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Clothes, Paper, Pictures: Compassionate Decluttering for Adult Children of Shoah Survivors

Adult children of Shoah survivors commemorate Yom Hashoah/Holocaust Remembrance Day every day with memories embedded in objects, behaviors and habits. These memories live in hearts and gather on desks, seep into beds and take up space in metaphorical and literal closets.

As a life coach and adult child of a Shoah refugee from Poland to Palestine, it is my honor to witness and support these individuals. I do it in a most intimate way – through their objects, particularly their clutter.

Clutter has deep roots and it takes an enormous amount of courage to invite me in to move stuff out. For this group in particular, roots connect harrowing stories of survival to present day behaviors. We loosen the root system, give honor to its strength and resilience and breathe air into the relationship between objects and people. I do this work because it is needed and in memory of my own Aunt Malcha Erlich who perished in Poland.

Anna told me that both she and her sister found it enormously difficult to part with anything, but especially clothing. She even found it challenging to donate clothing to charities that clothe those in need. I knew that her mother had survived Auschwitz and that her survival led to Anna’s vow to never take anything for granted, especially the abundance that America provided.

Anna’s mother’s survival was attributed to having a “job” outside in fresh air every day. When I learned what she did, my stomach dropped. “Oh,” Anna told me, “She separated the clothing when people were brought into the camp.” The clothing. She handled the clothing in the tragic moment of arrival. We looked at each other and ran into one another’s arms sobbing. Working with clothing saved her mother’s life and a generation later she and her sister could not part with these sacrosanct items with any kind of ease.

Dana struggled with paper. So much so that her mother’s picture of her childhood synagogue in Stuttgart was strewn on her desk with store coupons and other detritus. Dana explained that she came by paper issues honestly, as her mom was the same way and could not dispose of a single sheet of paper.

Hearing this explanation prompted a revelation that changed Dana’s behavior forever. For her mother all paper was currency. She never knew what she would need at a moment’s notice so she kept everything within eyesight. And now, so did her adult daughter. When I shared this epiphany, Dana paused the kind of pause that signaled permanent change. Once she tearfully understood what paper represented, she began to mindfully organize her desk, declaring faith in her safety and more certain of her productivity.

Now her mother’s documents and remaining family photos are framed and given pride of place in a chaos-free environment. 

Barbara probably has more than five years’ worth of paper stuffed into liquor store boxes. After she confirmed that important papers were accounted for, she tearfully admitted that she was terrified to recycle anything en masse because a box may contain random family pictures, perhaps of a daughter’s recital or son with his pet turtle. Then she broke down.

Her mother was forced to burn all her family pictures in front of Nazi officers and now Barbara feels compelled to go through each box and find every single picture – which may or may not be there. Add the guilt of not tracking photos in the first place and it becomes a monumental task that has been delayed for as many years as there are boxes. This is a case where partnership with a coach or coming to the monthly accountability group for adult children of Shoah survivors makes all the difference. She is not alone.

As I work with these people, both in the accountability group and in individual (now virtual) house calls, more questions emerge:

  • Is there a relationship between sleeping in a sliver of bed, surrounded by mounds of stuff, and parents’ hiding under a barn floor for months at a time?
  • What challenges the ability to move things out of your home even when you have found every responsible way to repurpose or recycle these things?
  • Are material objects precious or not? Does anything have value when your whole family has been murdered?

When I am entrusted with this tender work, I give witness to each person’s family history and I receive each hour spent together as a precious gift.  If I can breathe some space into a home or ease into a heart, I am doubly grateful.

To learn more about the monthly group Compassionate Decluttering for Adult Children of Shoah Survivors, visit Crowdsourcing Delight: Learn a Little Something/Teach a Little Something.

Gari Julius Weilbacher is a Personal Life Coach and has worked with clients in the financial, higher education, legal, creative arts and non-profit sectors. Equally exciting to her is the work she does with individuals looking to make personal change, actualize an entrepreneurial dream or make friends with their health and nutrition. Learn more at http://www.wildbrookcoaching.com

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