Trauma: A Holocaust Survivor’s Legacy

By: Jacquie Brager

Jacquie Brager's grandfather, Erich Levi

The Holocaust created a legacy of trauma in its impact on the families of survivors. My family was no exception.

Erich Levi, my grandfather, was a well-known amateur boxer who openly fought against the rising Nazi party before leaving Germany. Secretly married to Ilse Kahn because of the ban on Jewish marriages, my grandparents left Germany on Kristallnacht, along with Ilse’s family, to seek refuge in Belgium.

Erich’s family had already emigrated to Belgium where my father and his sister were born and raised amongst German Jews trying to escape the Nazi regime. When Germany occupied Belgium, Erich and other family members were arrested and sent to an internment camp in France. Ilse, in an amazing act of bravery and cunning, disguised herself as a Red Cross nurse and had the men released.

This began the harrowing journey that led to the Levis’ escape to America in 1941.

My father has no conscious memories of his life in Europe or the journey that led to their escape. He was 4 ½. His family changed their surname, and they did not practice Judaism upon reaching the United States.

My father’s childhood memories consisted of being harassed as a foreigner in school, losing his father at a young age and the financial struggles of being raised by a single mom. Whether the trauma of his early childhood impacted his later behavior remains a question, however, the effect of his behavior has long-reaching consequences on his progeny.

My father was driven – he wanted to be the best at whatever he did and he wanted to be recognized for it. He sought attention wherever he found it and it was often not at home. I do not think my mother had any idea how to manage the demons from my father’s past.

Jacquie Brager with her parents

I learned that the only way to gain his approval was by accomplishment. Praise was not given easily and often was accompanied by criticism or instruction on how something could have been done better. He had high expectations and very little patience. He rewarded success with acknowledgment – good grades, winning, good jobs, etc. I was always striving to be recognized.

The trauma of being torn from his home, his extended family and the life his family knew affected his emotional development, creating a cycle of emotional dysregulation.

In my childhood home, there was very little communication and we never heard stories of my father’s past. We were never told my father’s family was Jewish and we were raised as Christians – my mother’s faith. It wasn’t until my cousin’s Bar Mitzvah that we were learned my father had been Jewish. Soon after, my grandmother, Ilse was contacted by the Shoah Foundation to share her story. This is when we finally heard the stories of my father’s past.    

As he ages, my father apologizes for his lack of success – his inability to produce and his fragile physical status. He holds himself to unrealistic standards still unable to enjoy what has already been accomplished.

He has never been able to allow himself to be vulnerable.  I have only just begun to realize the extent of the damage caused by the Nazi regime to that 4-year-old boy. His sense of safety and security was shattered. So many people from his life disappeared or were erratically available. He was so protective of his emotions that his behavior was often aberrant. He never cried at his sister’s funeral, yet he watches the news about Ukraine with tears in his eyes.

Jacquie Brager

Growing up with these inconsistencies has created my own struggles with how to break the cycle of expectations and demands. My children see the inconsistencies in my behavior and inability to express relevant emotions. Creating a strong family through supportive parenting, managing conflict and promoting open lines of communication is the only way to heal the intergenerational trauma resulting from Germany’s genocidal regime.  

The rise in antisemitism in today’s world is again creating deep-seated fear in the Jewish community. There is still the disbelief that this could be happening in contemporary society. When my grandmother was at the end of her life in 2009, she said she felt sorry for us living in a world full of hate, this – from a Holocaust Survivor.

My father also feels the overwhelming inability to face the current environment of hate. His family turned away from Judaism but could never run from the trauma of persecution. As I watch the news and hear of incidents of hate, a deep anger rises in me. We must speak up and we must act to end the cycle for future generations.

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