When Emily Schuman was 19 and engaged to her high school sweetheart, she came home five minutes late from a date with him. The consequences were severe. Her father hid behind the door, and when she walked inside, he punched her.
“If I say 11 o’clock, it’s not one minute after 11, it’s not two minutes after 11, it’s 11 o’clock,” the 73-year-old resident of Wayne recalled her father telling her in a telephone interview with NJJN.
The incident bothered her for decades until a therapist addressed a group she belonged to for children of Holocaust survivors. “One of the first things she said was, ‘How many of you had a curfew?’ Almost every hand went up. Wow. ‘How many of you were severely punished if you were a little late?’ And a lot of hands went up, including mine.”
The therapist explained what Schuman had never understood: that during the war, people would leave and never come back, taken off the street by the Nazis. “I understood that those five minutes must have been the worst five minutes for my father, thinking that I was never going to come back,” she said.
It’s one example of how the children of Holocaust survivors, known as 2G for the second generation, were impacted by their parents’ trauma.
As the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles, their children
are beginning to pick up the mantle. They are speaking at Yom HaShoah services and sharing their family histories with middle and high school students. (This year Yom HaShoah, Israel’s annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, is observed on May 2.) Often they are revealing the ways in which their parents’ experiences have shaped their own, and they are finding support and camaraderie in groups designed to meet their needs, from speaker training to a writing workshop held in the fall at Drew University in Madison.
“There are very few survivors left,” said Eva Vogel of Berkeley Heights, a 2G who spoke April 28 at Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains. “While they were alive, they were able to speak, and we were mostly quiet; now they are not here so it’s our turn, our obligation.”
Second-generation groups have been around since the 1990s, according to Adara Goldberg, director of the Holocaust Resource Center at Kean University.
“For the first few decades after the war, children of survivors were largely silent,” she said. But in the 1990s as Holocaust centers (now Holocaust and Genocide centers) were being founded, interest also focused on children of Holocaust survivors.
“As their parents aged, I think, it became increasingly important for survivors’ children to find camaraderie and support amongst their peers,” said Goldberg. She pointed out that among survivors, friends with similar experiences became family. “Those were the men and women who were present at weddings and bar mitzvahs, who filled the roles of aunts, uncles, grandparents. And so, in many ways the 2Gs saw themselves as
The Center for Holocaust, Human Rights & Genocide (Chhange) at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft has had a 2G group for about seven years, according to executive director Dale Daniels. She said because survivors’ children feel a sense of “obligation” to ensure the lessons of the Holocaust continue to be taught, Chhange is providing speaker training for the group, among other programming. While she acknowledged, “There’s nothing like meeting a survivor,” Daniels added that people can identify with children of Holocaust survivors in other ways and still learn from them.
“On some level, you don’t get that person-to-person, you know, that eyewitness-I-lived-it,” she said. But 2Gs can share what it was like to grow up with survivor parents, with this history, and the emotional burdens they carry. In many cases, Daniels said, 2Gs are “still processing it.”
Drew University tapped into the unfinished processing when it decided to offer a 2G writing workshop in the fall of 2018. The class was created in memory of Jacqueline Berke, founding director of the Drew University Center for Holocaust/Genocide Study and professor emerita of English. Berke, who died in June 2017, co-facilitated a writing workshop for survivors with literature professor Robert Ready in 1998.
Ann Saltzman, director emerita of the center, who organized the class and co-facilitated it with Ready, was taken aback by the response when the workshop was announced. She expected a handful of people to register. Instead, there were people from Ohio and London, England, asking if they could Skype in or if the workshop might be recorded. Some 40 students responded, double what the class could hold.
“There clearly seems to be a need,” said Saltzman.
Four of the students in the workshop spoke with NJJN. They said the class was just the kind of portal into processing their experiences that they were seeking. Now in their 60s and 70s, they are mostly retired, with time to reflect.
“I never wanted to be in a 2G group that felt sorry for itself, just lamenting,” said Molly Honigsfeld, 70, of Staten Island, N.Y. This group aligned with her desire to “do some writing” when she retired. And she realized that she spent much of her life trying “to escape all the anger I felt and all the pain and my parents’ darkness.” She acknowledged, “I never really processed any of it … No one ever talked about it. I just put it behind me and did not think much of it.” The workshop ended up being “cathartic,” she said. It felt “safe, a place I could talk about the pain and difficult material” she brought to class.
“We did a lot of crying,” said Schuman. “I would do my assignments and cry because it stirred up all this pain I had lived with.” But she added, the act of writing it down and sharing it brought her some closure.
“I think that’s what kept me going,” she said. “I felt so liberated, like I’ve gotten so much off my chest.”
People noticed that although they all had very different experiences, there were similar dynamics across families, such as silence, which ended up being the first essay topic in the class. The class met for six weeks with short writing prompts that elicited essays and histories that were refined throughout the class.
Before joining this group, Renee Riczer, 61, of Green Brook never spent time with other 2Gs.
“We did not ever talk about the Holocaust,” she said about her family. “My father just stayed silent. I knew something terrible had happened and sometimes, I’d hear snippets, but he did not talk about it. I think he was fearful it would happen again.”
Schuman, who has been part of a group of survivors and their descendants from her parents’ hometown in Poland since she was an infant, had always thought that was the only 2G group for her. “I did not realize I could connect to any 2G group,” she said.
Some participants were surprised they were being asked to write about their own experiences, instead of telling their parents’ histories.
“I had to really sit down and think about their impact on me,” said Eva Vogel. “That was really hard — to stop describing my parents’ experience and try describing my own.” But it led to the unexpected pleasure of being able to spend time with her parents’ memories.
“It was like being back with my parents, in their thoughts more intensely,” she said.
“People had a very hard time talking about themselves as opposed to their parents,” said Honigsfeld. “That was the challenge: To look inside ourselves and ask how did that shape us?”
Riczer said that her parents were so overprotective that she had trouble finding her own voice.
Growing up Schuman felt the need to be perfect all the time, and even to suffer, because they did.
Honigsfeld trained to be an artist in college but became a political organizer, instead. “I felt very passionate that my life had to mean something,” she said. “I had to be involved in changing the world.”
At the end of the six-week course, the intensity of the class and the bonds that had developed made separating difficult. So, Saltzman offered three additional sessions, and they have continued into the spring.
“It feels good to talk with a group where you don’t have to explain too much,” said Vogel.
Riczer is walking away with a renewed sense of responsibility. “It made me realize it’s important to talk about what happened and explore how can we continue to let people know this did happen.” She’s not sure where this journey will lead, but becoming a speaker, she said, is not out of the