Possessed by a History They Never Lived: Daughters of Holocaust Survivors Confront Secrecy and Silence

Nancy D. Kersell

211A Landrum, Department of Literature and Language
Northern Kentucky University
Highland Heights, KY 41099
(859) 572-6618

Nancy Kersell is a lecturer in English at Northern Kentucky University. She has been the director of the NKU Holocaust Education Resource Center and has published numerous articles in Holocaust studies.
Nancy was a Vladka Meed's 2000 American Teacher's Seminar to Poland and Israel and was a fellow in the Centre for Advanced Holocaust Studies 2004 summer seminar on "Using Primary Sources to Teach about the Holocaust" at the United States Holocaust Museum.  She is also listed in the 1988 and 2005 Who's Who Among America's Teachers and won the 2005 Outstanding Non-Tenure Track Award at NKU.

As works by American writers Helen Fremont, Helen Epstein, and Eva Hoffman clearly and poignantly disclose, daughters of Holocaust survivors find their lives shaped by the moral, psychological, and historical implications of second-generation experience. To fully understand themselves, these women have had to “excavate our generational story from under its [the Holocaust’s] weight and shadow (Knowledge xi),” according to Hoffman, and this demanding process can be a terrible burden of its own. As inheritors of an immediate as well as continuing legacy of the Holocaust, these daughters are often torn between searching for healing and struggling to fully comprehend their parents’ horrible past, wishing they could lessen their parents’ suffering and trying to construct lives no longer “possessed by a history they never lived.” Their testimonies also reveal the prolonged struggle daughters of Holocaust survivors have endured in trying to penetrate their parents’ secrecy and silence.

Helen Fremont’s memoir After Long Silence describes her parents’ resolute intention to conceal their Jewish ancestry from Helen and her sister Lara as she tries to discover not only what had been hidden about the past, but why. Raised as a Catholic, Helen had always felt that “something didn’t make sense” about her family’s background. She describes herself as “living my life with flawed vision....each time I walked into my parents’ house, I fell over something, or dropped into something, a cavernous silence, an unspoken, invisible danger” (28). When she and her sister learn that their mother’s Jewish parents had been murdered in the Belzec death camp, they attempt to share this family history with their parents:

‘I wrote away for information,’ Lara said, ‘and I got back documentation about our family. We know what happened to your parents. We know what happened to Dad’s mother.’ ‘What happened?’ my mother suddenly cried. Her hands started trembling with a terrible urgency, while her face remained frozen—a wide-eyed mask of incomprehension. ‘Then you know more thanI do!’ she exclaimed....‘Tell me,’ my mother cried. ‘What happened? I don’t even know what happened to my parents!’ She turned desperately from Lara to me and back again, her hands shaking....I hadn’t been prepared for this. I had expected my mother to refuse to talk about it; I had been prepared for her to deny it, to get angry, to scoff at me and dismiss it, but I did not expect her to beg us to tell her how her parents were killed. (38)

During this painful process of exposing the truth, Helen realizes she is consumed by an excruciating sense of guilt that I had just shattered my mother’s world” (39). Although faced with their parents’ intractable desire to forget about the past, Helen and her sister decide to visit Poland to reconstruct their parents’ lives before the Holocaust. When Helen expresses doubts about whether they have the right to uncover the family secrets, Lara retorts, “It’s not just about them!. . . It’s about us! About who we are!” (148).

This shared acknowledgement that being the daughters of survivors is an integral part of their identities renews Helen and Lara’s curiosity to understand their parents’ suffering, but what they find does not necessarily offer comfort or reconciliation. Helen comprehends how during the war her mother had relied on a separate personality to avoid detection and arrest in the Aryan sector, and this “breezy exterior” became a significant, and then necessary, defense mechanism. She also sees the consequences of this “armor” when she realizes that her mother

believed she could not live without it; whatever was inside had long ago died. Only the armor remained, and she would clank with it down the streets of America fifty years later, into grocery stores and bridge parties, but inside she knew she was hollow. Her soul had slid out of her and was lying somewhere on the pavement, mixed with the shattered teeth and blood .. . of a dozen boys, on a dozen streets, in a dozen countries....But it [her armor] props her up and helps her forget everything she lost of the young woman she once was, Batya, who slid out through the cracks and never made it back. (167)

Fremont’s admission that “No one had the right to his own life; the family was the smallest unit of identity” (319) confronts a common dilemma for many children of survivors: how to penetrate their parents’ “armor” of denial, secrecy, or silence without feeling selfish or guilty for resuscitating traumas from the war. Helen Epstein, although not completely comfortable with psychiatrists’ clinical assessments of the Holocaust “Survivor Syndrome,” finds that some of its characteristics accurately describe her own parents’ behavior, including repressed mourning, survivor guilt, and psychic closing off—“an inability to feel or project emotions....Many seemed to remain closed off or emotionally constricted for the rest of their lives” (106-7). Epstein interviewed numerous daughters of survivors for her book Children of the Holocaust, and as a child of survivors herself, she wanted to find out how others like her handled the pressure of knowing that “my parents had crossed over a chasm, and that each of them had crossed it alone”(13). Trying to grasp the significance of that chasm has proved difficult for many daughters of survivors. One interviewee, Ruth Alexander, declared that

My father was very quiet. He never told any specific stories. I feel that my father’s family was obliterated. Erased. I felt very nervous asking him about his family; I do even now. I knew it was horrible, very upsetting to them. It was also upsetting to me. It was my responsibility not to ask. I knew that they didn’t want me to know but I did know. So I pretended not to. (193)

This imposed, almost sanctified, silence imprisons many of the survivors’ children in what Epstein describes as her “iron box,” and the effect is often profound:

As I talked to more and more of my contemporaries, I began to feel that they were all carrying around a version of my iron box, the contents of which they had left unexamined and untouched, for fear it might explode....Our parents’ past had been, whether we admitted it or not, a dominant influence on the basic choices we had made in our lives. (220)

To learn more about the Holocaust’s impact, Epstein became involved in one of the early (1974) oral history projects recording the life stories of Holocaust survivors, but her parents were not pleased by her efforts. Her mother remarked, “’This is all very nice, but a little late,’ she said. ‘Nobody was interested in us when we were in camp and nobody is interested in us now. Hurry up and get it done, will you?’” (335). Epstein gradually perceives the source of this resistance:

My parents did not understand what I was doing....Like most survivors they neither imagined how, over the years, I had stored their remarks, their glances, their silences, inside of me, how I had deposited them in my iron box like pennies in a piggy bank. They were unconscious of how much a child gleans from the absence of explanation....By the time I wrote up the official report....I was saturated with the past....For the first time, I saw my parents’ lives in the context of others. I could put them in perspective and measure them against a community. I had never known any family to place them in. (335-6)

For these women, their parents’ secrecy and silence construct a barrier that not only postpones or prevents intimacy but also shields them from knowledge difficult to absorb. In a recent study of child survivors as parents, researchers noted that

From the parental viewpoint, withholding detailed information about the Holocaust seemed crucial to the child’s normal development by freeing the child from having to face the burdens of the past. From the child’s point of view, the parents and their past lives were enveloped in awesome mystery, which prevented the child from understanding . . . the Holocaust background of the parent....Parental silence, rather than protecting the child, exacerbated the other troubling aspects of family life. This . . . paradox, unique to Holocaust survivor families, is perhaps the most pervasive of all. (Krell 507)

In households where the Holocaust has remained a forbidden topic, its impact has infiltrated the lives of second-generation daughters in subtle ways. Many of these women still struggle to cope with their daunting responsibility as part of what Eva Hoffman describes as “the hinge generation in which received, transferred knowledge of events is transmuted into myth” (Knowledge xv). According to Hoffman in her eloquent book After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Legacy of the Holocaust, the weight and duration of this consciousness manifests itself on several levels. The mysterious past initially resembles a fable, with an “implicit morality within which the good was closely equated with suffering....The presence of suffering was powerful enough so that it had to be absorbed; but there was also an imperative to remain loyal to it, to make up for it, to provide solace” (13). Hoffman also identifies the other side of this ethic as the “equation of evil with brutal power, and a choked, breathless hatred of ‘the Germans’....the demonic force in the universe” (14).

Hoffman describes her gradually expanding recognition of pervasive sensations in her life connected with the Holocaust, embedded since childhood, that she has witnessed: psychic numbing, panic attacks, burning rage and corrosive guilt, inadmissible shame and endless mourning (53). In the aftermath of continually escalating violence, Holocaust survivors often suppressed their memories to focus instead on beginning a new life, relinquishing their former names and all connection to families that no longer existed. Within this silent emptiness Hoffman calls “emotional anesthesia” (67), however, their children have acquired “a helpless, automatic identification with parental feelings and their burden of intense despondency” (63). In response, these children seek vindication for their parents, want to rescue them from the nightmares and trauma, yearn to fulfill their parents’ expectations of happy, fulfilled lives untainted by old wounds and memories.

Ironically, this process permeates the daughters’ lives and memories. Hoffman observes that “the Holocaust for me, as for every child of survivors, is, if not an embodied internal presence, then at least a deeply embedded one....The imprint of family speech—or silence—was, for better or worse, and with whatever reactions followed, potent and profound” (181). In such an atmosphere, where Hoffman finds that “what happened to my parents and their Jewish friends was . . . the kind of secret one wraps in a cocoon of silence, or protects as one protects an injury” (25), the children’s uncertainties and quests for understanding culminate in inescapable feelings of fear, guilt, depression, and grief.

Researchers during the past thirty years have conducted clinical studies in the United States and Israel focusing on the transgenerational effects of the Holocaust on children of survivors, and the results document in scientific terms how the Shoah continues to affect the families still hoping for recovery. What these investigations cannot fully measure, however, is the intangible loss of faith, trust, and emotional receptivity experienced by survivors and their descendants. When these conditions have been allowed to remain latent, hidden beneath secrecy and silence, the survivor parents have acted out of what they believe were good intentions. In their desire to focus on the future, survivors have tried to conceal the past because “children born after the holocaust represented the healing of the traumatic events in their life. Children are perceived as a source of new hope and meaning for a parent for whom all meaning was so brutally shattered” (Barocas 820). As the memoirs of second- generation daughters reveal, however, this situation “creates a burden of unrealistic expectations on a growing child, who may feel that the parents’ psychological survival is dependent” (Philips n.p.) on fulfilling their dreams.

What emerges from these memoirs is evidence of more wounds threatening to demolish already fragile family connections. The initial tragedy of the Holocaust is compounded by its melancholy reverberations. An entire generation of children struggles with the aftermath of a genocide characterized by “groundless hatred, pitiless persecution, pointless degradation, and endless killing” (Suedfeld 7). What these daughters of survivors force us to confront is whether it is possible to move beyond knowledge of “the negative extremes of human possibility”(Hoffman 278), and Hoffman acknowledges that to “separate the past from the present—to see the past as the past is a difficult but necessary achievement” (279).

This separation from the past may not strengthen the connection between the generations, but it can emancipate the children of survivors from feeling responsible for their parents’ anguish. Mary Rothschild, another daughter of a survivor, has written that

 I have learned that I cannot save my mother from Auschwitz and that giving up my life will not restore hers....Yet in the telling of my story, I learned how to create meaning out of the ashes of my murdered relatives, my mother’s traumatized life, and my own years lost to the task of healing. I learned to separate my story from that of my mother. (51)

This willingness to create meaning out of silence, to extract and express her own identity beyond the shadow of the Holocaust, emerges as a final legacy borne by the daughters of survivors. In sharing their stories with each other and the world, they have shed new light on the psychological traumas still shaping their parents’ lives. More importantly, in this spirit of open disclosure, perhaps these women can receive at last the “emotional reparations” they deserve to construct for themselves a newly restored life.

Works Cited

Barocas, H. A. and C. B. Barocas. “Manifestations of Concentration Camp Effects in the Second Generation.” American Journal of Psychiatry 130 (1973): 820-821.

Epstein, Helen. Children of the Holocaust. New York: Penguin Books, 1979.

Fremont, Helen. After Long Silence: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 1999.

Hoffman, Eva. After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Legacy of The Holocaust. New York: Perseus Books, 2004.

Krell, R. and M.I. Sherman. “Medical and Psychological Effects of Concentration Camps on Holocaust Survivors.” Transaction 1997: n.p.

Nadler, Arie, Sophie Kav-Venaki, and Beny Gleitman. “Transgenerational Effects of the Holocaust: Externalization of Aggression in Second Generation of Holocaust Survivors.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 53 (1985): 365-369.

Philips, R.E. “Impact of the Nazi Holocaust on the Children of Survivors.” American Journal of Psychotherapy 32 (1978): 370-378.

Rothschild, Mary H. “Transforming our Legacies: Heroic Journeys for Children of Holocaust Survivors and Nazi Perpetrators.” Journal of Humanistic Psychology 40 (2000): 43-55. Suedfeld, Peter. “Reverberations of the Holocaust Fifty Years Later: Psychology’s Contributions to Understanding Persecution and Genocide. Canadian Psychology 41 (2000): 1-9.