November 20, 2018

I am now the voice of my parents

There was never a time in my life when I did not know about the Holocaust.

As I was growing up, when my friends were visiting their grandparents, I didn’t have grandparents. I asked my parents why and was told they had died a long time ago. When I continued asking, they said my grandparents were killed during the war.

As I continued to ask questions, more information came out about how my mother’s parents had died. This eventually led to my full understanding of the impact of the Holocaust on my family.

I remember how, during the Passover seders, after we finished our meal, my father and I would try to set up the 16-millimeter projector, threading the film of a 1953 episode of “This Is Your Life” to watch my very young-looking mother become the first Holocaust survivor to appear on national television. As it played, my mother, Hanna Bloch Kohner, would stay in the kitchen doing dishes. I guess she didn’t want to watch it. But for me, it was part of our annual ritual: When Ralph Edwards said, “….upon arriving at Auschwitz, they handed you soap, and you went to the showers. Your shower had water, others were not as fortunate, like your mother, father and your husband, Carl. They all lost their lives in Auschwitz.”

In a strange way, I think I just took the idea of this for granted.

I don’t know when I learned about it, but by the time I was a teen I knew that my mother had had an abortion in Auschwitz in order to survive. Her first husband, Carl Benjamin, was killed upon arrival, but, miraculously, my Uncle Friedl was a doctor in the camps and arranged for her procedure, which saved my mother’s life. However, she was told that she would never be able to carry a child again. That didn’t stop her from trying, however: After eight miscarriages and months of bed rest, I was born on July 4, 1955. And our relationship, as might be expected, was very intense. So, when I was 18, it is no surprise that I came back to Los Angeles, after 10 weeks at the University of Oregon, suffering from severe separation anxiety. Though I finished my education in Los Angeles, and lived within a short distance from my parents’ home, we were together often. And, after many years away from the home I was born and raised in, I returned to live there after my parents died.

We always spent Mother’s Day at the cemetery where my father’s mother was buried. She had survived, and it is a long story of how she got out of Czechoslovakia in the 1930s with the help of President Roosevelt as war clouds loomed in the distance, but Mother’s Day was very powerful for my family. On those days my mother would talk about the children she had lost; this also included the still-born babies, and she would remind me that I almost had a sister and a brother, both of whom had names. I don’t think this was healthy for me, because I know I felt I had to make up for all those lost children. I had my own survivor’s guilt.

My mother was a survivor who was willing to talk about the past. On the other hand, my uncle — Dr. Gottfried Bloch, my mother’s brother, and a psychiatrist — would never tell me anything. When I asked about the numbers tattooed on his arm, he would say they were his phone number. I never asked him why there were only six numbers, and I could not understand why he would lie to me. Only in the 1990s, when he told his story in his memoir, “Unfree Associations,” did I learn what had happened to him.

My father, Walter Kohner, was trained as an actor in Vienna. When he arrived in the United States in October 1938, his two older brothers were already established in Hollywood as a talent agent and writer. Having family in the United States was what made it possible for my father to come here, but he did so at the sacrifice of leaving his fiancee, Hanna Bloch, behind, with the hope of sending for her very soon thereafter. My mother, however, was stuck in Europe, as an emigration quota system evolved into chaos and eventual closure of the borders.

After coming to the United States, my father became an agent, too, and that is how the TV host, Ralph Edwards, who was my father’s client, learned the amazing story of my mother, which led to her story being televised nationwide on “This Is Your Life,” in May 1953. Later, my parents decided to write a book about how my father found my mother after the war. They worked on it for seven years; some nights after dinner, my mother would ask if I would like to hear the chapter she had worked on that day. And that’s how I learned details I never knew.

My mother would tell me stories about her grandmother the concert pianist. She was very close to her parents, and admired her brother Friedl. He chaperoned my mother at the school dance, where she met my father in 1935. It was painful for my father to leave my mother in 1938, but his hopes for a better life in America for the two of them was strong. And, it was only after years of disappointment — and apparent certainty that their lives had grown apart — that my mother’s life became a test of survival, love lost and found again. You can read about that in “Hanna and Walter: A Love Story.”

When “Hanna and Walter” was published in 1984, my parents took me to Europe to visit many of the places that were important in their lives. We went to Teplitz in Czechoslovakia, where they were born, and Theresienstadt, the second of four concentration camps where my mother was imprisoned. We ended the trip in Amsterdam, where my father, a sergeant in U.S. Army intelligence, miraculously found Hanna after the war ended and asked her to marry him and come to the United States.

In the 1980s, I completed a master’s degree in education and worked in marketing and sales for a Hollywood trade paper. I also taught Sunday school at various temples in Los Angeles. After my mother died, in 1990, I started to teach my Hebrew school students about the Holocaust using her book, artifacts and my personal experience as a second-generation survivor to bring the story to life. Over the past 18 years, through a program that I call “Voices of the Generations,” I have reached out to thousands of children and adults in settings as varied as the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., and a survivors’ congregation in Skokie, Ill. My parents’ book is now in its third reprint. I realized that during their lifetime, they were training me to carry on their painful legacy.