Introduction

Family secrets, cultural and geographical distances, as well as languages such as Polish, Russian, Yiddish, and Ukrainian, which I was told not to know, limited my knowledge of the intergenerational transmission of trauma and resilience in the Elovitz and Roast/Pechenik families. Both of my parents arrived in America at the age of 13 or 14 and neither wanted their children to know about their European lives. Nevertheless, the impact of their past was enormous. I became a historian to learn about the Russian Revolution that touched my father as a boy in Poland and then a psychohistorian to probe the family secrets.

Above are images of two pictures, the first of my great grandfather, Jacob Frieman, and the second of his daughter, Esther

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Elovitz, with my father and his two younger siblings. There is the overwhelmingly-in-a-language-I-don’t-know memorial book for the massacred Jews from my father’s hometown of Rozhan. These prized possessions provide me with little information about my family history, although the book led me to go to Dad’s hometown where I found no trace of the Jewish population. It was only years after her death that I learned about Mom’s communist past, the months she spent in jail in Connecticut for attempting a peaceful demonstration, or even her birth name, although I am still unsure of its spelling. For most of my life, and even now to a lesser extent, I wondered just how knowable my parents’ European pasts are to me.

The desire of my parents that their children should not know certain family secrets was based on several factors. First, their fathers, who arrived in America before World War I, like so many immigrants at the time, had not applied for citizenship, which would have made their children citizens. Even as young adolescent immigrants, both parents were too busy working to apply for citizenship if it was even on their minds. Without more than a smattering of schooling in the U.S., they apparently did not realize at first the importance of becoming citizens. Although in Mom’s case, as a young communist, she probably thought of herself as a citizen of the world.

By the time I became aware of their being non-citizen residents, McCarthyism was making it quite uncomfortable for non-citizen aliens from Eastern Europe. As a young teenager, one of my jobs was to go to the post office and pick up the resident alien forms for my mother to fill out. During this intense anti-communist period, any raw materials people in the U.S. used that came from the Soviet Union had to be marked as from Russia. As resident aliens in Senator Joe McCarthy’s America, both my parents felt vulnerable in the country they loved and raised their children to be loyal citizens of.

Family secrets abounded in the Elovitz and Roast/Pechenek household, with many being related to their lack of citizenship!  When I inquired about the family history, my father said that he was born in Lithuania rather than Poland. As best I can reconstruct, the reasons for this are that he came to this country as a political refugee without proper papers, and I heard him refer to himself as a Litvak. He told me that he was born in Lithuania but came to the U.S. with a passport from Latvia. It took a number of years in

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psychoanalysis for me to begin to probe my family’s secrets and my own inclination to have secrets. My working behind the scenes in many intellectual activities fits with my parents’ fears of being publicly exposed as non-citizens—and as a communist non-citizen family in my mother’s case. Regrettably, this aspect of the family secrets continues as I find that my devoted and loving daughter likes to keep things very separate, certainly based mostly on the separation and divorce of her parents during her early teens.

Other aspects of our transgenerational family tradition are a devotion to knowledge and a desire to make the world a better place, which are also strong elements in the Jewish tradition. While both of my parents had almost no formal education (my mother kept this a secret and left her children with the impression that she was a high school graduate), they each were self-educated with a great quest for knowledge despite their long work weeks. Dad, Michael David Elovitz, read The New York Times and The Jewish Forward. Mom, Rose Roast Pechenek, read books, the Bridgeport Post, Women’s Wear Daily, and magazine articles. Her father had been a minor functionary in the synagogue, but her family’s new secular religion became communism. In 1913, her father had to flee the Tsarist Empire before he could be arrested for his devotion to socialism, leaving behind his pregnant wife and three children, who would not see him again until 1921 when they arrived in America after a traumatic journey.

While in her early 20s, my mother was the only member of her family to cease being a communist. But she never gave up her idealistic hope to create a much more perfect world. She transmitted this drive to me. In the Elovitz household during the McCarthy Era, there was a greater fear that the FBI would come knocking on our door, inquiring about our communist relatives in Minnesota and California than about nuclear destruction. I was instructed to say that I didn’t know my relatives in California, who the government was trying to deport to Communist Ukraine as illegal communist organizers. Mom loved her family, but I suspect they looked down on her for giving up the family faith in communism.

Fear, Guilt, and Success

The only one of her siblings with whom I had any significant contact was her sister, Tania (spelled with an “i” rather than a “y” since the latter would have made it sound more Russian, which was inconvenient for a dyed-in-the-wool communist trying to convince Americans of the truth as dictated by Moscow). Tania was a

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proud proletarian factory worker devoted to the communist party line who ultimately said, “the American-Communist Party left me, I didn’t leave the Party.” Even as a teenager, I never could understand how extremely smart people like my Mom’s family could be such loyal communists. Her nephew, Richard, turned down a scholarship to Harvard because he didn’t want to leave his family in California when the government was working hard to deport them.

I have always had a surplus of Jewish guilt, which I associate with my mother. Tania would tell me how guilty Mom felt because it was her job as the oldest to look after her baby sister, who during the harrowing trip at the end of the Russian Revolution had an infected leg from the dye in a cheap stocking. As best I can reconstruct, Mom (who died when I was 22) was, among much else, a woman who felt very guilty; I identify with her determination, guilt, idealism, strength, thirst for knowledge, and the creation of a better world through education. Unbeknownst to her children until years after her death, she had come to Connecticut as a Communist Party organizer who was arrested for organizing an illegal (the police refused to give the group a permit that would make it legal) May Day protest demanding free lunches for school children and unemployed workers.

The fear that my mother felt was most intense during the McCarthy period, but it had personal and well as political roots. While she feared that people would learn about her communist past and jailing, Mom also felt guilty about her basic human needs. She drove herself so hard. We used to say, “Mom, go to the bathroom already!”  because she was clearly in distress, her legs crossed to keep from urinating; she wouldn’t readily take time away from working to go and relieve herself. Perhaps this was in part identification with her own mother, whose bladder was damaged since she could not leave her peddler’s cart, the sole livelihood of the family in the Ukrainian marketplace, in fear that her goods would be stolen. Intelligent, hard work led my parents to prosper and buy a lot by a lake to build Mom’s “dream house.” However, I felt (probably wrongly) that this success was related to her contracting cancer and dying at age 50 after a four-year struggle with her health. In my own long psychoanalysis, I had to confront my guilt about my own needs and success. For example, while I am good at advocating for and even raising money for psychohistory and history, I have faced major obstacles when asking for money for myself. I was also raised, like so many men of my generation, to deny my own

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physical and mental pain, which the reparative work of psychoanalysis has helped me get past. One manifestation was bruxism, leading to major dental problems that I have been able to leave behind.

The poverty of her formative years led Mom to sometimes not feed herself or us children the best food; Dad would become furious at her when he noticed this. Yet Dad didn’t usually comment about our eating chicken while he ate lamb chops or other more expensive meats. Like Mom, I hate to waste food and like Dad I keep our refrigerator overflowing with fresh food. Mom was a strikingly attractive woman who dressed well but inexpensively for her sales work in my father’s store (never the family’s or Mom’s store). Her mother died of appendicitis due to a failure to get proper medical care to her in time. Many years later, when I was misdiagnosed by the deeply respected family doctor, I suffered from a ruptured appendix for three days before Dad insisted on calling a cab and taking me to the hospital where I was properly diagnosed and operated on just in time to save my life. I wonder if my mother’s failure to take this lifesaving step served as an unconscious reliving of her own maternal loss? While Mom never spoke about feeling guilty about this, I do not doubt that it was a heavy burden for her.

Dad was my hero and a very different person than his wife. He readily accepted his own needs and success but was held back by being almost unable to write in English. Fortunately, when quite young, I would eavesdrop on his English language conversations with a lifelong “Yankee” friend who had been his schoolteacher for several months before Dad went to work full-time. He loved to talk about his life in Europe to friends in Yiddish, Russian, or Polish. But even when I was a child, he would evade my questions about his exciting past. As a young historian when I sought to discover his late wife’s traumatic arrest and jailing, he tried to send me in the wrong direction. Despite my having been a “good boy” who obeyed my parents’ injunction to only know English (leading to a major language barrier), this whetted my appetite to know my Dad’s history and that of the Russian Revolution. His response to McCarthyism was to apply for citizenship despite having been an organizer for the communist-led International Fur and Leather Workers Union, and he eventually became a proud citizen. Dad could be quite loving, but at times very critical and difficult to deal with. Psychoanalysis eventually equipped me to learn how to

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bypass his criticisms and enjoy our warm relationship in the last decade or so of his life.

Free Associations on My Family’s Patterns

My Dad was the eldest of two sons and one daughter, and each of his children had two boys and a girl. I was very proud that there was the same birth order among my children. Perhaps this unconsciously had something to do with my refusing to support my first wife’s desire to abort her third pregnancy (when this was still illegal). She was overwhelmed with the childcare of our two babies when I was in graduate school and we were struggling financially. My opposition was also related to my belief that there had been talk of my being aborted, and my father complained that his wife would have liked a dozen children. I knew that my mother had terminated at least one pregnancy in the era of illegal and dangerous wire hanger abortions.

My desire for an adventurous life like my father’s led to my dropping out of college and being drafted into the Army where I served for two years, mostly in Germany. Upon reentering civilian life, I just knew I wanted to marry. Both families got together and offered us some modest financial support for two years so we could finish our undergraduate degrees. Before long, my first wife was pregnant and I soon began a long string of summer and part-time jobs: mostly truck driving, working in warehouses, and cleaning offices. While earning my degrees and even through my early years as a college professor, I had these jobs, of which I was quite proud. At the end of the semester, even when teaching at Temple University, I had a summer or part-time position lined up for the Monday morning after handing in my grades. I reveled in the more proletarian of these positions, which in retrospect may be related to my mother’s siblings working as a plumber, factory worker, and waitress, her father being a janitor, as well as my parents’ working-class past and great respect for ordinary workers. Fifteen years into teaching, first as a teaching assistant and then adjunct, I was still driving trucks or doing other manual labor. My joy in feeling like a blue-collar worker connected me to my parents’ past, values, and my mother’s family. At the time, I related this work only to our desperate need for money in raising three children with a dependent wife.

Mom raised me to be a college professor, not simply by asking me to promise on her deathbed that I would become one—I only promised I would consider it—but by telling me I “had two left

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arms and feet, and if my head wasn’t sewn on” I’d forget it. In my second year of college, I rebelled against my father’s wish that I become a medical doctor out of fear that I would clumsily kill a patient. I finally accepted Mom’s dream that I become a professor because it seemed like the best way to support my growing family—and the value of responsibility for my family was totally ingrained in me. I should also note that on my father’s side there was a strong Hasidic tradition of education.

I loved the adventure of going on strike as a young college teacher; I was such a defiant picketer that a car ran over my foot. As I lay on the ground writhing in pain, the union organizer colleague, came running over, yelling “look what they [management] has done” and not at all concerned for my well-being. This reminded me of my father’s warnings to be distrustful of management, politicians, and union leaders, and I determined that I would only strike in the future for intellectual freedom. Out of consideration for my family’s pro-union position and striking colleagues, during the next two brief strikes, I came to the college so early that the picket lines were not yet set up.

Dad was at times respectful and other times envious of some of his cohort of Jewish immigrants. I recollect an incident when I was a young professor and we were in an elevator in New York City with a bunch of men who were bragging about their sons, “the doctors,” while my father looked miserable and remained quiet. Immediately afterward, I angrily told him, “I am a doctor!”   Later in life, two of his friends would tell me how proud he was of me, but my Dad felt so uncomfortable sharing this due to his own lack of formal education. He seemed quite comfortable with my brother, who had dropped out of college to pursue a career as a small businessman, following in the path of our father.

There were lots of savior fantasies in the family, perhaps related to messianic Jewish beliefs, which were accentuated by living among highly anti-Semitic Eastern Europeans. Dad literally supported his mother and siblings by trading between enemy lines in Poland and identified with the Reds who, unlike the Poles, were not anti-Semitic on principle but who targeted many Jews as class enemies since they made their living in business. Dad proudly declared that he saved my life on several occasions when I was injured as a young child as well as when he insisted that I be taken to the hospital.

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Mom’s idealism took the form of initially believing in the communist myth of an international revolution for the sake of ordinary people (the working class). As a child, my fantasies focused on being like Superman and a great baseball player, while as an adult, my devotion turned to education, environmentalism, psychoanalysis, and psychohistory. My sister, who tragically died in her 40s, devoted herself to Transcendental Meditation (TM), which she saw as bringing peace to the world as well as herself.

A Sense of Humor 

Both my parents had a good sense of humor, as do I, with Dad’s being the more pronounced. He had a great zest for life; he loved music, singing along with opera on the radio on Saturday mornings as he worked, several times telling me that had he been trained he could have been an opera singer. In Poland, he spent time with an itinerant group of actors; my sister, Claire, dreamed of being an actress while in high school. During her mother’s long illness, both parents worried that Claire might carry on the European tradition of a daughter remaining single and caring for a sick parent. (Dad’s sister Mollie was unable to leave her mother, which resulted in the failure of her marriages and ultimately a life of bitterness.)  With their support, Claire rushed into a marriage to a Holocaust survivor who became a millionaire; but they were ill-matched.

Dad knew how to relax and rest while Mom defined herself by working almost continuously; in this way, I take after her. She seldom allowed herself rest and relaxation; however, she genuinely enjoyed her customers, relatives, and friends, wanting the best for them. I do the same in an intellectual arena. My parents, who worked for a living in early adolescence almost immediately upon their arrival in this country, were role models of hard work, inspiring me to live the American Dream, which I and my siblings have passed on to the next generations. On her death bed, after a heroic struggle for health against cancer, Mom’s prominent doctor and the rabbi were teary-eyed in the face of her courage. Depressed by failing eyesight, the loss of a spouse, two of his three children, and a grandson to AIDS, Dad chose to die from a lack of proper nutrition leading to a stroke rather than lose his independence. Though their early lives were shaped by the traumas caused by WWI and the Russian Revolution, both were incredible role models of resilience and courage. I work to carry on this tradition.

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Authors:

Paul H Elovitz

Dr. Paul H. Elovitz, PhD, began organizing scholarly meetings when he started as a faculty member at Ramapo College and then as convener of the Institute for Psychohistory Saturday Workshops (1975-1982). In 1982 he founded the Psychohistory Forum to nurture psychohistorical research and continues to lead its Executive Council. In 1994 he created Clio’s Psyche (cliospsyche.org) to publish its scholarship, of which he is Editor-in-Chief. Prof. Elovitz is a historian, psychoanalytic researcher, and author of about 400 publications, covering presidential psychobiography, teaching, documenting the field of psychohistory, and much more. After taking his doctoral degree in history, he trained and practiced as a psychoanalyst, and in 2019 was made the first Research Psychoanalyst by the New Jersey Institute for Psychoanalysis. Elovitz is the author of The Making of Psychohistory, editor of The Many Roads of the Builders of Psychohistory, and edited or wrote eight other books. He is a founding member and past president of the International Psychohistorical Association (1978-) who serves on its leadership council and presents at all meetings. Prof. Elovitz is a founding faculty member at Ramapo College who previously taught at Temple, Rutgers, and Fairleigh Dickinson universities. He may be contacted at cliospsycheeditor@gmail.com.

How to Cite This:

Elovitz, P. H. (2022). The intergenerational transmission of trauma, resilience, and values in the Elovitz family. Clio’s Psyche, 29(1), 20-28.

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