards uncertain of what they intended, and uncertain what to do.

"Run!" the guards shouted.

So they ran. They scattered helter-skelter, without knowing why or where they were running. They dared not look back. With each stride they half-expected to hear the crackle of rifle fire, but hope is a powerful emotion and one stride turned into two, turned into ten. My mother and grandmother made it to the protective cover of the woods. They didn't know what to do or where to go, but they did know they had been spared, at least for the moment.

Eventually my mother and grandmother made it across the border to Hungary. And from there, they made their way to America and a new life.

Newark, New Jersey, 1945

At this point, the story becomes quintessentially American. The details of my family's lives melded seamlessly into the engulfing current of American life. My mother lost her accent, married an ambitious attorney, had two children, found a satisfying level of suburban bliss, and so on. As a child growing up in northern New Jersey, the horrors of the war seemed far more intellectual than emotional, and they rarely intruded into our family business. The feeling was we were in America now, and the life, the language, and any mention of the past were left behind. To an uncritical adolescent mind, we were a comfortably sheltered family.

A Coming of Age

In spite of our family's self-imposed censorship about what had happened during the war, there were stories, whispered stories, which weren't meant for my brother or me. The one story I remember most clearly was about my great-aunt who survived Auschwitz because, as the story went, she was an SS concubine. I'd seen pictures of her as a young woman, and she was beautiful. Actually, the word my grandmother used wasn't "concubine," it was "whore." And the tone of her voice carried with it the force of moral condemnation. Not empathy, not sympathy, but some sense of betrayal on her sister's part, as though she'd taken the easy way out while the rest of the family had died.

What I didn't pick up on at the time was my grandmother's anger, an anger I can only characterize, however paradoxically, as calm rage. When my grandfather died some years later another story about betrayal surfaced. This time it was my mother telling the story. According to her, my grandfather had been entrusted with the family's wealth and sent to New York to prepare the way for the rest of the family to follow. He squandered the money on himself and as a result had only enough money to get his wife and child out while the rest of the family died. Her anger seemed an uncanny reflection of my grandmother's anger for her sister.

After my grandmother died the whispers stopped. Perhaps they stopped because there was no one left for my mother to share those whispers with.

September 11th, 2001

The shock waves that started at Ground Zero rolled like a tsunami around the world. The act was so incomprehensible to us as a nation that we rushed toward understanding. Why? became an insistent refrain as though repeating the question would guarantee an answer. The intention of terror is to undermine, or at least compromise, our collective sense of security. Although we live in a society accustomed to domestic terrorism (bombings in particular), the scale of the events of September 11th dramatically trumped anything in our experience. We are a violent nation, accustomed to violence. We react with a kind of ritualized, domesticated shock to the events that occurred at Columbine High School, Atlanta, and Oklahoma City. But the collapse of the World Trade Center towers jeopardized our self-esteem as a nation. We'd been attacked by outsiders. Our sense of invulnerability had been laid bare.

Some years ago I took part in a Kidnap and Ransom Negotiation Project at the Bureau of Research and Intelligence at the U.S. Department of State. The purpose of the project was to prepare members of the Senate and Congress to deal with the possibility of being kidnapped and held for ransom. We conducted elaborate scenarios that frequently ended with staged kidnappings. The "terrorists" were Justice and Treasury agents, and so the scenarios were frighteningly real. We kidnapped senators, congressmen, theirs wives, and other ranking members of the federal bureaucracy. Virtually all of them shared an unshakeable sense of invulnerability. They either implicitly or explicitly declared that "I'm an American; you can't do this to me."

I'm oversimplifying, of course, but the gist of it remains true. We have a national sense of invulnerability, and when the events of September 11th took place, that carefully nurtured bubble burst.

Bozeman, Montana, One Week Later

One week after the exploding airliners brought down the World Trade Center towers, my wife and I made plans to have dinner at a nice restaurant with the family.

My wife is a political scientist and is finishing a book about the social dimensions of war based upon her extensive field research and experience in the former Yugoslavia. As she is the head of the political science department at MSU-Bozeman, the local media sought her commentary following the crash of the airliners into the World Trade Center towers. Within hours of the events, the Great Falls Tribune invited her to do a guest column in order to comment on the events and what was perceived as the advent of terrorism in America. The Bozeman Chronicle reprinted her editorial.

My mother had read the editorial, and I knew, via my brother, that she'd taken umbrage at the column. I didn't know any of the details, but it was clear from the moment we sat down at the table to join her that my wife's column was the agenda for discussion.

By the time our entrees arrived, we were in the middle of a shouting match.

The argument started over my mother's perception that my wife had suggested in her editorial that the United States should not react with force to the events of September 11th. (Actually, the opposite was true. But my wife did caution about the way we went about making war in order to make sure we didn't compromise essential elements of our democracy.)

My mother is normally a thoughtful and articulate woman. But her response that night was emotionally charged and fearful. She advocated the bombing of all civilians in Afghanistan; in fact, she wanted to wipe the entire country off the face of the planet. It didn't matter to her that innocent people would be killed. What mattered to her was that the people responsible for September 11th should be purged.

Then the clarifying line emerged: "You don't know what it was like," she said with tears in her eyes. "You weren't there."

I can be maddeningly slow coming to realizations that others arrive at simply. That night I was caught up in my own anger. I didn't understand the emotional subtext until later. The events of September 11th had exhumed my mother's terror. Sixty years had barely diminished it. As the child of a holocaust survivor, if I may be called one, perhaps I should have seen how she made the emotional connection between what had happened to her on the Hungarian border over half-a-century ago and what had happened in New York two weeks ago. And then again, she'd locked those memories so deeply inside herself, fearing even mention of them, that perhaps I was rightly surprised when they erupted after being repressed for so long. I grew up thinking everything was all right, and I treated the whispered stories more as sidebars than as symptoms of something that was slowly eating at my family's stylized defenses. Of one thing I am certain, however. The American attitude of invulnerability had been an emotional shield for my mother all these years. She felt safe living in America. She took comfort saying, "I'm an American; you can't do this to me." 9/11 stripped away her cherished pretense, and all her subdued fears resurfaced with dramatic force. My mother will soon turn 76. She used to be active socially, but now she rarely goes out other than forays to the grocery store or to go out for a quick bite. Her continuing withdrawal is symptomatic of survivor's syndrome. The world is a threatening place and if there's any safety to be found, it can be found at home. But, as my grandmother may have learned in the final stages of her unforgiving dementia, there is no certainty in that either.

A Holocaust Survivor's Son

The events of September 11th brought into sharp focus the shadowy lines that defined our family as a result of the Holocaust. My mother was right when she said, "You don't know what it was like. You weren't there." I didn't witness the terror. But I did witness her terror. I witnessed how it lay in her blood latent as a virus, ready to express itself after fifty years. And I witnessed it fulminate in the restaurant.

I realize now that my brother and I too have inherited the effects of our family's terror. Our mother took refuge in America and in her domineering husbands. She no doubt felt safe behind such solid protections, and she rarely ventured from behind them even when it came to her own children. She hired surrogate mothers to tend to us, and she deferred decisions about how to raise her children to my authoritarian father. Our mother's absenteeism wasn't the result of rampant ambition or selfishness; it was the result of an abiding fear that she was still very much vulnerable to a world that had already provided ample evidence of its evil.

My brother and I have inherited my mother's trauma. We're naturally withdrawn, secretive, and we instinctively mistrust others. We are by nature skeptical and cynical. As a young man it was easy for me as the wounded child to lay blame; as an adult, it is far more difficult to break the chain of psychological effects that stemmed from our family's collective past.

I empathize with the rage, the hurt, and the confusion that came out of the mass destruction and death that occurred in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania on September 11th. I also believe that we as a nation will return to normal in the absence of any further attacks. We will clear away the rubble and rely on familiar nostrums to close our national wounds. But contrary to the bromide that time heals all wounds, some wounds germinate in the psyche--passed from generation to generation--waiting for the black soil of hate to blossom. It's easy to say that we as a people should not cower or retreat from the threat of international terrorism, and that we cannot compromise our confidence in our ability to be a vigorous and forthright nation, but we should, at the same time, reflect on those who remain the true victims of terror.

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