'The Survivors' Author On The Inheritance Of Holocaust Trauma
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is the time of year when many people are traveling for the holidays, reconnecting with distant relatives and enjoying the camaraderie that comes with a shared past. But sometimes that legacy brings something other than sweet memories. Sometimes that legacy is one of buried secrets and deep pain. Adam Frankel's new book tells a story like that. The former Obama speechwriter describes how the deep trauma of the Holocaust seemed to live on through his grandparents, who survived it, to his mother and then to him. The book is called "The Survivors: A Story Of War, Inheritance, And Healing." And Adam Frankel is with us now.
Thank you so much for talking to us.
ADAM FRANKEL: Thanks for having me, Michel.
MARTIN: So there's just so much history packed into the book. We just can't cover it all. But just the short version - your grandparents on your mother's side met after the Holocaust at a camp for displaced people in Germany. They then emigrated to the United States to New Haven, Conn. When you were growing up, how much did they talk to you and other family members about their experiences during the war?
FRANKEL: By the time I came around, they were talking a fair amount about it - at least, my grandfather was. I was hearing his stories about Dachau, which is the camp where he was at the end of the war. He spoke about it a lot by then. My grandmother spoke less about it. She was very - it was a very traumatic experience, very hard for her to talk about. She didn't even talk to my grandfather about it much. But I got fragments from her about hiding in the walls while Nazis stuck bayonets into them - things like that. And even in those fragments, she would tear up sometimes talking about it.
MARTIN: But how was it, the leitmotif, in the sense of was it - how was it understood? Was it understood as, like, a great victory? Like, we triumphed over this. Or was it understood as something shameful? Like, I remember reading that there were times when, you know, Holocaust survivors would cover the numbers on their wrists because...
MARTIN: They didn't want to talk about it.
MARTIN: Do you remember it - like, how it was seen when you were growing up?
FRANKEL: Every family handles it differently, and our family handled different aspects of it differently. I mean, there were certain stories that were too horrible to mention that I would get only fragments of here and there. You know, there were certain things - certain stories that we were very proud of. There were times that my grandfather saved his own life - saved his father's life multiple times in the camps. And we were very proud of that story.
MARTIN: And then you go on to write about your mother's depression and the effect that that had on her life and on your life as well. Do you feel now that this was directly related to what your grandparents lived through? How do you explain that connection?
FRANKEL: Yeah. I mean, there's not a direct line. It's not 1-to-1. But it defies everything I know about my mom and her experience and her parents and their experience to think that they're totally unrelated. And, you know, we now know more about intergenerational trauma than we've ever known. And thanks to the work of people like Rachel Yehuda at Mt. Sinai, we've done research in the emerging science of epigenetics. We know that children of Holocaust survivors are three times as likely to display PTSD when confronted by a traumatic event as demographically similar Jews who were not children of survivors.
And we know other ways in which trauma can be passed down. And part of it also depends on the kind of family life that survivors create in their own homes after the war. You know, in other words, it depends not just on the severity or the kind of experience they had in the Holocaust but the kind of parents they are and the kind of behaviors that they set as parents in those families.
And so going back and trying to understand and unpack all of that - it helped me understand my mother's experience and my family's journey. As I say, it can't - it doesn't explain all of it, but it helps me make sense of our family's story a little bit.
MARTIN: So then you went on to become a speechwriter for former President Barack Obama, first during his campaign for president, then during his first term in office. I mean, for somebody like you who kind of was immersed in politics growing up, I mean, it sounded like a job - the job of a lifetime. But, you know, all this time, you were carrying this burden - would it be fair to call it that? - this...
MARTIN: ...Secret within you...
MARTIN: ...That was just tearing you up. And would you describe what that was?
FRANKEL: Yeah. So some months before joining the Obama campaign as the deputy speechwriter in 2007 - I joined just a month after he announced his - Obama announced his candidacy - I learned that my dad is not my biological father and that this was a secret that my mother had kept not only from me but from my dad and our whole family. And she didn't come out and tell me it. I sort of pieced it together and confronted her on it.
And in that conversation, I said, you know, who knows about this? Does dad know? And she said, no, no, no. It would break his heart. It would break his heart. And so I ultimately didn't tell my father for almost a decade that I'm not his biological son. I carried this with me. And I moved out to Chicago and became a speechwriter and just tried to bury this as much as I could for the years that followed.
MARTIN: Well, why do you think you did that? I mean, why do you think you tried to bury this?
FRANKEL: It was just too much, Michel. I mean, I had a sense that if I started trying to process this - and, you know, that the fact that I'm not my - I'm not my dad's biological son and also some of the other details. I mean, my biological father is a man I've known all my life, a presence in my life growing up.
You know, I would learn later that I was actually a planned pregnancy, a secret baby that they had decided to have. I mean, it was just too much, and I sensed that if I started thinking about it at all, if I told anybody about it, it would - my - everything would unravel. I wouldn't be able to think of anything. It would just be too overwhelming.
And so I just tried to push it down as far as possible and focus on the immediate task at hand, which was writing speeches. And there were a lot of speeches to write. So, you know, if you're if you're dealing with a lot of intense personal issues, joining a presidential campaign is actually a pretty convenient way to avoid dealing with them. That's what - I threw myself into my work.
MARTIN: But you said that you - this - that you were planned. I mean, your biological dad said that you were very much wanted, and that there was - this was - I don't know what was - this was - like, some thrill for him to have a secret baby? He found that sort of thrilling.
FRANKEL: I can't tell you - it was...
MARTIN: But look, can I just ask you this, though, Adam? I mean, the fact of the matter is you're still keeping his secret because you don't reveal who this is. And I have the sense that this is - you know who it is. I have the sense from everything you describe about him this is a very well-known person in his field. Why? Why are you protecting his identity after he did this to you?
FRANKEL: Well, I'm going to be very honest with you. I would prefer not to. And I was strongly advised to protect his identity. But look, the whole...
MARTIN: Oh, were you threatened basically to protect his identity? Is that what you're saying?
FRANKEL: No, that's not what I'm saying. I was not threatened. But I was strongly advised, you know, to protect... by the.
MARTIN: But you have a DNA test that confirms his identity.
FRANKEL: That's true. That's true.
MARTIN: And you've done everything you could do to confirm it. And he acknowledged it. In fact, you write through the book how he made a point of staying connected to you throughout your childhood. He gave you very expensive presents in a way that made your father uncomfortable. So I guess what I'm saying is you're still keeping the secrets. And I just - I'm just wondering, like, why is that?
FRANKEL: That's - you know, I wrestled with that. A big part of the book is all about honesty, right. It's - you want to be transparent. I think that, at the end of the day, I made a decision, as I say, after the strong urging of the publisher to change his name and the names of his family. But - and so you're right. I mean, you're right. And it is a compromise that I made in writing the book.
MARTIN: Well, how do you feel now that you've put it all out there? I mean, you're one of the things you write about in the book is what a strain this was over all those years. I mean, family members were very critical of you because after you learned this information, you distanced yourself from your mother, you know. And they criticized you heavily for this. And you didn't feel you could tell them why. And also, as I said, you know, you're functioning at this very high level in this very visible position in this - in the White House, I mean, under constant sort of pressure. And it just had to have been a lot to sort of carry within you. So now that it's out there, how does it feel?
FRANKEL: There are a lot of emotions. I mean, I think on the one hand, I feel serene and calm. And I feel like, for the first time in my life, I know who I am, and I'm not afraid to share it. And my friends and community knows who I am. My identity is no longer a secret. And that is just sort of profoundly empowering in a way that I never could have foreseen. You know, this whole - my whole process of grappling with this has just been about facing it. It's just been about facing it. I didn't want to look at it for a long time. It was very hard to look at it.
But I decided, in order to move on with my life, in order to move forward, I needed to face it, as hard as it was and as painful as it was. And it was for years and years. But that is what I'm grateful for, that I, thanks to my-now wife and who encouraged me. And, you know, I did face it, and I think that was important to me. And I encourage others to try and find the courage to do that too with some of the challenges they may be facing.
MARTIN: Adam Frankel is the author of "The Survivors: A Story Of War, Inheritance, And Healing." He was a speechwriter in the White House during President Obama's first term in office. Adam Frankel, thanks so much for talking to us.
FRANKEL: Thank you so much, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.