They Left It All Behind: Trau­ma, Loss, and Mem­o­ry Among East­ern Euro­pean Jew­ish Immi­grants and Their Children

  • Review
By – March 2, 2020

In the icon­ic Jew­ish immi­gra­tion tale, brave shtetl dwellers leave east­ern Europe for a new life. They strug­gle and sac­ri­fice but their chil­dren tri­umph, becom­ing suc­cess­ful mid­dle-class Amer­i­can Jews.Hannah Hahn’s They Left It All Behind offers evi­dence of dark­er, more com­plex aspects of that story.

In this heart­felt, psy­cho­an­a­lyt­i­cal­ly ori­ent­ed study, New York-based psy­chother­a­pist Han­nah Hahn describes the emo­tion­al price that many ear­ly twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry immi­grants paid for uproot­ing their homes and fam­i­lies. Draw­ing on in-depth inter­views that she con­duct­ed with twen­ty-two elder­ly adults over more than four years, Hahn con­tends that large num­bers of Jew­ish immi­grants expe­ri­enced trau­mat­ic events, and that they often repressed, dis­avowed, or kept silent about those expe­ri­ences. That silence, she asserts, may have led to trau­mat­ic feel­ings being passed to the next generation.

Hahn recounts and ana­lyzes the rec­ol­lec­tions of her inter­vie­wees (ten men and twelve women), all of them the chil­dren of two Jew­ish immi­grant par­ents. The mem­o­ries are most­ly pos­i­tive, of hap­py child­hoods, often lov­ing par­ents, near­ly pain­less pover­ty. But, Hahn reveals through her prob­ing ques­tions, those nos­tal­gic reflec­tions often gloss over high­ly anx­ious or depressed par­ents, oppres­sive finan­cial inse­cu­ri­ty, and bare­ly acknowl­edged tragedies.

Hahn observes, I expect­ed I would hear that their par­ents missed either peo­ple left at home or the old ways of life.” Instead, the theme that I call they left it all behind’ began to emerge. More often than not, the immi­grants’ chil­dren denied that their par­ents missed their for­mer homes.” In many cas­es,” Hahn pro­pos­es, “’they left it all behind’ may have been the children’s own inter­pre­ta­tion, a defense that helped them avoid think­ing or know­ing too much about their par­ents’ trau­mat­ic his­to­ries or the loss­es of migration.”

An obvi­ous ques­tion aris­es: Why inter­view immi­grants’ chil­dren rather than the immi­grants them­selves? The obvi­ous answer: Near­ly all ear­ly twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry immi­grants had died when she began her research. While acknowl­edg­ing the dis­ad­van­tages to her method, Hahn sees an upside: While much has been writ­ten about the immi­grant gen­er­a­tion… the voic­es of their chil­dren were gen­er­al­ly eclipsed. As I would come to under­stand, the chil­dren were pro­found­ly influ­enced by their par­ents’ dif­fi­cult lives as immigrants.”

They Left It All Behind is a com­pelling but demand­ing read­ing expe­ri­ence. Hahn tells, in vary­ing depths, the sto­ries of sev­en­teen of her twen­ty-two inter­vie­wees (pass­ing ref­er­ences are made to a few oth­ers). The sto­ries are com­plex and char­ac­ters return in numer­ous chap­ters; it is chal­leng­ing to keep track of who’s who (though Hahn does include Drama­tis Per­son­ae’ lists with brief descriptions).

A stick­ing point for some read­ers may be the prism through which Hahn eval­u­ates her sub­jects’ lives; she uses psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic attach­ment the­o­ry to con­duct her study, in which parental trau­ma is enor­mous­ly influ­en­tial in that child’s devel­op­ment. But agree with it or not, They Left It All Behind offers vivid sto­ries and insights into the emo­tion­al and men­tal price Jew­ish immi­grants paid.

Hahn weaves one more sto­ry into these pages — that of her own east­ern Euro­pean grand­par­ents immi­gra­tion. She recalls how lit­tle she knew, grow­ing up, of their strug­gles. Only after they had all died did she begin to under­stand how momen­tous their own immi­gra­tion sto­ries must have been. For Hahn, that per­son­al con­nec­tion enriched her work: My inter­vie­wees’ sto­ries deep­ened my under­stand­ing of my family’s jour­ney; in turn, my psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic lens helped me to under­stand their psy­cho­log­i­cal lives.”

Ira Wolf­man is a writer and edi­tor with a deep inter­est in Jew­ish his­to­ry. He is the author of Jew­ish New York: Notable Neigh­bor­hoods, Mem­o­rable Moments (Uni­verse Books) and the own­er of POE Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, a con­sult­ing firm that spe­cial­izes in edu­ca­tion­al publishing.

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