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After the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting: Healing through recognition of the truth

By Judith Kohn

I have read a lot about the effects of belonging to generational trauma. My interest in this subject comes from my desire to heal myself from the wounds that were borne through my family’s experience of the Roma, Jewish, Black, Disabled and Gay Holocaust of the 1930s and 40s in Europe.

Reading the words of Indigenous writers whose families have been murdered and dispossessed by colonisation has been a very important part of this healing; Indigenous people in Australia have been dealing with the trauma of genocide for hundreds of years.

Growing up with my Buba, who survived the liquidation of her ghetto in Libau, forced labour camps, death camps, forced transportation across state lines and watched her father get shot before her eyes and her mother perish in the gas chambers, was a trauma in itself. My Buba never hid the truth from me. “Tell me a holocaust story”, I would ask. And she would. Gently and with frankness – she was a talented storyteller and an accomplished teacher with experience teaching and nurturing child survivors after the war.

History shows us that survivors are doubted, silenced and their truth questioned and re-written. Even as a young one, when I listened to her I understood the importance of remembering and carrying on her legacy. Nonetheless, it was traumatic. I’ve had nightmares of the ghettos and camps so vivid that, sometimes, it is hard to believe that I was not there myself. Why did this happen? Is there a rational answer?

These questions arise constantly in my mind in regards to the Indigenous communities in colonised 'Australia' who have been made to suffer beyond the imagination and who continue to be subject to racially motivated attacks and hate crimes in ways that are deeply disturbing. Why is it still unsafe to be who we are? Could it be, I want to know, that those who perpetrate hate crimes and who uphold white supremacy are acting out of some sort of trauma?

There exists a strange contradiction in the atmosphere of white Australia – a pride in maintaining a ‘true blue Aussie heritage’, where ancestry can be traced back several generations, even to the first or second fleet, married with a vehement insistence that the horrors of colonisation had ‘nothing to do with them’. I have witnessed more times than I could count British-descendant Australians express attitudes of, ‘why should I feel guilty for something that happened when I wasn’t there’, or something of the like. Social media is rife with these sentiments, and they arise particularly around the national debate to change the date of the celebration of so-called ‘Australia day’, which marks the arrival of the British on this land and the subsequent genocide of Indigenous peoples.

This sentiment makes me crazy. I am filled with rage at the injustice of the fact that some of us are forced, by the sheer weight of our traumas, to carry the burden of our family’s histories when those who have family lines that are responsible for the wounds of genocide get to shake off the past with a flippant, ‘I wasn’t there/I don’t care’ attitude.

But I try to live my life leading with compassion, just as my Buba did. And through this I have attempted to unpack the psychology of white Australia, particularly those who deny the horrors of this country’s colonial past and present and/or who uphold white supremacy in their mindsets.

I believe that British-descendant Australians are traumatised, albeit not victims, of the past. If one begins with the premise that it goes against human nature to be violent, to kill without regard and to cause suffering to millions of people, then the truth of colonisation can be hard to face.

For many years I was unaware of the foundation of this nation – certainly the brutal process of colonisation was not taught at the Methodist and Anglican high schools that I attended. Upon learning of the widespread massacres of Indigenous people, the countless numbers of dead through the spread of British diseases, the ongoing removal and oppression of Indigenous children and the destruction of the land, I experienced feelings of grief and hopelessness that felt a lot like trauma. Not only because the pain echoed in the same place in my heart that carries my own community’s trauma, but because it is a natural effect of human empathy to hurt when hearing about the suffering of others.

Perhaps because of my family’s experiences I have taken this hurt to drive me to learn more, to write about and to stand for Indigenous sovereignty. Perhaps, had I not had a personal lens through which I could comprehend and process genocide, I would prefer – like many white Australians – to ignore the genocide carried out on this land?

In October last year, when eleven Jewish people lost their lives in a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, the American President Donald Trump commented on the murders that if the community had had “protection” (read: guns) inside the synagogue then the massacre would not have been carried out. This appears to me as a clear example of victim blaming, a phenomenon that carries hand-in-hand with the experience of being a victimised minority. And Australia’s brand of denialism is rife with victim blaming. Notably, that colonisation has been somehow for the ‘good’ of Indigenous people as it has brought modernity to the land.

What a way to whitewash history – an attempt by Anglo-Australians to self-soothe from the traumas of the past by convincing themselves that murder, rape, slavery and land-theft achieved a justifiable end.

I’m sick of it. It hurts my heart and reveals a fresh trauma that runs too deep to fully heal every time one of us minorities is attacked. There are those that are responsible for the ongoing traumas of colonisation; it’s not like the perpetrators left the country – here they remained and raised families who benefit to this very day from genocide. White Australia must learn to face this truth, even if it hurts.

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