Survivors’ grandchildren feeling an obligation to share Holocaust memories

Marion Achtentuch, 83, with her granddaughter, Shira Sheps, 25.  (Shira Sheps)

Marion Achtentuch, 83, with her granddaughter, Shira Sheps, 25. (Shira Sheps)

(JTA) — Shira Sheps remembers walking through an exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan and stumbling upon her grandmother’s long-ago school reports alongside family photos and her great-grandparents’ wedding invitation.

Sheps, 25, had known that her grandmother shortly after Kristallnacht had left Furth, Germany, at age 9 on a Kindertransport to England. But seeing personal mementos of the life that had been taken from the family as well as her grandmother’s uncanny resemblance as a young girl to Sheps’ younger sister at that age, "I freaked out,"  she says.

As a child, Sheps would listen to her grandmother’s stories of a childhood lived during the eve of World War II. The stories, she says, "profoundly affected me. No matter what I do, I come back to it." 

A social worker in Fair Lawn, N.J., who is pursuing her master’s degree at the Hunter College School of Social Work in New York, Sheps has spent the past several years researching and studying the effects of intergenerational trauma.

"It gives me an excuse, gives meaning to [my studies]. It’s a fixation," she says in an interview just days in advance of Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), which begins on Wednesday evening. "I’m bearing witness. I’m doing what I was taught for the purpose of remembering."

She is among the many grandchildren of Holocaust survivors — often referred to as the Third Generation — who feel an obligation to share memories of the Shoah. 

The bond that many in the Third Generation have with their grandparents has been noted by psychologists and researchers who have studied the effect of the Holocaust on families.  

For many survivors, it was easier to share their experiences with their grandchildren than with their children, says Peppy Margolis, director of the Institute of Genocide and Holocaust Studies at Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey, who recently produced a 30-minute documentary titled "The Second Generation: Ripples from the Holocaust." 

Through the dozens of interviews that she conducted, Margolis says she found that for survivors in general, the Holocaust was "too close" and "many were still processing what had happened and burying the pain in their work and raising their children."

Their experiences also left many ill equipped to be parents, adds Margolis, herself a child of Holocaust survivors. "But the majority talked to their grandchildren and not with the same pain and bitterness; enough time has passed and it’s not as traumatic."

While her film explores what it means to be a member of the Second Generation and to grow up with a parent who lived through the Nazi atrocities and World War II, she says it also has helped those of the Third Generation to better understand their own parents.  

Though his grandfather died before he was born, Aaron Biterman, 29, says the experience of living in a home with a parent suffering from the trauma of surviving the Nazi death camps took a toll on his father and aunt. His grandfather never talked about the Holocaust he was so traumatized, Biterman recalls his father telling him.

"He lived but wasn’t living," Biterman, a fundraiser in Arlington, Va., says of the grandfather he never met.

His grandmother also survived the Holocaust in Poland and for many years wasn’t eager to share her experiences. Yet after she retired, Biterman says, she started to open up. Eventually she recorded her story with Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation and began speaking to student groups.

But knowing that his father had grown up in a home "where something was the matter" only strengthened Biterman’s desire "to connect with my family history and to my story." In 2006 he started a Facebook group for grandchildren of the Holocaust that today has more than 2,000 friends.

"It’s just a network to organize, ask questions, get answers and educate others,"  he says.

Education is the key for the Third Generation.

"It is important that the past not be forgotten," Biterman says. "There is a lot of misinformation out there, but we had direct experiences with [Holocaust] survivors. We are the ones with the biggest obligation to share the evidence that was in our backyards. It is up to us to preserve the memory."

For Daniel Brooks, 35, the grandson of four Holocaust survivors, a need to reconnect with other grandchildren of Holocaust survivors led him to start 3GNY, a nonprofit organization in New York, seven years ago. 

With more than 1,500 members in a database, ranging from college age to their 40s, Brooks says the group meets approximately once a month, sometimes for a Shabbat dinner or for an educational event. To commemorate Yom Hashoah, 3GNY informally supports events held by synagogues and the Workmen’s Circle. 

The Third Generation, he says, should not rely on the Jewish establishment to document the lives and experiences of their grandparents or even every Holocaust survivor.

"We all have an obligation," Brooks says. "If not for us, no one will know these stories. Most will be lost, but each one has meaning."

An increased sense of urgency, he says, has fueled members of 3GNY to organize speaking events at middle schools in the hope that sharing their grandparents’ stories with the next generation — a demographic that he worries will feel a wider disconnect to the events of the Holocaust — will leave a lasting impression. 

"For them, [it could become] like talking about the Civil War," Brooks says. "It doesn’t compare to listening to a survivor, but we carry on our grandparents’ stories and the lessons of the Holocaust. It hits them."

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