Collecting the lost pieces of a soul

Seeking self-discovery, Yishay Garbasz traced her mother's Holocaust experience

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“My life is not simple,” says a beaming Yishay Garbasz while flashing a cute V-sign pose for my camera. As a child of Nazi Holocaust survivors, Garbasz has endured a life seeped in trauma, so the blissful persona on show seems incongruous at best. But for the 38-year-old Berlin-based British- Israeli photographer with two ongoing Tokyo exhibitions, a recent book release and successful transformative surgery last year, life is finally feeling very good.

Garbasz’s own story is a page turner that is hidden between the lines of her mother’s narrative in the new book and exhibitions. All titled “In My Mother’s Footsteps,” they chronicle her mother’s extraordinary survival through five Nazi concentration camps. Garbasz, however, is the true protagonist, as her mother’s journey has also been her own.

The story takes off in 1995, only a few hours before the death of Garbasz’s father Jack, the only Holocaust survivor of a large family in Poland. On his deathbed, he handed his wife Salla a partial outline he’d put together of her Holocaust story and made her promise to write the rest down. When Garbasz received her mother’s 10,000-word narrative a year later, she was both elated and terrified. It wasn’t until she was living in a Zen monastery in New York State several years later that she mustered the courage to read it.

“When I read her narrative, what struck me most was not what she wrote, but what she didn’t,” says Garbasz. “There was no feeling, no emotional content. The most she says is, ‘I was very lucky.’ “

Garbasz and her mother never spoke about the Holocaust, so the narrative was the map she needed to discover her own unexplainable trauma and gaps in memory.

“I was in college when I started to notice that my emotional vocabulary was very different from most people and that I had a lot of gaps in my memory of my childhood,” she explains. Like many children of Holocaust survivors, she had inherited her parents’ psychological trauma.

“My mother and I never talked about most things,” Garbasz says. “This is typical for the Holocaust generation, because they suffer from posttraumatic stress. The areas of the brain where their Holocaust memories are stored have been literally severed from the rest of their memory.”