When the film I co-produced and wrote, Breaking the Silence: The Generation After the Holocaust, was first broadcast on PBS in 1984, Michael Hinds wrote about the work I have done raising awareness for and empowering the voices of the children of Holocaust survivors.
“Somehow there was always an awareness that my parents were different than other people,” says a young woman at the start of “Breaking the Silence: The Generation After the Holocaust,” a documentary film about how children of survivors of the Holocaust learn to improve their self-images and their relationships with parents.
“But I wondered why they kept those pictures around,” she said. “Pictures of bodies that are piled up and of bodies being put into the ovens. I was shocked to see them.”
Carole, as this woman is identified in the film, shares her feelings with a support group of adult children of Holocaust survivors who have one common problem: understanding how the Holocaust, something that happened 40 years ago, continues to cast a shadow over their lives. Carole, for example, was once anti-Semitic. “That was my reaction,” she says. “If I wasn’t Jewish I was safe. And nobody could hurt me.”
In 1984, there was no training program for people who work with specific populations of people who suffered this trauma. At the time, I estimated that there were about 200,000 children of Holocaust survivors in this country. Those of us who have not experienced persecution can never understand what it really feels like. But if therapists make an attempt to understand, there is a lot we as therapists can do to help.
Breaking the silence surrounding the Holocaust, a taboo subject in many homes, is a prime objective.
Children often say they don’t ask their parents about the Holocaust because they didn’t want to cause them any more pain. And many parents say they never told their children because they didn’t want to cause them pain.
Children with only a vague idea about their parents’ pain may resent the undertone in family life, especially during holidays, when their parents may be saddened by memories of dead relatives. The children tend to perceive their parents only as victims and then they may identify with their parents and feel victimized themselves.
Children may also feel guilty about their anger toward their parents or overwhelmed by their perceived responsibility to replace dead siblings. Some are unable to make emotional commitments. Many who have lost parents and relatives feel a total lack of trust in the world and in humanity, and that makes it difficult to relate to anybody.
Another goal of the group therapy is to help members and their families finish mourning and channel anger constructively. I see families stuck in various stages of the mourning process. Many are arrested in the denial stage, the earliest stage, where all the anger is held within the family and not placed where it really belongs. Denial is normally followed by anger, acceptance of one’s feelings and, finally, sublimation of the feelings in creative ways, such as writing, painting or teaching about the Holocaust.
“For me, the group helped me get more in touch with the rage I have,” says Carole in the film. Later, in describing a new and strong relationship with her parents, Carole says that once she ‘opened up’ to her parents, they “opened up just incredibly.”
The full article can be viewed at the New York Times, which is linked below:
See also: Breaking the Silence:
Order the film from The National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University.