When you’re a 9-year-old girl in 1986, flying on an airplane should be fun, a chance to pack that mini pink suitcase with chapter books and animal crackers.
But if you’re the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, you might have other things on your mind.
Such as being hijacked.
At age 9, Elena Aronson had already considered how to rip up her mother’s passport so, in the event that terrorists overtook the airplane, no one would know her mother’s birthplace: Tel Aviv.
“I had all of these contingency plans,” Aronson said. The first rule? Never wear a Magen David in public, and especially not on an airplane. Jews were always taken hostage first. That she knew.
This fear — that the rug could be pulled out from under you at any time — was something she learned from her grandparents, who lived through the Holocaust. Their experience, Aronson said, shaped her upbringing, her personality, her outlook on the world and her Judaism.
Norbert Klawir, Aronson’s grandfather, left Austria after it was annexed by Nazi Germany. What spurred his departure? A neighbor held a gun to his sister’s head, threatening to kill her unless the Jewish family signed over the building to him.
Meanwhile, Aronson’s grandmother, Gertrude Feuerstein, and her family were forced from their home in the Austrian mountains and sent to Dachau. Gertrude and her sister escaped to Romania and then to Israel; the rest of her family died in the German death camp.
Gertrude and Norbert met later, in Israel, while attending synagogue on Rosh Hashanah.
“Growing up, we didn’t focus on the war itself and their experiences,” said Aronson, who now lives in Oakland. “The things we focused on were life lessons they learned, which is, hide things. Hide that you’re Jewish, don’t trust anybody. Protect yourself and prepare.”
What does it mean to be the grandchild of a Holocaust survivor?
“I would call it a holy burden,” said Rabbi Mark Goodman of San Francisco. “It’s something I have to carry as a weight, but it’s also something I’m privileged to attempt to make sense of for the rest of my life.”
Not everyone has a story like Aronson’s. Indeed, of the 10 grandchildren of Holocaust survivors interviewed for this story, none described a fear as extreme as that within Aronson’s family (though several talked about having parents who were paranoid and suspicious, characteristics the grandkids attributed to being raised by a Holocaust survivor).
And yet the 10 individuals — four men and six women, ranging in age from 26 to 39 — have much in common.
They described feeling “different” as kids. They often felt an increased pressure to succeed. They talked about having an intense, emotional reaction to Holocaust education and media. They expressed an increased sensitivity to worldwide suffering, a heightened awareness of global issues and a deep-rooted responsibility to Jewish continuity.
There is debate as to how much trauma, if any, a Holocaust survivor unconsciously transmits to his or her children, and thus, to their children’s children.
The evidence — based on numerous studies as well as memoirs — indicates that children of Holocaust survivors have been profoundly affected.
But there is far less documentation of the third generation. In an effort to change that, one San Francisco man wrote his doctoral thesis on grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.
“I wanted to get the ball rolling,” said Joshua Simmons, who will become a doctor of psychology on May 18 when he graduates from the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.
His 111-page dissertation is “not an attempt to make a profile of grandchildren of survivors. This is about beginning to find out some of the common experiences that grandchildren of survivors have.”
He could have studied anything, but nothing else seemed as important — or as personal. Simmons, 29, belongs to the population he spent two years studying. His bubbe, Frances Kaplowitz Goldstein, survived Auschwitz.
“I always felt that even though this happened 60-plus years ago, it had an impact on my life,” he said. “I was curious if others felt the same way.”
Parents protect their children. But what if you are a parent who watched your community crumble, felt your faith fracture or witnessed your relatives die a brutal death? What do you do to protect your children? Hide your pain, or expose it?
Aimee Golant, 34, said her grandparents “were not a mystery.”
“In our family, we were there to bear witness,” said the San Francisco resident. “My grandparents were very clear that every day they lived was a victory over Nazi brutality. That’s what I grew up with.”
However, others had grandparents who never or rarely talked about the Holocaust.
Goodman, for example, said “the stories about my grandmother’s inability to talk about the Holocaust are almost as legendary as her story itself.”
In fact, until Goodman’s mother was 17 years old, she didn’t even know that her own mother had survived the Holocaust.
Regardless of how their grandparents talked — or didn’t talk — about their experiences, many third-generation individuals described growing up in an extremely close family.
“I feel a very strong loyalty toward my heritage and toward raising my children Jewish,” said Todd Jason, 29, who lives in San Francisco and grew up in Memphis, Tenn., with Polish grandparents who rarely talked about living in Siberian work camps.
His grandmother, Reba Oaks, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1999. Shortly thereafter, when it became clear that Reba could no longer care for herself, his parents took her in. Jason moved out of his Memphis apartment and in with his parents. For nearly seven years, he lived with them and helped his grandmother — keeping her company, cooking for her, even helping her use the bathroom.
In his research, Simmons found several grandchildren with the same kind of “family first” thinking.
But he pointed out that “there is a shadow side to it,” which is that such emphasis on family can make the third generation feel a tension between living by their own rules and living for their family.
Danny Blum, 26, grew up in Oakland with skeletal details of his grandparents’ story, since they never talked about it. He knows they left Europe after Kristallnacht, then went to Shanghai, then Australia, and finally to San Francisco.
“A lot of me wants to live for myself, to do things on my own, but I also want to please my family, to make them proud,” Blum said.
For instance, he is in the most serious relationship he’s ever had, with a woman who is not Jewish. He’s acutely aware of how this makes his grandparents and parents feel.
Aronson, 31, also feels torn. “I feel an intense need to live on as a Jew and to have Jewish kids,” she said. “But I’ve so immersed myself in a Jewish life and community that it’s become less about [my grandparents] and more about me.”
How do you honor that which your grandparents suffered for?
Some have chosen to work in the professional Jewish community — as rabbis, educators and activists. Others work in the secular world, but are active in the Jewish community.
Aronson, who earned a master’s degree in Jewish history and was enrolled in the Jewish studies doctoral program at U.C. Berkeley (ultimately quitting when realizing the program wasn’t the right fit for her), said her grandparents’ history in part drove her to study Jewish history.
“But I never wanted to focus on what was done to Jews,” she noted. “I wanted to study what Jews had done.” Appropriately, after leaving her doctoral program, she began teaching students about Jewish partisans (resistance fighters) with a local nonprofit.
For some, having grandparents persecuted for their faith and culture produced complicated feelings about Judaism and God.
“Having the Holocaust in my family made me completely doubt the existence of God when I was young,” said Alexandra Wall, a personal chef in Oakland.
Wall is the grandchild and daughter of Holocaust survivors. Her mother was a hidden child and spent the early years of her childhood thinking she was Catholic. Wall’s grandfather and grandmother lived through the liquidation of the Vilna ghetto in Lithuania and subsequent incarceration in several concentration camps. Their respective spouses did not survive.
Wall’s grandparents knew each other before the war, reconnected later in Poland and married after moving to New York in 1948.
“My grandmother was a very positive person — you would never know what she went through, she didn’t have any bitterness about her,” said Wall. “My grandparents, to their credit, put their past aside for the sake of my mom and tried to make her life as normal as possible.”
Wall has traveled to Israel multiple times, worked in the Jewish community (including as a reporter for j.) and is an active member of Chochmat HaLev, a center for Jewish learning and meditation in Berkeley.
“I like to think part of it is my grandparents’ influence,” she said.
Like Wall, Golant said she struggled with Judaism as a young girl because of her grandparents’ experience. The Nazis forced her grandfather to work as a mechanic and her grandmother to work as a maid, though both spent the last year of the war in labor and death camps.
Golant remembers feeling as if “Judaism was tied up with something so awful — it felt like a burden.”
Yet, “I don’t feel that way anymore. I did a lot of work to work through that, to explore what I’d call the beautiful side of Judaism.”
In an effort to make sense of her grandparents’ suffering, Golant made mezuzahs in a college metal-arts class. Her early works reflected the burden she felt — the mezuzahs were made of dull metal and accented with barbed wire and jail bars.
In spite of the harsh symbolism of those mezuzahs, when Golant showed them to her grandfather, a metalsmith, he was thrilled. He insisted she use his old tools.
Her art, like her faith, has since evolved. The mezuzahs she crafts today are elegant and shiny, designs that have helped her make a name for herself as a Jewish artist and allowed her to keep her grandfather’s memory alive. She continues to use his old tools.
Telling a very different story, Goodman said his grandparents’ history has little to do with his becoming a rabbi.
“But now that I am a rabbi,” he said, “I feel like it’s one of the biggest weights, to explain to future generations the meaning of the Holocaust.”
Grandchildren of Holocaust survivors tend to feel an intense reaction to other people’s suffering, yet they diminish their own.
“I’m now at the age they were when they went through [the Holocaust], and trying to imagine their life is a way to constantly put my own in perspective,” said Wall, 39. “No matter what I’m going through, it’s not as bad as that.”
Added Jason: “There are times when I think, ‘What am I complaining about when they went through this?’ It’s definitely a reality check.”
One concept Smith introduces in his research is “radical empathy,” something he found common among grandchildren of survivors. Johanna Silver, 26, is a glaring example of that.
“I’ve gone to therapy before for feeling like I’m capable of feeling all the pain in the world,” Silver said. “But I never thought it could be because of my grandparents.”
Silver grew up in Denver and now lives in San Francisco, where she works as a garden coordinator for Sunset magazine. Her grandparents participated in the Warsaw ghetto uprising, and were placed in numerous concentration camps. Both lost their parents and most of their siblings. They were ultimately liberated from Dachau. They married in Germany after the war and arrived in New York in 1946. Shortly thereafter, the couple moved to Denver, where Silver’s grandfather made a living as a furrier.
Though many survivors’ grandkids feel this “radical empathy,” they also strive to get beyond it through action, such as fighting for human rights.
For instance, Goodman not only teaches Talmud at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay, but he takes time to engage students in conversations about social and economic justice. Others, like Julie Bernstein, 27, and Nomi Deutch, 25, work at the Jewish Community Relations Council.
Wall has gotten involved with Jewish-Palestinian dialogue groups; she feels strongly that both Jews and Palestinians should have their own state. “I think the responsibility I feel as a descendent of survivors pushed me into activism in that area,” she said. “I can’t stand the thought of seeing Jews as any kind of perpetrator.”
The third generation knows that their children will not know the survivors. They will never touch a wrinkled forearm branded with a numbered tattoo. Nor will they watch their great-grandparents save half-eaten dinner rolls, or hear them whisper in Yiddish or Hungarian or Polish, or whatever language they spoke when they were children, so many years ago.
Yes, they might hear their great-grandparents’ stories — but only if their parents share them.
“I am terrified and profoundly saddened by the fact that in my lifetime, the last survivor will die,” Goodman said. “So I feel a responsibility to explain to the world the significance of the Holocaust.”
The grandchildren of survivors are still sorting out their responsibility.
“I really feel like my life had to be of meaning,” Golant said. Her mezuzahs fulfill that need. She also teaches art classes and frequently talks about her grandparents with her students.
Others have chronicled their grandparents’ stories or encouraged their grandparents to contribute a testimony to the Shoah Foundation.
Some have pushed their grandparents to write a memoir; one is trying to translate his grandfather’s memoir from Yiddish to English (and maybe publish it).
Another popular strategy: Carrying on the family history by learning, traveling or proudly wearing a Magen David around their neck — living a life full of the things their grandparents lost.
“Certainly, my grandparents instilled in me a love of reading and knowledge and learning,” Aronson said. They also taught her to embrace “the freedom to read what I want, which was such a different environment than the one they left behind.”
The third generation has clearly been influenced by having the Holocaust in their family. And while much has been said and written about the legacy of Holocaust survivors and what will be lost when they die, their stories will not die with them.
Their grandchildren are carrying that weight.