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Adam Frankel: I realized early on as I started trying to grapple with the trauma of the Holocaust in my family, I realized that my way through it, my way of processing it and managing it was by being as honest as I could and that I needed to be as honest as I could.
KH: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.
In Episode 5, I sit down with Adam Frankel, former speechwriter for President Obama and author of a new memoir: The Survivors, A Story of War, Inheritance, and Healing. The Survivors is about generational trauma, from his grandparents’ experiences in the Holocaust to his mother’s struggles with mental illness and a revelation about Adam’s own identity. A note before we start: this interview mentions a suicide attempt and contains discussions of the Holocaust and graphic descriptions of violence.
Well Adam Frankel, welcome to the show. It's great to have you. Adam is a speechwriter, former speechwriter for President Obama, advisor to the Emerson Collective, and now the author of The Survivors, a deeply compelling account of his own family history and the legacy of trauma from the Holocaust. And I got to tell you Adam, this book had a real resonance with my team here. It's been recommended to friends and family. How's the launch going?
AF: Well thank you, Ken. It's been going well, but the book as you know is so personal, so raw that it's an unusual experience to have kept some of these secrets for so many years, a decade in some instances and now to be talking about it all...But it's been great. It's been very personally meaningful and liberating in a way to share our family's story.
KH: It obviously is a deeply, deeply confessional book and I couldn't help but think at a number of points throughout the book in the reading of it that you had to make a really deliberate decision about how much to put out there. How did you make that decision and why?
AF: So, I realized early on as I started trying to grapple with the trauma of the Holocaust in my family, as I started trying to grapple with the way that trauma has reverberated through the generations from my grandparents to my mom and her struggles with depression and mental health issues, to the family revelations and disclosures that I learned some years ago, I realized that my way through it, my way of processing it and managing it was by being as honest as I could and that that was imperative for me. And I knew that there would be consequences, but it was really important to me for the sake of my healing and our family's healing that I be as transparent and honest as possible. And it helped. I feel like a different person on the other side of having written this book.
KH: It is obviously a cathartic exercise in the way you just described it. In the reading of it, that comes through, but I suspect there's a larger mission, which is setting an example for others in terms of the need to deal with trauma by confronting it. And I think the book comes together at the end with that message, the idea that the only way to overcome the kinds of traumas that your family experienced is to put it all out there and expose it and be honest about it and talk about it. And the reason I want to go there is personal for me as well as a veteran with so many friends who are dealing with trauma in a community, the military and veterans community, that still stigmatizes that trauma and encourages people in way too many cases to bury it. Can you talk about both the personal catharsis of dealing with it openly, but the message that you are trying to convey to others who might be grappling with similar issues?
AF: Yeah, it's so important. I think part of this for me was looking at the way that this trauma was held onto by my family and not shared. I mean, the experience my grandparents had as Holocaust survivors... My grandfather was at Dachau among other Nazi camps. My grandmother, most of her family was murdered and she was in the woods of Eastern Europe with partisans and the resistance, and her experience was horrific. And she had nightmares until her final days. I mean when I was a kid, I remember her waking up early and making me orange juice. And I thought, "It's so nice that my grandmother's making me orange juice. She loves me so much." It's only many, many years later I realized she never slept through the night because the nightmares from that time kept her awake. My uncle would tell me stories of waking up as a kid to screams from his parents’ room as she was crying out her sisters' names because all of her sisters were killed with their families. And this pain was never really talked about, shared, processed. I mean, it was very rare for that generation to seek help, to seek treatment. They kept a lot of this pain to themselves. And even in the family, my mother was hospitalized for a suicide attempt before I was born and we never talked about that in the family. It was sort of this thing that people knew happened, but I didn't even know the details of it, when it had happened, the circumstances, until I started working on his book and trying to reconstruct my families experience. I think a big part of the problem for her in our family was the stigma around all of this stuff. They didn't talk... After her suicide attempt, my mom says her parents never mentioned it again. They never asked her what was going on with her. They cleaned up her apartment when she was in the hospital like nothing had ever happened and never raised it. And that secrecy around it, I don't think did my mom any good. I don't think it did our family any good. So, I think a part of this for me is ripping off the bandaid so to speak and sharing all of this, partly because I felt I needed to, but also because I think it's important to write about this stuff openly, to talk about depression and mental health issues openly and to de-stigmatize it in that way so that people don't feel like there's any shame in any of this stuff and that they seek the help they need. I also think- one of the things I found was the physical health benefits of writing about some of this stuff. I mean there is fascinating research pioneered by a guy named James Pennebaker at UT Austin on what's called expressive writing and I know this has been a technique that's used widely among veterans. And it is about writing about the thoughts and the feelings that are weighing on us most heavily and it's been shown in study after study the physical health benefits. I mean, and one study showed that such writing can mitigate the symptoms of certain forms of cancer. So, the physical health benefits of this sort of writing are real. I found that myself in working on the book.
KH: When you talk about your family's history of mental illness and your mom's in particular, you draw a direct line between those symptoms and I guess the initiating trauma. The Holocaust itself has had transgenerational affects on the psyche of people who were generations removed from Dachau, from the horrors that your grandfather experienced. That legacy of trauma is born by the children and grandchildren, right?
AF: It is and look, it's tough to kind of draw a line too sharply, but we do now know more about intergenerational trauma and the science of intergenerational trauma than we've ever known before. As one person put it the other day to me, a former public health official, we know more about the damage that trauma can do to individuals and generations than we knew about the benefits of seat belts when the first seat belt laws were introduced in the 1960s. For the book, I spoke with people like Rachel Yehuda who leads the trauma division at Mount Sinai and does a lot of work with veterans' communities and she's done groundbreaking work on an emerging science called epigenetics, which is the layer of information essentially that sits on top of the gene and can be affected by external factors like stress and trauma. And what she has shown is that children of Holocaust survivors are three times more likely to display PTSD or other sort of mental health issues when exposed to a traumatic event as demographically similar Jews whose parents are not survivors and other things. I mean, we can see at a molecular level the way that trauma can appear from one generation to the next. Now the way it is transmitted is a subject of much debate, but the fact that it can be transmitted, we know. And also the way that people process it, I mean it's not just about diagnostic criteria. It's not just about PTSD or something else. The other research has shown how Holocaust survivor families process what they went through, whether they talked about it or didn't talk about it. How they kind of managed their experience itself had implications for whether their own kids were likely to develop mental health issues. So, it wasn't about how bad the experience was that they endured, it was about how they processed it and managed it and the kind of family that they raised. We have all of this research and I think it is broadly applicable and we need to start grappling with some of this stuff.
KH: So you just brought up kids and family and that's the other thing that I think is the subtext to all of this. You of course embarked on this project as an exercise in expressive writing to be part of your own healing journey. You wrote this book as an example for others, but I want to believe that you also wrote it to stop this transgenerational transmission of trauma now that you're a dad.
AF: Yeah, absolutely. We've got two young kids and that was a big part of it for me. I wanted to do my best at least to ensure that the pain and that the sort of traumatic legacy stops with me and at least do my best to ensure that it isn't transmitted to our kids. You know, the trauma, the legacy of all this sort of horrific experience my grandparents endured, the legacy and the difficulties that my mom has experienced, all of these sort of things, writing the book was my way of trying to grapple with this and process and manage it so that my kids wouldn't have to deal with it or at least whatever I passed on would be somewhat mitigated. That was very much a big part of this for me.
KH: Do you think it is an unfair burden to shoulder though for the American Jewish community in particular to have to keep these stories alive? I want to draw out your answer by asking about a particular story. I believe it was a great-aunt who, hiding in a bunker from Nazis who were trying to find the entire family, was forced to smother to death her own son to keep from being found. How was that story passed on to you and how painful must it be to keep that story alive?
AF: I remember hearing that story for the first time when I was very young. I mean, that's the thing, when you grow up in a Holocaust survivor family, you grow up as kids with these just horrific stories that your family endured. And that story took place in a bunker beneath the backyard of my grandmother's home in eastern Europe and the whole family fled into this bunker when the Nazis came to liquidate the ghetto. And the Nazis were right above them in the backyard looking for them and the baby started to cry and my grandmother's sister-in-law smothered her child. My grandmother was an adolescent girl at the time. This would've happened a couple feet away from her, so this was something my grandmother just watched happen as a young girl, right in front of her. And am I here because that act happened? I mean these are the kinds of questions that stories like that raise. If that baby had cried, would the Nazis have discovered them? I mean, I don't know- how does a person wrestle with a question like that?
KH: Yeah. How do you bear the weight of those stories in society now where an alarming percentage of young Americans no longer believe that things like that happened?
AF: Well, look, I think it's incumbent upon Jews and everybody to remember-
KH: And everybody, yes.
AF: -and everybody to remember these stories and keep them alive and as a warning, as a reminder of just how fragile democracy is. There are a lot of comparisons that can be made to those years and that are often made in our country right now because of what's going on. And while I do think it's important to draw a distinction between the Nazi Holocaust and what's happening today, they are different, thank God- writing this book, revisiting my families experience, I couldn't help but see some similarities too. My grandmother would tell me about the time that she was playing in the playground and her friends stopped playing with her because their parents told them they were no longer allowed to play with Jews. My grandfather would tell me about showing up to the market and some Nazi brownshirts had come to make trouble with the Jews and telling me about how they inscrolled "Go back to Palestine" on his school, how his synagogue was burned down. I mean, these sorts of things don't feel that disconnected from this time, whether it's about Jews given the rise of anti-Semitism or migrant families in communities, or Muslims, or anybody else. I think that it's incumbent upon all of us not to take for granted the rights, privileges, and norms of this democracy of ours that has been worked at for a couple hundred years because the truth is, times of stability and democratic governance are the rarity in the human experience. And I think that if we forget that and start to think that it's the rule and not the exception, then we're going to find ourselves in even deeper trouble.
KH: Your grandmother uses phrasing to describe that moment on the playground by talking about the moment things changed. ‘The moment things changed’ is such a scary phrase and your description of the current state of liberal democracy as the aberration is also scary thought. It makes me wonder about some of the characters in your book like Gisi who was from the hometown that your grandfather's family was from and the architect of their humiliation and their degradation and in some cases their murder. And the shocking thing about his story is just how inconsequential he was in the grand scheme of that entire conflict because there were so many tyrants like him.
AF: Yeah, yeah. The person you're referring to was the Nazi official in charge of my grandfather's town. My grandfather rarely talked about this person, who by the way, I don't know how to spell his name, I don't know his full identity because as you say, he was so inconsequential that I'm not able to track this guy down through the archives and the Nazis kept pretty good records.
KH: There were just too many Gisis.
AF: There were too many of them, there were too many of them. But see, what this guy would do was he would sit in one of these bigger homes, the mayor's home before the war in this town, he'd sit on the front porch and he would just shoot Jews crossing the square. People sneaking out of the ghetto to go get food for their babies and spouses and all this kind of stuff and this guy would just shoot them as a sport. It’s unfathomable and this seems like such a different time. It seems so long ago, but here's my grandfather telling me this and he's telling me about all the victims and he knew them. I mean, he's telling me about the guy who gave him his bar mitzvah, who bar mitzvahed my grandfather was shot by him and he remembered their faces. He remembered these people. It was a horrific story.
KH: You want to believe that that is just an extraordinary circumstance, that there aren't that many people out there, but then you read a book like this and it makes you wonder if, back to your idea that the rule throughout human history is Hobbesian, it's not what we have now, that maybe it's just circumstantial and it's environmental and if the right conditions present themselves, there could be a million Gisis anywhere, including God forbid, where we live today. Has that thought occurred to you?
AF: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think it's impossible to take an honest account and look squarely at the horror of those years and by the way, the horror that has unfolded in other settings over the years where genocide or large scale acts of cruelty have take place without really reckoning with the darker aspects of human nature, which everybody possess. And that's not say that everybody has it within in them to be a Gisi. I don't know. I'd like to think not, but I think that people have it in them to just take care of their own, to look the other way, and I think about all my grandfather's friends and neighbors who looked the other way when he was put into the ghetto, who looked the other way when he was put into a cattle car and was taken off to a labor camp. I suspect some of them just wanted to look the other way and mind their own business as this horror was unfolding. And I think it is a reminder while the circumstances that gave rise to Nazis and the Holocaust may be very different from anything we may be experiencing in this country, we have to be very careful because things can change quickly. Anybody who believes in sort of democratic norms, democratic governance really needs to fight for them and speak out and not take them for granted.
KH: I appreciate that you also talk about the other aspect of human nature personified by people like in your book Brotkopf. Just wondered aloud if everyone had Gisi in them, I would submit that no clearly not, because some people really do rise to the occasion and do speak out at a great personal cost and Brotkopf, in your family's telling of their story, was their Schindler. And he did all he could to save as many Jews in that community as he was able to.
AF: No, you're right. My grandfather would talk about him as his Schindler. He was a German who lived in his town and took in Jews to kind of keep an eye on them when the Nazis came. But you're right. Look, I would often try to engage my grandfather in this question about human nature and he would kind of wave me off as I was asking hopelessly philosophical questions about German culpability or these sorts of things. And the truth is my grandfather would tell me stories about Nazis who were kind to him. He would tell me stories about- in the camps about Nazi who gave him more bread or looked the other way when they didn't need to. He wasn't showering them with praise, I want to be clear here, but he looked at individuals as individuals and he tried to measure people based on their own individual acts without making broad statements about people or cultures or anything, even as I would try and engage him on the German people. He wasn't interested in that kind of conversation. He would talk about Germans who were good to him and Germans who were not. That is one of the themes of the book, it's one of the themes of our family's experience that yeah, there are these horrible strains in human nature, but there are also some pretty good, decent ones too and that is how our family was able to survive. So, I think that the book and my experience shows some of the different sides of it, but I hope ultimately lands on the side of reason to have hope and confidence and believe in the good part of human nature.
KH: Keep listening for more of my conversation with Adam, but first, here’s a quick word about our sponsor for this episode - Storied Hats.
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For all of the trauma that the book exposes, you end on that hopeful note. I'd like to wrap up on something of a hopeful note for the country and I'm drawn to that passage in the book where you describe liberation and those American tanks rolling through the German countryside being surrounded by the concentration camp inmates who are at a loss for words, but know what it means when the Americans arrive.
AF: Yeah look, I mean I don't want to get too- you're getting me emotional here Ken, but yes. I think about that a lot. My grandfather was on a death march from Dachau when he was liberated by American troops. A US soldier standing on top of a tank who said in German so that the prisoners could understand: “it's April 27, it’s 3pm, you're free.” I think the horrific experience that my grandparents and every survivor and every member of that generation in Europe who was imprisoned or affected went through is a part of that toll, but the sacrifice, the extraordinary courage of the US Forces and the allies, I think about that and I think about all that that generation did to, in a very real sense, liberate the world from tyranny, from fascism, the extraordinary price that was paid. And that should give us strength and also remind us, I think, of our obligation to make sure that that sacrifice is paid back in our own efforts to preserve the democracies that they saved, to preserve the peace that they helped usher in. I think we ought to remember that and draw strength and then get to work.
KH: And get to work. You know, I couldn't help but draw parallels between that scene you describe and the scene I heard described of our troops at their commander in chief's order, but our troops leaving their Kurdish allies behind in Syria, being pelted by potatoes and tomatoes because those northern Syrian Kurds knew what it would mean to have the lost of American protection. I mean, what a turn. It's heartbreaking to juxtapose those two images. Did you draw those parallels in your mind?
AF: Of course. Look, we have a president who is squandering the goodwill that has been accumulated at such extraordinary costs over generations. I mean, that's- when you think about the sacrifice that this country made and that so many in the West made to maintain a stable world order, to keep faith with our allies, to build institutions that can preserve some measure of peace. I mean the way it is just being squandered and destroyed recklessly, egregiously, cravenly, for what? For this man's ego, for his own political purposes. It is outrageous and it is completely at odds with what is best about this country and completely at odds with what you're talking about, these moments that we should all be proud of as Americans. So, let's all remember the bright spots and take strength from those and make sure that we usher in a new chapter where we can actually be proud of the sort of leadership our president is giving.
KH: Adam, thank you so much for joining us today. We end every show with the same question. What is the bravest decision that you've ever witnessed or been a part of, something done in the services of others?
AF: My grandfather in the camps, there was a moment when he was separated from his father. You know, the Nazis would do these separations where they'd separate the young and strong from the old and infirm and they'd kill the old and infirm and they'd put the other ones to work. And my grandfather was separated from his dad and as he was being shuttled off to a rail car to leave while his father was being taken into this different group to be killed, he excused himself to go to the bathroom. How he pulled this off, I still honestly don't know. But he went to the bathroom, he found a little kid and persuaded this little kid to go find his father and tell him to meet him in the bathroom. They exchanged clothes because my grandfather, the clothes he was wearing were nicer than his father's. So his father was wearing these tattered rags and he thought that if his father wore his clothes, the nicer clothes, he might look just a little bit younger, just a little bit healthier and more able. And they switched clothes in the bathroom and my grandfather said, "Okay, run back with me to the younger group and we'll leave the camp together." And they did and somehow, some way, nobody paid any attention or caught on and my grandfather, that was just one of the instances in which he saved his life. But, to think about that that sort of split second decision-making where he put his own life on the line for his father, that just fills me with admiration and awe.
KH: Thank you Adam for joining. More importantly, thank you for The Survivors and for sharing stories like that one. It's been an honor having you.
AF: Thank you, Ken. I appreciate it.
KH: Thanks again to Adam Frankel for joining me. His book, The Survivors, is available now. Find the link in the episode description below.
Today, Adam talked about the generational trauma in his family and about the difficulty they’ve had talking about it. He emphasized the importance of opening up and exposing pain in an effort to heal. So we wanted to hear about your families - we asked you if your family has benefitted from having open conversations about difficult topics. Here’s what you said:
Producer: Chris on Facebook told us about a moment that first hinted he might need help. This story contains violence against animals. Chris wrote the following: “Coming back from a place where we had watched victims of a major disaster either die before our eyes or face a most gruesome field surgery, our small truck was stopped on a bridge. On a piece of flotsam, a dog with a most obviously broken back clung for life. For about 7 seconds, I watched as some brave local men tried to put the dog out of its misery, beyond their reach, using a long bendy metal pole. My eyes broke and so did a part of my heart.” Chris says he’s doing much better now and works full-time with dogs. Thanks for sharing your story with us, Chris. Find Ken Harbaugh on Facebook to keep up with Burn the Boats.
KH: Next week, we have another special bonus episode for you. This bonus features more of my conversation with Adam. He talks about life as a presidential speechwriter and what it means when the president is the best speechwriter on his own team.
After that, I sit down with Mary Beth Bruggeman, president of The Mission Continues. She tells me about her organization’s mission of helping veterans adjust to civilian life by engaging them in community service. She also talks about the responsibility she felt teaching military leadership during wartime and about her experiences as a woman in the United States Marine Corps.
And we want you to join our discussion. Tell us about a time when your identity or background brought something new and valuable to the table. Leave us a message at 216-245-5461 or send a voice memo to [email protected]
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I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcasts about big decisions.