Psychedelics and the Holocaust: A Journey Into Ancestral Memory

Illustration Psychedelics and Holocaust6

By Seth Lorinczi,

My midlife crisis came a few years ago. It arrived right on time: I was in my 40s, married with a young daughter. But nothing was working. My marriage was imploding; my lackluster career as a composer and audio engineer was disintegrating. Everywhere I looked, it seemed, I only saw failure and threat.

Around now, a gift arrived in the form of a time capsule: My father’s recollections of growing up in Hungary. Shortly before he died — nearly twenty years ago — I’d cajoled him into chronicling his early life, from 1929 to the end of the Second World War. Twenty pages, give or take, neatly typewritten and tucked inside a manila envelope. Though I’d essentially forgotten about them, they waited patiently inside a filing cabinet. Now, as my own life was coming apart in my hands, something told me it was time to revisit them.

I opened the envelope and carefully withdrew the crisp typewriter stock. As my father’s precise and lawyerly phrasing seemed to bring him back to life, I fell into a sort of dreamstate. Right here on the page were my forebears, people I’d nearly forgotten: My grandfather Muki and grandmother Csurka. When I was young, my impression of them was of people transmuted into stone: Distant, rigid beings, frozen inside a glacier. Now, as their stories took shape inside me, they were no longer the figures I’d gazed querulously up at as a child but frail, stooped shadow-people. I recognized, as if for the first time, that they’d been human beings.

I hardly knew them. My grandfather Muki died when I was four, in 1975. A quiet, fastidious man, dressed in mid-century greys and blacks. After that, Csurka drifted into the fog of Parkinson’s disease. Though she lived another seven years, she remained an iron box to me, impenetrable by lightness or joy. I could never fathom her stoic quietude; her disapproval was impenetrable as a safe. I began to anticipate our Sunday visits to her nursing home with quiet dread.

I knew the general outlines of their story, or thought I did. I knew my grandfather was a bibliophile, had attained a position of responsibility at a bank. For her part, Csurka could make seemingly anything delicious or beautiful. By the time my own palate was awakening she’d abandoned the stove, but my father would wax rhapsodic about her sweet sugar-dusted dumplings filled with plums or farmers’ cheese, so delicate they trembled slightly upon the plate. In her younger days, Csurka thought nothing of making strudel from scratch, stretching the dough across a floured table until it was thin enough to read a newspaper through.

My grandparents’ lives began in rural Hungary at the very cusp of the 20th century, a distance almost too vast to comprehend. As children, they’d walked streets of packed dirt, littered not with candy wrappers but with horse manure. I knew the outlines of the epochal events they’d seen—the First World War; the Great Depression—but I’d never stopped to ponder what these experiences might have given them, and also taken away. I had no inkling that the anxieties they’d inspired might somehow also reside in me.

I knew that Hungary played a complicated role in the Second World War, had the vague sense that—trapped between fascist Germany and communist Soviet Union—the country was obliged to tread a careful path. I hadn’t known how complicated the truth really was, how the nation assumed increasingly desperate contortions to stave off not one but two tidal waves. And that when the Holocaust finally reached Hungary—Hitler’s 1000-Year Reich already a grave-bound fantasy—the country did not rebuff it. Instead, Hungary set about the liquidation of its Jews with a ferocity and thoroughness that shocked even its German occupiers.

The killing abated with the arrival of the Red Army, steamrolling through Budapest towards its reckoning with Hitler. Or rather, this killing abated, replaced by others: Upwards of 120,000 soldiers died during the 100-day siege of Budapest, along with roughly 40,000 civilians. More were plucked off the streets or from their homes and sent to Soviet prison camps, where another 40,000 of them would die.

I knew none of this. In my child’s-eye conception—softened by my father’s breezy storytelling style—the Soviets liberated the city and life returned to normal. Now I began to understand why no one in my family would bring themselves to speak of this time. I didn’t know then that after the battle, the boulevards and streets still choked with corpses and rubble, my iron-willed grandmother was reduced to kneeling on the pavement, scrabbling with frozen fingers for a fistful of beans fallen from a passer-by’s sack. That behind this lay other untold stories, ones deemed too shameful for young ears.

More than anything, I saw the quiet, black hole of Jewishness at the center of my family. It was the screen burn, the void in the middle of the monitor, so ingrained we’d stopped noticing it long ago. Now I couldn’t unsee it. Jewishness may never have been my grandparents’ central identity, but as I grasped how thoroughly they’d obliterated it from the record, I wondered what else had been erased.

I read my father’s recollections from start to finish, searching for clues to myself. But the story ends midway through the Battle of Budapest, stopping suddenly as though he’d been hit mid-sentence. I put the papers down, but the dreamstate persisted. Something had changed since the last time I’d read them: I knew so much more now. Or rather, I knew how much I didn’t know. Like so many children who’ve survived trauma, there was much he would not speak of. And I recognized that Jewish life in Hungary was just that: A slow-burning, drawn-out trauma.

For all my father’s descriptive skill, his focus on the heart-warming and sentimental parts of his boyhood, I couldn’t unsee the shadows haunting the margins. As for so many for whom emotion is dangerous, a signal flare of vulnerability to the predators marauding the playgrounds and streets, my father believed that simply denying the existence of his feelings would protect him from harm.

In the coming days, the truth of what my family had survived spread through me like a drop of dye. Some nagging sense told me that what was happening now, in my own life—the way everything seemed to be falling apart, how I couldn’t think of anything to do but hide out in my basement studio—had something to do with their story. I wondered how I felt about it all; it was a long moment before I recognized this wasn’t something I could simply look up in a book, or that anyone else could answer for me. I’d have to find out for myself.

Eventually, I would. And this search would take a form I could never have anticipated: Psychedelic therapy. At just the moment everything was about to fall apart—my wife and I in counseling to prepare for our separation, arguing back and forth over whether we could keep the house—our therapist offered a quiet suggestion: What about trying a session under the influence of MDMA?

We did. And then we did it again, and we kept going. Those anonymous-looking gelcaps turned out to be time capsules of a different sort than my father’s recollections, taking me deep into a shadow-world no less real for its hallucinatory strangeness.  I didn’t know then how so many of the things I couldn’t name—the threads my father had left dangling in plain sight, the ways it sometimes sounded like somebody else’s voice issuing from my mouth, not my own—were inextricably bound together. A bolus of ancestral memories only half-seen, half-remembered.

Puzzlingly, what I felt most strongly here was an undeniable sense of homecoming. That inside these fractal realms were the self-knowing and sense of purpose that otherwise felt so fleeting. Eventually they’d lead me—as surely as the great green Danube—back to Budapest, to find the rest of the truth for myself.

Based in Portland, OR. Seth Lorinczi writes on ancestral trauma and healing, among other topics. In his first manuscript—“Fatherland”—he explores his family history and the scars of the Holocaust through psychedelic therapy. “Fatherland” is currently with agents and early readers; previous excerpts have been published in Entropy, Eclectica, and the SF Chronicle. You can learn more at: www.sethlorinczi.com.

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