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Inheriting the Holocaust

Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Photo courtesy Ronny Siegel.

“The most important event in my life occurred before I was born. The Holocaust did not end with the liberation of survivors after the collapse of the Third Reich, for the legacy of their suffering extends to a generation that never faced an SS storm trooper.”1

It would be an oversimplification to suggest that all descendants of survivors of the Holocaust possess a post-trauma that is a direct result of their parents’ experience, but there is undoubtedly a phenomenon of similarities in many who were raised in the shadow of such an atrocity. In the book God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes,2 which consists of personal accounts from the generations that followed Holocaust survivors, Menachem Z. Rosensaft points out that what we know about this group of individuals is largely sourced from people who chose to participate in psychological studies and so is likely representative of the most psychologically affected among children of survivors. With that caveat firmly in place, there are undeniable traits and experiences that recur in not only the children of survivors, but also the grandchildren. As The Model Apartment explores the theme of the inheritance of trauma, the focus here is to observe some of those traits.

So how did this younger generation absorb the pain of their parents and grandparents? In numerous accounts, adult children of survivors describe the subject of the Holocaust as being entirely taboo. “I was always painfully aware that my parents had survived the concentration camps,” says Joseph Schwartz, a son of survivors. “The fact that it wasn’t talked about made me know it more. All I had to do was look at my mother’s face and I knew I’d better not ask questions. The effects of the war on my mother are obvious.”3

There also existed a coping mechanism among survivors known as “psychic numbness” or “psychic closing off,” a perpetual inability to allow closeness or connection because of the tremendous loss they had suffered. Further, the unspeakable violence they were subject to and witnessed required a level of psychological shutdown for the sake of their own survival. Often, these shutdowns remained as men and women embarked on new lives, got married and had children. Attachment to these new families remained a dangerous idea to some in the wake of having lost so much. Further, for those who experienced “survivor guilt,” love of a new family might signify an unacceptable moving on from the family that had died.

Many had a sense of the constant presence of the dead in their lives. A daughter of a survivor speaks of her father’s need to discuss what phase of life his son (who died in the camps) would be at now. He continued a recognition of birthdays and life markers as a form of remembrance and in doing so, unintentionally instilled in his living child a sense of guilt for being alive and well. Both the suffering of the parents and the death of their other children could be yielded as a weapon against this younger generation.

In the most extreme cases, survivors’ inability to connect left their children with a psychic damage of their own.

“Try to imagine the kind of bitterness, the kind of depression I’m talking about. There was never a happy moment that I can remember at home. Never a period of time when you could put your guard down and relax. My mother didn’t teach me to be proud of myself. She didn’t teach me how to take care of a household, she never told me about my body. She never talked to me, can you understand that? We were not a family that touched. I never felt that we were loved: I felt we were there to be used. I think they used on their kids the techniques for survival that they had learned in the forest. The order of normal life was so confused for them during the war that abnormalities became normalitites. People were capable of everything. Anything was permissible in order to live. Their needs became the center of the universe. My mother was like that. I think when I was a child she ate more than she gave us. We were there to fill her needs, not the other way around.”4

And yet in these accounts of what it meant to live in the shadow of the death of six million, there are also children who were raised knowing they bore a moral obligation to fight oppression in all forms. Some survivors instilled in their children the need to do anything and everything possible to help others because they had been granted the “against all odds” life they were living. Many of these men and women chose professions focused on social justice, psychological well-being and the betterment of the human condition. In the 1977 article “Heirs of the Holocaust,” Helen Epstein said of herself and fellow children of survivors, “We were different and saw the world through a different lens, that we needed to mourn relatives we never knew, and that we felt a moral responsibility to make the world a safer place for all oppressed people.”

Elaine Culbertson, a contributor to a book of essays by the children of survivors, summed this impetus up thusly: “To be a member of the second generation is to exist in a rare space. Your very presence defies the odds. You were not supposed to be here at all. You serve as a stand-in for all those who were lost. You bear the names of your murdered grandparents, your murdered aunts and uncles — some of them small children who never reached adulthood. Though it is against Jewish tradition to name children after those who died young, our situation demanded a different response. So we carry these names that brought both heartache in the reminder of the loss and joy as we grew to adulthood, safe from the hands of the murderers.”5

Although bearing the responsibility to succeed in the place of a lost generation bore a weight all its own, these pursuits spurred on by a sense of moral imperative helped ease some of the pain of the past both for the survivors and their children.

“What was unique, what was miraculous, was that anyone had survived. The fact that the children of survivors built lives of their own based on the contorted architecture of their parents’ suffering is neither surprising nor in any way exceptional. The children were not actually there, they are merely artifacts of the aftermath, witnesses not to the event itself but to the absurdity of an afterlife at all…It is the gift that keeps on giving. And in many ways it is a curse.”6

Authors Note: It is difficult (and possibly reductive) to convey the complexities of these family dynamics in a brief article. If interested, I recommend the books listed in the footnotes for further reading.

  1. In the Shadow of the Holocaust: The Second Generation. Aaron Hass. Cornell University Press. 1990.
  2. God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. Edited by Menachem Z. Rosensaft. Jewish Lights Publishing/Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data. 2015
  3. Children of The Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors. Helen Epstein. Penguin Books. 1979
  4. Children of The Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors. Helen Epstein. Penguin Books. 1979
  5. Children of The Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors. Helen Epstein. Penguin Books. 1979
  6. God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. Edited by Menachem Z. Rosensaft. Jewish Lights Publishing/Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data. 2015

By Amy Levinson


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