A couple of nights ago, I woke up from a nightmare, disoriented and a heavy feeling in my chest. I dreamt that I had survived the Holocaust and was sitting in a concentration camp just days after liberation. I couldn’t see my reflection, but I looked down to see my that my legs were covered in filth. My toenails were bare and brittle, not the electric pink gels pedicure that I regularly sport. But what disturbed me most about the dream is the overwhelming depression and apathy I felt at having survived for nothing. I somehow knew my entire family had died and I kept thinking over and over, “I’ve spent the last few years trying to survive hour by hour, minute by minute, evading death at every turn. And now that I have, what is there to live for? How can I go on?” I think I even told one of the nurses there that I didn’t really want to live.
And then I woke up.
I’m not, in fact, a Holocaust survivor. I have no relatives that are survivors. My mother’s side of the family is what many people refer to as “hidden Jews.” This means they rejected Judaism for some reason or another and fully immersed themselves in Christianity (or the dominant culture). I wasn’t even alive during WWII; I grew up in the 1990s, two generations and an entire world away from the horror. My parents never sat me down to tell me about the Holocaust, as is the experience of many young Jewish children or descendants of Holocaust survivors. I had never seen a film about the Holocaust until long after my obsession began.
And yet, my entire life even before I knew what the Holocaust was, I have been plagued with nightmares about being ripped away from my parents, Dr. Mengele (known as the Angel of Death for both the lethal experiments he did on pregnant women and twins; and the pleasure he took at sending inmates to their deaths) selecting me on the ramp at Auschwitz, having my head shaved, and men with gas masks chasing me (I would later learn that gas masks were worn when delivering the deadly Zyklon B). Until I was a preteen, I refused to be separated from my parents and would scream bloody murder when I was taken to daycare, kindergarten and even to good friends’ houses. In kindergarten, a boy told me he was going to cut all of my hair off and I felt sick. I was obsessed with growing my hair long, and even now have never really had a substantial haircut. I refused to shower until I was about ten years old, and even then, it was quick. I also had a doll, my baby that I called Marie but insisted that people roll the “r” in a French accent. I will get to that later on.
When I was eight, I started to become obsessed with the Holocaust. I read every book I could get my hands on voraciously and would often go to the library checking out enough books on the subject that I was asked if I was doing a report. And the obsession never left. To this day, I am working on an advanced degree on the Holocaust and also work with Holocaust survivors in the local community.
Western religion isn’t very open to the idea of reincarnation. Some sects of Judaism are, which even some Jews aren’t aware of, and it is generally thought to be some kind of weird “hippy dippy” bullcrap amongst the general public. I am even a bit of a hypocrite in that when I hear people claim they have had past lives as princesses or on the Titanic, my kneejerk reaction is to not believe them. But something about what had experienced made me feel like I might have had a past life in the Holocaust, however strange (and potentially offensive) that might sound.
It took me a while to open up to people about my experiences. How was I to know I wasn’t just insane or imagining things? I’ve gathered the courage to speak to a few people, including my family, a few close friends and a therapist or two. Most people are receptive. Some have told me it is a by-product of my imagination or my lifelong struggle with depression (a therapist once said she thought it was a symbol for feeling trapped—that I am in the concentration camp of my mind). But the coincidences and validations I’ve made through my academic knowledge of the Holocaust seem very hard to ignore. After the discoveries I’ve made through my detective work, which I am about to discuss, many people stare at me slack-jawed.
As a child, I idolized Europe, particularly Germany and France. The first time I went to France, it felt like home, which has lead to a lifelong love affair with the French culture. I even studied abroad there. But before I even studied French, I would have dreams about life with someone who I gleaned was my father all in French. I often dreamt of a beautiful life with him, and it is clear from the dreams that we were very close. Although the dreams and feelings revealed it was just the two of us in my nuclear family, I had a strong feeling that I had many aunts, uncles and cousins. My father in the dreams and memories (which are hard to explain unless you have experienced them, but often come on in the moments before sleep) was a doctor and we seemed to live a comfortable middle class existence before the Nazis came to France.
There were more sinister dreams and memories as well. SS guards playing games with children under the billowing smoke. Sitting and looking for my father beyond the barbed wire fences, later I learned that I think I was held in a Kinderlager. It was only set up temporarily and it was, in fact, directly opposite where the men were paraded back and forth to work in Birkenau. It is completely possible that I could have been looking for my father from my perch there. The Kinderlager was set up sometime in 1944 to deal with the macabre problem of too many people coming into Auschwitz that summer due to the influx of Hungarian Jews. The gas chambers were full to capacity. The children needed to be placed somewhere else temporarily, before they, too, could be destroyed.
There is also the memory of the infernal itching and scratching from the lice. The screams in the night, women going insane and calling out the names of loved ones they may never see again. Pushing my sore feet into the constant Auschwitz mud for some relief. And then the worst: coming down with some sort of fever and breaking out in boils all over my body—and then being sent to the gas chamber for it. In Auschwitz, becoming ill, or even sometimes having a bad case of acne, could spell death at the next selection (when the SS doctors killed prisoners no longer “fit” to work to make room for new transports). Eventually, I was selected. I even have a memory of dying, my soul being catapulted from my body and looking down on my own body that I barely recognize with wonder and horror.
When I was 15, I found a book that would change my life: Beyond the Ashes by Rabbi Yossan Gershom. It held numerous case studies of people who felt they all had past lives in the Holocaust—many of them with similar characteristics, and most of which described me. In his work with those who felt they had a past life in the Holocaust, Rabbi Gershom found that those who had been gassed were often born having trouble breathing (check—as a baby I was hospitalized many times for asthma and almost died). Many of them were born to families with a tenuous connection to Judaism so that they were technically still Jews, but it could be hidden if necessary (check). Most were naturally blonde (check). Many were inclined to issues such as an eating disorder and depression (check). Still more often felt that they were born into the wrong family or didn’t fit in (check). Gershom also stated that many of the people he saw developed severe issues the same age they were when they died. At age 14, I developed a deep, deep depression and began cutting myself.
All of this was always in the back of my head, never really validated by anything other than my own coincidental memories until I spent one summer in Paris in 2013. Part of me longed to search the archives of transport lists at the Memorial de la Shoah, the other part of me thought I might turn up empty handed and perhaps vaguely disappointed. Of course, not every who has died in the Holocaust is recorded, but finding nothing would lend credence to the fact that I might just have an overactive, but macabre, imagination.
Besides an approximate age, I did have one major clue: as a child I actually changed my first name, which is something barely anyone knows about me. Before I turned 18, my parents wouldn’t allow me to change my name and therefore always had to explain in school why legally I was known as one name, but I preferred another. I never felt the name my parents gave me suited me, so I changed it to the name that was my name. Although I know this affronted my parents, as they felt I was rejecting my identity (they thought it was just a phase, but at the age of 23, I legally changed it…or added it onto my name retaining my original first and middle names as two middle names), I knew this was what my soul was called. Oddly enough, they had actually considered the name whilst my mom was pregnant with me, but ultimately vetoed it.
Before I dove into the archives, I downloaded a book about past lives onto my Kindle. I pored over it in my unairconditioned room in Paris, trying to make sense of my story, and in some ways, trying to convince myself NOT to search the archives, that I had imagined the whole thing.
The book told me how to read my past life chart based on my time, date and location of birth. While I would have dismissed this as utter nonsense previously, there were several things in the chart I couldn’t just poo-poo. Although the chart gives about 5 possible answers to questions such as where you were born in your last past life and what you died from, they are all incredibly specific. It stated one of the reasons for my death could have been a skin condition. One of five places of birth was Alsace in France. And one of five places of death was southern Poland.
I knew I had to go into the archives.
By then, most of the transport lists had been digitized. With a first name, an approximate age and an approximate year (there are a ton of memories I haven’t discussed, but using my knowledge as a historian, I have been able to pinpoint my arrival to Auschwitz from Drancy—the French antechamber to Auschwitz just outside of Paris– in 1944), I typed in my first name and 1944, looking for people born between 1929 and 1931.
And there she was. A girl with my first name. 14 years old in 1944. Deported to Auschwitz from Metz with her father, no mother, her grandparents, several aunts and uncles and cousins. The youngest cousin, aged 2 upon her deportation, was named Marie, just like my doll. Being French, her name would have been pronounced with a rolled “r.” Many of the aunts and uncles had married Germans, which may account for my childhood fascination with the country and not the hatred that many victims feel. Alsace also has deep German connections. And the men in the family ran a pharmacy in the center of town, though it is unclear if any of them were also doctors.
Is this me? I don’t really know. It seems like too much of a coincidence not to be.
I always knew there were survivors in the family, and this was confirmed as this particular family group has had survivors write into Yad Vashem confirming that family members had perished. But I have no idea if those people are still living or not. But, there is even a photo of a girl that could have been my cousin hanging in the French block at the Auschwitz I state museum, smiling cheekily at the camera in happier days.
There are many memories that can never be confirmed, such as things I think happened in Auschwitz, or even that this particular person wasn’t gassed straight away as most children were. But the coincidences are staggering.
Past life memories are tricky, because many people think you have to remember an event perfectly in order for it to be real, otherwise you are subconsciously fabricating it. But how many things do we remember in our current lives perfectly? How many dreams do we have that deal with symbols of our lives? This is how I view some of my memories. It is hard to say how I know some things are memories and some things are simply dreams and symbolic, but I am able to suss them out quite easily. For instance, I know the dream I discussed at the opening of this article was just a dream based on reality.
Although I have studied the Holocaust intensely since I was a child, I have always been afraid to go to Auschwitz. But in 2014, I decided it was time and went with a Jewish tour group, but not before suffering several panic attacks in the weeks prior. Was I going to lose my mind? Was I going to cry hysterically? Was I going to go into some trance and think it was all happening again? It was difficult to deal with as well because I couldn’t open up about my nerves with my travel mates. I mean, if some woman you just met tells you she thinks she died in Auschwitz despite being over 40 years too young right before you visit the camp as a group, you might avoid her for the rest of trip. This would especially have the potential to be offensive since some of those on the tour had family members who died in the Holocaust.
Surprisingly, I held it together there more than I thought I would. Birkenau was like I remembered, but it seemed so much smaller now without all of the buildings and the population bursting at the seams. The gas chambers where I might have died are no more than a pile of rubble as the SS blew them up when the Russian army started to advance (and one in a prisoner rebellion). On our tour, I could pinpoint specific places that I had lived in the camp (it is unlikely a prisoner would have seen the entire camp anyway as most of it would have been restricted and off limits) without having to read the map. The areas prisoners were restricted from seemed foreign to me, as they naturally would, but all in all, it was like coming back to face a demon. I can’t say I would like to wander around Birkenau alone any time in the near future, but I am very proud of myself for having done it.
Is all of this evidence of a past life? I can’t say for certain. But I know my life now is dedicated to keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive—in honor of the survivors who still struggle with the trauma they experienced 70 years ago, those whose voices were silenced, and perhaps even myself.
Featured Image By Tiffany Lucero,