- Helen Epstein ‘65
Helen learned early that being the child of Holocaust survivors profoundly affects every aspect of existence. Her 1979 book Children of the Holocaust was one of the first to examine the intergenerational trauma of the Holocaust.
When I was a tenth-grader at Hunter in November of 1962, very few of my classmates knew about my family history and I knew very little about theirs. In fact at least 20 of us were kids of Holocaust survivors like me but we never talked about our histories.
At that time, Holocaust was not a household word and what happened was the private business of the people who had managed to survive it. Some developed an amnesia about their war experience; others deliberately resolved to put it behind them. I was an American girl; school was my world away from my family; I certainly didn’t want to talk about it.
I was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, today two separate countries—the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Czechs date their history back to Roman times and were a colonized people within Europe, repeatedly colonized by Germans. Czechoslovakia was a democracy with a constitution, modeled after the constitution of the United States. It was militarily and politically allied with France and Great Britain.
In the fall of 1938, Hitler demanded the right to annex the parts of Czechoslovakia inhabited by German speakers. In Munich, Germany, Great Britain and France caved in to Hitler’s demands failing to uphold their treaty to defend Czechoslovakia. Half a year after the Munich Pact, the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia and split it in two.
My mother Franci, had just turned 19 in March of 1939 when Czechoslovakia became the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. She and her mother were busy running a fashion salon in Prague.
Franci had attended Prague’s Lycee Francais, but dropped out to study dress design. She thought of herself as Czech. When she wasn’t working, she liked to go dancing or to American movies. She paid little attention to politics, or the growing number of German and Jewish refugees in Prague.
In March of 1939, Kurt, the 35-year-old man who would become my father was a champion swimmer and water polo coach. Three years earlier, he had represented Czechoslovakia in his second Olympic Games, the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
His family was well-connected and was offered exit visas in 1938. But his younger brother Bruno was brain-damaged at birth and ineligible for a visa. My grandmother refused to leave without him, and the whole family stayed and was murdered by the Nazis.
During the Nazi Occupation of Czechoslovakia, my parents and their families were first deported to the nearby concentration camp of Terezin. From there, my father’s family was transported to Auschwitz.
My father’s parents and two brothers were gassed to death in Auschwitz and then burned there. My mother’s parents were spared Auschwitz. Instead they were shot dead and thrown into a communal ditch. My parents themselves survived Auschwitz by being selected to work in camps where they performed slave labor.
In the spring of 1945, when my mother was liberated by the British at Bergen Belsen, she was so sick she was immediately hospitalized. When my father was liberated by the Russians, he weighed less than half of what he had weighed when the war began.
When they returned to Prague in 1945, both discovered that their homes had been destroyed and all the members of their families and many of their friends had been murdered.
Neither had work or a place to live. But unlike the majority of Holocaust survivors who could not or did not wish to return to their place of birth, my parents regarded themselves as Czech citizens. Both wanted to remain in Czechoslovakia. They met in June of 1946, and like many survivors married as soon as they could, eager to re-establish a family.
Franci re-established her fashion salon; Kurt went into business with a friend and was elected to the National Olympic Committee. Like most Holocaust survivors, they were eager to have children. I was born in Prague in November of 1947. In February 1948 there was a Communist coup. Kurt thought the Communists were Nazis in a different color uniform. He was determined to get out his time. Thanks to relatives in New York City, we left Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1948.
Unlike the vast majority of Holocaust survivors who were officially displaced people, my parents came to the United States as legal immigrants from Czechoslovakia, sponsored by a relative. Still, they had a rocky time. My father spoke no language but Czech. His expertise was water polo. The only place in Manhattan that hosted water polo was the New York Athletic Club. It did not admit Jews as members, let alone hire them as employees.
MY mother, like so many immigrant mothers, had an easier time finding work. She spoke four languages fluently, and she was an accomplished dressmaker. In New York City, like everywhere else, there were rich women who wanted custom-made clothes. Three weeks after arrival, my mother bought a sewing machine and became the breadwinner of the family.
She was lucky to be able to continue to work in her field. Most of the refugee adults I knew had two professional identities: before the war and after the war. The people in my community had lost family, language, jobs, culture, social status, home, and country – almost everything a person can lose. The war and immigration had leveled the social hierarchy and scrambled traditional definitions of class. My father, whose parents had owned a factory, would eventually feel lucky to get a job as a worker in a factory.
How did I take all this history in as a child? My mother had an Auschwitz tattoo on her forearm, so evidence of her concentration camp experience was always there, front and center. I noticed early on that it had a visible effect on friends and strangers alike.
My parents also behaved in ways that betrayed their years of persecution. Sudden noise reminded them of bombs or shooting. Carrot cake made when butter and eggs were off limits to Jews were reminders of the war. Trusting other people, especially people who had not gone through some kind of major suffering, was difficult. Separations were often viewed as versions of death.
Early on, I understood that my job was to be healthy, happy and a justification my parents’ survival and emigration to America. Listening to their stories was part of the job. I spoke Czech and became the keeper of their family and cultural memory. Unlike other adolescents of my rebellious 1960s generation, I didn’t rebel against my parents as a teenager. I took on their values, their opinions, and their world-view, in some ways more than the values of my own generation. That was how I expressed solidarity and love.
It’s important to point out that I myself felt SAFE from Nazism. I grew up on the West Side of Manhattan and attended P.S. 87, then Hunter. I was never hurt, bullied or even called names because I was a Jew.
From the outside, I and my family looked like any other American family. At home, it was a different story. There were anniversaries of birthdays and deportations, as well as unpredictable reactions to ordinary things.
The elegant, even glamorous persona of Franci the dress designer co-existed with a less comfortable private reality. My mother was chronically ill. A roof had fallen on her back during the war, and she was almost never without some kind of pain. She worked hard, but she was also depressed, sometimes violent, sometimes suicidal. I remember her opening the car door and threatening to jump out when we were driving across the George Washington Bridge. I remember her endless chain-smoking and explaining that she couldn’t quit because cigarettes were the only thing that had calmed her after she was separated from her parents.
My father was a different story. His athletic discipline served him well, and he was able to take pleasure in ordinary things like a sunny day or a long swim. But for a decade he was unemployable not only because of his poor English, but also because he could not tolerate taking orders from anyone. It reminded him of the Nazis. I was thirteen or fourteen years old before he found a safe haven as a cutter in New York’s garment center and we could count on his income.
My relationship with my parents, like that of many children of survivors, was highly charged. Most children idealize their parents, but few grow up in awe of them, as I did. My parents survived starvation and escaped gas chambers; other survivor parents hid in attics or holes in the ground or on false papers, anxious every minute about being discovered; other survivors were fighters who lived in the woods or inside city sewers. Their stories – IF they told them – were more dramatic than any movie. But many survivors did not tell their stories and their silence prompted their children to imagine the worst.
There were no grandparents, siblings or cousins to tell stories, say what Mom or Dad had been like as teenagers, or to challenge their tastes and opinions. I particularly missed having grandparents. I knew them only from photographs like one of my mother’s mother Pepi who was shot into a communal ditch, and I wondered what she had been like.
It’s unusual for children of Holocaust survivors to have any family photographs at all. In my mother’s case, they were saved by the clients of her fashion salon; in my father’s, by members of his water polo team. Though I grew up without any grandparents or aunts or uncles or cousins, at least I know what they looked like.
Another very important factor in my childhood was the presence of other adults who had survived the war, and who stood in for grandparents, aunts and uncles. They included non-Jewish concentration camp survivors and others who had helped Jews.
One was my Czech nanny, Milena Herbenova, who hid a Jewish child during most of the war in Prague, endangering her own life and the life of her own son. She, like most of the adults I knew, was traumatized by the war. Yet they managed to go to work, make a living, and often have a good time.
I grew up reading The New York Times. By the time we got a TV in the late 1950s, there was extensive coverage of the civil rights movement. My parents explained Ku Klux Klansmen as Nazis and American segregation as Hitler’s racial laws. My mother and father had themselves been forced to ride in the back of the trolleys when Hitler took over Czechoslovakia. As Jews, they had themselves been banned from parks, movies and swimming pools. Their response in America was to rarely let a racial or ethnic slur go uncontested.
The responsibility to speak up, not to be a passive bystander, was instilled in me early.
The civil rights movement made me think about my Jewish identity. Even though my parents were the kind of survivors who talked explicitly about their past, they were not traditional Jews. As a teenager, I felt a need to know more about what Judaism was about. Partly because of that, when I was a junior at Hunter, 16, I saved my babysitting money and flew to Israel to work on a kibbutz.
It was in Israel, in the late 1960s, that I began to put together the pieces of my identity as Jew, an American and the daughter of Holocaust survivors. I decided to go to university in Israel. While a student, I began working as a newspaper reporter for the Jerusalem Post and it was there that I began talking with other people my age from all over the world about what it was like to be a child of people who had survived the war.
What particularly interested me was making visible and giving a voice to people and events not represented in the larger culture. I wanted to make people like my survivor parents part of public consciousness, which they were not at the time. I also was already dimly aware of the healing power of writing and art and wanted to do it for myself and others.
I began writing for The New York Times when I was 22 and when I was 29, I wrote an article for the Times about the children of Survivors. After it was published I received more than 500 personal letters. Those letters were the basis of my first book, Children of the Holocaust, which examined how a family and cultural history of genocide is transmitted. The “second generation” as they are called, include over a quarter of a million people who live all over the world. and are difficult to generalize about. They are gay and straight, religious and agnostic, left wing, right wing, apolitical, and non-identifying Jews. Many have children who identify themselves as “third generation.”
I asked my interviewees how they thought their parents’ experience of the Holocaust affected them. Some didn’t want to talk about it. Others had been waiting a long time for a chance to do so. Today, there are hundreds of psychological and sociological research studies on this group, as well as many fine works of literature, visual and performing art. Recent findings in epigenetics and neuro-imaging seem to confirm that the consequence of genocide continue long after the killing has stopped.
While writing Children of the Holocaust I found that in many families, the story of the war had displaced the family history. I wanted to write a history that bridged the chasm that the Holocaust created and wrote a book about my grandmother’s world. I also researched the phenomenon of Jews in sports in pre-war Central Europe. As the daughter of a Jewish athlete, I’ve always been annoyed by jokes mocking Jews and sports. I grew up with a father who taught me to swim, skate, bike and ski. So I wrote Swimming Against Stereotype: A Jewish Athlete.
As an author, I’m invited to speak to students about the Holocaust and its after-effects all over the world. I do it because I have to believe in the power of education to combat ignorance. Hunter was a place that encouraged me to ask questions, and there were many I thought about. How could an educated population like the people of Germany become genocidal? Who were the people who opposed the Nazis and what was it that compelled them to do it? What were the profiles of perpetrators, bystanders and rescuers? How do you educate people to resist the kind of racism that leads to genocide? How do you treat the wounds of survivors? What is our obligation to contemporary refugees fleeing genocide? How do we differentiate between refugees and other immigrants? How do balance our own needs with the needs of others?
It is today’s students and others who read this account who will help answer these questions and help determine our collective future.
Helen Epstein (www.helenepstein.com) is the author of eight books and the co-founder of Plunkett Lake Press Ebooks of Life Writing (www.plunkettlakepress.com)
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