My Baba, Ольга Клименко (Olga Klymenko), pictured on her Displaced Person (DP) Identity Card for the Control Commission of Germany in 1947.
My Baba (here meaning great-grandmother) was born in 1918 in the small village of Birky (Бірки) in Chernihiv Oblast, Ukraine. I imagine her early childhood as quite idyllic: playing in the Oster river with her three siblings, learning to braid garlic, decorating psanka (Ukrainian easter eggs), and celebrating her Orthodox customs with her tight-knit family. Her mother, Тетяна, was the village’s de-facto medicine woman. As there were no doctors, neighbours would come knocking on my Baba’s door when they had a sore throat, were about to give birth, or were injured. They cherished the land their family had lived on for generations. It gave them everything they needed.
Life started to change for my Baba when she was about ten years old. Her father died, a death that would linger with her for so long her mother would eventually send her to an aunt’s as a teenager because she spent so much time at his grave. Strange things were happening in her village too. Ukraine, then a part of the Soviet Union, was under the ruling thumb of Joseph Stalin who, by 1928, had introduced his first five-year plan, which included a move toward collectivization, a policy that aimed to replace individual peasant farms with collectively-controlled and state-controlled farms. Ukrainian farmers who resisted giving up land that had been held by their families for generations were derided as “kulaks,” well-to-do peasants insisting on hoarding their food and, in Soviet ideology, enemies of the state. Farmers were no longer allowed to farm for themselves, but had to turn over the bulk of their output to Stalinists, who didn’t have the systems in place to manage it. Grain rotted by the tonne outside of train stations across the country, waiting to be sent back to urban centres.
When it became apparent that collectivization was not going as planned and Ukraine was going to miss Soviet planners’ targets for output by the fall of 1932, Stalin ordered what little food Ukrainians managed to hang onto to be confiscated as punishment. Stalin’s regime also went after Ukrainian intelligentsia, removing Ukrainian teachers and thinkers, and replacing them with Russians. Schoolchildren who had until then been brought up learning Ukrainian customs, history, and language, were now being educated in Russian, spending their days listening to Stalinist indoctrination. Baba was 14 years old and about to endure Holodomor, also known as the Terror Famine.
As winter arrived, with no stores of food to rely on, and a strict rationing system in place in urban areas preventing better-off families from sending food to their rural relatives, Ukrainians started starving en masse. By the end of 1933, the UN estimates between 7 and 10 million Ukrainians were dead from the man-made genocide. To simply survive was an incredible struggle. Starving people ate grubs, roots, small birds—anything they could find. There are reports of cannibalism taking place during Holodomor, and Soviet propaganda posters being printed to discourage parents from eating their children.
My Baba didn’t talk much about Holodomor, the constant starvation, the mass loss of life. She told me of how her mother would bury food in the fields and forests, far away from her house so that if it was discovered her family wouldn’t be blamed. She told me how Stalinists would burst into her home and take every bit of food her family had managed to put aside. She told me about how her culture was taken away from her, her church vandalized and destroyed. Though she survived a genocide, there were much darker clouds on her horizon, ones that would leave even deeper imprints on her mind.
By 16, my Baba had moved to Kyiv with her aunt where she worked in a botanical garden, experimenting with grafting cuttings onto bushes and trees. Though the horror of the famine was still fresh, life marched on. In 1937, my Baba met my Dido (here meaning great-grandfather) on a blind date and within a year they were married. Their first child, a daughter, was born at the beginning of 1940, in the early days of WWII. Dido was conscripted into the Russian army, to fight against Germany with orders to kill himself if captured by the enemy. The German invasion of Ukraine began on June 22, 1941, and by the end of November most of the country was under Nazi control. Dido deserted the Russian army, not willing to take his own life with a wife and child at home. It’s no surprise that after their experiences with Stalinism, many Ukrainians initially viewed the Germans as liberators, and hoped they might gain back some independence through occupation (though it would quickly become apparent that wasn’t going to happen).
As WWII revved up across Europe, Germany was facing its own crisis: with the mass mobilization of its young able-bodied men into armies, the country was experiencing a labour shortage to supply its war machine. In 1942, to help fill this gap, the Germans undertook a propaganda campaign hoping to entice Ostarbeiter (Eastern workers from its newly-controlled territories) to its country. It papered Ukraine with flyers and newspaper ads promising agricultural jobs and a better life to its young people who were facing so much uncertainty.
My great-grandparents saw this propaganda, and hoping to provide a better life for their young daughter, decided to take a chance. They would realize their mistake when they arrived in Germany. My Baba and Dido were split up upon arrival, their daughter going with Baba. They were sent to separate labour camps, guarded by special police, their travel papers confiscated, and told they would not be allowed to leave without permission from the German government. My Baba worked manufacturing munitions for the Germans for an average of twelve hours a day and was never paid any wages. Their food was heavily monitored, rationed to starvation levels, and they lived in terrible conditions where sickness easily bloomed. The gnawing starvation was back in my Baba’s stomach, and her young daughter’s belly too. Because they were ethnically Slavic, Ukrainians were classified by German authorities as “untermenschen” (sub-humans) who could be beaten or killed if not following the rules. Those who tried to escape the labour camps were hung publicly as a warning to others thinking the same. Female prisoners also faced rampant sexual abuse from German authorities.
By 1942, as rumours of the conditions in labour camps spread, Germans stopped receiving volunteers from Ukraine and resorted to forcible means of recruitment. Towns and villages were required to register all able-bodied people to supply the quota of workers and those who failed to report for duty would have grain and property confiscated, their villages would be burned down, or they would be sent to concentration camps. Between 1941 and 1944, approximately 2.8 million civilians were deported to Germany to become Ostarbeiter, 2.2 million from Ukraine.
Whenever I asked my Baba about her time as Ostarbeiter, she would only be willing to share the odd story, tears misting up her pale blue eyes. During her time in the labour camps, prisoners were transported to factories during the day to work. During one such day, air raid sirens went off at the factory while she was working. Allied forces were targeting the factories for bombing, and Baba rushed to the area where they kept the children to scoop up her daughter and try to get into a bomb shelter (Baba was lucky in that German authorities let her group into shelters—many Ostarbeiter perished in Allied bombings because Germans would not let them into bomb shelters). When she arrived in the room where they kept the children, her daughter was there as well as one other little girl. As the air raid sirens screamed in her ears, Baba scooped up her daughter and waited for the mother of the other girl to arrive. Minutes seemed like hours. Baba couldn’t wait. The girl’s mother didn’t arrive. She grabbed the other little girl and rushed into the bomb shelter. When they emerged hours later, the factory in which the girls were contained was reduced to a pile of rubble. A sobbing mother rushed up to Baba, emerging from a different shelter, in hysterics and crying, thanking her for saving her little girl.
By 1945, the war had officially drawn to a close. The labour camps so many Ukrainians found themselves in now fell under the authority of British, American, or Russian troops, and they were transferred to makeshift DP (displaced person) camps where they lived waiting for repatriation. With the war over, my Dido was given permission to visit my Baba’s DP camp and they reunited, briefly, before Dido went off to try to plan what was next for the family. In that brief reunion, Baba would become pregnant with twins, a girl and a boy, and in January, 1946, give birth in the DP camp in Kiel, Germany. The girl twin, Lida, would grow up to become my Granny. Unfortunately, conditions in the DP camps were just as poor as in the labour camps, food was highly rationed, and repatriation slow. In their first year of life, both twins were malnourished, developing rickets.
As my Baba struggled to keep her three children alive on post-war rations, my Dido was working to try to get the family out of the DP camps and prevent them from being forcibly sent back to Ukraine (many Ostarbeiter were forcibly repatriated to a Soviet-controlled Ukraine, where they were treated as traitors and sent to remote locations like Siberia—a location my Baba’s youngest brother was sent to during the war, never to be heard from again).
Luckily, my Dido met a Canadian soldier. He was expressing his concern that he might be forced to return to Ukraine when the soldier told him he didn’t have to. He could go anywhere he liked. The soldier gave him some more advice and a small bible, which our family still has.
Following the soldier’s advice, eventually my Dido was able to find agricultural work in rural Britain. While he worked to bring the family over, Baba and her three children were resettled to a camp in Holland, where lots of other women and children were waiting to be reunited with their husbands and fathers. It was a year or so before the family met again in England. Upon seeing his children, he kneeled down and gave them chocolate he had bought as a special treat. The young twins bunched around Baba’s legs, obviously wary of the man. Dido began crying.
“They don’t recognize me,” he said.
“They will,” my Baba answered.
And she was right. The family would live in various cities in England until 1955. Baba learned English working as a seamstress in a factory from other Ukrainian women. Eventually, with hard work, they provided a stable life for themselves and their children. By 1955, Dido decided the family should try their luck in Canada. They headed for Winnipeg, an area where lots of Ukrainians already lived. They arrived in Canada in April, but by December they were back on the ship to England. Much to Baba’s frustration, Dido had come home one day, return trip already booked, after deciding Winnipeg was too cold. They’d try again in 1960 (though their eldest daughter would stay behind in England a little longer, having married), this time opting for Toronto, where they’d settle.
I’m not sure if my great-grandparents understood the colonial legacy of the country they were arriving in—that its Indigenous Peoples had faced their own genocide at the hands of an oppressive regime, had their land stolen from them, had their babies forcibly taken from them and placed in residential schools or with white families, and that Indigenous People would have to suffer the harm done to them for generations. Regardless of the depth of their understanding, I have to acknowledge that my family arrived in this land by taking advantage of colonialist policies and practices to get here.
In Toronto, my family as I know it formed. My Granny met her future husband at the post office in Union Station, where they were temporary workers, and gave birth to my Mom in 1965. Baba and Dido eventually moved to Harriston, Ontario, where they kept a modest farm, and then to Scarborough, Ontario, to retire. Baba lived to be 98 years old, passing when I was 26. She made the best life she could for her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, even as our culture faded from generation-to-generation, and found peace in this country. The whole family would marvel at what an impressive and resilient woman we had in a matriarch, but I often wondered at the unseen ways my Baba’s traumatic life impacted our family.
There is plenty of visible evidence of the toll WWII and Holodomor has taken on the family. My Granny loves to hoard food and household supplies—when the COVID-19 toilet paper rush hit, Granny was already sitting on hundreds of rolls and had so much food in her house she didn’t have to shop for three months. There’s also been an overemphasis on food and nutrition in the family, likely breeding more than one eating disorder. My Granny, mother, and I share a particularly pessimistic worldview. It’s not all bad though: much of our family has a deep respect for living in a country where our vote counts for something. Baba voted in every election—municipal, provincial, or federal—up until the day she died.
The invisible is harder to gauge. How differently would my Granny have been raised if her parents hadn’t spent most of her early years in flight or fight mode? And how differently would she have raised my mother if she had had a different upbringing? And what would my mother have been like had she not been raised by a traumatized woman?
The invisible is also hard to explain. In 2013, my Grampa, Granny’s husband, had a sudden brain bleed. He lived with the help of machines in the intensive care unit of a Richmond Hill hospital for another week-and-a-half but by day two, I knew he wasn’t coming out of it. As I sat at his bedside, stroking his hand, the strangest smell caused my nose to wrinkle. It was a faint scent. A mix of rotting flowers and old socks. I had never smelled it before and yet I was intimately familiar with it. I’d come to realize it was the smell of death.
In 2013, researchers at Emory University studying epigenetic inheritance provided some of the best evidence that trauma can alter your DNA generations down the line. Brian Dias and Kerry Ressler subjected a group of mice to shocks whenever they released the scent of cherry blossoms into their habitat. Naturally, these mice were conditioned to fear the scent. Where the research gets interesting is in two subsequent generations of mice when the scent was released, despite having never been conditioned to fear cherry blossoms the way the first generation had, the pups and grandpups showed a fear response similar to that of the conditioned generation. These offspring also had more receptors in their brains to pick up this scent than those born to mice that hadn’t been conditioned.
So, what do we do with the effects on intergenerational trauma, and how do we heal from something that’s just becoming widely understood? I believe it starts with education. Healing from trauma passed down from generation-to-generation can only truly be achieved by breaking the cycle. The more we educate ourselves about our family’s history, the context in which they were parented and parented in, the environment in which they were raised in, the more we as individuals can understand the impact that intergenerational trauma has had on our behaviours, reactions, and beliefs. In my experience, it’s much easier to release trauma when you’ve figured out that the trauma you’ve been carrying doesn’t belong to you.
In terms of therapeutic practices to help unburden the effects of family trauma, I’ve found Internal Family Systems, which I’ve written about utilizing before, to be particularly effective. In their book, IFS: Innovations and Elaborations in Internal Family Systems Therapy, Martha Sweeney and Ellen L. Ziskind, refer to intergenerational trauma as ‘legacy burdens’ and provide concrete instructions on how to alleviate them. These instructions were meant for IFS practitioners, however; with enough practice and therapeutic guidance I’ve been able to engage in self-led IFS unburdening and this is an excellent framework for moving through the steps:
1. Identify the legacy burden or the percentage of the burden that is legacy. (An example provided earlier in the chapter is a woman who is very fearful of sex, an attitude both her mother and grandmother shared.)
2. Ask the client’s parts if they would like to unload the legacy burden.
Ask the parts if they have a reason to hold onto this burden.
3. Address any fears or concerns about unloading the legacy burden.
Preparation for unburdening:
1. Ask the client to invite the Self or the highest positive potential of the parent(s) in along with any and all ancestors, known or unknown, who also carry this burden.
Siblings and other family relations can also be invited to participate and unburden if they are ready.
2. Check with the client for activated parts (these are the parts that prevent you from accessing a Self-led place) and help them to unblend, if needed.
How does the client feel toward the parent(s) and ancestors?
3. Ask if any parts need witnessing. Are there any stories, feelings, etc., that need to be fully seen and understood?
Witnessing is possible at any time during this process.
1. Ask the client to take the legacy burden out of [their] body and pass it back to the parent from whom it was inherited.
Parts are often hesitant about this request because they don’t want to hurt/burden the parent. Let them know that this burden belongs to the parent and will be returning to its source. Then reassure them that the next step is to invite the parent/ancestor to pass the burden back as far as it needs to go.
Or, ask the ancestors to address the client’s concern about passing the burden back.
2. Invite each ancestor to take the burden out of the body and pass it back.
3. Ask the client to have the ancestor continue this process and let you know when the burden reaches the end of the generational line.
4. Ask the client how the ancestor at the end of the line should release the burden.
Have the ancestor release the burden.
1. Ask the client what qualities [they] would like to invite in now that the legacy burden has been released.
Have the ancestor at the end of the line take in the qualities and pass them forward down the generational line to the client.
2. Check to see how everyone is doing.
3. Ask if anything else needs to happen.
1. Invite all the parts to notice and be updated about the legacy unburdening.
2. Thank all ancestors and parts.
Other interesting things happened when I started exploring my family history and doing the work of legacy unburdening: I heard stories I had never heard before, understood the dynamics of relationships among my family members to a greater extent, and made some neat cultural discoveries that had been lost over the generations.
There’s a Ukrainian folk ritual called the “pouring forth of wax,” vylyvaty visk or strakh vylyvaty, “to pour fear.” It involves blessed water and beeswax and is meant to treat a number of maladies including “fear sickness.” An example of this ritual can be found in Sarah D. Phillips’ paper Waxing Like the Moon: Women Folk Healers in Rural Western Ukraine:
Once a woman came to see me…she says to me, “I can’t sleep, and I’m so weak.” I asked her, “Did something frighten you?” “No,” she said—she didn’t want to tell me. I began to pour the wax, I said, “Something has frightened you—either a man, or a dead person.” She remained silent. I began to pour the wax a second time, and it splattered all over the house! She says, “I’m feeling better.” I said, “Why didn’t you tell me? You really were frightened by the dead. Now you’ll feel better.” Splattered all over the house.
—Stepania, 68, village Horykhliady, Ternopil Oblast
Sometimes, I like to imagine myself on some other plane, going back to Baba’s verdant village, back to when she was just a girl. I’d find her little home, knock on the door, and have her mother pour my fear out.
This issue: The sanitation of mental health language
Since this newsletter has been one long history lesson, I’ll cut everyone a break by letting George Carlin sum up the sanitation of mental health language as there’s no way I could say it better.
IFS: Innovations and Elaborations in Internal Family Systems Therapy
By: Martha Sweeney and Ellen L. Ziskind
Innovations and Elaborations in Internal Family Systems Therapy discusses new and creative ways to put IFS into practice, including how to use the therapy to address intergenerational trauma. The book also covers how to use IFS for issues like addiction, eating disorders, grieving, and racism. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in exploring IFS deeper.
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