A moment that changed me: finding out that my dad was an Auschwitz baby | Namalee Bolle

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The discovery that my real grandparents died in the Holocaust helped me understand my father and made me determined to help others, says artist and writer Namalee Bolle

Mum was sombre as she spoke, so I knew it was serious. Shes not the kind of mother who is unsmiling very often so when she is, its deeply unsettling. Her kind almond eyes were intense as she became the storyteller of the kind of drama you go to the movies for.

Oma is not your real grandmother. In 1943 she pretended Dad was her own baby that she lost in a miscarriage. She risked her life and saved your dad from the Nazis. Her voice became quieter as she told the family secret.

Your grandad handed Dad to her in the middle of the night with tears streaming down his face and never returned. Your real grandparents were Jews who died in Auschwitz.

As a 16-year-old teenager I was at my wits end about my erratic, volatile dad but suddenly it all made perfect sense. His rages, panic attacks and severe depression only seemed to worsen as the years went by, and he had an awful debilitating lung condition from which he struggled to breathe. Sometimes he was lovely comedic with a weird Dutch sense of humour that had us in stitches, but fun Dad didnt last long before he became gloomy Dad again.

Intuitively I knew in my heart he loved us and I tried to reach out to him, but it was monumentally challenging because I was still a child, and he was psychologically abusive to me and my younger sister whom I was ferociously protective of. Our home felt like a war zone where Shirani and I were fighting for our own survival, against our father.

My grandparents names were Leo and Hildegard Denneboom. My dads name was originally Leo too, but he was renamed Hans Bolle and grew up in Amsterdam. Jacoba Bolle, Dads heroic second mother, was married to Max Bolle, but he died of a heart attack when Dad was only 17.

Years later I would discover psychosomatic connections between unhealed grief and respiratory problems, but I know Dad wouldnt have listened. He was in denial of the root cause of his problems and refused help. It was as if he felt he deserved to suffer for still being alive. I believe this survivors guilt is what eventually led to his own death five years ago this summer, four years after his adoptive mother Jacoba died at 96.

Hans
Intuitively I knew in my heart he loved us . Hans Bolle. Photograph: Namalee Bolle

What dad really needed was a therapist like Dr Viktor Frankl, inventor of logotherapy, who was a Holocaust survivor himself, as documented in his brilliant book Mans Search for Meaning. Frankls existential method was highly relatable to our situation and he inspired me to train as a psychotherapist myself.

I didnt start to fully acknowledge I was a second generation Holocaust survivor until I was in my late 20s and well into my fashion career, having cofounded my own magazine SUPERSUPER! The ultra-bright, relentlessly positive tone and hyper-colourful styling were in fact born of coping mechanisms of growing up with the overarching burden of death and my dads colossal pessimism about his past. I also became aware of epigenetic inheritance the transferral of trauma through DNA that makes it more likely for me to be affected by stress so I learned mindfulness meditation and reiki to self-soothe and protect myself.

Dad simply did not know how to stop the pain spilling out of him and into us. He was tortured by his past and had no tools for dealing with it as emotional difficulties and mental health problems were not something a man felt comfortable admitting to at the time. Without the unconditional love of my incredible mother I do not believe he would have lasted as long as he did. I have thought endlessly about my grandmothers altruism in helping a baby in need while putting herself in grave danger. Thanks to her I would not think twice about adopting a child.

The discovery of my true background has given me the deepest awareness to search with tremendous empathy when determining the link between PTSD and the mental and physical symptoms it creates. Now I am going to honour my family and our bittersweet tale by helping others with their healing too.

Namalee Bolle is an artist and writer with a background in fashion and creative direction. Winner of the Guardian Jackie Moore award for fashion journalism, she was also fashion director for Sleazenation, co-founder of SUPERSUPER! magazine and has contributed to I-D, the Evening Standard and Vogue

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/11/a-moment-that-changed-me-mum-dad-auschwitz-baby

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