I Have A Message for You: Holocaust Survivors Recount Messages from their Parents

October 16, 2017

In the video, “I Have A Message for You,” Klara, who survived the Holocaust as a young French woman hidden in Belgium, narrates a powerful story about her father and the impact of parental messages on survivors. Klara, her father, and her boyfriend were on a train on their way to Auschwitz. Her father was very ill and unconscious. Klara and her boyfriend knew that if they were to survive they needed to jump off the train in Belgium. However, Klara was terribly conflicted over leaving her father. In the end she did jump, was hidden in Belgium, and survived. Many years later, she and Phillipe, now her husband, were walking on Disengoff in Tel Aviv when tapped on the shoulder by a stranger who addressed her by name, telling her that she had been looking for Klara for 20 years. She told Klara that she was on the train with Klara’s father when he opened his eyes and asked for her. When told she had escaped, he told the woman “If you ever see my daughter please tell her I am the happiest father because she jumped.” Klara then says how relieved she was to find out that her father died before reaching Auschwitz and that she did the right thing to leave him and escape. Klara defines this encounter as extraordinary and a defining moment for her: she no longer has to feel guilty for leaving her father and knows that he did not have to undergo the torture of Auschwitz.

The Transcending Trauma Project, a research project that interviewed 305 Holocaust survivors, their children, and their grandchildren, also uncovered extraordinary messages from parents that impacted the postwar lives of the survivors. As Dr. Jennifer Goldenberg wrote in her chapter, “The Biggest Star is Your Mother: Prewar Coping Strategies of Eighteen Adolescent Survivors” in Transcending Trauma: Survival, Resilience, and Clinical Implications for Survivor Families (Routledge 2012), the clarity with which most of the survivors relate these messages from their parents and the ease with which they summon them indicates that they served as wellsprings of support throughout the difficult years after the war.

She quotes one survivor who stated that, “My father believed everything was from heaven.  [In business, if there was a financial loss] he said, ‘We had to have this loss.  And better this loss than a loss of health.’ And to this day if I lose money, or if I ruin anything, it never bothers me…it’s still deep in me, I have a feeling that it had to happen, and it shouldn’t bother me.”

Another female adolescent survivor remarked, “I remember my dad telling us, school was important because no one can take your education away.  They can take everything else away from you.  But who you are, what you are, will always be yours.  And during the war, we felt the same way.  No matter what the Germans did, we were hoping and praying that we would remain human and not lose our humanity.”

Dr. Goldenberg continues “perhaps by summoning their parents’ lessons, it seems as though these adolescent survivors were also summoning their parents–their voices and values speaking to them after death.  These were often the only legacies these female adolescents inherited from their parents, messages they would eventually transmit to the next generation.”

In an analysis of tolerant and intolerant attitudes toward the perpetrators of the crimes against them in Chapter 6 in Transcending Trauma, “If Someone Throws a Rock on You, You Throw Back Bread,” I discovered that some survivors reported receiving messages from close family members—often parents, but sometimes a sibling or grandparent—that functioned as a guide for their future tolerant attitudes.  One survivor who espoused tolerant attitudes towards the perpetrators revealed the message that underlay her beliefs about others: “And my parents were able, after the war, to give me that comfort and strength to be able to turn that hate that I felt against the whole world, and especially all those Christians who have collaborated with the Nazis, to turn it around in a positive force.  I had many discussions with him [her father] after the war about hating those people, and he always stopped me. He never let it go any further.  And he said, ‘I know it’s terrible to suffer. But will you be happier if you will turn into the type of individual that has hated us?'”

Another survivor stated, “My mother used to teach us.  I will never forget…If somebody throws a rock on you, you throw back bread…You never throw back a stone. Never throw back a rock. And that’s the way she taught us. And I will never forget when she used to tell us this that we should never be mean. Even [when] somebody’s mean to us we should try to be nice.”

Finally, one survivor narrated in her interview a powerful story her father told her shortly before Germany invaded Poland that governed her postwar behavior. She stated, “Friday night usually my father was sitting home, and he told us stories, all kinds of different stories from rabbis, from sometimes the portion of the week [the reading from the Bible].  But that Friday night …he said that a rabbi…said that a big storm and fire will come to a small town.  It will start in the forest and will burn the whole forest and the whole city will be destroyed.  But in a corner they saw after everything was destroyed, they saw a little bush just start to grow.  And the rabbi said: ‘You see?  From this little bush will come out a whole forest.’  And this I remembered when I was in Auschwitz, when I was liberated.  I thought that I will never get married; I will never bring any generation to this world, because I saw what is happened…I don’t want that my children, and my children’s children, will suffer as we Jews suffered in the years from 1939-45.  But then I said …I remember the holy words, what my father said. That from this little bush will grow a forest. So at that time I decide that I marry my husband.  And I gave him two wonderful sons.  Because he was married before the war. He had two sons, and he lost his wife and his two children during the war. So I prayed to G-d that I should be fruitful, and that I should be able to give to my husband two sons to replace the two sons who were murdered in young age during the war. And my prayers were answered.”

The messages embedded in these stories from parents, from the video and those revealed through the Transcending Trauma Project interviews reveal values, continuity, and meaning. They serve as powerful coping strategies for survivors undergoing the process of rebuilding their lives following traumatic events such as the Holocaust.