Dr. Gita Arian Baack, author of The Inheritors: Moving Forward from Generational Trauma. (photo from Gita Arian Baack)
Dr. Gita Arian Baack, author of The Inheritors: Moving Forward from Generational Trauma, was in town earlier this month to speak at the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival and hold a three-day experiential workshop with the Second Generation Group in Vancouver.
The Ottawa-based counselor began her festival presentation with a quote from the late Israeli novelist Amos Oz, who wrote, “Our past belongs to us, but we do not belong to it.” For Baack, the quote underscores her message to inheritors of the Shoah – that “we were given life and an obligation to bear witness and honour the martyrs and heroes of the Holocaust. And that we also have the right to live full and joyful lives.”
“Generational trauma stems from devastating events which transpired before we were born,” Baack told the Independent. “In the case of the Holocaust, we have experienced it from birth; it is as if we were there. We carry an unrelenting sadness, sense of absence and betrayal.”
The ultimate question her book explores is: “How can we live a full life despite the difficult trauma we inherited?”
Prior to writing The Inheritors, Baack conducted doctoral research into the subject of intergenerational trauma and resilience, yet what she uncovered did not fit or go deeply enough into either. Often, resilience is described as bouncing back with support from others. But, she said, “You don’t bounce back from the Holocaust!”
She was resolved to unravel answers to these and other questions, such as why are so many of us resilient and compassionate despite our inherited trauma? Do we carry memory from one generation to another? How do we move forward, when the usual therapies for trauma have proven not to work for us?
“We are also faced with the difficulty of piecing together our family stories,” said Baack. “Much of our family stories are full of holes, unknowns and even secrets, our roots destroyed. Understandably, we have strong emotions but don’t know how to deal with them; for example, excessive sadness, fear of authority, worry, lack of trust, lack of safety, etc.”
Further, inherited trauma is often frozen, embedded in the brain stem, also known as the primitive brain – accessing it is difficult, but it can be done, she said.
Baack noted that ancient wisdom, the Bible and new epigenetic scientific research explain that trauma is passed onto generations in the DNA, and even the cells, for as many as seven generations. She strongly believes that this is the case if it is acknowledged and processed; if it is not, then it can take longer than seven generations.
Though Baack’s own experience is being a child of Holocaust survivors, The Inheritors encompasses others who have been victimized: Canada’s indigenous population, survivors of the Rwandan genocide and of several other horrible episodes of recent history. The book also looks at trauma on a personal level, from those who have suffered as a result of natural disaster, an accident, economic hardship, the justice or education system, illness or loss of a loved one.
The intent of The Inheritors is to serve as a tool for moving forward, said Baack. The book is filled with dialogues, poetry and stories from people of different backgrounds. Readers are invited to explore their story, and there are questions at the end of each chapter to help them process that story and, in so doing, transform their pain. At the least, in the end, they will have a written story as a legacy to their descendants.
The Inheritors has had other, unexpected, impacts. For example, the conductor of the North Carolina State University orchestra commissioned composer and flutist Allison Loggins-Hull to write a piece for an upcoming performance and she has chosen to write a work inspired by the book – Inheritors Overture will première on April 5 in Raleigh, N.C.
The group dialogues that Baack conducts offer a means of validation through other people with similar experiences and various experiential tools that can help further a deeper exploration of their trauma stories, the “undiscussables” and the unknowns. Group participants, she said, are often surprised by the creativity, laughter and camaraderie that arise.
The Inheritors is dedicated to (and inspired by) Baack’s two half-siblings. “From my earliest beginnings, I remember carrying a great sadness for my siblings, Henush and Halina Arian, who were only 4 and 3 years old, respectively, when they were killed,” she writes. There was no information about the circumstances of their death or burials, “But their existence was real and has mattered to me in an extraordinary way. And so I don’t fight the sadness; I embrace it. It has a special place. I am the carrier of their memory. This burden is the most cherished of all my burdens.”
At the age of 4 or 5, Baack had what she describes as a “knowing” or “inherited memory.” A “felt sense” told her, even at that young age, that her siblings, two of 1.5 million children killed by the Nazis, had both been shot in the back. When she asked her father how her half-siblings died, he said he didn’t know. Nonetheless, the memory (and feeling) she had inherited persisted, and could be placed on a spot in the middle of her back, with a knowing that her half siblings had been shot in that place.
Her research revealed that the timing of their deaths was before gas chambers had been built, and children under 5 were regularly shot. In 2019, a tour guide in Krakow pointed to the very street where the children and their mother were shot. To Baack, it was a stunning confirmation of her lifelong memory.
Baack has been consulting and coaching individuals and organizations for more than 30 years. She recently founded the Centre for Transformational Dialogue to help individuals and communities that have inherited devastating legacies. She also has written a book of verse, Poems of Angst and Awe, published in 2017.
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.