Historically, the marker event for the identifiability of children of survivors as a group was the seminal article in the New York Times by journalist Helen Epstein, herself a child of Holocaust survivors, on June 19, 1977, and her subsequent book, Children of the Holocaust(Epstein, 1979)1. Although the psychological literature had articles dating back to the work of Vivian Rakoff and John Sigal in 1966, these were unnoticed for the most part.
The emergence of a second-generation consciousness, and resultantly the development of an identifiable group, has its origin in the “roots” movement in the United States in the mid-1970s; in the more manifest antisemitism in Europe in the early and mid-1980’s; and more recently in Israel, during the showing of Claude Landzmann’s Shoah and the Demjanjuk Trial, which resulted in a restored dignity of Holocaust survivors.
When a group such as second generation of Holocaust survivors becomes identifiable among the multitude of victims in society all sorts of characteristics are attributed to its members. Individuals in classified victim groups tend to lose their unique identity. Furthermore, there appears to be a premise that it is negative attributes that define such a group. Even if an attribute is generally considered positive (e.g. helping others), in cases of individuals in so called victim groups, each behavior is explained in negative terms or as a defense, rather than understanding it as a positive coping mechanism.
The psychological consequences of being a child of Holocaust survivors has been labelled as “second generation survivor syndrome,” “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” and “Second Generation Survivor Complex.” All controlled studies, as opposed to clinical impressions based on small samples (sometimes one clinical case study), reveal that there are no significant differences between children of survivors and a controlled cohort group on mental illness indices, symptoms, psychiatric disorders.2 3 4 5 6
Despite these findings, a trend exists to continue to examine identifiable groups in terms of mental illness symptomotolgy, rather than to understand human behavior in a social context and through adaptation. 7 8 9 10 11
The identity, interpersonal relations, perceptions, and attitudes of second generation of survivors were shaped by the family in which one was raised, and also by the external social environment in which each spent his or her growing-up years. Those born in the immediate years following the war often experienced several migrations in early childhood; at times, early losses (a parent might have been hospitalized after child birth). But for the most part, children of survivors essentially grew up with parents who were rebuilding their families and communities after a life punctuated by dehumanization, multiple losses, persecution, homelessness, and migration. The family atmosphere was different in Holocaust-survivor homes. The mood was permeated with the consciousness of the losses and mourning whether verbally or non-verbally.In some families, dozens of memorial candles accompanied what should have been happy holidays. The holiday festive meal was a reminder of all those who were not there to celebrate with them. Survivors tended to name their children after relatives who were murdered in the Holocaust. Some were replacement children. They lived with the burden of replacing a parent(s) first family. Thus, children of survivors were constantly reminded of death — that their namesake died a horrible death, even if they did not know the particular details.
Additionally, a child of survivor’s development is also affected by the social milieu in which one grew up. In the United States there were those who were the sole Holocaust survivor family in the community, others were part of an enclave of survivor families. But for the most part children of survivors grew up in neighborhoods where there might have been a few others from a similar background, but no one discussed it openly; some even hid their past.
Although every immigrant group has a difficult time being accepted by the previous group, the immigrant experience was compounded for Holocaust survivors who were exposed to greater rejection and isolation by the Jewish community. American Jews were into denial and avoided their culpability: guilt for not rescuing or helping in other ways. Photographer Roman Wishniak, to cite one prominent example, was told to burn his photographs.
Second, American Jews did not want to be near the survivors because they were victims. It made them look bad. In America there was significant antisemitism right after the war, and having Holocaust survivors around proved to American Jews what could happen to them. The rare instance in which survivors did not feel isolated was in the Orthodox community. Survivors living in areas with other survivors in Israel, in Montreal, in sections of New York, also did not experience the same isolation. There were instances where survivors formed their own organizations. The survivors were at the forefront of the Orthodox day school movement. In Pittsburgh, Polish Jews who emigrated there after the war organized their own community center.
Because of the family’s isolation there was no one to guide family members. All the patterns in the nuclear family were intensified exponentially, because there was no one else to mitigate it. Without an extended family, members of the nuclear Holocaust survivor family had to depend on each other for everything. At times this close-knit family sparked a warm, loving nurturing family atmosphere, while at other times, the family members became too enmeshed.
In enmeshed families, the offspring of survivors often had many roles to play. He or she was a replacement child if one of the parents had children who were killed during “the war.” Added to this, they often were called upon to be parents to their own parents, a brother or sister or an aunt, uncle, cousin, or best friend. Parents in these families often depended on the child to be the link to the outside world. Such multiple roles burdened children; they felt too depended upon.
Being a child of Holocaust survivors myself, I have had the opportunity to meet Second Generation in local and international organizations, in their work settings, and as patients in my groups for children of survivors, or as individual patients, or as supervisees. This wide-spectrum of clinical and non-clinical Second Generation, as well as those who have an interest in their parents past and those who are in denial about it has led me to conclude that certain patterns are observable irregardless of emotional well-being or consciousness about the Holocaust.
In leading short-term awareness groups and long-term therapy groups for children of Holocaust survivors for more than twenty years, I have discovered that participating in these groups enables group members to normalize what may have seemed as an aberration in their childhood. Furthermore, they become aware of their isolation, alienation, and a self-concept of “differentness.”These feelings stemmed from American Jews who were not welcoming survivor families to their synagogues, community centers, organizations, and schools. Survivors were often told not to talk about their past. Hence, children in the family became the only captive audience to horror stories and were counted on for emotional support — quite a burden for a child.
Regardless of whether children of survivors know or do not know their parents’ experiences or understand or do not understand the impact on their life, each child of survivors goes through a mourning process in order to be connected to the family past — their roots, their identity — in a positive way. For the most part, the mourning process facilitates the integration of the self as it enables one to feel connected to ones roots. However, when an individual is stuck in one of the stages of mourning, psychological obstacles hinder functioning and identity.
At times a child of survivors may feel mournful but is unable to verbalize the connection to the losses during the Holocaust. One child of survivors who came to see me brought a whole list of relatives who were murdered on both his mother’s and father’s sides of the family. He kept holding a napkin on his lap; and I had no idea what it meant. When I started asking him about who was in his mother’s and father’ families before the war he opened his napkin and said, “this is the reason I am here.” Mark was the ideal child. He went to an Ivy League college and law school and worked in a major law firm. He fell in love and got married, and all of this time Mark had no time to reflect on the past. When he was contemplating having children of his own he fell into a deep depression; he was not clear on how it came about. Through treatment he became aware of his fear of losing the child the way his parents lost a son during the Holocaust. Through the mourning work Mark was able to mourn his dead brother. He went on to have four children of his own.
“Second generation” — “2g’s”, as they are known — experience not a direct loss of someone they loved, but rather a memory of someone they feel they have lived with without ever having known that person. As mentioned above, at times relatives may relate to the child of survivors as if he or she was that other person, the person they are named after. Most children of survivors are named after someone who was killed during the Holocaust. The name often carries with it the obligation to live, not only for oneself but to make up for the life that was cut off before its time. At times relatives may relate to the child of survivors as if he or she was that other person. “Oh you smile just like Shlomi.” Children see their parents weeping at anniversaries of marriages of murdered spouses; or lighting yahrzeit candles, which annually memorialize the death of a close family member, many more times a year than their friends do. For those offspring of survivors who have lost whole families or are the only remnants of a once thriving community, the burden of identification is even greater.
It is through the process of mourning that the people of the second generation can come to identify with those aspects of the dead relatives that are positive and life-affirming. Mourning has a sequence that is applicable to children of survivors as to others. The 5 stages are: shock, denial, confrontation, feelings, and search for meaning.The first stage of mourning, shock, happened to many children of survivors when they stumbled across the photo books of piles of bodies, which propels them to the next stage.
The next stage, denial, “What does this have to do with me?”is exemplified in the lives of children of survivors who have not confronted their family history of persecution and loss and are avoiding mourning. This kind of denial needs to be differentiated from those who deny the Holocaust ever happened. Children of survivors’ denial is a personal resistance to confront pain and suffering.
In the case of second generation members, denial is broken by beginning to find out details of the family history. This stage of mourning is confrontation. Often children of survivors have very limited information about their parents past. For example, the question, “where was your mother born?”, stumps many children of survivors. They cannot name the town; they are confused about which country it was because of all the border changes in Europe. They are missing a sense of continuity, and such lack of basic facts exacerbates a feeling of rootlessness and fragmentation of self. Often children of survivors do not even know the names of the camps or the narrative of their parents’ experience.
Those who feel compelled to learn these details go into the next stage – confrontation. During this stage the therapeutic work entails to find out details about the parents’ lives before, during, and after the Holocaust. In the event that parents are deceased one can approach relatives for such discussions. If there are no relatives left, one may want to look at Yizkor (memorial) books from the town and perhaps find some survivors who knew ones parents. If that is not possible then one can piece together a narrative by reading diaries, memoirs, historical books, take a trip to their parents home town, to the sites where they were incarcerated or hidden, to meet rescuers and their families, to visit the DP camp where they resided after the war. These kinds of direct contacts provide a sense of rootedness and above all, knowing what and who they are.
Children of survivors knew that their parents survived “the war,” but a different level of awareness sets in when barriers to confronting the past are removed. Often a more direct dialogue begins with the parents or with other relatives.
Confrontation with the persecution and losses evokes a flood of rage, helplessness at undoing the pain and suffering, sadness, depression, guilt, fears of such events recurring. This is the feeling stage of mourning.
The painful feelings that emerge with awareness can be channelled into constructive identification with the dead and a continuity with the Jewish culture that was destroyed, or by acknowledging a moral obligation to the dead by helping other oppressed groups.
These feelings can spark some worthwhile results to make this a better world. Ultimately, these feelings need to be channelled into constructive and life-affirming actions that give individuals some meaning in their present lives. Life-affirming activities are part of a quest for a search for meaning in ones life. After all, guilt, helplessness, sadness, are all connected to victimhood and futility. A different way of being in the world is of commitment to tikkun olam , the Jewish imperative to repair the world.
There are several ways to accomplish this goal of search for meaning, which constitutes the final stage of mourning. Memory is the bridge that links the living and the dead. They are not wholly dead whom we remember, whose spirit continues to live as an influence in our lives.
The Jewish observance of a memorial to the departed directs Jews to channel the emotions engendered by bereavement into a greater love of God, a greater devotion to Torah, a greater concern for the well-being of our fellow man and woman. For children of survivors who reach the final stage in mourning, resilience is observed in increasing their own and others Holocaust consciousness. It includes activities such as, collecting oral histories, contributing Holocaust books to local libraries, churches and synagogues. For others it means to bring Nazi war criminals in our midst to justice. These trials raise the awareness of youngsters today by showing them that a criminal can be prosecuted for murder even fifty years after the act.
Children of survivors whose parents or grandparents were rescued actively pursue the recognition of the rescuers, even posthumously, and try to be in touch with their children and grandchildren.
Each person needs to find his or her way to make others aware and to make a difference. Creative children of survivors are writing plays, making films, making art work, doing research, revitalizing Jewish media to deal with real issues.
A different way to channel feelings is to speak up for human rights. Children of survivors speak up when they become aware of an injustice in order not to be similar to the passive bystanders that are blamed for the murder of European Jewry.
Making a difference in the lives of those who are strangers, such as Muslims in Bosnia and Rwandans, is a response to those who said, “but we didn’t know.”
Children of survivors feel a moral obligation not only to help other Jews who may be in distress like Soviet Jews were, Syrian Jews, Argentinian Jews, but to be ready to help the “other.”An obligation persists to speak up about bigotry, hatred, intolerance, racism.
Some children of survivors have gotten involved in life affirming actions by helping others in distress. Here we find some children of survivors who volunteer to work with the aged, bringing meals and celebrating holidays with those who have no families, volunteering in soup kitchens for the homeless (for our parents and grandparents were once homeless as well). Children of survivors were at the forefront of helping all those starving and in need of medicine in the Bosnian conflict. Ivitze Ceresnjes, whose family settled in the former Yugoslavia after the war and Yaacov Finji whose family had lived in Sarajevo for 500 years (Before the war 120,000 Jews were in Sarajevo after the war barely 12,000 survived), came to the World Jewish Congress to request funds to buy food and medicine. These young Jews could leave and go to Israel, but instead, they chose to stay because they were uniquely situated to save lives.
A different manifestation of a search for meaning is the dedication to the continuity of the Jewish people, its culture, tradition, and values. It too is a positive expression of moral responsibility to the dead.
It is not life affirming and meaningful to remember the dead by suffering, but rather, by perpetuating the Jewish culture that was destroyed. The mission for tikkun olam is to get away from a Judaism that is based on victimology. In the groups for children of survivors, members realize that Jewish identity cannot be perpetuated through victimhood. Judaism cannot be based on the Holocaust and a history of persecution. It is not enough to build Holocaust memorials and museums. Jewish culture is rich, inspiring, and gives solace.
Many children of survivors feel a responsibility to educate their children Jewishly, to give them the knowledge and skills to learn a Jewish text. Judaism needs to be transmitted as a great joy and not as a burden to the third and fourth generations. In Second Generation groups members who are ashamed of being Jews because being Jews means being a victim, destined for death, become aware that they do not experience the resilience of mourning. Children of survivors, like other Jews who are ashamed, need to find the positive reasons to be proud of the Jewish heritage in order to transmit this heritage to the next generation.
The ability to mourn can be stifled at any stage in the process, which is often unconscious. For example, John never even considered that being a child of survivors has had any impact on his life. His father survived Auschwitz and married a Mormon and the children were not raised as Jews. John’s father had no contact with the Jewish community. John is stuck in a stage of denial. He feels his father coped well by not dwelling on his past or transmitting his pain to his children and he too totally ignored his family history. However, he chose a career that reflects his need to protect himself and his family. He became a doctor in the Air Force and lives on a base. He further protects his own children by not letting them know their grandfather’s past at all.
If a child of survivors gets stuck in the confrontation stage, he or she can become so obsessed with obtaining detailed information and ignoring any feelings. If a child of survivors becomes stuck in the feeling stage of mourning he or she lives as if they are victims, but in their own way. Since her adolescence Vera has been suffering from anorexia nervosa. She experienced a near death state several times. She likes her body emaciated, skeleton-like because it reminds her of her relatives in the concentration camps. She feels one with them and at peace with herself when she continues their suffering. Any weight gain makes her feel guilty that she is abandoning the deceased. This vicious cycle has continued into her early forties.
When Vera was finally referred to a group for children of survivors she was able to articulate what she felt all along about how her anorexia nervosa is related to her loyalty to the dead. By being with others from a similar background in a group setting and learning that the dead want her to live, not to die, Vera is making efforts to liberate herself. Group members are encouraging that she liberate herself rather than despair and give Hitler a posthumous victory.
Members of the second generation who have not been able to channel their feelings may be experiencing an inability to progress to the final stage in mourning. If one is stuck in the feeling stage of mourning that person tends to overidentify with the pain and suffering, and often feels too guilty to enjoy his or her present life. At times, in order to identify with the pain and suffering, children of survivors put themselves in situations in their present lives whereby they experience pain, suffering, and victimization. They live in the present but are transposed into the past world of their parents. This time-tunnel can be subtle and misunderstood if one is unaware of its relation to the parents’ trauma.
For example, Jean, a twenty-four-year-old child of Holocaust survivors, graduated college and experienced an identity crisis. She slowly developed an affinity for eastern religions and decided to move to India to live on an Ashram. She lived there for two years, had no contact with her family, and concealed her past identity from those in her new environment. Upon returning to the United States she entered therapy because she did not know what to do with her life. Although it was not uncommon in the 1970’s to go to an Ashram, Jean began to understand the specific purpose it served in her life. She was reliving her mother’s hiding experience during the Holocaust. Her mother had abandoned her family because she could pass as an Aryan and lived as a Christian for two years until liberation. When Jean understood how she replicted her mother’s experience but in her own way, she realized that part of her motivation was to understand her mother and get closer to her, rather than truly being motivated by a strong belief in Hinduism. This new awareness enabled Jean to embrace her own faith and to look for those who share her personal family background, rather than continue a life of isolation and hiding.
When one is stuck in one or another stage of mourning, this process needs to be made conscious and it needs to be interpreted as to how it relates to the Holocaust and family trauma.
For example, Aart, a journalist in Israel was writing for a Dutch newspaper. Aart was planning to live in Israel permanently but could not contemplate taking Israeli citizenship. It made him very frightened to contemplate the possibility of another Holocaust, and he would be unable to escape. He had German and Dutch passports and felt he belonged nowhere. When Aart revealed his father’s story it became clear that his father survived because he had false passports, which allowed him to travel incognito out of Holland when the rest of the family was being deported to Westerbork (a way station to Auschwitz). By interpreting the connection for Aart between his current statelessness and his father’s survival, Aart was able to experience how he today is adapting as if he is living during the Holocaust. Eventually, Aart was able to obtain Israeli citizenship. For the first time he had a feeling of belonging rather than feeling that he was a refugee.
Through an understanding of the mourning process loyalty to the dead is transformed from identification with their pain and suffering to identifying with the life the dead represented.
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Resilience is facilitated by developing a self that is more engaged with the outside world. Several grass-roots efforts have facilitated members of the second generation meeting one another, thereby reducing their psychological sense of isolation, and having a stronger voice in carrying out political, educational, psychological, commemorative and creative goals.
The collective persecution of the Jewish people cannot be mourned in isolation. Even though each child of survivors must come to understand his or her personal relationship to a family history fraught with persecution and losses, ultimately, resilience is experienced through communal mourning. Banding together with others from a similar background alleviates the isolation, reduces the feelings of alienation and differentness, normalizes certain socialization experiences, thereby enhancing self-esteem. It is through collective grieving that the second generation can come to identify with the positive and constructive aspects of those who were murdered, rather than with the image of the deceased, who is viewed as only a suffering victim.
The mourning does not necessarily have to be done in a therapeutic setting. For example, participating in a communal commemoration service provides the group experience that reduces isolation as well. This is different from mourning an individual family loss. Relatives who were murdered for the mere reason they were Jews requires a different kind of mourning. A communal social trauma necessitates a collective mourning process in addition to the individual mourning work.
It also follows that search for meaning that results in the final stages of mourning can best be accomplished through group efforts. One cannot be an active Jew in isolation. To fight oppression and racism, to raise Holocaust consciousness, to help others is often futile on an individual basis. Ultimately, collective efforts have a greater potential of making a difference.
By participating in a group, whether therapy or social, Second Generation members are validated for the consequences of their parents’ suffering on their own life. This validation is experienced by hearing that others from a similar background relate to having a world view, an identity, self-esteem, interpersonal relationships within and outside their immediate family that have been influenced by growing up with parents who were persecuted and suffered many losses. While individual psychotherapy can also validate such feelings, it has a more significant result from knowing that one is not alone with certain attitudes and emotions.
Furthermore, the mourning process that members of Second Generation undergo is not just for one’s own family, but for entire communities, and ultimately, the destruction of European Jewry. Such an emotional burden is a futile responsibility to undertake. Unconsciously, this is the reason most offspring of survivors remain in the state of denial about their parents’ ordeal. Thus, by being able to share the burden of memory and tikkun olam with others, it alleviates the despair in undertaking such an obligation.
Ultimately, the participation in a group with others from a similar socially traumatized family background, provides a sense of hope for the future. Participants who are further along in the mourning process help newer members reach a state of resilience. Such a by-product is the essence of groups as we know from the leading group expert and author, Irving Yalom. By sharing with others whose concerns parallels our own, we are able to face the abyss and not surrender to melancholy. In addition, participants feel like they are re-creating the destroyed extended family, which enables them to share the burdens and responsibilities of mourning the dead and simultaneously work towards making a difference for future generations.
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