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ADHD Helped My Granny Survive Auschwitz

August 25, 2019 | by Karen Green

Thank God she wasn't diagnosed back in the 30’s. Her impulsivity, spunkiness and penchant for breaking the rules enabled her to get through the Holocaust.

We were finally getting my daughter evaluated after waiting several months for the appointment. “Are there any cases of ADHD on your side?” the specialist asked me, after having completed my husband’s family history.

“Well…” I started, not sure what to tell him. Everyone in my family knew that my grandmother, Granny Fanny, has ADHD. Everyone except for her, of course. There was no such thing as ADHD close to a century ago when Granny was born. At least not the label.

Granny was an enigma to me growing up. On the one hand, she had lots of characteristics of the typical European grandmother, with her thick Hungarian accent and her delicious homemade meals whipped up with no formal recipe. She doted on us grandkids, making us our favorite cakes, knitting us sweaters, playing rummikub with us, and attempting to teach us Yiddish.

But then there was the other side of Granny, the side that didn’t quite match up to your typical Jewish grandmother. Like the fact she loved to gamble at casinos. Or that she was the only woman in the men’s evening card game. That she smoked for many years, despite her husband and kids' protests. Or that whatever thought popped into her head automatically came out of her mouth, often making her companions blush. And the worst was her not-so-clean sense of humor.

Granny loved to shop but we kids would cringe inwardly when asked to take her to Macy’s or Sears. We appreciated her generosity in the form of a new outfit or two, but the price to pay was always losing her. We just couldn’t keep up with her! “Have you seen an elderly lady with thick glasses and a cane?” became a too-often refrain. “I’ve lost Granny again,” we’d lament on the phone to my father. She would inevitably lose her purse or hearing aid and we’d have to deal with the embarrassment of Granny trying to negotiate prices with the saleslady.

As a kid, I could never understand why Granny always seemed to look forward to seeing me in advance of her trip, but within a few minutes of her arrival from out-of-state, I was already old news and she’d move her attention elsewhere. Had I done something wrong? Did she not love me enough? It wasn’t until years later when I noticed similar tendencies in my own child — constantly needing excitement, getting bored easily, jumping from activity to activity — that I realized it wasn’t me. Granny had ADHD.

And it’s a good thing no one diagnosed and medicated her back in the 1930’s. Because those same characteristics — the impulsivity, the spunkiness, her penchant for breaking the rules — is what enabled her to get through the Holocaust, one of the few survivors of her extended family.

When Granny was a teenager and life in Hungary was still normal, her twin sister, Hanna, was sent to nursing school while Granny was expected to stay home and help in the family business. “I want to be a nurse like Hanna!” she told her father. “Why do I have to stay at home?”

Her father, who shared Granny’s temperament and fighting spirit, told her simply, “Fanny, it doesn’t matter what you do for a living; with your personality, I know you will manage in life. Hanna is not like you.”

Her father was right. Upon arrival at Auschwitz, Granny and her sister were welcomed with a nightmarish scene: the Nazis were having fun throwing babies in the air and shooting. Hanna, shocked, started screaming, and a nearby Nazi noticed. “If you don’t shut up right now, I’m going to kill you too,” he told her.

Hanna was too traumatized to comprehend and continued to scream. Quick-thinking (and impulsive) Granny slapped her sister’s face, hard, to silence her. It worked. For the next few days, Hanna was so traumatized that she couldn’t speak. But Granny had saved her life.

Like all survivors, Granny survived through miracles. But she also survived thanks to the spunky, daring, and resourceful personality with which God gifted her. And she has continued to use those gifts throughout the various challenges in her life. At 95, she’s still 100% lucid, full of spunk and energy. Granny still cooks, visits the sick, cheers up “all those old people” who live nearby, and can make the most depressed person smile. And when we take her shopping, we’re still trying to keep up with her.

Thanks for those ADHD genes that you passed onto your granddaughter, Granny Fanny. Though I’ll pass on some of the bluntness, dirty jokes, and gambling, I hope my daughter will grow up to be just like you.

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