On a brilliant blue Tuesday in September 2001, the impervious nature of America was shattered irrevocably. The trauma of 9/11 was in some cases multiplied exponentially for Holocaust survivors and their descendants, as in the case of Victor Wald.
Victor Wald Street is at the corner of West End Avenue and 81st Street. It is named for a son of survivors who died at the World Trade Center. Victor’s parents, who invested all their hopes and joys in the son they raised after the Holocaust, were devastated by his death at 50 years of age. His mother never left the house, refused to get dressed and refused psychological help. Ultimately, her daughter-in-law took her children to California to spare them the unbearable burden of witnessing their grandmother’s severe depression.
The reactions to 9/11 among Holocaust survivors and their descendants vary. Not all respond to the compounded trauma with severe depression like Victor Wald’s family. Some are newly inspired in their fight against discrimination, not just antisemitism, but all targets of bigotry.
My son Adam, a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, was in kindergarten on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He reflects on the effect it had on him 20 years later, and says, ”Although I come from a liberal family, I was exposed to stereotypes from other elders, which triggered suspicion in me whenever I saw a supposedly Muslim looking person. I associated him with Osama bin Ladin, a terrorist.” And he goes on, “I grew up to overcome my distrust by working towards reconciliation between Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel.”
After I picked my son up from school that day, my instinct as a psychologist who spent
her professional life working with generations of people traumatized by the Holocaust and other serious trauma was to volunteer my services. I was assigned to call people who submitted the names of the missing to the Red Cross and ask them for identifying data, such as, birth marks, clothes, jewelry, medical and dental records. The person working the phone right next to me was a friend and colleague, psychologist Esther Altmann, daughter of a Hungarian Auschwitz survivor. The people we spoke told us how they had gone from hospital to hospital in Manhattan to search for their loved ones, and Altmann and I could not help but wonder what it must have been like for our parents after liberation, going from one information center to another, searching for any family members who survived.
For the next four months, I counseled the people at Reuters in Times Square. Every therapeutic technique I developed for the Holocaust and other severe trauma survivors, was applicable in the aftermath of September 11. I set up groups to teach parents how not to traumatize their children. I encouraged a fellow daughter of survivors, Rochelle Friedlich, a Reuters employee, to create a memorial service for the employees murdered on 9/11, where they were attending a meeting at Windows on The World, the 107 floor of the WTC.
Healing a collective catastrophe goes beyond personal grieving. I taught managers to to be empathetic to workers who were afraid to work in the office because Times Square was deemed the next target. I helped individuals overcome irrational survivor guilt, because they were late to the meeting.
I realized the lessons from 9/11 were the same lessons I teach about the Holocaust, lessons I learned when I researched the motivation of rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust: Rescuers were people who accepted people from other walks of life. They were socialized by their parents to uphold tolerance and who were involved in helping others, often engaging their children. Altruism became a habit.
To sustain their spirits after 9/11, people volunteered to make a difference in other people’s lives. Political activists raise consciousness about the erosion of our democracy. The loss of trust in America as a safe haven motivated some Zionist descendants of survivors to say Israel is the only safe haven for Jews. Artist Mindy Weisel, said she left Washington, DC in 2012 with her successful attorney husband. “I made Aliya because I feel committed to Israel and our Jewish homeland—9/11 validated my feeling that the place I feel the safest is in Israel.”
Politically-active descendants of survivors worry that too many of their peers are focusing on foreign terrorism while ignoring the danger within—domestic terrorists intent on bringing down democracy.
Jeanette Friedman, author with David Gold of Why Should I Care? Lessons from the Holocaust, said, “I watched those towers come down, but it’s even scarier now. I believe the January 6, 2021 insurrection was a turning point in American history, a day more dangerous to the US than ISIS. A ‘Pandora’s Box’ was opened in 2015, and ‘othering,” bullying and hatred came pouring out. Survivors say the Holocaust started with bullying—and I try to stop the bullying and hatred while fighting for our democracy and human rights.”
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, whose mother spent the war in a bunker in Vilna, says the stories he heard about Nazi Germany are “a gift and a curse.” He worries about domestic terrorists and says that 9/11 gave him a lens allowing him to see the dangers posed by groups like QAnon and their hate-filled conspiracy cultures. Their political system, says Fisher, is motivated by xenophobia. He views them as “scared people afraid of a nonexistent enemy who become warriors.”
Other descendants of survivors concentrated their efforts during and after the attack by helping people traumatized by the experience, and they are still helping. Cayle White, a granddaughter of Polish survivors and board member of 3GNY, an organization for grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, was a mother of a one-year-old, living downtown when the towers fell. She walked with her husband and baby—netted and covered in the stroller–through the blinding smoke-filled streets to give blood, to deliver food, and to distribute clothes and food to first responders. Every year on 9/11 her family participates in a Day of Service sponsored by UJA Federation to pack care packages for overseas soldiers, in addition to other volunteer work they do.
Filmmaker and D.C. resident Aviva Kempner, whose mother survived as a Polish Christian working for a Nazi official, sends me an email every year on the eve of 9/11. She reminds me and hundreds of others to bring cookies and flowers to our local Fire Stations and thank the responders for their courage. That’s something everyone can do—especially on 9/11.
Still others remember the victims and commemorate heroism by working to support first responders, confident in the promise of America and what she stands for. “I always imagined a great dome covering America, making us impervious to foreign aggression,” says Anne Schulman, Holocaust educator and writer who was born in a displaced persons camp in Austria. “Two expansive oceans on either side, and friendly neighbors, north and south, assured me of a secure future.”
Despite having borne witness to both the Holocaust and 9/11, Schulman still has hope. Even if her “protective dome” over America has suffered substantial cracks, Schulman remains confident in the future of both American democracy and the Jewish people. “Our collective memory of both tragic and triumphant history is why we Jews are still here.” Inspired by Anne Frank’s words “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart,” Schulman hopes for better times and doesn’t despair.
A daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors, an activist in the Miami Jewish community, Denise Tamir, reflects on the past few weeks, and reminds us to learn from history.
“On September 11, 2001 we all came together. Twenty years later, might we again find common cause?”