WASHINGTON (Apr. 6)
Walking through the quietude at Auschwitz- Birkenau, Jodi Rosensaft felt a chilling familiarity tugging at her.
She had never been there before, but recognized the place all too well from her grandmother’s descriptions. Seeing the women’s camp, the crematoria and the infirmary in which her grandmother worked, the stories she had been told took on a reality difficult to fathom.
She felt her entire family’s experience in the Holocaust pour over her in a flood of emotion — along with the recognition of herself as the sum of that experience.
“It brought everything I had learned full circle, growing up hearing the stories, reading the history books, seeing the movies, but I had never put it together with such a concrete vision,” Rosensaft, 21, a junior at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, says of her experience in Poland last year.
Rosensaft’s grandmother passed away last year, But her experience, along with that of her other three grandparents who survived the Holocaust, has left an indelible imprint.
Like many grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, Rosensaft carries a strong, even defining connection to her family’s past.
The third generation is the generation to which Holocaust survivors, their children and all of those dedicated to Holocaust education and remembrance are increasingly turning their attention.
As the last Holocaust Remembrance Day of the 20th century approaches — April 13 is Yom Hashoah — reality is taking hold more than ever that theirs will be the last generation to have a direct connection with Holocaust survivors and their experiences.
“It is the generation that is going to demonstrate how successful we have been in transmitting our parents’ legacy to our children,” said Menachem Rosensaft, Jodi’s father, who is the founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors.
In many ways, the grandchildren may be better prepared to carry forth the legacy than were many of their parents, owing in large part to the openness with which the Holocaust has been discussed in recent years, both publicly and within families.
This new atmosphere indicates a shift from a time when survivors were either reluctant to speak to their children about the horrors they endured or the children were reluctant to ask.
“What is different is the third generation asks, and the survivor has no problem exposing absolutely everything to the third generation,” said Rositta Kenigsberg, who chairs the second-generation advisory group at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and serves as executive vice president of the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center in North Miami, Fla.
“From that, many from the second generation have begun to learn more about their parents’ stories from their children’s questions.”
Because they are an additional step removed from the survivors’generation, the grandchildren “have been less conflicted about communicating with their grandparents about their experiences and asking them questions,” said Eva Fogelman, a New York psychologist who has worked extensively with survivors’ families.
As a result, the Holocaust is “becoming a part of their family history for them” in a way their parents never knew growing up.
For 17-year-old Chava Meed, the Holocaust remains intrinsically linked with her identity.
She grew up in a family in which the Holocaust was always openly discussed – - while she studied it in school and attended Holocaust memorial ceremonies.
And she said she has looked to her grandfather, Benjamin Meed, president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and one of the most respected Jewish leaders in the country, with a certain amount of awe for “being strong enough to talk about it and being strong enough to keep telling the story, because it must be so painful.”
The Holocaust is “one of the things that defines me and defines my family, and I think it’s one of the most important things to carry on — the importance of remembering.”
The challenge of remembering, according to Menachem Rosensaft, is essentially the challenge of the Haggadah, which reminds us that in every generation, every Jew must see himself or herself as if he or she came out of Egypt.
“The challenge to our generation and more so to our children’s generation is to keep that connection going into a century when unfortunately the time will come when the survivors will no longer be there and it will be up to tell the world that each one must be able to relate to the experience,” he said.
It is a challenge that his daughter is prepared to meet. Jodi Rosensaft has already devoted herself to the task by creating committees dedicated to Holocaust education and remembrance, first at her high school and now at her university. And she intends to continue drawing on her family’s legacy as she looks to the future.
“It was their courage to stand up and let their voice be heard that allows my generation to identify ourselves as grandchildren of Holocaust survivors and let our voice be heard,” she said.
And when she tells her own children about the Holocaust, she said, she will speak to them and retell their stories “in my grandparents’ words.”