Healing From Intergenerational Trauma: Facing the Unfaceable


I spend 15 years slowly preparing for a trip into the unfaceable. One of the most important processes that supported me on this journey was observing and being witness to a US human rights advocate and coalition builder (who has German gentile heritage) do gut wrenching emotional healing work particularly against anti-Semitism and white racism. She inspired me with her intelligence, tenacity and determination to be free from the damaging effects of these forms of oppressions. Some members of her family supported the Nazis.

Two years ago I told her I was ready to join her in going to Poland and the eight day Healing from War workshop. Last year and again this year we went and were part of a 75 person international group who spent 16 hours a day for 8 days living together and working closely on our individual and collective healing. This article focuses on the most personally meaningful lesson I learned. There were many other lesson learned that will not be addressed here, such as the personal, social, economic and political impact of US imperialism, how our use of language communicates internalized oppressive patterns, the personal and social impact of growing up in a war zone and living in an occupied country, etc.

Because USers are often unawarely conditioned to take over, meaning take up a lot of space or have a tendency to be aggressive, we are limited to a small percentage of workshop participants. Thus, most workshop participants came from other countries and language translation occurred continuously during the entire workshop.

Day One of the workshop includes a four-hour guided tour of Auschwitz I; Day Two is a four-hour guided tour of Auschwitz II (Birkenau) – the largest death camps of WWII and the largest graveyard in the world. Estimates range from 1.9 – 2.1 million Jews were murdered there. Other people were murdered there as well particularly Poles, Russians, people with disabilities, and Roma. There are no graves, rather the ashes of men, women and children were scattered everywhere but particularly in the two small ponds within Auschwitz II and in a nearby river. Last year there were two particular moments of the tour that were most moving for me. First, I will say that while going through Auschwitz we were (as instructed by our workshop leader) inseparable from our companions. I had the same companions both last year and this year – one with German heritage (mentioned previously) and another who I have known for 17 years and who like me – is Jewish and our fathers’ fought in WWII.

Both last year and this year, while visiting these concentration/death camps I felt not numbness but it was hard to feel emotions due to being satiated with information that bombarded all of my senses with the horrors of what we saw and what we learned. I could not take in any more of anything other than putting one foot in front of the other, holding onto my companions and absorbing this atrocity. Last year the first emotional/ spiritual experience I had was on day one while standing in the gas chamber. What came to me was ‘sorrow of the souls’. One hundred and forty men, women and children were crammed into this cement rectangular room. Then poisonous gas containers were released. It took 15 minutes for everyone to die. The ovens were conveniently located in the room next door. These were highly organized death factories. And I could feel the sorrow of the souls. I was grateful that I could feel. I understand how it is that many people go through Auschwitz feeling numb.

On day two the fullness continued as my senses were bombarded with more sights, stories and information until we got to the pond. Suddenly and unexpectedly a spiritual blanket unlike anything I had ever experienced in my life came over me. I don’t know which came first – the words or my tears – but the unmistakable message was “something happened here” meaning right here and it was somehow related to me. I will never forget this; I felt deeply supported by the embrace of my companions.

After completing the workshop and returning to the U.S. I spent many hours over many months doing emotional release work related to this deeply moving and mysterious spiritual/emotional “something happened here” encounter. I wanted to know what happened and how it was connected to me. Were the ashes of my ancestors there? Possibly. I knew I had to return to the pond and so I went back to Auschwitz and the workshop and I believe I found what I was looking for but I didn’t know I was looking for it until I found it. And I didn’t know I found it until someone pointed it out. Let me explain.

Last month I was back at the pond with my companions and I sat on the grass and felt the sun’s powerful white light and warmth while I shook and cried and asked “What happened here? How is it related to me?” I soaked in the fullness of the radiating white light that seemed to communicate “go forward into the light”. And there was a giant red dragonfly that kept flying – right – left – right – left for a long time – between me and the pond. I laughed at the dragon fly and asked “What are you doing here?” It felt like she was an eye-catching reminder of the beauty and simplicity of life and nature. I didn’t have any grand answers to my questions but I felt satisfied. I had returned, I felt a deep presence of powerfully, warm light that flowed through my body – I knew I had more healing work to do and this moment would help carry me forward.

I am skipping some of the less important details but I will say that one thing that many Jews share and that I became more acutely aware of that at this years workshop is that many of us don’t know this ancestral history. So many Jews had so many family members murdered in WWII that our history is lost and it is or was too painful for many of our family members to talk about. Six million Jews were murdered in WWII – 90% of the Jews of Europe. One workshop participant this year shared that a relative of hers had sent her an email – one page – listing a several relatives who had been killed in the holocaust. Right before the workshop she decided to print the page and that is when she saw that the email was actually 10 pages. She had not scrolled down to see that 264 of her family members were killed in the Holocaust.

Two days after visiting the pond I was in a 6-person ‘sharing our stories’ support groups. I had shared lots of stories over the past year and several stories at this years workshop mostly about my ancestors on my mother’s side who escaped/immigrated from Russia and how my father died when I was 14 and he was an only child and my mother thought his ancestors were from Hungary and last year at Auschwitz I saw the names of hundreds and hundreds of Spiro’s who were murdered in Auschwitz. This time I told the story as I had never done before. I said “I don’t have a story.

On my father’s side of the family – there was my father and his parents. I don’t know any other relatives. If any of them had survived Auschwitz I think I would have known about them. So there is no story. It makes sense that some of those Spiro’s were most likely my relatives but I don’t know. There is no story”. I don’t recall what else I said but the support group leader said. “You found them” and I immediately felt her words in the core of my body with a sudden pressure on my chest and then tears came. Oh my God – I found them. That was the message in the white light. That was what happened at the pond. That was the answer I didn’t know I was looking for. That was why I had to return to the pond. It made sense. I have never had such a powerful spiritual pull to be somewhere and to work on this specific experience. It was fate.

I found my family at the pond. It was meant to be. I am left feeling more deeply connected to my people – my family and the thousands of years of oppression of my people. And that also connects me to all humans because we live on a planet where no one escapes the damage of war, the ultimate betrayal of humanity. This great trauma and the deep betrayal that accompanies it is an unfaceable anguish. The pain is a bond amongst all who live whether we are aware of it or not. I feel more deeply connected to my place in history and everyone who walks or has walked through life.

I know more deeply than ever in my body and in my soul that we are all much more deeply connected then we are aware of. I want more than anything I have ever wanted – to end war. I am getting clearer and clearer on how this can be done. I honor that knowing how it is done and actually doing it are two very different things. What work could possibly be harder than this?

My life’s focus since last year’s workshop has been to heal from the damaging effect that war has had on my mind – both the inner war and the outer war – and the damage that impacts our ways of thinking that get passed on from generation to generation.

If I can end the war in my mind by healing these old traumas then peace will emerge. I now know that that is why I was lead back to the pond. That was the message in the white light. My soul is healing and finding peace. I am not there yet. I appreciate the process.


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


Mad in America has made some changes to the commenting process. You no longer need to login or create an account on our site to comment. The only information needed is your name, email and comment text. Comments made with an account prior to this change will remain visible on the site.

Previous articleTherapy More Effective than Medications for Anxiety — Placebos Also Effective
Next articleWhy I Am Willing to Die on the Governor’s Doorstep
Lauren Spiro
Lauren’s vision of social justice and mental health liberation focuses on developing our capacity for feeling deeply connected, appreciating the vast creative intelligence of the human heart and mind, and inspiring compassionate action. Her life’s mission is to embody inner peace to co-create global peace, thus she curates transformative learning experiences. She co-founded two non-profit corporations and Emotional CPR (www.emotional-cpr.org) a public health education program that teaches people how to support others through an emotional crisis. She is a multi-media artist, a 20+ year practitioner of yoga and meditation, the first Director of the National Coalition for Mental Health Recovery, has been featured on national media, and consulted on numerous federal projects. Her memoir paints a poetic picture of her journey into madness and her pathway home. She has an M.A. in clinical/community psychology. For more information see www.Laurenspiro.com


  1. There are many people who struggle with their past, or rather the past of their ancestors. In a way it is easier to be a child or grandchild of Holocaust victims than to be a descendant of abusers. It’s sad that people often forget that good and bad things are not dependent on one’s nationality but rather the social, political circumstances of one’s life and personal ethics and understanding of the world. Today people like Netanyahu spit on the graves of holocaust victims by using their suffering as an excuse to perpetuate crimes against Palestinian civilians and conscientous people who oppose him are labelled anti-Semites or “self-hating Jews”.
    I’d recommend books by Günter Grass, a German author who himself has a murky past as he was a teenager in Nazi Germany. He tackles some of the questions of healing and forgiveness between the nations and individuals who have to deal with scars of the past.

    Report comment

  2. Both my parents were Holocaust survivors. My Mother survived 14 selections .She was in the Lodz ghetto , Auschwitz , Bergen Belson . My mother said no one who was not there will ever understand it. She lost her entire family there . Two uncles had emigrated to America before World War ll . My father fought the Nazi’s as a Polish soldier , he was wounded during the initial air attack as he fired a machine gun at planes from the ground. He was in a group of 3000 wounded Polish soldiers evacuated to Romania . Later he was in a group of Polish soldiers the Russians formed into a recon unit headed toward Germany. My dad was among those that liberated Majdanek Concentration Camp near Lublin.He was wounded again . He worked for the underground and managed to rescue his only surviving sister and her husband, prisoners in a gulag where they were cutting down trees somewhere deep in Russia. My dad spoke 8 languages made his own identification documents and changed identities as needed .He was invisible to the Nazis and a Jew they could not permanently capture. My dad lost 76 family members to the Nazis . He said the Nazis were like burning in fire and the Russians were like drowning . My mother and father met while they were both trying to track down if there were any family members who survived the war through a mutual friend. They had both grown up in Lodz Poland. I was 2 years old my sister 6 months old when we came with our parents to America by ship.
    My parents are my hero’s in this life , No one else compares .
    Israel Now And Forever.

    Report comment

  3. thank you all for commenting. Fred, I have not seen the movie, do you mind sharing what you found to be poignant about it? I find myself integrating so much information currently that I can not find words to properly respond to some of your comments. I will say, however, that yesterday while facilitating a dialogue at Boston University, I shared my experience and learning from Auschwitz. With the wind at my back I am drawn to share my lessons learned (via dialogues) as I deepen my healing from trauma and oppression and to do so in a heart-felt manner that invites others to share their wisdom, experiences and questions. How can we inspire people (especially those who do not follow MadinAmerica) to think holistically about the power of our mind and our body as intelligent resources on our path to liberation. In response to the 1st comment (by B) I wonder how we can build alliances with people whom we perceive as different from us. I think it takes courage, compassion, and a foundation of forgiveness and love to genuinely reach for others and build bonds and connections that can lead to further healing and peace making. I don’t believe inner peace and outer peace will occur unless we intentionally focus on creating it. And embody it every day. If we want to be effective change agents then we need to not only envision but embody the change we want to create.
    I write these words from the MadinAmerica International Film Festival 2014, Arlington, MA.
    Laura Delano (festival organizer) Rocks BIG TIME!!!!!!

    Report comment

  4. Lauren,
    When so many people in America deal with the scars of the past by squatting on land that by any honest code of justice would be lived on by one of the descendants of the First Nations People that were systematically uprooted and Holocausted . At the same time they cast there eyes at Israel and wish to speak about ongoing battles there that they mostly know relatively nothing about. If they sat in “their” homes and someone was throwing grenades onto their lawn I wonder how touchy feely and peacefully calmly talkative they would really be however enlightened they are . Also there is a reason people say war is hell.Has there been a war without atrocities? By the way how many paid “mental health ” people and others that say they want to reform or abolish the psychiatric system have pensions or savings invested in Big Pharma or Psychiatric or Medical companies or government that harm the very people they wish to help. I take a social security from a corrupt corporate new world order pseudo science promoting government. The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing . As “The War Against The Weak” (It’s a book title)that Edwin Black wrote is also ongoing . I’m not saying its necessarily better elsewhere ,I don’t know everything , but it might well be . Everyone has a right to seek peace of mind and good things need peace to happen . And Why can’t we all get along ?In the face of Holocausts we are all struck dumb but collectively humanity can’t even agree to live and let live, never have.They say a couple has to work at a marriage. A person has to work at becoming a human being. Seems your a fine example of that.

    About the movie I mentioned . You could use the movie itself as a definition of the word poignant like no other . It could well be the best movie ever made as it transcends anything I could tell you about it. And I would not dare risk ruining it for you or anyone else . As the title say’s when you see it “Everything Will Be Illuminated.” I’ve seen it twice and have yet to realize all it’s depth’s. It’s about someone who took a journey similar to the one you took which I would not have had the courage to take in fear I would not survive it. Let me know what you think of the movie if you choose to see it if and when you have time.
    I hope I can go next time their is a Movie Festival.
    In Solidarity ,Fred

    Report comment

  5. Lauren,

    I am so deeply sorry for your ancestral trauma and for all people who have been victims of abuse, violence and torture. I only hope that we do not perpetuate these tragedies by thinking that ‘our’ group (whether it be our country, our religion, our profession or our political party) is not capable of doing the same if put in the right circumstances…we humans can create wonderful societies when fairness and equality are shared by all…and we can also horribly traumatize others when we have systems, economies, policies or belief systems that systematically oppress others or when we deny our capacity to be both the victim and the victimizer…

    Of course, this oppression happens in our current medical model of mental health services and in all forced treatment! Perhaps we should start with a commitment to do no harm…in my mind violence and force will always do harm…war will never bring lasting peace…

    Report comment

  6. Lauren,
    You are so special.
    Thank you for telling this beautiful story. I was 12 when I was given “Night”- by Elie Wiesel. Look to this video. Find the place your loved ones are whispering from. You led me to a profound awakening. Thank You So Much.. The Prayer from “The Tragedy of Wounded Knee” and Lauren Spiro are now connected and so This Shall Be A Gathering Place For everyone who Seeks Peace, Love, Hope, Understanding, Refuge.

    Report comment

  7. Thank you , MissEmpowerment .
    Lauren and others, after you watch the video Miss E. has posted go back to the 3 minute spot on the video and play it forward in less then a minute when the picture of the Ghost Shirt appears in close up hit the pause button look closely and you will see the dragonfly upon it ……..

    Report comment

  8. I like the documentary “Hitler’s Children” on Netflix last March.
    “The descendants of Hermann Goering, Heinrich Himmler and Amon Goeth come to terms with the role their families played in the Holocaust.” This movie is healing for everyone. Thanks Lauren for helping me realize that I am Me not My Ancestors. Lauren, I found the link between your experience and The Tragedy of Wounded Knee.
    And me.

    Report comment

  9. Ms. Empowered – I just watched the video
    Thank you for the link and for your heart felt reflections . The words “sorrow of the souls” which first came to me while I stood in the gas chamber of Auschwitz last year, comes to me now. Human history is filled with holocausts. People left Europe for the New World and unawarely brought their corrupted minds and concepts which they forced on the native people of this beautiful land. My heart continues to break for the destruction we bring to all people, all life forms and the environment of this planet.

    Finding peace in times of war is very challenging but we must never lose sight of what is possible. It is always possible to reach for our shared humanity. It is always possible to show love and respect and to do our very best to take responsibility for creating the communities we dream of. What helps me hold on to eternal hope is remembering the whispers of the souls of the past. When I feel their presence and their undefeatable will to survive I remember love. And I feel the radiating light and the wind at my back and I know what I must do. Elie Wiesel (in Night) teaches us great lessons. When I finished reading Night I painted and what came out was a flickering flame amidst darkness. I believe we all have that flame, that chi, that life force – the will to survive. We are born with it just as the blade of grass that finds its way through the cement.

    What is the wind under your wings? What does your soul say in the abyss of darkness? Where is your light, your passion?

    May we find peace together

    PS I am still intrigued and wondering about the dragonfly. I didn’t see it in the video but I know it is there.

    Report comment