Shoah survivors’ offspring carry their legacy within

I can’t look,” 11-year-old Lara Berman shouted as she abruptly ran out of the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in tears during a family trip to Israel. Her mother darted after her.

“I’m going to see myself in one of those pictures,” the young girl said.

That was 16 years ago, and Berman, now 27, said in a recent interview that she “gets” the Holocaust in ways that most American Jews don’t.

For starters, she is the granddaughter of two Hungarian Holocaust survivors on her mother’s side — her grandmother, Magda Ehrlich, was imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz, and her grandfather, Laszlo Mittelman, served as a slave laborer and a resistance fighter.

Beyond that, Berman often feels as if she somehow suffered through the Holocaust herself.

Berman said she has always been proud of her grandparents’ hard-earned triumphs, and she is passionate about Israel and the continued existence of the Jewish people. Her commitment extends to her studies: Her just-completed and approved USC master’s thesis in journalism profiles three children of Holocaust survivors, examining the perils of assimilation among American Jews.

While Berman said she no longer reacts so dramatically to images of concentration camps, she still feels a persistent sense of dread.

“My grandparents always said, ‘Don’t think it couldn’t happen here. Keep your eyes open,'” she said.

Despite the generation gap, many of today’s grandchildren of survivors find they can’t shake the feeling that their safe, normal world might end unexpectedly at any time. These youth, dubbed the Third Generation or Three Gen by people in the Holocaust community, share a common bond that is even more pronounced in their parents, the children of survivors — those born in 1945 or later — who are known as the Second Generation or Two Gen.

Indeed, more than 60 years after the Holocaust, the descendants of survivors continue to be undeniably and deeply shaped by an event that preceded their birth. Together they share a unique upbringing that many say is both an onus and an inspiration.

Particularly now, as the survivors themselves are aging and disappearing, these Second and Third Gens are inheriting the Holocaust legacy. Many have willingly taken on the mandate to remember the past by promoting Holocaust education and commemoration and advocating unwavering support of Israel. But others feel themselves so scarred by painful childhoods and the effects of what many mental health professionals call the intergenerational transmission of trauma that they just turn away.

Some have disavowed their Judaic heritage. Others — identifying as Jews or not — have moved on and don’t want to be defined by the Holocaust, believing it perpetuates a victim mentality.

But even though their reactions can be as diverse and complicated as the World War II experiences of the survivors, a look at their family histories can help elucidate some of the many conflicting issues and missions that this younger generation continues to carry forth.

It’s estimated that there are about 250,000 children of survivors in the United States, but no one really knows the real number, according to Max Leibmann of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants. Indeed, the Second Gen were not seen as a distinct group until about three decades after World War II ended, a fact that many attribute to a “conspiracy of silence” among their parents and society at large.

These children were born to parents who had been traumatized, debased and deprived and who were often the sole survivors of their immediate and extended families. Many survivors were young when the war broke out and had been ripped apart from their families and denied any parenting themselves. Physically and psychically wounded at war’s end and crowded into displaced person’s camps in Europe, many also entered into hasty and sometimes ill-matched marriages, eager to bear children and rebuild their lives.

These parents came to the United States as immigrants, bringing their pain, their accents and their European ways with them. As they worked and adapted to a new country, they had little time to mourn their massive losses. And, indeed, American Jews did not want to hear their tales of horror.

While their children noticed numbers tattooed on their arms or heard their anguished cries at night, the majority of survivors deliberately refrained from discussing the Holocaust or mentioned it only obliquely at holidays and family occasions. Yet it occupied a pervasive presence in most homes.

“We never spoke about it. When did I first know? I always knew,” said Serena Woolrich (nee Wolvovits), 60, a Two Gen whose Hungarian father was imprisoned in several camps, eventually liberated from Ebensee.

When Woolrich was 12, her father, Max Woolrich, came to the family Passover seder table wearing his concentration camp jacket and hat. Serena Woolrich said the sight disturbed her, but her father said simply, “If this jacket doesn’t symbolize Passover and liberation, I don’t know what does.”

In the mid-1970s, a confluence of events brought the children of survivors into the public’s eye, allowing Woolrich and other Two Gens nationwide to feel less isolated and their home lives less odd.

First there was the publication in The New York Times Magazine in June 1977 of “Heirs to the Holocaust,” an article by Two Gen Helen Epstein, which later became the seminal book, “Children of the Holocaust,” published in 1979 (Putnam).

Then the popular television miniseries “Holocaust,” starring Meryl Streep and James Woods, aired in April 1978. And in November 1977, the Simon Wiesenthal Center was founded in Los Angeles.

The secret was out, and psychological and social services for children of survivors started springing up across the country — in Boston, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles — usually in the form of “rap” or “sensitivity” groups, in keeping with the therapeutic jargon of the time.

In 1977, Flo Kinsler, a licensed clinical social worker in Los Angeles, started facilitating small, short-term therapy groups sponsored by Jewish Family Service. The next year, Klara Firestone, whose mother, Renee Firestone, survived 13 months in Auschwitz and was later one of the Wiesenthal Center’s first outreach speakers, founded Second Generation Los Angeles.