Children of War: Inherited Bereavement
Rea L. Ginsberg, LCSW-C, ACSW, BCD
I always had a feeling of something different
In our house…but I couldn’t ever really pin it down.
I sensed that there was something mysterious,
Something peculiar about the past,
About the place where I was born,
But I didn’t know what. I wondered about it…
From: Helen Epstein,
Children of the Holocaust
The children of survivors are important to the Holocaust story. The children are the future of the past. For a time, it seemed that no one would be left to create a future. That history has been so carefully, lovingly chronicled. It must be preserved. If it is preserved and told, the possibility exists that there will be no more war. That is always the hope of the survivors.
This is the shadow generation, the echo of the scream. The children of survivors live in two worlds. One is the shadow world of War past. The other is present peace. Past-War and post-War. In the children, those worlds come together and sometimes collide. Contradictions are often prevalent. “I want you to know about the past, especially my personal past, but I don’t want to tell you” is one of the more obvious examples. Bayla Brenner, daughter of survivors, writes this: “We [my sisters and I] knew we were Jewish; we just weren’t sure what it meant. My primary associations with Judaism were pain, loss and thick European accents. Although my parents didn’t speak about their experiences, our home was suffused with an undercurrent of intensity that I dared not stir. We somehow picked up the unspoken, baffling directive – don’t ask, but know everything.”
In the world of War past, there is perpetual mourning. Also fear and suspicion. Suspicion is often rampant, as can readily be expected and understood. Many survivor parents are over-protective of their children, fearing the cruelty of the outside world. This fear and suspicion are easily transmitted to the child and may well become a personality trait that lasts a lifetime. Few peers share this combined world of past and present. That absence of comprehension sometimes creates a sense of isolation for the children, a feeling of being out of place. For the children of survivors, there is a sense of having and holding a terrifying, deadly secret. That only adds to the isolation. It cannot be expressed either to the parent or to the uncomprehending peers.
People of similar backgrounds or beliefs seek each other. So it is also with the children of survivors. Helen Epstein, herself the daughter of Holocaust survivors, expresses it this way: “[My friend] Evelyn never spoke about family, or history, or how her parents came to be living in New York City. But when I visited them, I felt at home. There was an intensity there, a kind of fierceness about living that was absent from the more casual, easygoing atmosphere of other homes.”
At the same time, people have great need to talk about themselves and their experiences. The children of survivor parents are no different. Talking is an affirmation of one’s identity. It further strengthens that identity. It confirms the realities of one’s life. Careful choice of listeners is essential, especially when it is clear that experience differs from a societal norm. This is true for the children of survivors. Talking becomes cathartic, relieving, reinforcing self-confidence and enhancing self-esteem. It makes the life story feel a little less peculiar and a lot more natural. Talking in groups is equally beneficial. Talking can be profoundly transformative. It has a way of dignifying life experience. It can be inspirational. And it is freeing.
The children of survivors are especially protective of their survivor parents. From Lisa Katz: “A higher frequency of separation anxiety and guilt was found in children of survivors than in other children. It follows that many children of survivors have an intense need to act as protectors of their parents.” The survivor parent is often seen as particularly frail and vulnerable to any outside questions or criticism, no matter how slight. The perceived vulnerability is, in reality, the survivor’s capacity for agonized remembering. The children have an intuitive understanding, almost as if by osmosis, of what is incomprehensible to most others: the horror of the Holocaust and the depth of grief suffered by the survivor parents. Anything that might hurt or otherwise upset the parents is noxious to the dependent young child. In 1734, Alexander Pope wrote, “As the twig is bent, so the tree is inclined.” The child grows up strongly inclined to maintain his protective stance toward his survivor parents. The intent is to preserve the parents’ hard-won equilibrium.
The child is the symbol of the future and the past for his survivor parents. The parents are also especially protective of the child. He seems to arise from the ashes of the Holocaust extermination. A phoenix rising. He is often seen as replacing at least some of what was lost to slaughter. He symbolizes renewal as well as a past regained. He is a new beginning and a continuation for his parents. Much is expected of him. He must meet parental expectations if love is to be fully maintained. Somehow in this case, love is conditional – as well as unconditional. Simultaneously, the parents may be reluctant to tell the child the whole story of their Holocaust experiences. The reason is to protect the child from painful information, and to protect the parents from painful memories. This presents something of a dilemma for the child. He is expected to fulfill his parents’ wishes relating to the War, but he does not know quite what is behind those wishes. Difficult position indeed. But there is no room for confusion about expectations.
In this regard, education plays an important role in parental expectations. Again the words of Epstein, as she quotes a fellow child of survivors: “My parents always said that a person can lose everything, but what’s inside his head stays there. I had to acquire an education, they said, because our enemies could take everything away from us but that. Little by little, as I became aware of who the enemies were, I began to understand. Education is closely related to the idea of self-sufficiency.”
The children of Holocaust survivors often have an intense wish to search and travel back to the parents’ place of birth and growing up. It is as if a return to the birth place will reveal secrets long kept by the survivor parents. If the secrets could be revealed, the child would better understand his own identity. This is not always a conscious, purposeful intent on the part of the child. For him, it just feels right to travel in search of clearer understanding of the parents and ancestry. Many such children are able to achieve exactly this, the travel, the search, and the further discovery of parents and of self – self-identity.
People are resilient, even in the face of incredible trauma. This is certainly true for the Holocaust survivors as well. Characteristics of strength can be passed along to the next generation just as much as severe emotional wounds are transferred. Resilience is the ability to recover successfully from adversity. Lisa Katz: “While trauma can be transmitted across the generations, so can resilience. Resilient traits – such as adaptability, initiative, and tenacity – that enabled survivor parents to survive the Holocaust may have been passed on to their children.” Successful management of challenging situations is a display of strength and resilience.
The child gathers a sense of responsibility to carry forward the grief of the survivor parents. This is implicitly communicated by the parents. No words are exchanged to express this expectation. It just is – like an entity that lives and breathes independently. By so doing, by assuming responsibility, the child becomes a companion sufferer and pain reliever for the parent. Also, he aids in keeping alive the cherished memory of the dead. As Elie Wiesel has said, to forget the Holocaust is to kill twice. And the child fulfills the parents’ need to know that their story is, and will be, kept active, told down the generations. This is inherited bereavement. It is complex. The parent expects it. The child accepts it. It reinforces the parent-child bond. It is handed even to the next generation.
Lisa Katz writes: “The Third Gens [grandchildren of the parent survivors] are the ones who will be alive when all the survivors have passed on, when remembering the Holocaust becomes a new challenge. As the ‘last link’ to the survivors, the Third Generation will be the one with the mandate to continue to tell the stories.” In his novel, The Oath, Elie Wiesel tells us something similar: “That night Grandfather appeared to me in my sleep. Surprised that I could see him, I asked him to explain. After swearing me to secrecy, he said: ‘Your mother thinks I am dead; she is wrong. Your father too is wrong. And you will be my proof. As long as you live, I shall be alive.’” Inherited bereavement.
If ever there were a place for end-of-life planning – and there is, in every life – it is this place. The survivors were exposed to massive, vicious, terrifying, and totally unplanned deaths. Survival was often a stroke of luck more than determination. Planning would have been a gift beyond imagination. Now, with the participation and assistance of their children, survivors can plan and ease the path to a far better ending. This is the opportunity. A ‘good death’ is once again within reach, in a saner society, in a post-War world.
A few degrees of heightened understanding and release then belong to the child of the survivor parent. A ‘good death’ for the survivor parent may well lead to some relief of inherited bereavement for the child. War deaths were atrocious. A post-War ‘good death’ isn’t. The parent’s post-War experience of death as a time of relative peace may have a positive influence on the child. It may refocus and reframe his general perception of death and dying. That could well enlighten and instruct the child’s future. It is resilience. It is strength. It is growth. It is the story, refreshed as it must be told.
An old tree was felled…
Echoing, dark echoing
Thunder in the hills.
Japanese haiku poem
Bayla Shiva Brenner, “Healing a Wounded Covenant: Children of Holocaust Survivors Reclaim their Heritage,” Jewish Action: The Magazine of the Orthodox Union, 2 April, 2013.
Helen Epstein, Children of the Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1979.
Lisa Katz, “The Effects of the Holocaust on the Children of Survivors,” updated 5/2/2017,
Daniel Mendelsohn, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, New York: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2006.
Michael Milgraum, “Children of Holocaust Survivors, Common Problems and Pathways to Healing,” The Jewish Press, 22 February, 2012.
The Four Seasons: Japanese Haiku, New York: The Peter Pauper Press, 1958.
Elie Wiesel, The Oath, New York: Schocken Books, 1986.
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Tags: #HolocaustSurvivor #children #bereavement #renewal #hope #resilience
From death, life still springs
Strength and growth
Death does not win