Last night we had the first in a series of ten monthly meetings of a discussion group for children of Holocaust survivors which took place at the Boro Park Y in Brooklyn. The series of meetings is organized by “Bikur Cholim Chesed Organization”, and was made possible by a grant from the Jewish Federations of North America, through their Center for Advancing Holocaust Survivor Care.
About 50 children of survivors made the time in their busy lives and filled the room to the brim. Briefly introducing ourselves to each other allowed us all to register again the scope of the Holocaust as each mentioned the countries of origin of our parents. The participants were also requested to mention the topics of interest that they would wish to learn more about. The legacy of the Holocaust and its impact on the relationships between the survivor parents and their children had influenced the lives of the “Second Generation” in many different ways at different times along their development. The way the second generation navigated the process of identity differentiation in adolescence, the way they made decisions about life style, whom to marry (or not), their degree of involvement with their parents throughout their adult life, were all influenced by the special themes of intense loyalty and awareness of the parents’ painful past and sensitivity to loss. At this time, as the survivors’ numbers are dwindling, many of us are still coping with this difficult phase in life, when parents are suffering from physical ailments or from cognitive decline. This is often a particularly painful time that brings many terrible memories back for the survivors, and places enormous challenges on their children to find the way to help aging parents find good care, empathy and peace at the end of their lives. Another issue raised at the meeting involved the relationship with the third generation, their perceptions of the Holocaust and of their experience of their grandparents’ legacy, which is often different than the experience and the perceptions of the second generation.
Following the introductions, I shared with the group the recently published piece by Varda Spiegel, “Playing the Holocaust Card”, which appeared last week in the Times of Israel around Yom Hashoa. The article (http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/playing-the-holocaust-card/#.VykyfNpHF3V.gmail ) captures that special connection among those of us who share this unique family background.
In the discussion that followed, I began to describe what I call the “dual reality” of trauma and its role in the lives of children of parents who survived extreme suffering and loss. The discussion began to address the findings and insights from the research into the long term effects of the Holocaust. The last several decades, since the introduction of the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder into the psychological and psychiatric literature, have led to a torrential accumulation of studies on the effects of trauma in many populations. The findings, including from studies of Prisoners of War and Veterans in Israel and in the USA, as well as other victims of extreme trauma across the globe, have corroborated the findings regarding survivors of the Holocaust. Insights from all of these populations suggest that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and even sub-clinical post traumatic reactions, is associated with premature aging and cognitive decline.
It was moving to notice the tentative, yet courageous willingness of the participants to put out to the group the issues that are truly of interest and concern to them. There was acknowledgement of the tremendous variance and nuances in the vast range of experiences that characterize the second generation. Some suffered greatly due to the impact of severe parental post traumatic reactions on the relationships in the family, while others had parents who were able to protect their children much more from their own suffering. Despite many differences, there was a feeling of unique affiliation and interest in learning more about the way in which we in the second generation, now all in our middle age, can re-examine our experiences from the vantage point of being now parents and grandparents ourselves, and make new meanings of it for ourselves and for the next generations. I left the meeting awed by the feeling of a kind of an exuberant energy that was felt in room among us, children of survivors, by the experience of coming together and anticipating the possibilities that an open, frank and deep discussion amongst ourselves offers.
The next meeting is scheduled for June 28th, 2016, again at the Boro Park Y.