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Scars of the Past – Group Work with Holocaust Survivors and Descendants

By Halina Rosenkranz, M.S.
Holocaust Program—Group Facilitator
Westchester Jewish Community Services
141 N. Central Avenue
Hartsdale, New York

“We’re supposed to feel sorry for the children of Nazis; who feels sorry for us? They have the choice of hating their families—our families are dead. We have no choice!”

The above statement was made during a discussion following the viewing of a film entitled, “Hitler’s Children,” a documentary about the psychological impact and the emotional scars of being a descendent of high ranking Nazis. The evening began with joyful greetings as the members of my three Holocaust groups entered the big conference room for a light dinner meal, followed by this sixty minute viewing.  The film prompted an outpouring of angry and other intense emotional responses by all group members.

For the past six years I have facilitated three monthly Holocaust related support groups. The Survivor group, comprised of individuals born before 1932, meets the first Tuesday of each month; the Child Survivor group, whose members were born between 1934 and 1945, meets the second Tuesday of each month; the Second Generation group, born after 1945, gathers the third Tuesday of each month. The criterion for membership within each group is based on personal perception. For instance, some child survivors whose parents survived the war vacillate between considering themselves first generation survivors or second generation survivors.  Among survivors, there exists a hierarchy of suffering with those who were in concentration camps being at the pinnacle.  Individuals who managed to survive in the woods, in hiding, under false papers, regardless of the danger and struggle for survival, often expressed that their suffering could not compare to those who were in Auschwitz.  There is recognition among the groups that some had it worse than others. However, everyone’s experience is respected and supported within the group.  As one survivor of Riga and the Death March stated, “We all suffered or we would not be here.”

The dark shadow cast by the Holocaust has not faded with time. It’s been nearly seventy years since the liberation and the images of the horror are just as powerful today. Survivors, now in their eighties and nineties, are plagued by their aging bodies and nightmarish memories. “The pillow is my enemy,” stated a survivor during a group meeting. “As soon as my eyes close all I see is my little brother; what did he do?” stated the sole survivor of her entire family; she was one of nine siblings. Aging, for many survivors, is a colossal challenge and a source of the reactivation of trauma—death at any moment; a horrible death. Coping with bereavement of spouses and friends, personal illness and loss of independence are difficult for most people to deal with. However, for survivors, the agony, loss and deprivation they experienced during the war years, further intensifies the suffering brought on by normal aging.  Survivors are very much aware of their impending mortality and, more than death, they fear their families who were lost in the Shoah will no longer have a voice. First and second generation survivors have a deep-rooted sense of obligation to memorialize those members of their families who were, as stated by a survivor of Auschwitz, “murdered and erased through the crematoria chimneys.”  The following are thoughts often echoed during survivor meetings: “Who will remember the faces of our parents, brother, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins; who will remember our children? Why did they die such a horrible death; what did they do? When we die, they will die again; this time without a trace.” The legacy to remember now rests on the shoulders of the second and third Generation.  The scars of the Holocaust run deep and are intergenerational. For many children of Survivors—most now in their fifties and sixties– the enormity of what their parents endured is an open painful wound. “We bare the guilt of not being able to make up for all that our parents lost; how many names can we carry? They’re still dead,” expressed a daughter of survivors. The children of survivors live with the reality of their parents’ suffering, and the guilt of being helpless in the face of their parents’ suffering. In spite of the fact that many survivors chose to remain silent about their experiences, the trauma was ever present; “It loomed in the air we breathed, like second hand smoke,” stated a sixty two year old physician and son of survivors.

The group process for survivors and their families is an opportunity to tell and retell the stories and the details of their lives before, during and after the war.  For the first Tuesday group the memories are vivid and thorough. Whether from affluent or humble backgrounds, survivors describe their prewar experiences as rich in culture and family. The room becomes filled with laughter and tears as the members share life before the war—holidays, school, friends and childhood aspirations. However, the dark reality of the invasion, the roundups, the fear, the surrounding death soon takes hold as members share horrific anecdotes of their survival and liberation.  There is a great deal of anger towards not only the Germans, but also towards their home countries, particularly, Poland.  “We couldn’t go home; they were still killing us,” said a survivor of the Kielce Pogrom—a 1946 massacre of over 40 Jews by their Polish neighbors.  Although the survivors maintain their strong Jewish identity, belief in G-d is a whole other matter.  Prior to the war, most of the group members were from Orthodox families where the existence of G-d was not in question.  However, after what they experienced and witnessed during the Shoah, some lost their piety, questioning the very reality of a higher being. “Where was G-d in Auschwitz; in the ghetto? What did the babies do to be pulled from their mother’s arms to be smashed against concrete? How can I believe?” These feelings were expressed by a Lodz ghetto survivor. As some group members nodded in agreement, a woman who was imprisoned at age fourteen and survived nearly two years in Auschwitz said passionately “G-d was my only friend in Auschwitz; prayer gave me hope.” The group is divided; some became more devout while others lost their faith. What no one in the group questioned was the horror of their experiences and the innocence of the victims. The unanimous sentiment expressed at each meeting was, “not a single person deserved what happened to the Jews.”

For the members of the Child Survivor group, who were very young children during the war, the memories are fragile and clouded, but the hostility towards the perpetrators is profound and deeply felt.  There exists a bond between these group members that is impenetrable and profoundly personal. Together for nearly thirty years, the members of this group shared intimate details of their lives, past and present. The trusting relationships within this group allow for blunt and honest reactions. They are a family whose relationship is strong enough to withstand the criticisms and periodic arguments that ensue. The central theme within this group is the difficulty of separating emotionally from their parents—“They saved my life; I’m all they had”—and to acknowledge their own suffering during and after the war. “I never thought of myself as a survivor,” stated a group member who, at age four, witnessed the brutal attack and arrest of her father during Kristallnacht. “My parents were always worried; we were always moving and hiding; sometimes they would leave me with another family and I was forbidden to speak. I was only three but I did what I was told,” revealed another group member who survived the roundups in Paris. When a new member of the group spoke of being in hiding with her mother and younger brother in an underground ditch created by a Polish farmer who hid them, everyone was overcome as she described not seeing daylight for nearly two years, as well as the death of her younger brother and the rats that roamed in their hiding place.  “I still have the scar from the rat bite; but we were lucky, we had food and water most days and we were not in a concentration camp,” she stated in a calm and quiet tone, as the group showed their horror at what she had to endure. Many shared how they had terrible nightmares for years after the war, not being able to separate out the reality from the nightmarish fantasy. Their memories may be clouded and erratic, but the childhood feelings and anxiety are powerfully present and overwhelming. As the child survivors age, they often express a connection to the pain their parents experienced in this stage of life. However, where their parents had no confusion as to their identity as survivors of the Holocaust, child survivors were in a quandary; those who had their parents after the war, thought of themselves as second generation, despite the fact they were born during or right before the war and their earliest memories were of being directly persecuted. Now that many are in their 70’s and early 80’s, child survivors, like their parents before them and like many older survivors today, journey into old age on a road paved with horrific memories and a resurgence of  feelings they experienced in early childhood. Child survivors were among the most vulnerable during the war years and seem to be particularly sensitive to world events, the state of Israel, the fear of growing anti-Semitism.  In fact, a frequent response to headlines related to Jewish affairs is “they will always find a way to blame a Jew.”

The Second Generation group is growing in number.  Comprised predominantly of well-educated, competent individuals, this group struggles with their identities as children of survivors and the magnitude of the Holocaust legacy.  Despite their accomplishments, many members of this group view themselves as more fragile and less capable than their parents, often echoing the sentiment, “I never would have survived what my parents went through.” Forever trying to compensate for their parents’ losses, this group, like child survivors, feel a strong sense of obligation to their parents, to protect them from any further suffering as they navigate through the trenches of old age and illness.  For this reason, watching their parents struggle with illness, loss and the ever present horror of seventy years past is agonizing. “Haven’t they suffered enough; it’s just not fair,” tearfully declared a daughter whose survivor parents, both in their 90’s, are desperately in need of  round the clock care. The second generation lives to make their parents happy—“Naches Machines,” said another daughter who recently lost her father, an Auschwitz survivor.  When reviewing their childhoods, many of the second generation survivors described having expectations placed on them that were well beyond their years. “My parents did not get along; they married out of necessity, not love.  I was expected to referee; I was only five years old and an only child.”  Many group members felt remorseful and guilty over their inability to listen to the details of their parents experience; “My mother tried to tell me and I just covered my ears; I didn’t want to hear and now there is so much I don’t know,” expressed a daughter who recently lost her mother.  Some parents spoke about their experiences and some kept silent; some children wanted to hear and others couldn’t.  Every household, regardless of the relationships that existed, was pained by the suffering of the past.  The adaptive abilities are as varied among second generation as they are among survivors; some are highly successful while others, many near retirement age, are still trying to separate and build a life. Some come searching for answers as they have very little information about their parents’ wartime experiences; they look for historical references to help them better understand themselves and what their families went through.  Everyone who comes to this group is straining to make sense of the feelings of sadness, anger, anxiety and the need to connect with others who are living with this painful thread of history that has forever imbedded itself in their psyches.  “It’s everywhere; in every decision, relationship, accomplishment and mistake; it’s even on vacations,” stated one group member to the unanimous agreement and collective laughter by the rest of the group.  Being a child of survivors is a tremendous responsibility and for some, a great burden. In awe of their parents’ survival, many second generation survivors see themselves, by comparison, as lacking the strength to endure. Statements often heard at each meeting are: “It’s hard being a child of survivors; we have nothing to complain about compared to what our parents faced.”  The most profound statement, made by a son of a survivor of a slave labor camp, was, “In some ways our parents are more intact than we are!” Many survivors also recognize, although they don’t understand why, just how much their war experiences have affected their children.  A survivor who called to inquire about help for his 55 year old daughter stated, “I went through it; she didn’t. I didn’t talk to her about what happened to me so why does she suffer from so much depression?” Although the second generation did not experience what their parents went through, studies have shown that one does not have to directly suffer the traumatic event in order to feel the effects (Kellerman, N.).  The events of the Holocaust impacted the second generation on a multitude of levels resulting in an array of internal conflicts about their parents, themselves and the choices they’ve made.  The complexity of these issues is often addressed as they share their sometimes difficult childhoods and strained relationships with their parents and or siblings. “My father is so mean to me; nothing I do is ever good enough, particularly now that he is old and more dependent. I get so hurt but I can’t stay angry after what he went through. Sometimes I really hate him and yet he is my hero.” The dichotomy was familiar to everyone in the room. Throughout their lives, the second generation has been coping with opposing inner forces— vulnerability and resilience.  Many view the Holocaust as both a source of emotional suffering and a powerful legacy that adds purpose and meaning to their lives. If the latter force is dominant, the ability to separate from their parents’ trauma and navigate through life’s obstacles is better.  As renowned psychologist, author and concentration camp survivor, Viktor Frankl, states in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual (p.98).”  In other words, responsibility is the “essence of meaning” to one’s life.  Unfortunately, some children of survivors have become immersed in their parents’ suffering, leaving little emotional reserve to separate and individuate. Regardless of the level of coping skills and emotional strength, the second generation bears the scars of their parents’ tragedy.

The catastrophe that befell the Jewish people of Europe nearly eight decades ago continues to deeply affect the lives of those who were there, as well as their decedents.  The members of the three support groups—Survivor, Child Survivor, and Second Generation—at the Westchester Jewish Community Services are a testament to the long term and intergenerational impact of the Holocaust. For survivors, now elderly, the memories are like a gash to the heart that continues to bleed and ache with grief. The second generation remains in the shadow of their parents’ anguish, struggling to comfort them while seeking to find their way through the murky waters of the past.  Some are able to maneuver successfully through life in spite of the heaviness of the Shoah, while others remain stuck and immobilized.   The healing process from this cataclysmic event is slow and generational.  The grandchildren of survivors—Third Generation—are most likely the last generation to have a direct relationship with the eyewitnesses of this horror. For most of the third generation, who are now in young adulthood, their grandparents are a source of pride and admiration—a driving force to do good in this world. Though the heartache of the Shoah will diminish with time, the remembrance of the victims and the extraordinary strength and perseverance of the survivors and their children shall remain as part of the story to tell and retell like the exodus from Egypt.

 

References

Frankl, Viktor E. (2006). Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston Massachusetts: Beacon Press.

Kellerman, Natan P.F. (2001). “Transmission of Holocaust Trauma.” AMCHA-National Israeli

Centre for Psychosocial Support of Holocaust Survivors and the Second Generation, Jerusalem.

http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/education/languages/dutch/pdf/kellermann.pdf.

Portney, Charles, M.D. (2003). “Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma: An Introduction for the Clinician.”

 

 

 

One thought on “Scars of the Past – Group Work with Holocaust Survivors and Descendants”

  1. As a child of a survivor (The Second Generation)
    I have been waiting for something to be written which is truthful about the psychological and emotional impact upon us. This is by-far the best I have read and its accuracy and honesty are refreshing. Thank you for sharing this and what the group(s) are dealing with. In fact, I may consider inquiring if there is a way I can join this group since I have been in therapy at different intervals of my life and never had anyone examine the aspect of my being a child of a survivor as possibly being interwoven in the struggles I was presenting and seeking to understand. Thank you again for giving me words and validation in a way I have been seeking for 65 years!

    Just an added piece, my father, the survivor is 95, in a nursing home and my visits are painful, draining and sad. I share this in hopes that you can understand my appreciation for this remarkable piece in the Kavod

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