Adult Offspring of Holocaust Survivors as Moral Voices in the American-Jewish Community

Speaking up for moral causes is a constructive way to channel feelings of mourning that are aroused in members of the second generation and a way of resisting succumbing to despair. Although these members of the second generation did not experience direct losses themselves, they felt a powerful sense of empathy with the suffering of their parents and they mourned for the relatives who were murdered and for whom most of them are named.

For me, as a child of survivors, the moral questions raised by the annihilation of an entire group of people became the focus of my graduate work in social and personality psychology at the Graduate Center of City University of New York (CUNY). The central question I struggled with was how does one maintain moral integrity under extreme circumstances when the authority is malevolent? There I met others who were grappling with similar issues.

One of them was Stanley Milgram, whose groundbreaking book, Obedience to Authority, revealed that most people surrender personal responsibility if their actions are dictated by authority figures. Milgram’s proof was based on his laboratory experiments: people were ordered by others in authority to give electrical shocks to others who could not remember word associations. In reality, this was a simulation. The shock machine was inoperative. In the following years, Milgram was criticized for carrying out an unethical form of research. In my view, this accusation is itself a form of denial and avoids confronting the “real” persecutors.

Being interested in moral capacity in human beings, I was intrigued by the minority in Milgram’s study who disobeyed authority and refused to carry out the experiments. These subjects did not administer electrical shocks to the learner if he or she gave the wrong word association. Milgram did not answer the question I raised: What enabled these subjects to maintain their moral integrity? 

My specific areas of concentration stem from my father’s accounts of the German occupation…1

Eva Fogelman is a psychologist, writer, filmmaker and a pioneer in the treatment of psychological effects of the Holocaust on survivors and their descendants.

  1. Fogelman, Eva. ‘Adult Offspring of Holocaust Survivors as Moral Voices in the American-Jewish Community’. In Second Generation Voices: Reflections by Children of Holocaust Survivors and Perpetrators, edited by Alan L. and Naomi Berger, 208–23. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2001.