Berta Kohut endured more than 1,000 days at Auschwitz. She suffered through transfers to Ravensbruck concentration camp and the Birkenau death camp.
Having somehow survived and started a family back in her native Czechoslovakia, the last thing she wanted to do was tell her two sons about those horrors. But when her seven grandchildren were old enough to understand, she shared her Holocaust nightmares.
“When I was growing up, it was a taboo subject in our family. My father protected her from talking about it,” said her son, Tom Areton. “It’s easier for her to talk to the grandchildren.”
For many grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, their bonds with saba and savta are based in part on those shared accounts — the same ones that were too raw for the survivors to tell their own children. The passage of time, and the realization that their stories might die with them, often made it easier for them to open up as they aged.
The grandkids, recognizing that special relationship and wanting to share such stories with their peers, have in several large U.S. cities created 3G groups — so named because they’re the third generation. In San Francisco, 3gSF was created in 2013 through the Holocaust Center at Jewish Family and Children’s Services.
“There is a really unique perspective of being the third generation,” said Batya Ross, 33, a member of the 3gSF leadership team. “For the second generation the loss was still really close to them, they didn’t have grandparents, they didn’t have aunts and uncles.”
Many of the 3Gs are in their 20s and 30s, and feel more comfortable sharing their grandparents’ traumatic tales with people their own age.
“No matter what the difference in what our family stories are, it comes down to not having to explain that these family memories impact us in a way that can be difficult to manage, process and file away,” said Maayan Stanton, 26, another member of the 3gSF leadership team and the communications and program coordinator at Taube Philanthropies. “I think this group filled a void, to be among other 3Gs who are asking these same questions and pondering the same issues.
It gives my generation a sense of identity, of purpose, and gives guidance. Who are we and why are we this way?
“I have found that it is important to tell what stories we are able, to preserve the memories of those who should have told their life stories themselves,” she added. “It also gives my generation a sense of identity, of purpose, and gives guidance. Who are we and why are we this way?”
The bond between survivors and their grandchildren has been a recurring theme in post-Holocaust literature, such as Nava Semel’s 2008 novel “And the Rat Laughed,” which also became an opera.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, survivors were so focused on rebuilding their lives, starting new careers and learning new languages — often in far-flung lands like Israel or the U.S., where they sometimes were ostracized for failing to fight back against the Nazis — that they had little desire to dwell on the past.
By the time their grandchildren came along, public attitudes toward survivors had changed and so had they — retired and comfortable in their new lives, they were proud of having lived through a nightmare to ensure the survival of Judaism and their own families.
For many of them, having grandchildren was the ultimate affirmation of their survival.
“To see our grandchildren play and laugh is always my greatest revenge against the Nazis,” survivor Naomi Samson, who spent 1942-44 living in a crawl space beneath a barn in Poland, wrote in her 2000 book, “Hide: A Child’s View of the Holocaust.”
The Bay Area’s 3G group grew out of an endowment from San Francisco resident Susan Golden, a member of the Holocaust Center’s Children of Survivors Council and the daughter of two survivors. Her mom, Mitzi Wilner, was active as a speaker for the center. After her mother died in 2009, Golden worried that survivors’ stories wouldn’t outlast their children.
Golden envisioned the 3Gs as being the ones who could pass those stories on to future generations.
“My generation, we are all well versed in their stories, but it’s my children and their generation that needs to know these stories,” Golden said. “To remember the survivors and their tremendous strength, it would be the grandchildren who would be the natural stewards. I thought they would relate in a unique way, being one generation removed.
“My hope is that 3gSF [members] will become the storytellers for future generations.”
A few months later, San Franciscan Zoe Goldfarb returned from March of the Living — an annual program that brings young Jews to Poland and Israel to study the Holocaust — and approached Morgan Blum Schneider, director of education at the Holocaust Center, about setting up a 3G group. Goldfarb, 33, had heard from people on her tour about 3G groups in cities such as New York.
“It was the first time I had talked with other people my age about the experience of our family stories and what that meant to us in our lives,” she said. “None of my childhood friends were children of survivors.”
Three of Goldfarb’s grandparents survived Nazi concentration or labor camps, and she wanted to be able to pass down her sense that “we wouldn’t be here if not for survivors.”
“We feel a special connection because we feel connected to our grandparents. We feel a responsibility to their legacy and to the people they lost,” Goldfarb said. “We want to be that link and feel like we’re part of passing that on and part of that experience ourselves.”
Schneider said 3gSF now has 128 members in its Facebook group. It’s important for 3Gs to have their own group, she said, since the children of survivors have many such organizations.
“We’re not a support group, I’m not a psychotherapist, but it’s important for people to have a space to share their stories,” she said. “It’s important for people to have a community of their peers, because it’s a different experience to be a grandchild than to be a child of survivors.”
Batya Ross, in fact, is a psychotherapist. She said her career choice was inspired by her relationship with her grandparents, who were survivors, and by her desire to help people who have a family connection to trauma or grief.
“There’s a rejoicing when we [3Gs] come together, which feels a little bit like the spirit of survivors where you can be surrounded by the history, the death and grief and still have something to talk about,” she said.
In addition to group outings, the members of 3gSF seek ways to share their stories, and those of survivors, with the broader community. One of those ways will be an interactive Yom HaShoah art project on Sunday, April 23, at the JCC of San Francisco where viewers will be encouraged to share their thoughts about what Holocaust remembrance means to them.
The 3Gs also plan events with the survivors themselves, including a Passover seder last week attended by dozens of survivors — who are not the actual grandparents of the 3gSF members, many of whom grew up elsewhere or lost their grandparents in recent years.
At the seder, Stanton chatted over matzah ball soup with survivors Anni Bekerman, 86, and Rodica Feldman, 83. Goldfarb poured wine for Herta McCready, 94. And Steven Green, another member of the 3gSF leadership team, shared stories and matzah with Moshe Altman, 90, a survivor of five years at the Buchenwald concentration camp.
Green, 35, director of grants management and program director at the San Francisco-based Jim Joseph Foundation, grew up near both sets of his grandparents in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and wants to keep the stories of survival he heard as a youngster alive “to make sure these horrific acts never happen again.”
“Now as much as any time, amid the anti-Semitism and hateful rhetoric, I think it’s paramount to make sure these stories are not lost,” he said.
Members of 3gSF also recited the Four Questions during the seder led by Rabbi Daniel Isaacson, the JFCS director of spiritual care services. Among the survivors attending the seder was Berta Kohut, 95, accompanied by her son.
For some members of 3gSF, sharing their stories with peers is part of a process of sifting through family memories and uncovering ancestors’ legacies.
Stanton went to Belgium to visit the train station from which her great-great-grandfather was deported to Auschwitz. Aaron Tartakovsky, 27, another member of the 3gSF leadership team, went to his grandfather’s hometown in Poland to rededicate its abandoned Jewish cemetery.
“I think being part of this group helps me feel connected not just to my grandparents but to the members of the family I never met. Being in this group, it’s almost like a big therapy session. We bond over these shared traumas,” said Tartakovsky, whose mother, Anita Friedman, is executive director of JFCS.
“I think there is sort of always looming an understanding in this group that we don’t have a lot of time left with the survivors. We spend as much time with the survivors and act like sponges to gather all this information, so we can go out and be ambassadors.”
To Schneider, there is “a very sacred bond” between members of 3gSF and survivors, even though none of them are actually related.
“3G is the last generation to have that relationship with their grandparents,” she said. “3G is going to serve as that bridge to the future.”