NEW YORK — Growing up, we whose parents had come out of the Shoa believed that they were indestructible. After all, they overcame the German efforts to murder them, survived ghettos and death camps, and rebuilt their lives after the war.
They also had a special appreciation and zest for life. In our eyes, they were truly the “greatest generation.” It seemed to us that our parents would be here forever, and that they would always protect us, their children.
But age and the frailties of the human body are proving to be inexorable. All too soon, the voices of those who suffered alongside the murdered victims of the Holocaust will no longer be heard. Many sons and daughters of survivors have already lost one or both of their parents.
My father, the fiery leader of the survivors of Bergen-Belsen, died in 1975; he was 64. My mother, one of the founders of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., died 22 years later.
Today, most survivors are in their 80s, and many are in failing health.
The principal responsibility for transmitting the survivors’ legacy of remembrance into the future has now shifted to their children and grandchildren. It is up to us to integrate our parents’ and grandparents’ memories, spirit and perseverance into the Jewish community’s and the world’s collective consciousness.
As a group, we do not conform to any stereotype. Among us are Holocaust remembrance activists, Jewish communal leaders and organizational professionals, rabbis and cantors, authors, artists, filmmakers, lawyers, physicians, psychiatrists and psychologists, historians, business executives, university administrators, museum curators, composers, and architects.
Of course, not all children and grandchildren of survivors or refugees from Nazi persecution identify as such. Even though he is the son of a German-Jewish refugee, Billy Joel, for example, has never, to the best of my knowledge, made any attempt to perpetuate or even acknowledge Holocaust memory in his lyrics. His one social consciousness song, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” merely sandwiches Eichmann, without commentary, between Hemingway and Robert Heinlein’s sci-fi novel, “Strangers in a Strange Land,” among the personalities and events that Joel sees as epitomizing the second half of the 20th century.
The reality is that we are no more homogeneous than our parents or grandparents. The European Jews swept up in the Holocaust covered their totality, from the fervently observant to the defiantly secular, from Yiddishists and Hebraists to those who were so thoroughly assimilated that they barely acknowledged their Jewish roots.
In the crowded barracks of Auschwitz, Treblinka and Bergen-Belsen, the formerly wealthy slept alongside Jews who had been destitute and others from all economic strata in between. The SS doctors who carried out the selections for the gas chambers did not differentiate between Jewish intellectuals and laborers, or rabbis and businessmen, or lawyers and pickpockets.
The children and the grandchildren of survivors are equally diverse. The only thing we all have in common is that our parents went through the Holocaust, but that fact is sufficient for many of us to instinctively know and understand one another. Still, we, too, subdivide ourselves.
Those of us born in DP camps shortly after the end of World War II have an intuitive affinity with one another. Like our parents and grandparents, we communicate in our own shorthand. Not long ago, I met the president of a prestigious golf club on the New Jersey shore and discovered that we shared a similar past.
“I was born in Foehrenwald,” a DP camp in the American Zone, he told me. “Bergen-Belsen,” I replied. There was no need for lengthy explanations. We knew each other’s histories without having to exchange any additional words.
Then there are the children and grandchildren of partisans, whose homes were different than those of camp survivors, or those of Jews who had spent the war years in Siberia, or pre-war refugees from Nazi Germany. It goes without saying that Polish Jews are culturally distinct from German Jews, who in turn may not have much in common with Hungarian or Romanian survivors. And when a former camp inmate married a hidden child, or a Jew who survived on forged papers, the dynamics changed yet again.
One further note of caution is essential here. Children of survivors are frequently the subject of psychological studies dissecting our supposed pathology, trauma, guilt complexes, collective idiosyncrasies and other alleged common characteristics. Such theses are often skewed and must be read with an enormous grain of salt. Their conclusions are generally rooted in control groups consisting of individuals who have sought counseling or treatment from a therapist or other mental health professional. It is as if one were to extrapolate the drinking habits of all adult Americans from interviews with members of Alcoholics Anonymous.
I do not mean to suggest that all children of survivors are free of emotional issues. There are those who have been unable to come to terms with their parents’ experiences, or who have grown up in homes in which the dark imagery of the Holocaust was overwhelming. At the same time, I firmly believe that most of us look upon our parents and grandparents as role models and a source of strength.
While each of us has come to terms with our unique identity as children and grandchildren of survivors in an individual, often multifaceted way, together we have a better understanding of and sensitivity to our parents’ and grandparents’ experiences than anyone else. Because we have lived with them, listened to them, absorbed their memories, and tried to ease their anguish as they confronted their nightmares, we have in effect become their attesters.
(Menachem Z. Rosensaft, an adjunct professor of law at Cornell Law School, distinguished visiting lecturer at the Syracuse University College of Law, and vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)