Alice Miller came from an Orthodox Jewish family, who was captured in 1939 after WWII started while in the first Polish ghetto of Piotrkov, south of Lodz. She was 16 and had just graduated from high school. To survive in Nazi-occupied Poland, she gave up her Jewish identity with the help of an underground organization. She fled to the Aryan section of Warsaw with a new passport. From then on, she was called Alice Rostovska, a name she kept until her death. In Warsaw, she taught Polish students at a high school.

In 1942, Alice learned that all people from the Piotrkov ghetto would be sent to the gas chambers at Treblinka. My mother immediately procured false papers for her sister and mother, saving them both. However, she had to leave her father behind because, as an Orthodox Jew in his traditional getup who did not speak Polish, he had no chance of survival. He was also ill and died in the ghetto soon after his family’s departure. Alice hid her mother in the country and her sister in a convent in Warsaw. The terms of survival for my aunt Irena were that she also had to externally abandon Judaism

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and embrace the Catholic faith.

My mother joined an underground group and lived in fear of exposure and death. One day, she was caught by a Polish blackmailer who was cooperating with the Gestapo. She gave him the only valuable ring she had, seducing him and becoming his lover and later wife. My mother revealed this situation by saying to me, “The blackmailer had the same name as your father.” I was so shocked that I didn’t dare ask any more questions.

My late parents were a conflicted couple: my father, a staunch Nazi, and my mother, a Holocaust survivor. I was born into an explosive parenting situation. From the beginning, I was tormented by my father because, as a Nazi, he couldn’t stand having fathered a Jewish son. My mother, who would gain international fame as an outstanding advocate against child abuse, was unable to protect me. As in many families surviving the Holocaust, there was steadfast silence. I felt that I had been constantly lied to by my parents about their past. I am certain that for them, the war was never over. As for me, I shockingly realized later in my life that for decades I experienced life as a persecuted and blackmailed Jew from Warsaw in the Second World War.

Because I had great difficulties in public school, my parents decided to send me to boarding school. To their surprise, I decided to go to a Catholic boarding school (could I have been unconsciously going into hiding like my mother?). I soon wrote my mother a long letter about the fact that, at boarding school, I lived in freedom, escaping what felt like a prison. Despite that, I suffered terribly in this parochial school. For more than three and a half years, until graduation, I was constantly panicking about publicly saying a Catholic prayer. I didn’t know why I was so afraid. It was only when we were filming a documentary about my mother in Poland, Who’s Afraid of Alice Miller, and I was watching my aunt Irena describe her experiences in the convent that I realized what I had experienced in boarding school. I only vaguely knew I was a Jew. At boarding school, I experienced the same anxious feelings as my aunt and mother did during the war. I became increasingly terrified of showing myself in public because I was afraid of being killed or at least somehow putting my life in danger. I didn’t participate in class either; even when I knew the answers, I always kept quiet.

Though I never experienced WWII directly and I grew up in Switzerland, it still felt like I was a persecuted Jew in the middle of

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the Aryan part of Warsaw. Since both of my parents were from Poland, Polish normally would have been my mother tongue. When I learned to speak as a child, my mother and I spoke Polish, but my father interfered. According to him, I had to speak German. Later, I learned the Swiss dialect on the street. In my presence, my parents always spoke Polish. I didn’t understand anything, which made me feel left out. They always said to me: “We were advised that you should only speak German because two languages would confuse you. It is important to us that you become a real Swiss.” I believed them, but it always made me feel strange. When I read Saul Friedländer’s book, Nazi Germany and the Jews, a few years ago, I learned that the Orthodox Jews only spoke Yiddish, not Polish. Yiddish sounds like Swiss German. I immediately understood how I was betrayed and completely misinformed.

This was only one aspect of how I was systematically and permanently excluded from my family. My father beat, tormented, and humiliated me all the time. This is how the Nazis treated the Jews until the Final Solution. It wasn’t until later, at almost 70 years old, that I understood the whole story behind my parents’ behavior. It was not only at boarding school but also at home that I had to hide, doing everything to avoid being noticed. These feelings of being excluded and rejected in one’s own family trigger unspeakable loneliness, fear, and insecurity. Out of fear, I was quiet at home and never asked any questions; I just let everything wash over me. While I didn’t feel any hatred toward my parents, I was constantly facing unspeakable hatred, especially from my father. He was the superior Nazi; I was the unworthy life. Like the Jews in the war, I was treated as vermin.

When my father beat me, demeaned me at the meal table, or made fun of me, my mother just watched. She viewed the spectacle with wide, fearful eyes, and never defended me. Because she had to seduce my father during the war to survive, she felt the need to cooperate with him. That scenario was repeated in our family. Boarding school was not only my salvation but also a fear-imbued escape from home. I experienced the denial of Judaism as a constant burden in Catholic school.

Today it seems like a miracle to me that I, with great difficulty, passed my high school diploma. My worst experience was the terrible loneliness I felt. There was no one I could speak to. No one came to my rescue. It took years for me to be able to speak openly about it the way I do in public today. Therapists didn’t help

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me. Despite knowing everything, they feared my mother. My parents were not interested in my seeing through their war experiences and holding them accountable for their behavior. Even long after their deaths, my parents haunted me as internalized introjects (parts of the self by learning or unconsciously identification) from my childhood, leaving me feeling suppressed and insecure. Only later, owing to my book about my mother, The True “Drama of the Gifted Child”: The Phantom Alice Miller — The Real Person, and the film, was I able to thoroughly research my story and understand it in its entirety. That’s when I felt safe.

Before filming Who’s Afraid of Alice Miller in Poland, I had three goals. First, I wanted to bring my parents’ war experiences back to the place they came from. They have nothing to do with me. Second, my parents needed to feel like normal people to me so that I could develop a relationship with them. They should no longer feel like Martians. Long after their deaths, I was only able to enter a relationship with my parents on equal footing as an independent Martin when I learned the truth of my story. It was an uplifting feeling. I got rid of the persecuted Jew from Warsaw, but I have no relation to actual Judaism. Today, at my age, it is too late to develop a Jewish identity.

Third, I wanted to symbolically bury my parents in Poland where they came from. So after filming, I came back home as a Swiss migrant. I have no relationship with Poland because my mother and father made it impossible for me to have one. By the end of the shoot, I’d dissolved my transgenerational inheritance, which is the greatest success of my life. My parents’ power is finally broken. When I am often asked if I have now forgiven them, I say I cannot do that because I have been hindered and cheated of many opportunities in my life. Yet, it is an uplifting feeling to live the rest of my life in freedom and self-determination. As a therapist, it is my job to educate clients about the mechanism of transgenerational inheritance.

[NB: This article is based on Martin Miller’s conference presentation at the International Psychohistorical Association and the Object Relations Institute. Miller participated in two conferences on transgenerational trauma—one in December 2021 and another in March 2022—where he discussed not only his perspective on transgenerational inheritance from the child-victim perspective but also his trauma therapy approach based on building a specific relationship with the patient. This therapeutic relationship adapts the theory of the early development of the self. Utilizing this method, the unreal emotional traumatic memories are elaborated into an episodic narrative, helping one to increasingly realize their power over traumatic events.]

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Authors:

Martin Miller

Martin Miller, PhLic/FSP (Federation of Swiss Psychologists), practices psychology in Uster, near Zurich, and was born in Switzerland. After his mother’s death, Martin Miller’s book, The True “Drama of the Gifted Child”: The Phantom Alice Miller — The Real Person, saw the light, first in German (2013), then in English (2018). It revealed Martin’s traumatic childhood and pain, shocking professionals and parents all over the world. In 2020, the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis 2021 Gradiva® award-winning documentary film about his life, titled Who’s Afraid of Alice Miller?, premiered in Switzerland, and then in the U.S. His website is www.martinmiller.ch. Martin Miller can be reached by email at mmiller@smile.ch.

How to Cite This:

Miller, M. (2022). The transgenerational influence of Alice Miller, my war-traumatized mother. Clio’s Psyche, 29(1), 8-12.

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