The stereotype of Holocaust survivors as tortured souls only capable of damaging their offspring once led filmmaker Aviva Kempner to remark, “Can someone go insane without being a victim of the Holocaust?” Not surprisingly, Kempner is one of 88 second- and third-generation survivors offering a far more positive take on how this legacy affected them in “God, Faith & Identity From the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors,” a collection of essays that is more inspiration than trepidation, more a testament to function than dysfunction.
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Edited by founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Survivors Menachem Rosensaft, this nuanced, varied look into the effects of having a parent or grandparent as a survivor posits that being a 2G or 3G isn’t a burden, but rather an awe-inspiring responsibility.
Each contributor was asked: How has this legacy impacted your life and what are you doing with it? To answer that profound question, Rosensaft, general counsel of the World Jewish Congress, culled from an international roster of A-list politicians, writers, judges, rabbis, professors, lawyers, doctors, artists and even a sex therapist.
Yes, sex therapist. One might wonder how having the Holocaust in one’s rear view mirror leads one to sexpertise, for which Esther Perel, a couples and sex therapist in New York, has an answer: “For me, being able to connect my family’s history of suffering and death with the erotic dimensions of sex as an expression of aliveness has been an epiphany that has shaped and continues to shape who I am and what I do,” writes this daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors.
Her glowing perspective may not represent all second- or third-generation survivors’ experiences, but she symbolizes the crème de la crème Rosensaft was interested in showcasing.
“The overwhelming majority of contributors to this book had the benefit of parents who did not overburden their children with trauma,” says Rosensaft, whose own mother was a distinguished figure during and after the Holocaust, saving lives as a doctor in Auschwitz and serving as a principal witness in one of the first post-war tribunals against Nazi war criminals.
“If you grew up in a home in which the Holocaust was presented not as an all-enveloping trauma, but rather as ‘this is what it was, and this is what we did, and this is who I was before, during and after,’ then you better integrate it and draw strength from it as opposed to being suffocated by it.”
And that’s an unexpected turn for second- and third-generation literature, which often is steeped in trauma and laden with the sorts of tormented characters and psychodramas found in David Grossman’s novels. By focusing on actions and limiting his authors to noteworthy figures in their respective fields, Rosensaft was able to present the upside of this heavy heritage, how it can be a catalyst instead of a yoke. Then, he grouped their essays into four loose categories showcasing just how the Holocaust impacted each of them: God and Faith, Identity, Legacy of Memory and Tikkun Olam (“Healing the World”).
“It’s not meant to be an introverted examination of ourselves,” says Rosensaft, who was born after the war in Bergen-Belsen after it was a concentration camp and became a deportation camp, a lawyer, Columbia and Cornell University law professor in New York and a two-time presidential appointee to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.
“The problem with the psycho-social approach is not that it’s inaccurate. It’s accurate. But it’s as if one were to determine the drinking habits of the mass public based on a control population of alcoholics anonymous. The goal of the book was to go beyond the psycho-social.”
The desire to buck clinical categorization led Rosensaft to cofound his second-generation network back in 1979.
“I had just started my legal career and was invited to a conference at Hebrew Union College on children of survivors,” he says. “As I listened to psychologist after psychiatrist, after mental health specialists explained what was wrong with us, I looked at Jeannie [his wife, also a contributor to the book] and said, ‘that’s not us, and I don’t want these birds to define us.’ If we have a voice, I want it to be our voice, and it’s going to deal with what we want to accomplish both in terms of Holocaust remembrance and social activism.”
That same proactive quality defines ”God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes,” which grew out of a guest sermon he delivered at Park Avenue Synagogue a year ago in which he grappled with how to reconcile the presence of G-d with the horrors of the Shoah.
The speech, which found its way onto The Washington Post religion blog and eventually into the hands of Pope Francis, landed him a book offer on the theological response to the Holocaust.
But Rosensaft suggested broadening the discussion beyond theology to include political, cultural and historical perspectives, pooling from a wide array of professions, geographic locations and political leanings, and featuring an almost equal number of women to men. To wit, the range goes from former United Kingdom Foreign Secretary and President/CEO of the International Rescue Committee David Miliband to Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella of the Supreme Court of Canada, from former New York Times Israel correspondent Ethan Bronner to founder of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw Eleonora Bergman, from filmmaker Kempner to author and Shalom Hartman Institute fellow Yossi Klein Halevi.
“There is a stereotype of the Shoah that its victims were all rabbis or mothers clutching their children on their way to the gas chambers, or else they were brave resistance fighters, and while they were all there, they were also assimilated industrialists from Berlin, communist intellectuals from France, boxers and athletes, pick-pockets and prostitutes,” says Rosensaft. “There is no reason to think that the children and grandchildren of these survivors would be any less diverse somehow.”
Though Rosensaft says he had no particular agenda when assembling this tome, he did not expect the overwhelmingly forward-looking, positive approach he received. If you think Perel’s essay is unusual, guess again. Each contributor offers a unique and surprising take on the 2G or 3G legacy, with almost no redundancy among them. For example, Dr. David Senesh of Tel Aviv drew strength by connecting with his aunt Hannah Szenes when he found himself captured by the Egyptians during the Yom Kippur War, and once freed, devoted his life to the field of psychotherapy, specializing in the treatment of victims of political oppression and the traumas of captivity and war.
Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre director Tali Nates, whose father was saved by Oskar Schindler, relates how the first time she voted in South Africa’s apartheid-free elections in 1994, there was a genocide underway in nearby Rwanda. She writes about later visiting one of the churches there where 4,000 men, women and children were murdered, and meeting one of the survivors, who bore a machete scar on his skull. As she told him of her own family’s Holocaust story, how it was a case of white people murdering other whites, the young man’s eyes opened wide in disbelief.
“Obviously, it didn’t make the Rwandan genocide any less horrible to this man,” says Rosensaft. “But it also gave him a sense of ‘there is a tomorrow,’ that the horror is not exclusive to them. And by looking at this legacy as a source of strength, not as doom, you can get to a place of ‘lets do something constructive with it.’”
And that’s another refreshing quality of “God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes”: It doesn’t devolve into isolationist thinking, that this legacy only belongs to us Jews, and therefore we must gird ourselves against other people.
“There is a problem with the right wing and xenophobia,” Rosensaft says, “but there is something just as dangerous on the extreme left, where there is a present-day exploitation and misuse of Holocaust imagery so that when someone like [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan talks about last summer in Gaza as a genocide, it becomes singularly problematic.”
That said, some essays take a very hard look at Israel’s treatment of its Arab and Palestinian populations. For example, senior attorney at the Center for Constitution Rights in New York Ghita Schwarz, author of “Displaced Persons,” discusses how her parents’ experiences shaped her into becoming a tireless civil-rights advocate and eventually led her to eschew the point of view of so many Israeli politicians and right-wing Jewish groups who use the Holocaust or the possibility of another one to justify oppressing another group.
In another poignant think-piece, Vancouver-born sociologist and one of the book’s four ordained female rabbis, Tali Zelkowicz of Los Angeles, writes about how the best way to honor her grandmother’s past is by learning to let go of her miasmic lens, liberate herself from her ghosts and assume her own place in the inter-generational passing of this torch. This dialectic seems to be at the core of so many of the essays, though articulated in a multitude of ways – how to identify with the victims without becoming a victim oneself? How to turn powerlessness into empowerment? How to turn pain into compassion?
Rosensaft likens this double-edged sword to a Hasidic story Elie Wiesel refers to in his book “The Gates of the Forest,” in which Baal Shem Tov, when confronted with a looming catastrophe, goes to a spot in the woods, builds a fire, says a prayer and thereby averts the calamity from occurring. A generation later, his descendent faces a similar catastrophe, goes to the forest, can’t recall how to build a fire but remembers the prayer and the calamity is averted. On and on until a few generations later, all that’s left is the memory of the story.
“We are now in the second stage,” says Rosensaft. “The survivors transmitted their memories to us and we know the place in the forest. But there is absolutely no way for us to know how the Holocaust will be integrated into Jewish and general consciousness 50 or 100 years from now. But how it gets transmitted and what is being done with it, at least for the next generation, is within our control. And the important thing to remember is that no single approach is better than the next.”