I once had a therapist tell me that my fear of flying stemmed from my obsession with the Holocaust. I carried guilt, she said, since I did not experience the ghettos, roundups, camps, terrorisation and dehumanisation in Europe – although my relatives did.
The truth is that I was one lucky son of a gun who happened to be born Jewish in Boston in 1980. And my great uncles, aunts, and cousins were fatally unlucky to be born Jewish in the Polish hamlet of Lagow some time after 1900. I went to Brandeis University. They went to Treblinka.
My therapist told me this guilt manifests itself 30,000 feet above – putting the fear of death into me – convincing myself that I am doomed to meet a horrific fate of screams and twisted metal, plunging my fellow passengers and I into the darkest depths of the ocean. Such is my subconscious state, according to this therapist, whenever I flew to fabulous European destinations for a vacation in Paris, Berlin or Dublin. In order to indulge in the delectable sites and sounds of those cities I first required myself to pay tribute to those who could not share in such a carefree existence. So I tormented myself in-flight. The plane became my hell.
This particular couch moment with this particular therapist took place in the summer of 2009, shortly before I was to visit Auschwitz as part of a graduate student study tour. I desperately wanted drugs for the flight. I wanted drugs to medicate what I was sure would be a cataclysmic moment when I came face to face with the sign declaring ‘Arbeit macht frei’.
The psychiatrist wanted to explore the Holocaust angle, especially after I said I was paralyzed at the thought of stepping onto the hallowed Auschwitz soil, standing in a place I consider to be one of the most horrifying sites on earth. Yet when she told me that I carry guilt for being a Jew who lacks a firsthand Holocaust experience, I thought she was out of line. Who was this psychiatrist to tell me how I felt about one of the most defining Jewish experiences?
It was also the most pathetic medical diagnoses I could think of, wreaking of privilege and an inauthentic fear. It’s embarrassing to go to a doctor’s office to talk about aerophobia – and then wind up having a heart to heart about World War II. I knew nothing of fear. I grew up in the suburbs and went to summer camp. But it was a great story to tell at dinner parties.
I was, after all, a graduate student back then at Syracuse University. And cultural currency often came in the form of stories about encountering, exacerbating and overcoming anxiety fueled by the Ph.D. experience, which we played up as terribly grueling to the best of our ability. We were the outsiders, getting paid to research a niche topic that most of society was disinterested in and would think – if they ever thought about us as an amoebic entity – an indulgence to research in the first place. So we banded together, assuring each other that our doctorate was useful to ourselves and to others, with tales of woe about our anxious state. They were our little gifts of schadenfreude to one another, revelations that we were vulnerable, positively, and failures, possibly. We were all of these things, even if we waxed ad nauseam on campus about structural equation modeling and intractable hegemonic iniquity.
We had our cornucopia of light-hearted tales about prescription drugs that served as evidence to our unbalanced state for which we sought chemical relief. There were the brand names and the generics: Valium/Diazepam, Xanax/Alprazolam, Ativan/Lorazepam. The one-liner that consistently gave me the biggest chuckle came from my dear friend. He told met that if you grabbed a certain PhD student by the ankles and shook him, a whole pharmacy of pills would hit the floor.
As for my therapist, she was kind enough to give me a prescription of 10 mg tablets of Diazepam, the highest dosage available for that drug. My best friend, a neurologist, was horrified.
I went to Auschwitz and returned that summer in 2009, and I didn’t think much more about this so-called connection between my aerophobia and the Holocaust. But then the subject returned this summer.
For the past couple of years I’ve been at work on a research project, investigating the origins of a Mein Kampf that my great uncle, an American soldier, brought home from war in 1945. An inscription on the inside cover provides the names of the original owners. Genealogists gave me an address in Luebeck, Grermany, where this couple lived when they were first married – around the time when they received this book from their mayor as a wedding gift.
The author holds a copy of Mein Kampf that her great uncle brought home from the war in 1945. Photo: Matthew White
My plan was to take the Mein Kampf back into Germany, packed nice and neat among my underthings, toiletries and summer dresses. I wanted to film myself in front of their former apartment, holding the book, for a documentary film about this trip. I envisioned shocking, meaningful and extraordinary encounters with passersby. Perhaps I’d even knock on apartment doors and show the book to current tenants. Who knows – maybe they knew some things about the couple that lived there in 1938.
My husband, the documentary filmmaker, was aghast. ‘This is not Fox News where you shove a Mein Kampf into someone’s face and say, “What do you think about this book. How does it make you feel?“‘ I saw his point. There was probably no need to bring the book back into Germany – to be provocative for the sake of provocation alone. But what sealed my decision to keep the Mein Kampf Stateside was an plane. Specifically, the Icelandair Boeing-757 that I was scheduled to board to Germany.
By placing that book in my luggage, I knew with the deep conviction of someone who suffers from aerophobia that I was asking for the invocation of the Evil Eye or Karma or some other powerful force to Strike Me Down. It made perfect sense: I was being too cavalier, too self-serving with a copy of Mein Kampf that has been in my family’s possession, more or less undisturbed, for the better part of 70 years. And now I was uprooting this book and taking it on a plane where it just didn’t belong. This was just not going to happen. I recognized my narcissism – that a book I brought on the plane would bring calamity – but I couldn’t risk it nonetheless.
The author in Luebeck, Germany, this past summer on a research project. She was supposed to bring a copy of Mein Kampf but she just couldn’t. Photo: Matthew White
The therapist whom I met just once in Syracuse – who became the butt of cocktail-hour jokes – saw the plane as the space where my fear of dying meshed with my Holocaust anxiety. The plane was the flying trap where I’d meet my untimely death, forcing me to think about the brutal circumstances of my predecessors’ final days and their untimely deaths.
I still think that the conflation of my flight anxiety with the Holocaust is absurd, outrageous, insulting to the memory of Holocaust victims and survivors. And it certainly stinks of poor-little-middle-class-Jewish-woman who doesn’t know a comfortable life when she has one. But I also knew there was no way that the Mein Kampf was ever going to find its way onto my plane. That was just asking for trouble. The two tablets of Diazepam, on the other hand, worked out just fine.