The Legacy of the Second Generation - by Terese Pencak Schwartz
When my mother became gravely ill a few years ago, my mind filled with weighty thoughts. In addition to feeling frightened about being orphaned again, I realized that no matter how old you are, the death of an ultimate parent still represents an end to your childhood. As long as my mother is alive, I am still someone's child. But, once she is gone, I will have to rely on my memories.
I'm glad that I took the time to talk to my mother about her life - especially the life she lead before she gave birth to me and my sister. It amazed me how little I knew about someone I have known all of my life. For the first time, my mother shared her stories about enduring the War -- about working in Germany as a slave laborer.
After listening to the stories of the Holocaust from my mother and other survivos, I realize that I have received a weighty bequest -- the legacy of a second generation survivor.
The children of Holocaust survivors have begun to speak out about how their lives have been impacted being born to survivors. As the second generation survivors pass through parenthood and middle age, they are showing concern about the legacy they have been handed down by their parents.
This enormous legacy can be a burden or a gift. For those who have accepted this ponderous legacy, I have some words of encouragement: You are not alone. Your feelings are shared by countless others. This is especially important for non-Jewish second generation survivors. The children of non-Jewish survivors have felt much the same pain and burden as children of Jewish survivors -- with one major difference. Non- Jewish children of survivors are often denied the recognition. Many are not aware that they were victims of the Holocaust too -- some just as much or almost just as much as many of their Jewish friends.
Because the Jewish people have worked diligently to make sure that their children do not forget the tragedies of the Holocaust, non-Jewish survivors have often felt that, by comparison, their parents did not suffer "enough" and that the Holocaust is a "Jewish thing". There is no doubt that the Jewish people as a whole suffered much more than the non-Jews. Whether one group suffered more is not an issue. There is no yardstick for personal suffering. Personal misery and sorrow cannot be measured. Nor should it be denied.
Non-Jewish children often do not have the same extensive support groups and backup organizations as Jewish children of survivors. There are many support groups and organizations for second generation survivors, but, from my experience, these groups are almost exclusively Jewish. So, non-Jewish children of survivors are again being forgotten -- just like their parents.
To some second generation children, it does not matter. Some feel no burden of being children of survivors. Some feel no desire to accept the legacy as a gift. That is okay. This bequest is not for everyone. But, for those who accept the legacy of the Holocaust as a gift, I urge you to exploit this precious bequest. It is a part of your history too. Do not let anyone deny that your parents, your grandparents or your family suffered. Remember that your parents and grandparents were also incarcerated, tortured, enslaved and murdered.
Remember that your parents and grandparents fought valiantly with homemade weapons and utensils to protect their homeland. Remember this important part of your history, not only to honor your forefathers, but also for your children's sake. One day it will be your turn to pass the legacy onto them.
Holocaust collage by Felix Stolhmann © 2003