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Beyond Yesterday’s Survival: Children of Holocaust Survivors Speak about Their Experiences

Debbie Braun

Although no one in the Orloff family ever spoke directly about Adolf Hitler, yemach shemo, he was a constant presence in their Brooklyn home. Like many other “survivor households,” the horrors of the Holocaust were all-pervasive, casting a heavy shadow on even the most mundane events in their lives. But the impact went beyond childhood fears and nightmares. Though they didn’t realize it then, many children of survivors acknowledge today that in some sense, they, too, are survivors.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A large number of doctoral theses and psychological studies analyzing this population have been published; the terms “survivor’s syndrome” and “second-generation survivor” have been widely accepted among mental health professionals. The findings seem to indicate predictable emotional patterns in many children of survivors. And although no one falls neatly into one pattern, several studies even go so far as to classify subjects into distinct primary reaction groups.

Some children of survivors find the whole research fixation to be extremely upsetting. Aside from taking offense at the cold objectivity and detachment with which these studies treat a highly emotional topic, they consider the obsession with “survivor’s syndrome” to be a “me generation’s” excessive indulgence in angst and self-pity.

“How can we dare dwell on our relatively slight emotional issues when we can’t comprehend even an ounce of what our parents suffered?” questions Simi Kantor*, whose mother lost her entire family in Buchenwald. “Our heroic parents kept their emunah under unimaginable circumstances; whatever we experienced surely pales in comparison.”

Also disturbing to these men and women is that many of them were thankfully spared any negative impact from their parents’ Holocaust experience, and they resent being labeled “scarred.”

“For me and many of my friends, the stereotypical descriptions of Holocaust survivors and their children simply do not apply,” says Simi. “Our parents raised healthy, beautiful families, and it’s unfair and untrue to mark us all as ‘damaged.’$$separatequotes$$”

But Liba Orloff, speaking for many other children of survivors, vehemently disagrees.

“While some second-generation survivors didn’t experience the classic ‘survivor syndrome,’ many did. And for those of us in the latter category, we discuss these issues not — Heaven forbid — to compare our challenges to those of our parents, and most definitely not to blame or point fingers. Our parents did an incredible job of parenting considering the terrors they had been through.

“What we’re trying to do is recognize the negative attitudes that we’ve absorbed by osmosis. These suffering-borne perspectives are not a figment of someone’s imagination — they’re real, and we need to make sure not to transmit them to the next generation. The Nazis, yemach shemam, did enough damage seven decades ago; it’s our responsibility to stem the tide and purge our parenting of these less-than-healthy outlooks.”


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