The Effects of the Holocaust on the Second Generation Survivors – Part 1

Several years ago while in my Israeli Culture class we watched a video entitled, “Second Generation.” Although this video spoke to the Holocaust survivors and their children, I found what I saw can be applied to most people and their children. Maybe most of us did not go through something as horrible as the Holocaust, but most of us did do something in our past that is now affecting our children.

Just like the survivors of the Holocaust, we handle our past in various ways – some good and some not so good. This will be a two-part series. In today’s article we will go through some of those ways.

Second Generation

The video “Second Generation” was created in 1994 by Niza Gonen. It focused on how the Holocaust affected the next generation of survivors. There was a group of ten children who looked to be in their thirties and/or forties that came together with a couple of counselors for the purpose of filming this video. Also, there was one man who went through the Holocaust himself that was there. These people were trying to communicate how they felt about themselves, about their parents and siblings (if there were some), about the Germans, and about the world around them now.

The video was very powerful in conveying how they felt – the pain, the hurt, the insecurity, the fear, the hatred, the sadness, and right back to pain. This video not only spoke of the Holocaust, but it spoke to the basic elements of parent-child relationship. How these people felt about their parents could actually be applied to today’s parents and children.

Silence of the Past

One of the main ways we try to protect our children is by keeping silent about our past. We figure what they don’t know won’t hurt them. Just like the Holocaust victims, we don’t want to talk about what happened to us or what we may have been forced to do, either by others or by our circumstances. We want to forget the past and move on toward the future.

However, what we don’t realize is that by keeping silent and not addressing or expressing what was done to us, we cannot move toward the future because, unknowingly to us, that experience was embedded into our subconscious, into our spirits where it left a permanent mark. It changed who we were before the situation happened. When something is embedded into your spirit it becomes a part of you. Without realizing it, you do things that you would not normally do, based on something that happened a long time ago.

Eli Weisel at Buchenwald

Slave laborers in Buchenwald are liberated by the American Army in April, 1945. They survived in spite of miserable conditions: overcrowding, lack of food, hard labor, and psychological torture. Eli Weisel appears as the last full face on the second bunk from the bottom.
Courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives.

For example, in the video, one son remembered having to lean against the refrigerator door just to close it because it was overflowing with food. He never understood why there was always so much food in the house. He did not know what his parents went through. He did not know his parents went to the camps and were not given enough food to eat. He did not know people were stealing from one another the little bit of food the soldiers gave them. He did not know many people died of starvation.

When his parents came out of that situation they carried the fear of starving to death inside of their spirit and without realizing it, they made a decision to never be without food again, to always have more than enough.

Parents also kept silent because they thought they were protecting their families from all the hurt and misery they suffered. They wanted to raise mentally and spiritually healthy children. Being a parent I can attest to that. When my children were little there were some things I just did not want my children to know about me, about what happened to me as a child. I did this because I did not want to take away their innocence. I wanted them to grow up thinking the world was their oyster and they could have anything they wanted and be whoever they wanted to be. I did not want to put limits on them or make them afraid of a certain group of people or a specific gender.

Another reason may have to do with not wanting to deal with the reactions of our children once they do know the truth. We as parents never feel 100% sure of when the right time is really right when we finally do tell our stories. We fear our children will reject us, not believe us, or worst look at us differently like one son did in the video when his father finally did tell him what happened.

At first, the son didn’t believe his father. He thought his dad was lying to him, making up stories for whatever reason. Then he did not respect his father. Maybe he felt his father did not fight hard enough for his freedom. Maybe he thought his father did some unsavory things. At the end of it all he no longer felt his father could protect him and that is something every child needs – the ability to feel safe with his parents.

This is probably another reason why the parents of the Holocaust kept silent. They could not protect themselves or their children. This has got to be one of the worst fears for a parent in the world.

Silence Leads to Anger

Although staying silent might seem like a good bet, we don’t realize the thing we are keeping silent about is eating at us from the inside out. This leads to anger. Anger unchecked leads to a host of other problems – abuse to us and abuse to those around us. We don’t realize our emotions or lack thereof get the better of us.

Warsaw Ghetto Wall

In 1940, this brick wall was built sealing the Warsaw ghetto off from the rest of the city. Approximately 138,000 Jews were herded into this ghetto while 113,000 Poles were evacuated from this section of the city.

Photo credit: Meczenstwo Walka, Zaglada Zydów Polsce 1939-1945. Poland. No. 74.

In the video these grown children were angry at their parents for the silence because it led to all kinds of abuse. Some experienced physical and mental abuse. Other experienced a lack of love and a lack of laughter in the home. Pain abounded and manifested itself in various ways. This is what happens when we try to hide the truth. The deeper we bury the truth inside of us, the angrier we get.

These particular parents (like so many others) decided to act like the Holocaust never happened. They had to bury it in their subconscious. They didn’t want to feel the helplessness, the pain of watching their loved ones and friends die, the hunger pains that never went away, the babies last whimpers as they died from starvation. They took out on their children what they wanted to take out on the people who persecuted them.

It is sort of like today when men come back from the war, especially those who were captured and tortured by the enemy. They come home and something sets them off. They think they are back in the enemy’s camp. Then they begin to lash out, trying to survive.

Also, I believe a lot of adults were detached from their feelings so they did not realize the pain they were causing their children. Also, there were people who felt guilty they survived and their loved ones did not. There were those who were envious of those that did not go through what they went through. Jealousy leads to anger and abuse.

Keeping silent about hurtful events only prolongs our pain. If the pain is left unattended it can lead to anger resulting in physical and mental abuse. It can lead to us becoming unresponsive to our loved ones or over bearing. We need to learn to release our pain to the Father and allow him to heal us.

In part 2 we will discuss the guilt of keeping silent, if and when you should tell your children what happened to you, and whether or not you can live a happy life in spite of your past.

Prayer Time

Our Heavenly Father, who is in heaven,
         Heal our emotions from hidden fears. Help us to leave the past behind and reach forward to the mark you have called us to. Restore our souls so we can be complete in you.
In Yeshua the Messiah’s name, Amen.

Scripture Reference

“He has me lie down in grassy pastures, he leads me by quiet water, he restores my inner person. He guides me in right paths for the sake of his own name.” (Psalm 23:2-3 CJB)

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