For Survivor Descendants, the Past is Prologue


When I see the long lines at the supermarket, I am reminded of my mother telling me about standing in line all night to get a loaf of bread for her parents and four siblings during their escape east on a horse and buggy from Wyshkow, a town near Warsaw. I, as well as other second- and third-generation of Holocaust survivors, have responded to this pandemic differently from our American Jewish peers because it triggers the victimization and survival of our ancestors more viscerally.

Over the past six weeks, I have had private conversations with friends as well as therapy sessions with patients, and a picture has emerged that reinforces something I long believed to be true: children of Holocaust survivors have just as much capacity to cope with adversity as other groups, but their reactions have cognitive and emotional associations related to their parents’ historical traumatic past. This idea is in contrast to the media that has portrayed second generation of Holocaust survivors as suffering from PTSD and from impaired genetics.

Ingrid Tauber, a psychologist from San Francisco, agreed. “I have food and shelter,” she told me, “unlike my parents who were struggling to survive in the Budapest ghetto, while also helping others — my father as a surgeon, my mother as a nurse. As the daughter of survivors, I’m perhaps more palpably aware of how quickly it can all vanish.”

When I spoke with New York-based journalist Heidi Bratt, her first response to the Covid-19 was, “I could channel my parents’ strength. I have to be the stalwart. I need to show strength to my children and husband.”

Bratt’s motivation to exhibit resilience predisposed her into a state of denial of the viciousness of the virus. Friends around her were panicked, started washing their hands and clothes and not leaving the house. Bratt was busy with her work trying to finish an issue of a magazine she was editing. She became frightened when a very close friend was hospitalized and was on a ventilator. Then emails were filling up her iPhone with death notices from her children’s school and her synagogue. At which point she told me she redoubled her effort to think of her parents’ strength, and to draw inspiration from a Torah approach to this contagious disease. 

When her husband, Jeff Davis, a doctor at The Brooklyn Hospital Center, was stricken with the virus, she could no longer remain in denial. She bemoaned, “We didn’t escape. We got hit.” The reality was they could not escape because Davis was still working daily in the hospital until he got sick.

In contrast to Bratt, some found their family historical trauma prompted an immediate response. One of my patients, a grandchild of Holocaust survivors and a married woman with a 2-year old girl, dismissed her nanny, cut her own working hours and fled to her country house when the coronavirus first surfaced in Seattle, early in the outbreak. The uncertainty of what was to come exacerbated her general anxiety symptoms, and a flight reaction helped her overcome her immediate panic.

Another third-generation survivor, a man who did not exhibit a strong identification with his family history, surprised me when he immediately associated the impending spread of Covid-19 with his grandparents’ foresight to leave Germany before World War II started. He has three small children and decided to move to a relative’s house outside New York.

While some descendants of the Holocaust were concerned with protecting their families, others were jolted into searching for ways to make a difference. This is a common reaction — a “search for meaning” — to those who are in the final stages of mourning relatives they never knew.

This kind of reaction was so blatant in my recent encounter with the Holocaust Committee at the Heschel School in New York, which is comprised mainly of third-generation parent members. When New York was going into lockdown, the first response was: What can we do to volunteer? This, of course, attests to research that grandchildren of survivors have a heightened sense of empathy. Cayle White, a performing artist and special education specialist, became terrified at being locked down to a space, like her grandparents from Poland who were forced into a ghetto before being incarcerated in Auschwitz, Dachau, Bergen Belsen and Terezin. Despite her own anxieties, she thought of the elderly survivors and suggested ways to assist them with physical needs and emotional support.

Jeannie Rosenfeld Fisher, a writer and editor, had four grandparents from Cluj, Romania, who were subjected to death camps, slave labor, death marches. When Fisher contracted Covid-19, she beat herself:  “Why am I not strong like my grandparents?” Despite her illness, she organized a Zoom Holocaust commemoration for the Heschel School.

I spoke with Washington, D.C., filmmaker Aviva Kempner, whose mother survived by receiving a false Polish Christian identification document that enabled her to work in a barrel factory in Germany.  Kempner responded to the pandemic by equating the current health care workers as “our present-day rescuers.” She felt compelled to honor and help them, and did so by collecting matzah boxes and Easter baskets to be delivered to staff at local Washington hospitals. For Kempner, “this is payback for the bravery that non-Jews showed by risking their lives to save Jews.” She also committed herself to call a Holocaust survivor every day, which helped her relax about her own fears.

Stress is reduced and emotional well-being improves when helping others. What also helps generations of the Holocaust is to talk among each other, which makes associations with the past seem much more normal. It is not so crazy to want to escape to the country the way your grandparents escaped from Germany or Poland to the east.

Our plague season has been a time to be reflective and introspective about the past and present. For descendants of the Holocaust, the past is consumed with deceased and surviving relatives. Simultaneously, the 75th anniversary of the liberation is a reminder that there was life after liberation. This in itself is an inspiration to look forward.

Eva Fogelman a psychologist, is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominee “Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust” and writer and co-producer of the award-winning “Breaking the Silence: The Generation After the Holocaust” (PBS).