They survived Auschwitz. They were hidden. They came from Czechoslovakia, Austria, Germany, and Belgium. They had nightmares. They were overprotective of their children. They were forthcoming about their pasts. They were reticent about their pasts.
These were the backgrounds that framed some of the stories told by four Fox Chapel area Jewish women in a program presented by the Adult Education Committee of Adat Shalom Monday night entitled “The Holocaust Legacy: a Conversation with Children of Holocaust Survivors.”
The four panelists, Debbi Breslof, Chana Brody, Melissa Marks and Debbie Yellon, talked about what they knew of their parents’ stories of survival.
The event was moderated by Linda Hurwitz, former director of the Holocaust Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and herself a daughter of survivors. Short videos of survivors and children of survivors opened and closed the event.
Lois Bernstein was on the planning committee for this event and said that it was motivated by the desire to make the Holocaust more relatable to younger folks.
“With the younger generation, it’s like talking about the sinking of the Titanic; it’s something they know that happened, but they can’t really relate to it. We thought, what if we bring it down a generation? We thought this would give it more relevance.”
Also, she added, “Survivors are dying off, and we thought it was important to get the next generation to start retelling some of their family stories.”
Indeed, in Pittsburgh alone, said Hurwitz, there are only about 40 survivors left, down from 200 when Hurwitz started at the Holocaust Center in 1988. Programs like this are important, she said, because “the survivors cannot speak much more. These stories can be a really interesting model for the next generation.”
Melissa Marks, whose mother was a hidden child, told the rapt audience, “I have known these stories from my parents and grandparents before I could remember anything else. I heard all of their stories, in detail; I don’t remember not knowing it.” At age 3, she was having nightmares about being chased by Nazis, she said.
Debbi Bresloff told of her parents’ stories of the trek through Germany, Cologne and Nairobi. She said that her dad didn’t tell the family a lot of stories, but one did stand out: while in East Germany, his gym teacher used his gym shorts to clean the gym equipment … while he was still wearing them. She also said that as a child.”
Chana Brody said she learned her mother’s stories during lunchtime, when her mother would tell them to try to get her to eat, though her dad didn’t speak to her of his experiences until Brody was an adult. She told how when her mother was rescued, she weighed just over 60 pounds, and how an uncle helped save her dad’s life in the camps. Brody said she used to hear her parents scream out in their sleep, something that she would ultimately become used to.
Debbie Yellon talked about her parents’ survival experiences in France, and how her father, whose family was deported to Auschwitz, survived in orphanages and fought in the French underground.
In a story that received a collective, audible response, Brody said she actually visited Auschwitz with her parents. She said that while there, a guard yelled at her father that she was too young to be there, and her father replied that no one had told him he was too young to be there when he was imprisoned.
While their parents’ stories varied widely, one common thread among the speakers is that they all knew that somehow, their families were different. Said Bresloff, “I thought everyone escaped the Nazis. Only later I realized how lucky I was to grow up among those who lived and told me their stories.”
Yellon’s concluding remarks while relaying her parents’ stories was perhaps the most sobering, and aptly summarized the whole purpose of the program: “No matter how much I can remember, I simply know too little, and one day, there will be no one left to speak.”
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)