The Social Justice Colloquium at California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB) on March 10 featured a devastating, but beautiful reconceptualization of trauma. This event was a result of many organizations’ and individuals’ contributions.
Humanities and communications professor Ernie Stromberg introduced this year’s keynote speaker – accomplished author, poet, novelist and daughter of Holocaust survivors – Elizabeth Rosner. Though her book “Survivor Café” was released in 2017, its theme of trauma and resilience are relevant today as we approach the one year anniversary of the COVID-19 shutdown and collectively mourn the loss of time and people.
Rosner began by expressing gratitude for the invitation and having the space to talk about issues that are close to her heart, as well as relevant to this moment in history.
“Discussing trauma, in some ways, seems eternal,” Rosner said. “I want to address the relevance to this particular moment we’re in.”
Discussing the moment was interesting, because while experiencing trauma it is difficult to characterize, it provided an analogy to the current climate.
“There is a degree of self-consciousness we all have about being in a state of collective traumatization,” Rosner said. “For some of us, re-traumatization.”
When speaking of her parent’s histories as survivors of the Holocaust, they did not consider their experience traumatic. After seeing Rosner in a television interview, her father called her and asked “do you think I was traumatized?”
Replying that her father never really thought about being traumatized, “Survivor Café” is a memoir, but also an exploration of epigenetics, the study of heritable changes in gene expression. This can include the inherited trauma descendants of catastrophic events often carry within themselves through their genes, even if they did not experience the events first-hand.
Rosner believes that naming trauma is necessary. Not to get over it, but to move through it and create the space to transform trauma into something beautiful.
“(I) keep reminding myself and others that the traumatic experience and the post-traumatic experience need to be fully named and processed,” Rosner said. “(I) worked through and witnessed before the healing [really began.]”
The topic of forgiveness came up, and Rosner noted that forgiveness is nuanced and layered. She said she would never recommend the act of forgiveness as a pathway to healing. Healing is a community effort that takes everyone’s commitment.
Rosner also discussed the fact that Holocaust survivors and their descendants have a tendency to remain hyper-vigilant of shifting social and political climates. Carrying the lived experiences the danger of fascism and totalitarianism creates, their nervous systems have developed a physiological consequence. A primary manifestation of this trauma is an inability to feel safe in a safe environment. Though it may seem like people are doomed to continue to transmit trauma through the generations, there is hope.
If people have changed once biologically, people can change again. This requires addressing the trauma, although that may not be the method for everyone. Rosner noted that there is a healing effect for folks who have their stories heard. There is also the potential of re-traumatization, if one repeats their story too many times.
“This act of sharing in this moment is the way to actually begin those threads of transformation,” Rosener said. “To take hold so that I’m not carrying it alone.”
Rosner linked this to a spectrum – that all people are not the same – in the way they carry post-traumatic stress disorder. She emphasized there are benefits to healing and transforming trauma in a community setting because many people are carrying trauma from their own experiences.
Lately, there has been an influx of people denying the accounts of traumatized people. This practice of challenging facts and lived experiences is damaging and carries the potential to re-traumatize people. It is dangerous to the collective memory of those who have lived through horrific events. The cultural moment of denying facts is a dangerous challenge to memory.
Rosner noted it is everyone’s responsibility to know the difference between “accuracy, authenticity, validated fact and somebody’s artifice, somebody’s fantasy, somebody’s re-writing, white-washing and erasing of history.”
She then discussed the Japanese practice of “denshosha,” or designated people tasked with collecting the memories and accounts of events from the survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima. The denshosha bear witness to the events to help carry the burden of remembering. Instead of deflecting the blame, people carry the weight together.
Rosner said the United States failed to name or reconcile the many atrocities committed on this land against many people, but specifically the crimes of genocide against Native Americans who inhabited the land first and the crime of kidnapping and enslaving Africans and African Americans. The subsequent oppression continues to be perpetuated on Black people to this day.
In order to begin healing, the United States must name these wrongs and set forth a mission to reconcile. Germany has done a lot of work to name and be accountable to trauma of the Holocaust. They may provide a model for what the United States can do.
The question-and-answer portion helped to further illuminate Rosner’s perspectives on trauma and healing. She noted that poetry was a medium that helped in her journey of healing. Hoping for everyone to identify the wrongs in their communities and work towards rectifying them, the event closed out with a land acknowledgement to honor the Native people who used to live on the land CSUMB now sits on.