From the 1980s until about 1995, I was the host or moderator of a series of radio programs in the New York area. Some of the shows revolved around music (WFMU), while others were talk programs featuring newsmakers, community leaders and other guests (WNYM AND WMCA).
By far the most challenging and difficult programs were the shows broadcast about the Holocaust, usually around Yom HaShoah, when the theme and content of these shows dealt with the experience and the lessons of living through the Holocaust.
As I ponder that subject three weeks after the UN-designated Holocaust Remembrance Day, I can recall speaking in depth about the matter, but also being conscious of the reality of what the people sitting across the table from me had experienced. At the same time, I had difficulty connecting the dots and attaching myself to the trauma of what they had endured.
Both my grandparents came to the U.S. many years before the outbreak of World War II and the systematic murder of Jews throughout the continent. Still, I would later find out that there were vestiges of both families that remained behind and, along with so many others, unfortunately suffered accordingly and, in some cases, lost their lives.
More than seven decades later, some would think this might be a long enough period of time for the experience to have effectively faded. After all, we are living in times when a news cycle, regardless of the event, has a shelf life of rarely more than a few days, at which time a story generally drifts off somewhere into the mystery of history and is infrequently recalled.
To say that is not the case with our communal and familial experiences with the Holocaust is an extreme understatement. Recently, however, I became acquainted with the work of two people — one a psychiatrist and the other a psychologist — who maintain that though we did not experience the tragedy of the Holocaust personally, the experience of our parents or grandparents is very much a living fabric of who we are, how we live, and how we think all these years later.
The idea came to the fore a few weeks ago when a friend who works for the Claims Conference, the intermediate agency that funnels funds from Germany to assist survivors, mentioned to me that the population of survivors was rapidly dwindling. To that I responded that if they looked into it, they might deem it quite appropriate to fund the children of the survivors who experienced that period of Jewish devastation in a fashion that could not have been understood or anticipated.
Dr. Rivka Greenberg has written extensively about the psychological traumas of being a child or even grandchild of Holocaust survivors. She was born in Italy after the war, where her parents found refuge before being able to travel to and settle in the emerging state of Israel. As a mental-health professional in New York for the last 30 years, she says that through the decades of practice she has found that the children of survivors have psychologically inherited, at the very least, a great deal of the extreme trauma that their parents acquired as a result of their war experience, even though as children of survivors they may never have set foot anywhere in Europe during those awful years and, in most cases, were not yet born.
“The second generation lived with damaged parents,” Dr. Greenberg said in our phone conversation last week. Some of that damage, she says, was inflicted upon or transferred to the children by their inability to speak about what they had experienced. “They wanted to protect their children from what had happened to them, but it turns out that their silence was toxic,” Dr. Greenberg said.
As can be well understood today, she says, the trauma associated with surviving the Holocaust — sometimes in losing many, if not all, immediate and extended family members — manifested itself in an extreme display of nervousness and even anger, which has impacted greatly on a second, and now we are realizing even a third, generation of survivors.
Dr. Rachel Yehuda is a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience and director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at Mount Sinai Hospital. She has written extensively on the impact of the Holocaust on the offspring of Holocaust survivors. Somewhat different from Dr. Greenberg, Dr. Yehuda maintains that the mental pressure and intense stress of surviving the Holocaust can alter the genetic composition of the victims, and those genes can be passed down biologically to subsequent generations.
I asked Dr. Greenberg about Dr. Yehuda’s findings and supposition, and while she did not disagree with the hypothesis, she said that it is just not possible to definitively prove that this type of genetic alteration had taken place, regardless of how extreme the trauma. For her part, Dr. Greenberg is more comfortable with the idea that the impact of being raised in such an environment, as children of survivors, is more likely to create the kind of PTSD that we are familiar with, such as PTSD that some military personnel suffer from when they return from war zones.
Dr. Greenberg is a typical case of the child of survivors. Her parents traversed five countries, mostly by foot, including crossing the Alps and finally finding refuge in Italy where they spent three years before managing to travel to Israel. Dr. Greenberg adds that the survivor complex manifesting itself in a third generation comes about as a result of somewhat contradictory contrasts.
The children of survivors, Dr. Greenberg explains, suffered from their parents’ nervous and unusual behavior as well as their absolute refusal to acknowledge what they had been through. Now the grandchildren of survivors — and even great-grandchildren, in some cases — are anxious and determined to talk to their relatives about what they endured.
Despite the passage of many years, the trauma was so unimaginably intense — to the degree that while it might slightly fade from the new generation as time goes by, the experience of the Holocaust is still being sorted out today by many. Perhaps the world at large cannot grasp or understand why we, as a people, feel the way we do about the Holocaust and why the commemorations are still so meaningful and intense.
What both Dr. Greenberg and Dr. Yehuda make fairly clear is that surviving the Holocaust and suffering enormous loss was one type of experience; being raised by and living with people who withstood that type of agonizing, torturous existence is another.
About two years ago, we visited Poland walked through the grounds of the Nazi killing camps of Auschwitz and Majdanek. It was a warm July day. The grass in the fields of Auschwitz was green, and the trees were trembling slightly in the soft summer breeze. We walked through the wooden barracks that had held many thousands of Jewish prisoners who were fated to die tragically, many very young.
I could not properly absorb the fact of what happened there as I walked through the area. The feeling was not dissimilar to those radio-program days when I sat across a table from men and women who had actually been inmates in these camps and had lost loved ones but managed to survive, rebuild their lives, and talk about it. Looking back now, I suppose that they were the minority.
On that trip to Poland, we were on a long bus ride from Krakow to Warsaw. There was a video screen on board where they showed us a documentary about the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel. There were images of the starving and emaciated camp inmates as they were liberated by U.S. troops. And then I heard the narrator say that pre-state Israel officials charged with moving large numbers of people to what was then Palestine were concerned about how they would be able to build a normal country populated by so many people who had endured such traumas and atrocities.
Indeed, a great deal of time has passed, but what occurred to the Jewish people is deeply ingrained in us all on some level, and that reality will most likely last forever.