I’ve been reading a book with the rather haunting title, Beyond the Ashes: Cases of Reincarnation from the Holocaust. The author, Yonassan Gershom, is a rabbi who is well versed in the kabbalistic, mystical strain within Judaism. His book concerns cases of individuals, Jewish and Gentile, who have spoken to him about what seem like “memories” of having perished in the Holocaust when they were children.
Rabbi Gershom reports encounters with people who called him or came to see him as a chaplain. His mystical background, and later reputation for giving public talks about this phenomenon, convinced strangers that he would listen to their stories in a receptive and sympathetic way. He doesn’t pretend to have therapist’s credentials but he has written a smart, cultivated and thoughtful book.
Some of his “recollectors” come back as non-Jews. He describes one lady, born and raised in Indiana to anti-Semitic parents. She had never met a Jew, hardly knew what one was, and yet found herself magnetically drawn to the glimmers of Jewish existence that happened to fall her way. Alongside this unaccountable attraction, she also had nightmare flashes of a hopelessly dark world that was utterly terrifying to her.
What persuaded R. Gershom that most of these people who came to him were on the level were their accounts of how they were killed. The standard presentation of Nazi death camps involves factory-like herding of victims into enclosures disguised as showers, where a lethal gas, Zyklon B, is emitted from vents. In reality, writes R. Gershom, this mechanization happened rather late in the day, when things got more efficient.
Beginning in the thirties, even before the War started, people were dispatched in more at-hand ways. Individuals with memories of having been killed as children often describe these less-known methods, of which R. Gershom had read. I’ve read a fair amount about the Holocaust, but I didn’t know these stories. For example, one of the early methods involved emptying exhaust pipes into the backs of vans where the victims were confined.
When I first read this method described in Beyond the Ashes, I didn’t react. But later, I thought about it with a sudden start. Some years ago, I underwent an excisional biopsy and radiation treatment for breast cancer. The medical team marked off the target area with tiny tattoo points (which I have since had removed by a nice dermatologist). Anyway, the evening after the first such “treatment,” I was talking to a friend, the wife of a Jewish theologian/philosopher and herself a philosopher, who’d written about the Shoah. I mentioned to her that I’d felt the oddest sensation after leaving the hospital: as if my head were being placed under the exhaust pipes of a car! She reminded me that tattoos were used in Nazi death camps, and — by association of ideas — the tattoos applied around the breast area could have triggered in me the accompanying sensation of being gassed. At the time, I accepted her interpretation without further curiosity.
But why did I describe the gas as coming from
car exhaust pipes?
So far as I recall, I‘d neither read nor thought about car exhaust pipes in connection with the Holocaust. Was this a personal memory? Or a sympathetic pickup of some generalized memory floating in the consciousness of the world?
According to R. Gershom, the treatment for traumas carried over from a previous life is similar to that for post-traumatic stress within a single life. You listen to the traumatized person, acknowledge what happened, talk it through and assure her that she is safe now. Usually, the experience of being listened to and believed has a healing effect, the symptoms clear up and the person can get on with her life thenceforth. That’s what usually happened when R. Gershom listened to his reported survivors.
Safe now? But suppose one can’t, in all honesty, affirm any such thing?
Imagine a person, male or female, traumatized by a gang rape. The therapist assures the victim that the reported assault is credible, she listens sympathetically to the whole recital and assures the patient,
“You are safe now.”
Now picture the grateful and fully-recovered client shaking hands with the therapist, leaving her office for good — and then getting gang raped a second time! Forgive me, I don’t mean to be downbeat, but
What’s the remedy now?
It can’t be “recovery.” We tried that. It’s not working, because the client isn’t safe.
At the time of R. Gershom’s book, first published in 1992, global anti-Semitism was unimaginable. The lessons of the Holocaust had been supposedly learned, it was going to happen
and our therapist could look forward to successes in many cases. Where there was a will, there was a way.
That’s not true any more. There are growing reasons for threatened Jews to move, from France and elsewhere, to Israel and a credible threat of annihilation against Israel. And, lest this column seem too narrowly focused, there may be numbers of survivors of the previous century’s exercise in annihilation of Jews who have (understandably) come back as non-Jews! I’m planning to come back Swedish myself.
So what do you do, when you reach that edge of world experience that lies “beyond recovery”?
I think we have just got to
get rid of anti-Semitism.
Let’s not play word games. I mean anti-Jewish anti-Semitism.
If we can grow it,
we can shrink it too.
It’s bad karma.
It’s bad and bad for us.
It’s been going on for two thousand years.
Every time the Zeitgeist changes,
anti-Semitism puts on a new mask
to match the new Zeitgeist.
It’s a repetition compulsion. It’s the world’s version of Ground Hog day. It’s the same old same old. It’s BO-RING. God Himself is complaining.
Genug sheyn. Enough already!