Support Group Helps Second Generation

As the only child of two Holocaust survivors, Dr. Morry Waksberg was always under enormous pressure to succeed — to carry out the dreams that his parents never had the opportunity to realize.

"It made it hard to be a kid," Waksberg said. "How could I complain about some little adolescent thing when they had lost their families and been through so much?"

But when his childhood friend, also the son of survivors, hung himself at 14, Waksberg began to realize that he wasn’t the only one living a conflicted childhood. Other children of survivors shared a similar experience.

Some 41 years later, Waksberg has not forgotten his childhood friend, nor has he forgotten his past. He serves as vice president of Second Generation Los Angeles, an organization that aims to address the unique and often overlooked issues faced by the adult children of Holocaust survivors.

The organization, sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which was stagnant for a little over a year, has recently been reestablished under the leadership of Waksberg and founder and current president Klara Firestone, daughter of Renee Firestone, one of five Hungarian survivors who appeared in Steven Spielberg’s 1998 documentary, "The Last Days."

Second Generation Los Angeles is one of hundreds of organizations that supports children of survivors, but the only one of its kind in Los Angeles.

"Now that many children of survivors are 40 and 50 years old, the effects of their past are more manifest, and they’re now caring for their parents in many cases and not being cared for themselves," Waksberg told The Journal.

"They often aren’t married and don’t have relationships where they have a support system, and there isn’t even much sympathy for them, because they didn’t go through [the Holocaust]," said Waksberg, who himself never married. "I really wanted to help a group that I felt so close to."

Waksberg believes that children of survivors usually follow one of two paths in life: "Either they become very empathetic and go into the ‘helping fields,’ or they put up a wall and become very unfeeling to anyone’s pain, because they stopped themselves from feeling at an early age."

He chose the first option. Today he sits behind a desk stacked with medical charts in his ophthalmology office in Beverly Hills. He decided to become a doctor because of his childhood experience.

"Children of survivors were born into an environment where our parents were depressed and had gone through so much trauma and emotional upheaval," Waksberg said.

Waksberg was born in 1947 in a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany. His mother survived Auschwitz, and his father survived Dachau.

As a child, he said, his mother used to hold back tears as she lit the Shabbat candles, and his father often got lost in his own thoughts, becoming visibly angry. Waksberg only discovered when he was older that his father’s first wife and three sons were murdered in the Holocaust.

Waksberg said he was shocked when he found out, "but in my case and the case of most children of survivors, you couldn’t really be angry, because your parents were such victims of this horrible treatment, that you felt guilty being angry at them — and at the same time you had issues that created frustration or anger or disappointment."

"So you were always in a cognitive dissonance, struggling between the emotional reaction to what happened that you didn’t like and your empathy and love for your parents," Waksberg said. "You couldn’t even own your own emotions. So you learned to suppress emotions and kind of make the best of things and keep moving forward. It’s not a very healthy way to grow up."

Children of survivors often don’t seek help for the issues that they face as adults, and as a result, there is very little scientific study on the subject. Of the little information that does exist, much of the research comes from Rachel Yehuda, founder and director of the Specialized Treatment Program for Holocaust Survivors and Their Families at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

"Adult children seem to have a greater prevalence of mood and anxiety disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder," Yehuda reported in a study.

With a recent grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, Yehuda hopes to study the physical and emotional health of the second generation.

"Our goal is to study why some children feel relatively unscarred, while other offspring complain about depression and anxiety and often experience post-traumatic stress disorder," she said.

However, Yehuda has encountered great difficulty finding people to participate in the research. "There is this pervasive feeling in society that research is exploitative, but it is the only chance we have in being able to help people in the short and long run," she said.

Waksberg said Second Generation provides a much-needed service, judging from the volume of e-mails, faxes and phone calls he receives from children of survivors, who are looking for help. Currently the organization has approximately 200 members and nearly 1,000 names on its mailing list.

"Every day, I meet people who either have friends who are children of survivors or are themselves, and didn’t know that there was someplace to go," Waksberg said. He does not believe that traditional psychologists and social workers understand the dynamics of second generation.

Second Generation Los Angeles gives the children of survivors a place to go, he added. "Our goals are to make the lives of children of survivors better and to make sure that the message of the Holocaust has communicators."

In an effort to further both causes, Second Generation offers a wide range of activities, including Project Remembrance, an oral video testimony project documenting family histories; an ongoing psycho-social support group and dialogue with the German community; an annual citywide Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) event, and an educational outreach program for primary and secondary schools affiliated with the Martyrs’ Memorial Museum of the Holocaust.

Past speakers have included Leopold Page, the man who brought the story of Oscar Schindler to Spielberg, and Douglas Greenberg, chairman and CEO of the Shoah Foundation.

Perhaps most beneficial is the social outlet that the organization offers the children of survivors. "A lot of people don’t want to face the pain and they want to have fun," Waksberg said. "We do our missions and have fun and develop relationships — there’s a sense of family. A lot of survivors don’t have much family. We’re very much there for each other, and we offer activities people look forward to."