Karen L. Kaplan joins us on Mental Health News Radio. She is the author of Descendants of Rajgród: Learning to Forgive. The daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Karen speaks internationally about her book, her family history, and her forgiveness journey.
Questions and Answers with Karen:
Karen, your memoir has a powerful message of forgiveness. Was forgiveness a topic you explored throughout your life?
As a child, my family never discussed forgiveness in my home. But, I learned the Jewish laws of forgiveness from my teachers, who were my rabbis at the private Jewish schools I attended. I held onto to this belief system well into my adult life.
Here is a basic review of the Jewish laws of forgiveness:
When a perpetrator hurts a victim, then it is the perpetrator’s obligation to ask for forgiveness. The perpetrator has 3 chances to ask for forgiveness and must be contrite and admit the wrongdoing. If upon the third attempt and the victim refuses to forgive, then the onus falls on the victim. My rabbis taught me that if a perpetrator never asks for forgiveness, then the victim does not need to forgive.
My father was abusive to all members of my family. He was never remorseful. He never thought he did anything wrong. He blamed his family for the abuse – it was our fault – we deserved to be punished. He never asked for forgiveness. Therefore, according to my Jewish laws, I never needed to forgive him.
After my mother died in 1997, I tried to alienate myself from my father. It was rather easy since he wasn’t interested in spending time with my children and me. He called when he needed my help. I figured, if I don’t see him, then I will be free of him. Out of sight, out of mind. But he started calling me more frequently as his health was declining. He needed me to run his errands; drive him to the doctors, grocery stores, dentist etc… It was very difficult being with him. During that time, I started to work with a therapist. She saw that I was carrying a lot of bitterness, resentment and hatred toward my father. She suggested that I learn to forgive my father before he dies.
At first, I thought her comments were absurd. But as the months progressed, I began to understand the meaning of forgiveness. And my journey toward healing began.
What does forgiveness mean to you?
Freedom, happiness and a sense of peace. When I can finally let go of all the negative emotions (that have been suppressed inside of me) toward the person who hurt me. Forgiveness allows the victim to move on so that the victim no longer feels trapped in the pain of the past. The victim moves from being a survivor to a thriver in life.
When I could finally talk about my father without getting emotionally upset, sad or bitter, then I knew that I had truly forgiven him.
Some think its holding on that makes one strong; sometimes its letting go -Sylvia Robinson
Forgiveness does not been forgetting or condoning the wrong behavior or denying it ever happened. It also does not always mean reconciling with the perpetrator.
Can you tell me about your father’s past?
My father Avrum Steinsaper, was born in a small village called Rajgrod in northeast Poland. In 1941 at age 19, the Nazis took over the town from the Soviets. His Holocaust began with a home invasion. He witnessed his mother and two sisters dragged from their home and butchered to death. He knew the 2 Ukrainian men and the Poles that were responsible. 100 more Jews were murdered that day as they were paraded through the streets of Rajgrod wearing only underwear. They were led into the forests where two SS Nazi officers were waiting and shot the Jews in waves. The Poles buried them in a massive grave. The remaining Jews were forced into a ghetto and eventually transported to Treblinka, a death camp. Most of my father’s family were gassed in Treblinka. My father ran into the forest of Rajgrod; he never looked back and never went home. He spent over 3 1/2 years living in the woods. He also assumed the name of Arie Kaplan when he found an identity card of a young, dead Polish soldier in the woods.
What happened when the war was over?
My father, Arie, made his way to a deportation camp near Hamburg, Germany where he lived after the war. Around 1950, he sailed across the Atlantic with tens of thousands of European refugees to the United States. He settled in Chicago. He met my mother when she was 19; they soon married. I am the youngest of two older brothers. We grew up in Chicago and went to private Jewish schools. Living life with a Holocaust survivor was difficult. My father was controlling, manipulative and abusive. Not all Holocaust survivors behaved like my father. Many were more appreciative of life.
You mentioned that your father, Arie, was abusive. What type of abuse occurred in your home?
My father treated each member of my family differently. He beat my mother and my brothers. I was never beaten. But I always was afraid it would be my turn. He was sexually abusive to my mother. He was financially controlling and emotionally abusive to all of us. He was filled with so much rage that on any given moment he might explode.
Did you ever forgive him?
Yes. It was July 2010. My father was rushed to the hospital. He was comatose for 7 days in the ICU. Each day I would arrive at the hospital and make sure the doctors and nurses were taking care of him. On the 7th day, I asked the nurse if my father could hear me. She said “no.” Something overcame me on that very day. I felt a sense of compassion for my father – I never experienced that feeling toward him. I held his hand and brushed the hair off his forehead. I noticed he seemed in pain. I looked at his lifeless body and said, “Daddy, you have spent your entire life suffering. You don’t need to suffer in death. Let go, Daddy. Your father, mother, sisters and baby brother are waiting for you. Let go.” I started to cry and finally uttered the words I FORGIVE YOU. He opened his eyes and stared blankly at me. He tracked my movements in both directions. I thought he might be cheating death one more time and he would survive this ordeal. So I ran to get the nurse but when I returned, his eyes were closed once again.
I’ll never know if he heard, understood or agreed with me. What I do know is that I had buried my father with a loving and compassionate heart. My brother, however, after the funeral said that he hated him and wanted to throw the pail and shovel at his casket, during the burial. He hoped he went to hell!
Why did you decide to then return to your father’s home town of Rajgrod?
What if my father had forgiven those men that killed his family and 6 million of our people? Would he have led a happier life? Would my childhood have been healthier? Would my life be different? I wanted to return to his home and see if I could forgive those that destroyed my father’s life and killed my grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins. I, too, carried a lot of hatred toward the ruthless enemies of my people.
I traveled to Poland with my boyfriend (who is now my husband). He, too is a child of two Holocaust survivors. We traveled to Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi, death camp & to Warsaw and Krakow, the larger cities of Poland. We drove to city of Bialystok, where my grandmother lived as a child until she married and moved to Rajgrod. And to smaller villages throughout the countryside. All Jewish life in Poland had disappeared. Finally, we made our way to Rajgrod. I found my father’s home and wanted to say a prayer for my father and his family…a prayer of mourning, so that all the Jewish souls of Rajgrod would know that they have not been forgotten. It took me a half hour to recite this short prayer out loud since I was bawling like a child the entire time.
This was the most poignant moment on my trip to Poland. I didn’t realize until I returned to Chicago that in this remote village of Poland, at the side of my father’s home, I had finally forgiven all those perpetrators of the Holocaust. I expunged all the negativity I was carrying from the Holocaust. I let go of this lineage of suffering that I carried my entire life. My Jewish people encountered anti-semitism century upon century from the time we left Egypt until today. It was time to let go. I felt at peace. I felt liberated.
When you returned from Poland, did you finish your memoir?
Yes, and then I had a strange thought. As difficult as it was for me to forgive my father, I forgave him on his death bed. I knew he could not hurt me anymore. And as controversial as it might seem to forgive the perpetrators of the Holocaust, there are no Nazis today that will be banging at my door wanting to kill me. But, what if someone dare hurt my own children? That would be the ultimate challenge of forgiveness. Just a few months later, on March 19, 2013, at 11:00 p.m., 3 masked men with guns entered my home. 2 of my children were home from Spring Break. My son and I were in the kitchen. The men left when they realized my daughter had called 911 from the upstairs bedroom where she was hiding. This is the first time I can honestly say I felt what my father felt during the Holocaust. Though my story is so minute compared to his, I was in shock. We were all in shock. I was paranoid, angry, scared, and traumatized. I wanted justice. I wanted those who were responsible to go to jail. I realized that justice does not happen on my time. I need to return to a place of peace, a place of calm. I decided to forgive those men. I could not live like my father and spend the rest of my life feeling angry and dwelling on justice.
Did they ever catch those men?
I am not sure. This case is now in the hands of the FBI. The FBI believe this home invasion was part of a national ring of Asian home invaders traveling through Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois. The Deerfield police department have turned this case over to them. The FBI caught the ringleader but I have no clue if they captured the men that broke into my home. I have not been questioned by the FBI. My home invasion was a bit different from all the 12 other invasions. No money was stolen from my home. I was told that they entered the wrong home. I left my garage door open that day.
How are your children doing?
Though they are both traumatized, they are doing well in school. My daughter had a few sessions with a social worker but has stopped. My son has not been in therapy. One day they both might be triggered and have an emotional breakdown. Therapy would definitely help, but they have to want it. I cannot force them to go.
What was your mother like?
My mom was a battered woman. She lived under the control and manipulation of my father. However, she tried her best to take care of us and took the brunt of the abuse. My mother showed me how to love despite our horrible upbringing.
Do you think your father was a narcissist?
Yes, now I fully understand who my father was and why he behaved the way he did. He may have been born with the disorder or it may have evolved from his traumatic background. He believed that the world owed him and he cared only about himself. He lacked empathy for others. As a young child, I wanted my father, just once, to wrap his arms around me and tell me that he loved me. That never happened. He could not find any love from within himself and therefore, he could not love anyone else. I can choose to carry all this pain within me for the rest of my life. But would it benefit me? Would I be happy? Would it be healthy? Did I come into this world to suffer? I deserve to be happy. We all do. I deserve to be at peace. I also want to break this family cycle of hatred and help teach my children the valuable lesson of forgiveness. Therefore, I chose to forgive my dad.
How do you deal with narcissists today that come into your life?
It is so easy for me to spot a person who is a narcissist. I can immediately pick up on their energy, behaviors and personality. After all, I have lived with my father for 23 years before I left home and married. Awareness is key. Being watchful of my triggers and my emotions will help me so that I will not fall into the same old trap.
It was hard at first, and it can still be challenging. I am a work in progress. But it gets easier relating to them.
I have the tendency to speak up when I see a narcissist in action harming or preying on a relative or friend. I guess it is part of being a child of a Holocaust survivor. So many people during the Holocaust stood by idly and watched heinous crimes being committed against mankind. I cannot stand by – I feel a responsibility to stand up for them.
But I learned that not all battles are worth my energy and aggravation. When you deal with a narcissist, you are dealing with an irrational and unsympathetic person. I try to contain my composure. I try to be cordial. I noticed that if you don’t let a narcissist see that you are bothered by them, they will move on to someone else.
“Always forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much.” – Oscar Wilde
Karen Kaplan, was born and raised in West Rogers Park, a Jewish neighborhood on the north side of Chicago. She is an engaging international speaker and continues to share her compelling life story and the message of forgiveness. Karen received her B.A. from the University of Illinois in Nutrition and Medical Dietetics and trained at The Claret Center of Hyde Park, IL. as a spiritual director. She maintained a private practice and lectured for many years throughout the Chicago metropolitan area on health and wellness.
After her father died, she began journaling memories (both bitter and sweet) that turned into a memoir of conquering the deep-seated fear and all consuming hatred she felt towards him. Articles, excerpts and news stories of her book were featured on WGN-TV Chicago morning news and Bialystok , Poland TV news. Karen has been interviewed on local cable and radio shows, the Chicago Jewish News, the Chicago JUF News, The Patch, an online Chicago and suburban newspaper, the Skokie Review, the Deerfield Review, the Highland Park Highlander and the Highland Park Landmark.