Between 1933-1945, Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Party ruled Germany. Over the course of his time in power the Jewish people were persecuted, tortured and threatened, not only in Germany, but in every European country conquered by the Germans during the 2nd World War. 6 million Jews were killed in what is now known as “the Holocaust”. But although a tragically small percentage of Jews from these countries either outlasted the war or were fortunate enough to make it out alive, their number was still significant enough to keep the Jewish world alive, primarily in Israel and America. These people that made it out are generally known as “survivors”. Survivors who were not already married would marry after the war, and as is the way of the world, the majority would have children. This article not only addresses those children, the “Second Generation”, but it also addresses the differences between them and Jews who are not the children of Holocaust survivors.
It is often said that people should write what they know. Being the son of Holocaust survivors from Holland, I know as well as anyone what it means to be the child of survivors. What I also know, through friends and relatives, is where the differences lie between those who are second generation and those who are not. It’s extremely important to begin with one very important premise. There is not a better or worse type of person in this discussion. Whatever values a second generation has as a result of their upbringing or whatever their actions and reactions are to what they see and hear in religious and political discussions, the magnitude of their background does not by any means make them better people or Jews. First of all, values that speak to equal rights, tolerance, activism against injustice, are all values any individual is capable of. You don’t need to have had parents that suffered through horrific times to become that person. Often what sets second generations apart from others is an overabundance of caution, and sometimes fear that comes from growing up in a household run by people who experienced persecution as opposed to seeing it from afar or merely understanding it in theory.
It’s important to note that some of these responses by second generations are not what would be deemed as healthy responses. One does not have to be a psychologist to recognize neuroses. It might be said that being a second generation increases suspicion of people, distances in relationships, and a pessimism about one’s future safety. Now that being said, those behaviors can be accredited to anyone from any environment, but when you grow up hearing real stories about pain, suffering, constant fear and death, your predisposition to caution impacts your philosophies. It can be seen even more clearly during this election cycle and the matter of the Donald Trump candidacy. A fear of the rise of Muslim extremism is not limited to the second generation, but anything that can draw a connection in one’s mind to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis pushes a button that causes great passion. That doesn’t mean all second generations feel the same. Some will support Donald Trump because they believe he will deal with the terrorists in a way that will utterly destroy them, while those who don’t support him often see him as a bigger problem, comparing him to Adolph Hitler. Now of course the natural reaction to these statements is that millions of people share the same sentiments on both sides of the issue, but there is a difference. And this is where it gets more interesting. The difference is more in self-perception than in actual philosophy. We, meaning the second generations, often feel we have an inside track on understanding the evil the world is capable of. That in turn impacts how we feel, how we speak, and how we act.
What about the millions of Jewish people who are not the children of Holocaust survivors. Do they not share the same values and understandings? It would be unfair and incorrect to say they don’t, but their values are not rooted in the same emotions. Emotions fade with generations. To illustrate this I will use the example of my brother and his son. I have a brother who left the United States and voluntarily joined the Israeli army. He is no different than me or my other siblings when it comes to his zero tolerance towards anti-Semitism. I would say his philosophies on international affairs and his honoring the memories of those lost in the Holocaust are similar to mine. One of his sons also joined the Israeli army. He clearly felt a strong enough attachment to who he is and where he comes from to make a choice similar to the one his father made and go off to fight for Israel. Where the difference is evident is in what appears to be what might actually be a healthy ability to detach from the emotions associated with these very meaningful values. This detachment can be misinterpreted by not only second generations but by Holocaust survivors as well. Truth is, when actions speak volumes, behavior and interpretation of emotions are far less significant in general but very apparent to second generations because we tend to analyze everyone and occasionally judge as well. Fortunately we make up for it by possibly being the most important people when it comes to keeping alive the memory of what the Jewish people endured.
Everyone acts and speaks how they do for a reason. As a second generation myself, I am convinced that part of my motivation in getting words in front of others is to insure that nothing is missed and that anything I see that can make the innocents of the world safer I must convey to as many people as possible. That, for lack of a better term, hero complex, is also a result of my upbringing. I once read somewhere, and forgive any inaccuracies since it was long ago, that children of Holocaust survivors have a tendency to fantasize about being in an environment like a synagogue which comes under attack, and getting hold of a gun and fighting off the attackers. Again, I am sure this same fantasy occasionally exists in the minds of people who are not second generations, but the study did show a tendency towards this from the children of survivors. I’ll go as far as to say that anti-Semitic attacks I see are attacks I try to fight off with what is my gun, the written word.
The biggest responsibility a second generation has is to make sure fellow human beings, particularly fellow Jews who are not children of survivors, recognize the actual reality of what has and could always still happen. Not just intellectually, but emotionally. There are some brilliant minds, many more advanced than me, that understand the dangers and realities of being Jewish in this world, but their ability to detach emotionally, which is often a strength, can also be an advantage to those out to destroy other’s freedoms and liberties. The balance lies between conveying these emotions while not letting them be an overwhelming force. It is a battle second generations face on a regular basis, and although it is a burden, the one thing all of us recognize, is that it is a far easier burden than the one that faced and in many cases still faces our parents.
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