As the son of Holocaust survivors, Adi Liberman grew up, as many second-generation children did, with a sense of profound loss. He knew that he had no grandparents, that his mother, a hidden child during the war, had lost her parents at age 5, and that his father’s father died before the war and his father’s mother in Auschwitz.
Now, as he watches his 27-month-old daughter, Hannah, growing up, Liberman wrestles with a mix of emotions about his own upbringing and about the legacy he wants to pass on to his child.
Above, Adi Liberman; at left, Dr. Aaron Hass
“A lot of us in the second generation criticize our parents because they can’t separate enough, for wanting to live their childhood through us. And here we have these children, and the children have these grandparents we never had,” Liberman said. Now, he said, he has a new appreciation of what his parents went through in their search for vicarious pleasure.
“I see how much my daughter enjoys the relationship [with her grandparents], and I want to be the grandchild too. I want to have the relationship with my parents that my daughter is having with them and that I never had with my own grandparents,” said Liberman, chief of staff to Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter and an executive-board member of Second Generation, a group that meets regularly at the Jewish Federation Building in Los Angeles.
Liberman, like other children of survivors who themselves have become parents, has had to come to terms with how, what and when to pass on his legacy to his children, the third generation. Although much has been written, and is being written, about survivors and their children, little, so far, has been said about this new generation of survivors’ descendants, many of whom are still very young.
While still grappling with the overwhelming impact that his parents’ experiences have had on his own life, Liberman, nevertheless, wants his daughter to know, from an early age, about the Holocaust and how it has impacted her life.
“I think it would be just shocking to one day tell our child at age 8 or 10, ‘Here are all the horrible, grisly things that happened, that are part of your past.’ I would rather her confront it at an earlier age.”
Part of his desire, Liberman admitted, comes out of his own need to have his daughter relate to his own difficult experience growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust.
“It definitely, totally colored who I am,” he said. “I want her to absorb it in such a way that she feels it as coming from within her. Part of it is, I feel, how can she understand me, my brother, my sister, my parents, my family without being able to understand this?”
On the other hand, Liberman wonders if, by passing on this legacy, he is perhaps placing too heavy a burden on his daughter — the same weight of memory his parents passed on to him.
“Why should my children feel this?” he said. “Maybe I should give them a break and let them break free of this cycle.”
The answers to these questions, of course, are anything but easy and certainly not uniform. Just as sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors were affected differently by their parents’ experiences during the war, the experiences of the third generation will be even more varied, suggests Dr. Aaron Hass, the author of two highly acclaimed books on the Shoah’s legacy, “In the Shadow of the Holocaust: The Second Generation” and “The Aftermath: Living With the Holocaust.” Hass, a professor of psychology at Cal State Dominguez Hills and an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, is himself the child of Holocaust survivors and the parent of three young children. Hass, who has lectured widely on the Holocaust, says that he is often asked about the right time to start speaking to children about the subject.
“My response is one that I follow in my own home: It’s not age so much that matters as the temperament of the child. If you have a child who is frightened, then that needs to be taken into consideration.” Personally, Hass says, he is careful when talking to his children, ages 12, 8 and 5, making sure not to engender the kind of fear that so haunted many members of the second generation. At the seder table last month, he made general references to the Holocaust and talked about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which began on Pesach 1943.
“There is a difference between that and sitting your child down and saying, ‘I want you to watch this movie with me. I want you to know about this,'” Hass said.
For Dan Rothblatt, director of resource development for the American Jewish Committee, the legacy that he learned as the son of survivors is one that he plans to pass on carefully to his daughter, who is almost 6. Although his daughter has fond memories of baking cookies at age 3 with her great-grandmother, whose cooking skills helped her survive a Viennese prison during the war, Rothblatt still believes that the Holocaust is “too complicated an issue” for such a young child.
Also active in Second Generation, he says that many of the members, now parents, are wrestling with the issue of translating the message of the Holocaust to a third generation. Although some Jews have relied on institutions, such as the Jewish Federation Council’s Martyrs Memorial and Museum of the Holocaust and the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance, to do the telling for them, that isn’t enough for members of the second generation, for whom the Holocaust is totally personal, Rothblatt said. “It’s the story of the blood that runs in our veins and the people who bore us. It’s not like some biblical tale — they killed our families. That’s about as real as anything can be.”
Rothblatt and his wife always light candles in their home during Yom HaShoah as both a personal remembrance and a reminder of the 6 million Jews who were murdered. But they decided not to bring their daughter to Holocaust Remembrance Day services this year.
“She is still worrying about a shark coming up through the bathroom drain,” Rothblatt said. “To put in her mind that there were once armies of people out to get her, me and everyone Jewish is too terrifying a thing.”
Jeremy Kingston Cynamon, the 3-year-old child of two second-generation parents, has been learning about the Holocaust almost since birth. At just 3 months, he sat in his mother’s arms as Marilyn Kingston gave a speech at a Yom HaShoah service at University Synagogue. Since then, Kingston and her husband, Harry Cynamon, have taken their son to other Holocaust Remembrance events, the Holocaust Museum in Washington and to Israel to meet the artist who made a special Holocaust memorial plaque for her in-laws’ temple in Florida.
“I know he doesn’t understand everything, but I feel it’s important for him to be there, whatever he absorbs,” Kingston said. “I don’t want my son learning about [the Holocaust] late in life. I want him to know it from his parents and grandparents. I think knowledge is really your only defense against oppression, against genocide.”
Growing up in what she describes as a happy home, with “extremely lovely, insightful parents” and a grandmother who early on told her and her brother about the family’s war experiences, has given Kingston a model for passing the knowledge of a painful past onto her own son without traumatizing him, she said.
Jeremy “will always be different than his American peers,” just by virtue of having four grandparents who are survivors, Kingston said. “I certainly was different, and so was my husband. The effect will be less dramatic for [Jeremy]…[but] he will know that most of his family was killed, and he will be affected by that in a way that others won’t.”