Descendants of Holocaust Survivors Reflect on Identity, Memory and Faith

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Jewish Lights Publishing

A generation will soon come of age having never heard firsthand testimony from a living Holocaust survivor. The aging ranks of those persecuted by the Nazis during World War II are not yet fully diminished, but one day soon they will be.

“We are at a transitional moment, when the survivors are fading from the scene and there’s a real question of what Holocaust remembrance will be like going forward,” says Menachem Rosensaft, general counsel for the World Jewish Congress — an organization that advocates for the rights of Jews and Jewish communities. Born in the Bergen Belsen displaced persons camp in 1948, he is the son of two Holocaust survivors. “And the real question to me was, ‘What is it that we, children and grandchildren of survivors, are doing with this legacy?’”

In God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors, a recently published book of essays, Rosensaft asked descendants to respond to that question. The book originated with a sermon Rosensaft delivered at the Park Avenue Synagogue on the Saturday between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in 2013, in which he tried to reconcile faith with the horrors his parents and others endured at Auschwitz.

The sermon was later published in the Washington Post’s On Faith blog and received a personal response from Pope Francis. It also caught the attention of Jewish Lights Publishing and eventually became one in the collection of more than 80 essays published in November.

When Rosensaft, 66, and his wife — the daughter of two survivors — attended a conference on children of Holocaust survivors in New York in 1979, they heard from psychologists and therapists talking about the trauma of the second generation. He and his wife didn’t recognize themselves in any of the descriptions. While there are certainly children of survivors who are traumatized by their parents’ experiences, he says, it didn’t reflect the whole population.

From the outset, the book was meant to be life-affirming, he says. He wanted to pull together reflections from children and grandchildren of survivors, about how this legacy has shaped them theologically, politically, culturally and in terms of identity, education and career.

Contributors to the book come from 16 countries on six continents and include rabbis — from ultra-Orthodox to reform and female rabbis — as well as secular Jews and atheists. There are essays by lawyers, doctors, politicians, academics, writers and mental health professionals.

Many of them, though well-known and respected in their fields, are not usually associated with Holocaust memory, such as U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon); David Miliband, former British secretary of state for foreign and Commonwealth affairs; and Avi Dichter, former director of Shin Bet, Israel’s security agency.

“What is often forgotten is that the victims of the Holocaust, both the dead and its survivors, were not a homogeneous group,” says Rosensaft. “The fact that you had communists and Hasidic rabbis and secular Jews and rich and poor sleeping in the same barracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau or being next to each other in a gas chamber is relevant, because there’s no reason for their children or grandchildren to be any more homogenous than they were.”

In his essay, Alexander Soros, son of billionaire investor George Soros — a survivor of Nazi persecution in Hungary — wonders what he would have done had he been born a German or Hungarian and not a Jew during the time of the Holocaust.

Richard Primus, a professor of law at the University of Michigan, writes about how the cold makes him think of his grandfather’s winter experiences at Auschwitz, which makes him think of those who suffer in different ways today. That in turn makes him hope that his own children will think of those who suffer today even if they do not first think of their great-grandfather in Auschwitz. Like many of the other members of the second and third generations who contributed to the book, Primus has grappled with how to pass on the legacy of memory to subsequent generations.

Tali Nates, the director of the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre and daughter of a Holocaust survivor, recalls the day in 1994 when she stood in line to vote in the first free elections in South Africa, while in Rwanda, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were being slaughtered in another genocide.

“The words ‘Never Again’ always make me very upset,” she writes. “After the Holocaust, the survivors truly believed that when the ‘world’ saw what had happened to them, surely it would never happen again. But it did... There is much work to be done by all of us to make those words a reality.” As a second-generation Holocaust survivor, she feels it is, in part, up to her.

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Rosensaft says that while the book is written by descendants of Holocaust survivors, it is meant to address survivors of other genocides and atrocities and their descendants. Part of the legacy, he feels, is to recognize, call attention to and assuage the suffering of others.

He quotes his boss Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, who last spring wrote an op-ed in The New York Times titled “Who Will Stand Up for the Christians?” In it, Lauder says, “The Jewish people understand all too well what can happen when the world is silent. This campaign of death must be stopped.”

The book is also published at a time of growing concern over the rise of anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe. On Thursday, the U.N. held its first-ever meeting on the increase in violence against Jews following the attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris earlier this month.

As for the children and grandchildren of the Jews who escaped death at the hands of their persecutors, Rosensaft says: “We did not experience the Holocaust, we are not survivors…. We did not see our families murdered, we were never cold, we were never starved, we were never beaten. We grew up in comfort. And yet what we do have, what sets us apart, is that we grew up with our parents and grandparents. We absorbed their stories firsthand.”

He adds: “We can’t take the place of the survivors in telling their experiences from a first-person perspective. But we can talk about what their experiences meant to them and how their experiences and their memories were conveyed to us.”

Their responsibility is to pass on these memories “not just to our own children and grandchildren but to others of our generations, Jewish and non-Jewish, in order to make sure that this legacy and memory becomes an inheritance that belongs to humankind as a whole.”

Elie Wiesel, a survivor of both Auschwitz and Buchenwald who went on to become a prolific writer, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and a teacher, contributed the prologue to God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes, adapted from a speech he gave to children of survivors in 1984.

“Now you are being summoned to do something with pieces of words, with fragments of our vision, with remnants of our broken, dispersed memories,” wrote Wiesel, for whom Rosensaft served as a teaching assistant in the 1970s. “The testimony of our life and death will not vanish. Our memories will not die with us.”