Jewish Journal


By Jane Ulman, Contributing Editor

Posted on May. 6, 2008 at 4:18 pm

I can't look," 11-year-old Lara Berman shouted as she abruptly ran out of the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in tears during a family trip to Israel. Her mother darted after her.

"I'm going to see myself in one of those pictures," the young girl said.

That was 16 years ago, and Berman, now 27, said in a recent interview that she "gets" the Holocaust in ways that most American Jews don't.

For starters, she is the granddaughter of two Hungarian Holocaust survivors on her mother's side -- her grandmother, Magda Ehrlich, was imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz, and her grandfather, Laszlo Mittelman, served as a slave laborer and a resistance fighter.

Beyond that, Berman often feels as if she somehow suffered through the Holocaust herself.

Berman said she has always been proud of her grandparents' hard-earned triumphs, and she is passionate about Israel and the continued existence of the Jewish people. Her commitment extends to her studies: Her just-completed and approved USC master's thesis in journalism profiles three children of Holocaust survivors, examining the perils of assimilation among American Jews.

While Berman said she no longer reacts so dramatically to images of concentration camps, she still feels a persistent sense of dread.

"My grandparents always said, 'Don't think it couldn't happen here. Keep your eyes open,'" she said.

Despite the generation gap, many of today's grandchildren of survivors find they can't shake the feeling that their safe, normal world might end unexpectedly at any time. These youth, dubbed the Third Generation or Three Gen by people in the Holocaust community, share a common bond that is even more pronounced in their parents, the children of survivors -- those born in 1945 or later -- who are known as the Second Generation or Two Gen.

Indeed, more than 60 years after the Holocaust, the descendants of survivors continue to be undeniably and deeply shaped by an event that preceded their birth. Together they share a unique upbringing that many say is both an onus and an inspiration.

Particularly now, as the survivors themselves are aging and disappearing, these Second and Third Gens are inheriting the Holocaust legacy. Many have willingly taken on the mandate to remember the past by promoting Holocaust education and commemoration and advocating unwavering support of Israel. But others feel themselves so scarred by painful childhoods and the effects of what many mental health professionals call the intergenerational transmission of trauma that they just turn away.

Some have disavowed their Judaic heritage. Others -- identifying as Jews or not -- have moved on and don't want to be defined by the Holocaust, believing it perpetuates a victim mentality.

But even though their reactions can be as diverse and complicated as the World War II experiences of the survivors, a look at their family histories can help elucidate some of the many conflicting issues and missions that this younger generation continues to carry forth.

It's estimated that there are about 250,000 children of survivors in the United States, but no one really knows the real number, according to Max Leibmann of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants. Indeed, the Second Gen were not seen as a distinct group until about three decades after World War II ended, a fact that many attribute to a "conspiracy of silence" among their parents and society at large.

These children were born to parents who had been traumatized, debased and deprived and who were often the sole survivors of their immediate and extended families. Many survivors were young when the war broke out and had been ripped apart from their families and denied any parenting themselves. Physically and psychically wounded at war's end and crowded into displaced person's camps in Europe, many also entered into hasty and sometimes ill-matched marriages, eager to bear children and rebuild their lives.

These parents came to the United States as immigrants, bringing their pain, their accents and their European ways with them. As they worked and adapted to a new country, they had little time to mourn their massive losses. And, indeed, American Jews did not want to hear their tales of horror.

While their children noticed numbers tattooed on their arms or heard their anguished cries at night, the majority of survivors deliberately refrained from discussing the Holocaust or mentioned it only obliquely at holidays and family occasions. Yet it occupied a pervasive presence in most homes.

"We never spoke about it. When did I first know? I always knew," said Serena Woolrich (nee Wolvovits), 60, a Two Gen whose Hungarian father was imprisoned in several camps, eventually liberated from Ebensee.

When Woolrich was 12, her father, Max Woolrich, came to the family Passover seder table wearing his concentration camp jacket and hat. Serena Woolrich said the sight disturbed her, but her father said simply, "If this jacket doesn't symbolize Passover and liberation, I don't know what does."

In the mid-1970s, a confluence of events brought the children of survivors into the public's eye, allowing Woolrich and other Two Gens nationwide to feel less isolated and their home lives less odd.

First there was the publication in The New York Times Magazine in June 1977 of "Heirs to the Holocaust," an article by Two Gen Helen Epstein, which later became the seminal book, "Children of the Holocaust," published in 1979 (Putnam).

Then the popular television miniseries "Holocaust," starring Meryl Streep and James Woods, aired in April 1978. And in November 1977, the Simon Wiesenthal Center was founded in Los Angeles.

The secret was out, and psychological and social services for children of survivors started springing up across the country -- in Boston, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles -- usually in the form of "rap" or "sensitivity" groups, in keeping with the therapeutic jargon of the time.

In 1977, Flo Kinsler, a licensed clinical social worker in Los Angeles, started facilitating small, short-term therapy groups sponsored by Jewish Family Service. The next year, Klara Firestone, whose mother, Renee Firestone, survived 13 months in Auschwitz and was later one of the Wiesenthal Center's first outreach speakers, founded Second Generation Los Angeles.Related projects were taking place in New York, as well, including the first national Second Generation Conference, held in 1979, with participants and mental health professionals from across the country. And the first World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, including their descendants, followed in Jerusalem, in June 1981.

Through these programs, children of survivors, many of them already adults, discovered others who shared their unusual upbringing. Beyond the typical children-of-immigrants' experience of yearning for white bread and Mallomar cookies when their parents insisted on rye bread and rugalach, they immediately understood each other and their often challenging family dynamics.

"Never before in history was an entire generation cut off from its ancestry. It is what has shaped us. We are in constant mourning for relationships we never had," said Firestone, 60.

Clinical psychologist Aaron Hass, 59, author of "In the Shadow of the Holocaust: The Second Generation (Cornell University Press, 1990), himself a Second Gen, stresses that it is difficult to make generalizations about the children of survivors, just as it is difficult to make generalizations about the survivors themselves and their post-war reactions. Still, with caveats, he is comfortable saying Second Gens share some similar traits.

For example, he said, Second Gens tend to have been overprotected by their parents and as a result have had difficulty separating and developing as distinct individuals. They were also often denied a certain empathy from their parents, who reacted to their distress with such statements as, "You think that's a problem?" This, in turn, affected the children's willingness to be open with their parents.

"They would often hide their problems from their parents and often a very unreal relationship took place," Hass said.

Darlene Basch, 54, a Two Gen and licensed clinical social worker, has worked with the survivor community, first in San Francisco, and later in Los Angeles, since 1978. She finds that children of survivors, while a diverse group, also tend to be very family oriented and loyal. Many are good at discerning "what's really going on," and an unusually high proportion has entered the helping and artistic professions, becoming doctors and psychologists, authors and painters. Additionally, many experience an ongoing sense of rootlessness.

"Most of us don't feel that we belong anywhere. We grew up with this impending sense of doom," she said, adding that when Sept. 11 hit, children of survivors were not as traumatized as other people since "they expected things like this to happen."

But while Hass believes that Two Gens, in general, have suffered lasting fallout from their parents' experiences, exhibiting a little more anxiety and cynicism than the children of nonsurvivor parents, he stops short in saying that Second Gens were traumatized by their parents.

"That's a grossly overdramatic statement," he said, explaining that, in psychological terms, a traumatized person has a great deal of difficulty functioning in the world, a debilitating condition he doesn't ascribe to most Second Gens.

Basch, however, and other mental health professionals who work with survivors believe that the effects of unresolved trauma can be transmitted intergenerationally. They cite studies by Rachel Yehuda, a professor of psychiatry at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and other post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) researchers demonstrating that children of survivors with PTSD are likely have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, making them more vulnerable to developing the disorder themselves.

Massive trauma, if untreated, can lead to hormonal problems as well as diseases such as cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and other immune-suppressed diseases down through seven generations, according to Kinsler, 78, who is retired from Jewish Family Service but still in private practice and who has been following the work of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies since its 1984 inception.

Other studies, however, such as research done by Avi Sagi-Schwartz at the University of Haifa's department of psychology, released in May 2007, dispute the theory that the effects of trauma can be passed down through the generations. Rather Sagi-Schwartz found that children and grandchildren of survivors demonstrate the same normative behaviors of those who were not survivors' children and grandchildren.

Nevertheless, a class-action suit has been filed against the German government by a group representing thousands of children of Holocaust survivors in Israel, demanding that Germany pay for psychiatric care for a variety of emotional disorders, including addictions and post-traumatic stress syndrome caused by living with dysfunctional survivor parents.

The suit, filed in July 2007, seeks funds to cover biweekly therapy sessions for three years for 15,000 to 20,000 people, 4 to 5 percent of Israel's estimated population of 400,000 children of survivors.

But many Second Gens opt to dismiss or ignore the possible emotional repercussions, often channeling their energies into other endeavors.

A child of two survivors, Doris Wise Montrose, 58, founded Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors Los Angeles on July 13, 2006, just after the outbreak of the Lebanon War, to actively advocate for Israel and to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.

While only Montrose and three of her board members are Second Generation, Montrose established the political and educational organization in honor of her father and those who perished in the Holocaust.

"I have a real sense of dread. If Israel ceases to exist, my ability to live as a Jew with integrity anywhere in the world and to wear my Star of David is eliminated," Montrose said.

Albert Praw, 60, the son the two survivor parents, works devotedly for Israel and the Los Angeles Jewish community. "I am told there is a whole psychology about children of survivors, and indeed I have a three-volume set written on the subject that I have never looked at," he said.

Praw, however, has ensured that his children know their grandparents' stories, and, indeed, the Third Generation generally reports a close and loving relationship with their survivor grandparents, who often mellow when their grandchildren are born."My father felt that the fight's over. There is another generation. The Nazis truly lost," said Praw, who sensed a "softening" in his father as each of the four grandchildren arrived.

And the grandchildren see their grandparents as larger-than-life.

"He was my hero," Dan Gryczman, 33, said of his grandfather, Max Gryczman, who died in 2005 and who had spent most of the war doing hard labor in Auschwitz.

"It's strange to say this. The Holocaust is nothing that terrorizes or frightens me but something that I find inspirational," Gryczman said. "Every survivor, by my definition, is a righteous person."

But not all grandchildren of survivors see the Holocaust in this light.

"You really can't generalize," said Marissa Smith, 28, a Third Generation who is currently a psychology assistant who wrote her doctoral thesis on "The Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma in Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors" in 2005 at Alliant International University.

But Smith does believe trauma that isn't treated is passed down generationally, often unknowingly.

"A lot of Three Gens don't even recognize that the Holocaust could have impacted them," she said.

But, at least in Los Angeles, there are few established resources for the Third Generation. And even though they are invited to attend Second Generation groups, even those have become increasingly rare.

Firestone's Second Generation group, with an e-mail list of 450, continues to meet monthly, but attendance varies, and the emphasis is more on education and commemoration, including supporting the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Plus, members of her ongoing therapy group are concerned with different issues, such as caring for elderly parents or coping with their deaths.

And given people's busy work and family schedules but ubiquitous cyber lives, it's not surprising that social and networking opportunities for Second and Third Gens are migrating toward the Internet.

Firestone was one of seven founding members of Generations of the Shoah International (GSI), an online network created in 2002 that links survivors and their descendants as well as Holocaust-related organizations and institutions.

GSI distributes a monthly newsletter and serves as a resource to promote education, commemoration and emotional support to members numbering "tens of thousands worldwide," according to Firestone.

Serena Woolrich, who now lives in Washington, D.C., and who grew to understand her father's need to wear the concentration camp uniform at the seder table, founded AllGenerations, a nonprofit networking service, in 1990. Its 1,500 members, who include survivors, their offspring and others related to the Holocaust, disseminate information, search for missing relatives or former "landsmen" and feel connected to a community.

"My father always did for people. That's what I expect from my members. If we don't help each other, who will?" Woolrich said.

Yet most Second and Third Gens seem less and less interested in meeting in any organized fashion.

"I think people are moving on, and there are other issues," said Miriam Scharf, a Second Gen and licensed clinical social worker who has worked with the survivor community since the mid-1970s and who still facilitates a long-term psychotherapy group that now meets monthly.

Scharf believes that with the establishment of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, along with other museums and memorials, many children of survivors feel some sense of accomplishment, knowing that the legacy of the Holocaust will be preserved and honored.

And while acknowledging the emotional issues of the survivors and their descendants, Scharf also emphasizes their resiliency and successes, in addition to their ongoing need to find joy and meaning in every celebration.

"We always feel the value of life, whether we're rich or poor. We were robbed of our grandparents, aunts and uncles. It's a miracle, it's a victory to live and to carry on Jewish traditions," she said.

More information:
Allgenerations, Inc
Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors Los Angeles
Generations of the Shoah International


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