Echoes of the Holocaust
Shalom Robinson, M.D., Editor

Memory of the Holocaust

Flora Hogman, Ph.D. *

This paper addresses the legacy, the memory of the Holocaust into the third generation of Jews who survived the war 50 years ago. It represents preliminary findings of an ongoing research. Memories are a way to remain connected to the past, they are embedded in traditions, in family tales about ancestors, rituals, passed on values. Memories ensure continuity of one's heritage and structure identity. But memories, while they keep a connection to the past, also compel one to acknowledge loss, a loss which here involved humiliation, murder, untold suffering. Could one want also to forget it? Could the next generation want to "skip" it? There is a double edge to memory.

Twelve children of Holocaust survivors - second generation mothers - were interviewed who lived in the greater New York Metropolitan area; 5 third generation (grandchildren of Holocaust survivors) old enough to articulate their feelings were interviewed as well. A snowball method was used to find these people.

The research involved an exploration of communication patterns of second generation with third generation, regarding Jewish identity, values, discussions about the Holocaust. The social role of becoming a parent forces one to confront what one wants the legacy of one's family history to be. Parents were asked about their feelings regarding their own upbringing. The third generation were interviewed for their feelings related to the Holocaust. Both second and third generation were asked specific questions about loss, feelings of vulnerability, trust, victimization.

The study of the interplay of the three generations gives the opportunity to outline the evolution of identity through generations of trauma; it also enables to examine family dynamics. Although parents are very conscious about not repeating the mistakes of their parents, and attempt to provide for their children what they didn't have themselves, children are often induced to adopt parental conflicts and fulfill their parents' wishes.

I will first present excerpts of my interviews with four third generation persons and with each of their respective parents; then I will discuss the themes which emerged from all the interviews.

Sam, a 22-year-old psychology student in NYC, wants to be a writer. He does not seem particularly concerned about the Holocaust. He indicates his mother, a second generation, maybe simultaneously a bit overprotective and distant, and he seems somewhat "floored" by his grandparents. "I know them as old, sitting in a den. In retrospect, it is pretty amazing to hear all these stories about how my grandfather used his wits while in the army, and how my grandmother escaped the Nazis during WWII by jumping off a train. I can't relate to their world though." He is critical of Judaism, of its arrogant view that Jews are the chosen people. They should beware of their vanity. He is attracted to Hinduism, although he also wishes for more Jewish traditional celebrations in his non-observant home and feels obligated to know about his culture. He doesn't see any particular danger for Jews at the moment. Jews are prosperous.

Nothing in his life now is impacted by the Holocaust. Until towards the end of the interview, when I ask if he feels invulnerable, oh no, he says, and it seems that at that moment an escape hatch has opened giving a glimpse of another side of him. Quite to the contrary, he thinks about death often. Why, I question. "I have fears of not being able to stand up and die for what I believe; anything can change at any time; I know about the inevitability of death. I know it comes from my own desire to accomplish and make a mark in my life; I am concerned with dignity. I could make a mark by dying as Jews did during the war, dying for what they believed in. It is my cultural, historical, manifest destiny."

His mother, whom I have previously interviewed, admits she forced herself to speak to me. She still cannot get herself to find out exactly what happened to her parents during the war. She has spent a lot of her life working, she was not much around at home; she is in the helping professions; she loves her children (she has two young daughters) but remains distant from them. In the middle of our short interview she starts to cry; I feel guilty I have intruded upon her although she volunteered to be interviewed, saying it was her obligation. She says, "I couldn't hear about the camps, I could never look at TV. Recently my father has written his memoirs. I couldn't read them. Very difficult. Their survival was so arbitrary ... It was important to be successful in some way.

"Both my parents have a strong life spirit, dance, play hard, generous, giving people, but there was always that oppressive thing about the war. If there was a Jewish holiday they always thought of the family killed. I felt they couldn't understand it was difficult for me. Father would cry at night ...

"When I had my first child I felt it was my reason for having survived ... I am not that close to my older son; I love him though." She repeats: "I guess it's the whole notion of loss and separation; my mother never let me get upset." She says of the values she teaches: "I consciously teach my kids nothing is their fault, but my daughter always says everything is her fault; she must have learned it from me. I taught them a sense of responsibility." There are few Jewish traditions in her family. Her husband, an American Jew, is not religious at all. She never spoke about the war with her son. "He never asked me," she says; grandparents talk about it too much. "When my father died," she says, "I never dealt with the loss, my son did, he was very comforting."

For this mother the past has gone mostly underground, too painful to be touched. For Sam present and past are disconnected, the Holocaust survives in a powerful if encapsulated ideology of sacrifice. In addition, Sam takes the role of mother's rescuer.

One woman, 19-year-old Tina, immediately launches into gory details about her grandparents' stay in, and escape from, Sobibor. She obviously knows the story by heart, and this is interesting for someone who for many years disavowed her Jewishness. The rest of the story comes in bits and pieces, it's about struggles with identity conflicts. When did she hear about the Holocaust? "I always knew about it," she says, "my connection to Judaism was that my grandparents had escaped a camp." She adds, "My mother was very spiritual: her connection to Judaism was through food and song," but still Tina was ashamed of the whole thing; she felt different from her schoolmates, hated when her mother imposed the religion on her by making her attend a temple; in school she didn't want to admit she was a Jew: "Part of me grew up wondering about the Holocaust, part of me wanted to throw up; I grew up as first generation in this country, and there was no family; it made me feel a little bit like a victim."

When a book on Sobibor came out her grandparents became more vocal, then she started to admit she was a Jew. Now Tina is proud of her roots she says, while two minutes later she announces she is still ashamed. A class on the Holocaust which she chose to attend in college has enabled her to find her Jewish identity. "I became more vocal about it; there were only nine people in the class, a very serious class; we met three quarters of an hour early and then went on to the teacher's house; it helped a lot. There was a transformation from having the story scare me to being a strong part of my history. Before I felt very ignorant. I always knew and I never knew." Again, she says, "I don't want to be ashamed of what I am, a white Jewish female. I want to understand how and why people were able to do these things to each other." She finds strength in understanding, knowledge is empowering, although she does feel vulnerable as a Jew. Her motivation? "Because the family was killed for it - that makes me want to stand beside it. I am proud of my culture." [Page 1 of 5]

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*New York.