Claire Sicherman delves into the silent stories of her family’s traumatic past.
AN ARRAY OF OLD PHOTOGRAPHS stands on a wooden table: grandparents, great-grandparents, great-aunt and -uncle, even a great-great-grandmother against a backdrop of fruit trees. It’s Yom HaShoah, and writer Claire Sicherman, her husband, and their young son stand together, honouring their many relatives murdered in the Holocaust, as well as those who survived—the ones who made this family’s life possible. For each cherished name, they float a red anemone blossom in a bowl of water, saying: “We love you and we will always remember you.”
Sicherman tells the story of this personal ritual in her new book Imprint: A Memoir of Trauma in the Third Generation (Caitlin Press, December 2017). It’s a perfect illustration of her writing project as a whole. Her book, like her creative ceremony, is about learning how to keep memory alive; how to grieve, not just alone, but together; how to heal; and, ultimately, how to make meaning from that which makes no sense.
Sicherman’s maternal grandparents, her babi and deda, were each the only members of their extended family to survive the Holocaust, and it was something they didn’t discuss. Though she’d occasionally see her grandmother’s Auschwitz tattoo peeking out from her sleeve, Sicherman writes: “We were all too scared to ask, to enter their trauma, to hurt them, to break them open.” And so when her grandfather committed suicide when she was just 4 years old and, much more recently, when her grandmother died at age 102, many stories went with them to the grave. “For me,” she explains over tea, “it was a twofold grief: my grandmother’s death, and then the stories that were going to be buried with her—the ones I knew and the ones I would never know.”
Being third generation, several removes from the events, Sicherman has photos and facts—and even her name, Claire, which connects her to her great-grandmother Klára. But who were these people whose lives filtered down to hers, shaping her? The third generation is a tricky place: distant enough to be able to tell stories others couldn’t (or wouldn’t), but also bearing the scars without the wounds—or living with different kinds of wounds. How do you heal from those? How do you own stories full of holes, questions, absence, silence?
Like that moment in her grandparents’ life, about which she can only write: “I don’t know how they are taken.” Or when she imagines what the Nazi gas van drivers did and felt while their human cargo, including her Klára, died in the back. “Would the driver casually light a cigarette?…Would he roll down the window and yell at his buddy, something funny, a joke maybe, and they’d both laugh?” And then what do you do with everything that can’t be written on the backs of photographs, or on paper at all, but is instead carried, in fragments, in the body through inherited intergenerational trauma, a genetic imprint? How do you talk about it all with the next generation to make sure we never repeat, never forget? This book offers Sicherman’s tender exploration and determined excavation toward answers.
Sitting in the colourful Rock Salt Café on Salt Spring Island—where Sicherman, her husband and son recently moved (from Vancouver) in order to live more slowly and closer to nature—her warmth and generosity convey resilience and wisdom, specifically the wisdom to be curious rather than stay stuck in grief. But Sicherman doesn’t see herself as courageous; rather, she says she was compelled to enter the dark places to connect to the stories, to the people, and, in many ways, to herself. “I felt something simmering beneath my skin,” she tells me. “And as I began to write, I felt it was my ancestors voicing and encouraging me to tell their stories. I didn’t have a choice. I felt like either I would write and it would kill me, or I wouldn’t write and it would kill me. In the end, I think I chose the healthier path for myself,” she smiles, “because it didn’t kill me.”
She also lets the book shine with the light of her life—her 11-year-old son, Ben—although we learn that he came into this world wrapped in a trauma of his own, asphyxiated by his umbilical cord and painstakingly revived. He was named after his father’s favourite uncle, a Holocaust survivor, and Sicherman notes that some scholars have interpreted “Benjamin” to mean “build” or “rebuild.” She writes directly to him in the book: “Ben, you are the son of our family…We are slowly gathering the pieces and building a life, creating a narrative. Your story is one of rebirth.” It turns out hers is, too.
Told in four sections—roughly: the Holocaust and extended family; Ben; her relationship to herself; her journey into healing—each is a mix of memoir, journal entries, letters, and lists. With that fragmented structure, Imprintreflects Sicherman’s inner experience, the movement of her mind as she makes discoveries and finds threads. And it shows her need to touch in and out, to protect herself as she (re)connects her ancestral past, her daily present, and her family’s future.
At the end of their Yom HaShoah ritual, after the list of names has been read, there are so many flowers floating that they can’t see the water. They carry the bowl out into the afternoon and together place the red anemones around the base of a blossoming cherry tree. Ben, now the fourth generation, pours out the water onto its roots. Like Sicherman’s book, it’s a gesture of transformation. For just as beautifully, she has poured out her tears and memories and love onto the page, and with an open heart has done her part to nurture strength, growth, and life.
“I don’t feel brave,” she tells me quietly but sternly. “But I do feel a bravery that’s connected to being vulnerable. We see vulnerability as a weakness in our society. I’ve felt that myself: ‘What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I be this strong person?’ We wear masks in the outside world, and those masks are what keep us from connecting. I think those masks are a weakness. For me, healing is a process that’s going to take my whole life. It’s just something that I do, day to day.”
Through her writing, she graciously lets us into her process—and encourages us to undertake a form of it ourselves, in relation to whatever family circumstances and unexplored family stories we, too, may have. Her hope is that we can all find a way in.
In her research and editing work at McGill’s Holocaust oral testimony archive, Amy Reiswig was daily humbled and inspired by the power to be vulnerable and break the silence.