Hunter College H.S. Holocaust Survivors

The Second Generation

- Marilyn Krochmal Gelfand, ‘64

Marilyn Gelfand is the daughter of Holocaust survivors, sometimes called “the second generation” in Holocaust history. She tells of the difficulties she felt and experienced as a child survivor in answers to a series of questions posed to her.

When and where were you born?

I was born in 1948 in Brooklyn, New York, and I am a child of Holocaust survivors. My parents came to New York in 1947. I was born nine months after my parents came to America. I am named after the ship they came on. It was called the Marine Marlin and I became Marilyn. My mother hadn’t had a period in 10 years and had had one of her ovaries removed for medical reasons. She had no idea she was pregnant when she felt nauseous on the subways, when she first travelled on them.

What happened to your parents during the war?

My parents had been married for just three months, when Hitler invaded Poland. During the war they were hidden in the basement home of a Polish woman and her daughter. My mother gave birth there to a baby who died. Their entire families were tortured and killed. One set of grandparents was shot to death in the street. My other grandfather was butchered to death at Babi Yar and then thrown into a pit. My mother’s sister had a five-year-old child, and when the Nazis killed her son, she asked that she be killed also. They obliged. With this history, the intense relationship I had with my parents as their only child has left me with tremendous feelings of loss, now that they are gone. I have everything of theirs that I could bring into my home.

What difficulties do you recall growing up as a child of survivors?

Our family name was Krochmal. It was a difficult name for students and teachers to pronounce, and I always had to spell it. My parents were older and had heavy accents. I had no brothers or sisters or grandparents. That was something I missed. I know from the old box that I had a very large family who were all victims of the Nazis. It hurts that I was brought up without any close relatives.

When did you first learn of your family history?

I learned that I was the child of Holocaust survivors, when my parents would have their friends over or when we went to visit them, and they would invariably tell stories. I had to know Polish so I would know what they were talking about. I knew other children of their friends who were also in my situation. I really can’t pinpoint when I first learned about my parents’ history. It was just osmosis.

How did you feel when you first learned about this?

I had no faith in God or many people, and I had no respect for authority. I realized any authority can turn on you and hurt you. I still had a basic faith in people, because my parents loved me so much, but I realized there were bad people in the world.

Did you feel different from friends and classmates? In what way?

I had no family. I also had a lot of immigrant feeling, as I was born nine months after my parents arrived in New York. I know my parents sent me to summer sleep-away camp, so I would know how to take care of myself in case, God forbid, something would happen again. I was scared when they flew on airplanes that I would be all alone, if anything should happen to them. I used to check to see if my mother was breathing when I was young, as she had health problems. I don’t think I had much of a childhood, as I wanted to make up for all my parents went through and I wanted to protect them.

Did you hide your history from friends and classmates?

No, it was just the way it was. There wee enough survivors, as opposed to American Jews, in my neighorhood in The Bronx to make it seem normal. All were on the same economic level. I used to think one of my friends was so lucky, because she had American- born parents and two older sisters to help her. I recently met her again, and I realize how much more depth and strength I had to have to keep going. I thought my childhood was unfair.

Do you have a family of your own?

I had to find my own way, as my parents were busy trying to make a life. I married young and had a boy and a girl. Possibly I transmitted my anxiety about life and death to them. I was very protective and still am. My daughter does think that she may have picked up my anxious feelings over life and death of those we love. I now have a 9-year-old grandchild and another who is six months old. They mean everything to me. The parent-child relationship was paramount in my life.

Please tell us about your career and other activities and interests.

I have a Master’s degree in anthropology have worked at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, after working for the New York City Bureau of Child Welfare. I have written two books. One, called My Grandpa Joe, is a children’s book about the elderly and respect for various choices people make. The other is Miracle Milestones, one child’s journey with autism that I wrote with a cousin. I write a bi-weekly column, Inner Voice, for my local newspaper, The Wave, in Rockaway, New York. I am trying to be active in making sure that Jewish people will not be lulled into a false sense of security in the present.

I have travelled extensively and in midlife found God again. My son’s Bar Mitzvah was in Israel, and it was my father’s victory over the Nazis.

- January 2008

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