Always pondering the mystery of how we are affected by the history of those who came before us, I read a fascinating article in the New York Times (Aug. 21, 2012) called “In Andalusia, on the Trail of Inherited Memoiries.” Author Doreen Carvajal tells how her Aunt Luz had dreams of places and events that took place in Andalusia long before she was born. She points to scientific studies that suggest that our ancestors are part of us, their experiences inherited through vast chemical networks in our cells. The field, known as epigenetics, suggests that genes have memory and that the lives of our ancestors can affect us decades later.
This of course is part of what drove me from Berkeley to New York to Leipzig, Germany to understand not only my mother’s buried experiences, but the lives of grandparents I barely even knew existed. I can hardly explain the transmission of information I felt walking on the cobbled streets of my ancestors’ city, the foreign yet comforting resonance of how the echo of voices bounced off the five-story stone buildings, and the trembling when I stood in front of the Altes Rathaus, the Old City Hall, in the exact spot my mother Alice and her sister Erika had stood in a photo taken when they were teenagers.
Was it just my sentimentality? Or did it complete some broken connection that I carried in my cells, to come full circle to the place that was escaped from, bombed, buried behind the Wall that divided Germany, and locked away from my mother’s thoughts as though it belonged to some other life, not her own.
Yet that unspoken life affected me more than the stories she told. I felt it, without being able to identify its source. It haunted me with an attitude of pessimism that made me wonder if the dreams I had were worth trying for. “Why bother” played in my background, yet I couldn’t confront it.
A psychotherapist in Jerusalem named Dina Wari worked with children of Holocaust survivors and developed the theory that parents often designated certain children as “memorial candles.” It was their mission to serve as a link to preserve the past and connect it to the future.
I once steered as far away from my family past as I could. Now I choose to be a memorial candle. I realize that by bringing compassion and understanding to the events of the past, I can contribute new life and light to my family legacy. I can honor the pain but nourish my own experience of trust, of faith, of willingness to create new possibilities.
This week has been the time of the Jewish High Holidays. I went to the Aquarian Minyan on the evening of Rosh Hashonna to light a candle and honor my family. I spoke to one of the wise elders at the congregation and asked how long do I have to carry on blame and anger. Can I be the memorial candle that honors the past but lights a new path to the future. Yes, he said, we must not forget the past or those that lived it, and we can go forward into the future with an open heart.
Perhaps you also wish to be a memorial candle, no matter what your background or heritage. Your comments are welcome. Just click on the comments link below and share your experience. Thank you.