Not too long ago, a millennial of Asian descent asked me what it was like to be raised by Holocaust survivors. The importance of indicating his background is to highlight the difference of his life from the life he was asking me about. Although I think human beings are inherently the same when you break through all the superfluous crap, I recognize the impact environment and circumstance has on molding an individual. So the question made me think about this topic more deeply than I had in quite some time, and in light of the events that have taken place in my life over the past 6 months I decided to share, in the hope that I help address issues of concern not just to people that fall into the same category that I do, but for people looking for answers about who they are and where they are going.
Since I am very aware that we live in a world where people often find sport in attacking the words that others share, let me make a few things very clear before you read on. The information you are hopefully going to go on to read is not based on historically verified facts or scientific studies. This is based entirely on my personal feelings and interpretations. If your reaction is, “why should I care how he feels?”, that is fine with me. Just like that same person can’t tell me I am right or wrong for how I feel, I can’t tell that same person what to care about. But hopefully it is understood that at least part of my motivation is to help people that struggle with feelings they do not understand or even worse, understand but can’t deal with.
My initial response to the question was probably the most honest response I had ever given to any question regarding my parents and what it was like to be raised by people who lived through Nazi-occupation. I called it 2 sides of the same coin. On one side I recognized that there is an inevitable dysfunction to being raised by people who went through what my parents went through. On the other side of the coin, even before without addressing the special qualities my parents exhibited in their lifetime, being raised by Holocaust survivors almost forces you into seeing things that are more important than what is relatively superficial nonsense.
Coming out of the ashes of the war in 1945, it needs to be understood that not all Holocaust survivors had the same or even similar experience. There seems to be a universal understanding among all decent people, whether they have a direct connection to Holocaust survivors or not, that degree of suffering is not a contest. No one ever says to a Holocaust survivor that was not in a concentration camp that they were lucky in comparison to someone who survived the camps. And while it is clear that had my father not helped my mother find places of refuge and do so much to keep her from being captured by the Nazis that she would have likely suffered horrors unimaginable likely followed by death, who is anyone to measure the devastation of seeing your world be decimated and the feelings associated with running for or fearing for your life for close to 5 years? And who can understand seeing everything you know and believe in be wiped out as though it was a disease? As soon as I was old enough to understand with some maturity what my parents went through, my value system was impacted by how I interpreted their life experiences.
I never felt guilt. I was not made to feel that way. Mostly because for as long as I can remember it was made very clear to me who the guilty parties were. Nazi and Nazi collaborators were the mass murderers that murdered my ancestors, and living my life in a good and happy way would be more of a slap in the face to their efforts than it would be a disregard for what the Jewish people suffered through in my parents’ native Holland and the rest of Europe. I have however always felt a responsibility. It would probably take extensive therapy for me to understand to what extent I try to do good things and to what extents I follow Judaism based on the responsibility I feel, but I am honest enough to admit that it is certainly part of the equation. I know that although in today’s very partisan political climate we can debate what is anti-Jewish sentiment or action, I do know that I have zero tolerance for those things I consider to fall into those categories. This is about how I feel when I recognize that taking place in society or my environment. I know that nothing feels more important to me than the survival of the Jewish people, but I also know I reconcile ethically by having the same intolerance for attacks on the survival of others, again, when I see it as taking place. This same factor explains why Israel is important to me. Israel not only represents a safe haven for the Jewish people escaping persecution, but it also highlights the thoughts and ideas of those who have a disdain for the Jewish people. That is not to say that any opposition to the positions of the Israeli government is anti-Jewish, but it does alert any honest individual to the fact that being anti-Israel is more often than not a code word for anti-Semitism.
So all of these viewpoints and philosophies are at least somewhat a result of being raised by Holocaust survivors. But it would be hard to refute the idea that some of my flaws are not a result of that as well. To know that for sure would be to know what degree of the imperfections of my parents were passed on to me are a result of their experience during the war was passed on to me. I maintain that it may be close to impossible to identify that with any accuracy and I loved and respect my parents and their memory too much to pick apart whatever flaws they may have had, but I will offer up one fear I believe I inherited from my upbringing. A fear, that to be brutally honest is very likely a contributing factor behind the time I have put into writing this piece and much of the other things I write. It is the fear of not making a difference. For my grandparents, my father’s parents who refused baptismal papers because they would only die the way they were born, as Jews, for my ancestors who were killed in the concentration camps, for the 6 million, and for my parents who felt the pain of that time until the day they died, I feel that I have a responsibility to do something that matters. There is a fine line however between feeling a sense of responsibility and feeling a burden, and although I was not made to feel guilt, whenever that sense of responsibility has felt like a burden, a feeling of guilt sets in, because I know, that my “burden” is nothing compared to those that suffered during that time. Nevertheless, it is a reality that sits with me and one I need to address from time to time.
I do leave you with two very important points. First one being that one of the reasons I am writing this piece is to hopefully help any other children of Holocaust survivors with unresolved feelings they may have difficulty dealing with, and the second one is to accentuate the most important factor in this entire discussion. The Holocaust was a reality. The enormity of it was so significant that it not only resulted in the murder of 6 million Jews but it still impacts the world and generations in so many ways. The specifics being a discussion for another time. Reality, good or bad, does not disappear just because you want it to. It does not disappear because of perverse and distorted ideologies. It needs to be confronted, something I will continue to do that for as long as I am able. Sometimes it is my burden, but I am thankful to God for the fact that usually it is my responsibility. One I accept without issue.
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