• Historical trauma can shape generations of family, both good and bad. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Scientific research shows the horrors of a traumatic event such as a genocide do not simply vanish when the victims pass away, often the trauma trickles down through the generations, forming a large part of their descendants' identity. Two people share their personal stories.
By
Tara Winkler, Movses Injejikian

5 Jul 2016 - 11:28 AM  UPDATED 5 Jul 2016 - 4:46 PM

For many years now, academics have been studying what they call intergenerational or transgenerational trauma - a form of historical trauma that is transferred from the first generation of survivors who experienced a distressing event, to the second and ongoing generations. The question they want to know is, why does it occur?

One controversial study from New York's Mount Sinai hospital looked at Holocaust survivors and linked the phenomenon to genetic changes stemming from the trauma which is then passed down through the family, while other researchers say it's more likely certain fears and attitudes are inherited through unconscious cues such as stories shared - learned memories, if you will.

What's clear? This kind of trauma can shape generations of families, both good and bad.

What happened to my ancestors is a huge part of my identity.”

Movses Injejikian, a 26-year-old pharmacy assistant, grew up in Syria after his family fled the Armenian genocide of 1915. He arrived in Australia last year after Armenians became terrorist targets in his hometown of Aleppo. 

"When my family lived in Kessab (a Syrian town that at the turn of last century was part of the Ottoman Empire), it had a population of 6500 - the majority of which were Armenian. However after the night of July 26th, 1915 - a night my great-grandparents received a knock on the door to tell them they had to evacuate the town and head East in order to 'stay safe'. Only 1500 made it back to their hometown after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

The genocide wasn't just talked about in my family, it was in every book I read, song I listened to, thought I had. That's how it is with all Armenians.

My ancestors were able to survive after walking more than 60km under the sun that summer, through the through the quick-thinking of my grandfather's uncle - a physician - who found a way to hide his family in a local hospital, with the help of Arabs in Jisr Al-Shughur. And while I guess we were 'lucky' in that we were able to make a life elsewhere, the horrors of the genocide are never far away. E

ven as a child I remember scratching at rocks in Deir ez-Zor, a desert city where the Armenians were death-marched and underneath finding fragments of bones. The genocide wasn't just talked about in my family, it was in every book I read, song I listened to, thought I had. That's how it is with all Armenians. 

Even though I was born 75 years after the night of the door knock, what happened to my ancestors is a huge part of my identity. It's the first thing I want to talk about with strangers, and it's the anger surrounding the silence that burns within me. You have to remember that Hitler got the idea for the Holocaust from the Armenian genocide when he said in 1939, 'Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?' Yes, I didn't personally experience the genocide myself, but as the descendent of a survivor, I feel I have a strong sense of duty to tell the world what really happened to them, so that perhaps we can learn from it. I cannot let it go."

“I could have let the trauma dominate me as it was threatening to, but instead I used it for the greater good”

Tara Winkler, 30, founder and managing director of Cambodian Children's Trust (CCT) and author of How (not)to start an orphanage...by a woman who did (Allen & Unwin) grew up hearing stories of her grandmother's time in Auschwitz - stories she says has helped fuel her outrage in the most positive of ways.

"My grandmother was 18 when the Nazis turned up in her small Hungarian town and forced her whole family on a train bound for Auschwitz. When they arrived, Joseph Mengele (commonly known as The Angel of Death) was there to greet them, and he sent my grandmother and her sister in one direction, and their mother and everyone else in the other. Later they were to discover they were the only two in the family to survive.

My grandmother was never bitter or angry about what she went through, and although she couldn't bring herself to talk about her experience with others, she always felt she could confide in me. I grew up hearing these stories, but I didn't know just how badly they affected me until I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia, and I felt so sick I couldn't breathe.

I grew up hearing these stories, but I didn't know just how badly they affected me until I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia, and I felt so sick I couldn't breathe.

I could have let the trauma dominate me as it was threatening to, but instead I used it for the greater good. I started an orphanage which has since became a charitable organisation working to keep families together in their homes. In a way, it's one grandchild of a genocide, helping the grandkids of Cambodia's genocide. I think we understand each other.

When you grow up with a family history like mine, there's no denying it shapes who are you, and the views you have on the world. The anger at the injustice can destroy good people and I can see why, but I think a far better approach is to channel that anger into ways you can help make the world good again." 

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