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Tolerance: Podcast of Ann Jaffe’s Interview
When we asked the question, “Does the Holocaust affect your political views?” a surprising number of survivors clearly stated that they do not harbor any hatred towards the groups in Europe responsible for the destruction of their families and communities. Regardless of their wartime experiences many survivors are able to separate out their emotional responses toward the perpetrators of the specific crimes against them from their views of all the national, ethnic and religious groups that collaborated with the German Nazi government in the genocide of Jews in Europe during World War II.
Full Podcast Transcript
NARRATOR: In studying political beliefs such as tolerance the survivors told of their prewar family of origin lives that revealed the importance of family of origin relationships in the formation of beliefs of tolerance and intolerance. Ann is one such survivor, whose interview demonstrates the importance of both of her parents’ influence in forming her beliefs of tolerance towards the perpetrators of the crimes against her family.
NARRATOR: Ann was born in 1931 in a small town 100 kilometers from Vilna, Poland. There were 1200 people in her town, 350 of whom were Jews. Her mother was a seamstress. Her father rented an orchard and took care of trees. He was a religious Zionist and a yeshiva student never learning a trade. He died in Canada at the young age of 57 years old. Ann and her family escaped from the ghetto and survived in hiding in the forest for the entire war, until liberation. She married in 1951 to a chemist who worked for Du Pont. She and her husband had three children. At the time of the interview, Ann belonged to Hadassah and the Holocaust Education Committee and was active on the Holocaust speaker’s bureau. Here Ann reflects on her prewar life and on her experiences with antisemitism as a child in prewar Europe.
ANN: I was born in eastern Poland. I don’t know whether they were called Litwaks, but actually, part of the place where I was born is more, now it’s Byelorussia. It was 100 kilometers from Vilna, but when I was born, it was under Polish rule. So we consider ourselves eastern Poland. It changed hands in 1939, when, with the last division of Poland, this part fell under the Russians. Until ’41, when the Germans came in and occupied it. And then we were liberated in ’44. And now, I was there, visited last year, and it’s Byelorussia — part of Byelorussia. As a matter of fact, even though we were considered Litwaks, but to go to Vilnius now, you have to cross the border, and you have to have a separate Lithuanian visa. You cannot do that.
INT: It must feel very strange.
ANN: It is. But I have no interest to go to Vilnius anymore.
INT: Now, you told me that you are married. And how many years?
ANN: I am married forty years now.
INT: And what is your husband’s name?
ANN: My husband’s name is Edward Ephraim Jaffe.
INT: Was he called Ephraim as a child?
ANN: As a child he was called Ephraim. But he didn’t want to let go his original name, so he added Edward, and kept Ephraim as his middle name.
INT: But when he’s called to the Torah, he would be…
ANN: Be Ephraim, yes.
INT: Tell me about your education.
ANN: Very spotty all the time. Because before the war I managed to finish just two grades. Then when the Russians came, we had to repeat some grades, because we didn’t know any Russian. So I think we had to repeat the second and the third grade. Then during the war, of course, Jewish children were not allowed to go to school under Nazi occupation. And when I was liberated, I went to fourth and fifth grade in Byelorussia, where I was, after the liberation, those two years. And when we came in displaced persons’ camps in Germany, I finished, what grades did I go through there? Sixth, seventh, I think, and eighth grade, in the camp schools. And these were not normal schools. But this is where I learned Hebrew well, in those schools.
INT: In what language were you taught?
ANN: The instructions were in Yiddish, primarily. But we had a lot of teachers from Israel, that they sent in, and a lot of Hebrew was taught, and I loved the language, and I acquired it quite well. So after that, years have passed, and when I came to Canada, I found out that they have a Hebrew teachers institute, and even though I did not have fully completed high school, I had enough knowledge of Hebrew to join that institute, and I did. And when I got married and came to the United States, and we lived in New Jersey, I found out that they have here, too, in New Jersey, such a Hebrew teachers institute in West Orange, so I joined there. And to study to become a teacher. And then while studying I realized, I said, I’m working for a teaching degree, and I don’t have a high school diploma! (laughs) So I went and took a high school equivalency course, and I passed it, so I got finally, when I was almost finished with all my, you know, Hebrew teachers studies, that I got a high school diploma at the same time. And I’ve been teaching Hebrew school for the past thirty years now.
INT: At what level do you teach?
ANN: All levels. Right now I teach in a Hebrew high school. Over the years, you know, when you teach, you acquire a lot of knowledge. Hebrew I knew quite well. And I also knew Jewish history quite well. I always studied it, and loved it. And also we learned quite a bit in the Hebrew teachers academies about Biblical studies and so forth. So I actually teach, I love teaching the language best, but I have taught, you know, Bible, history, anything that has to do with Judaic Studies, I’m really able to teach.
INT: So you’ve made a career of being a Hebrew teacher.
ANN: When you say “a career”, I have never taught full-time, because I was raising a family at the same time as I was teaching. But I always liked to be involved in teaching, and I still do ’till today.
INT: Well, that’s a career.
ANN: (laughs) Well, I don’t know whether you would call it a career, but it kept me busy a little bit.
INT: That’s a wonderful long history of having contributed to Jewish education.
ANN: Yes. I felt that this was important, otherwise I would not have done it. Because I never had to do it for the money. I always did it for my own pleasure, and for my conviction, knowing that we have to, our children have to know a little something about their roots, to be proud of who they are, and of what they are.
INT: Now tell me, did you have any experiences of anti-Semitism in your shtetl?
ANN: Yes. That was always, always there.
INT: When did you first become aware of that?
ANN: As a child. When you went to school. You knew that on a Christian holiday, you just did not go out of the house. Mother would say, “Stay in.” Because chances were that our Christian neighbors, with whom we were really friendly, that their kids would probably come by with rocks and throw them at you, and call you “Christ-killers.” Because this was something that was openly taught, in schools, and in the church, and at home. That the Jews are the Christ killers. They are to be disliked and hated.
INT: So there were children who could be your friends…
ANN: One day…
INT: How did you handle that? How were you able to live with that inconsistency?
ANN: You simply knew, you simply knew that you were Jewish, and when you were Jewish you were a second-class citizen, and you had to stay out of the way of the Christians. And that’s it. In a little shtetl like this. You did everything you could to befriend them. And I remember my mother was friends with some of the families up the street, the Christian families, where she would do things for them, any time they needed something. They knew they could call on her, and she would always do things for them. And it is these same friends’ children that later would come by and call us “dirty Jew,” or throw rocks at us. And you know, she was even reluctant to go and tell the parents, because she was afraid that the consequences will be even worse; that the kid won’t like it, and then do it even more. So we did feel the anti-Semitism. Especially after 1938, where the Polish nationalists, it was a vibration of what was happening in Nazi Germany. When they started to stand around the Jewish shops, and shout constantly, “Jews, go to Palestine!” You know? “Jews, get out of here. We don’t need you. Jews, you are the bloodsuckers,” and so forth. You know, that’s when we became aware, you know, that things are very bad. Anybody who could, tried to get out. But there was no place one could go.
INT: How did this affect your father’s business? He dealt with Christians.
ANN: Sure. But you see, the village people, were the more primitive people. They didn’t go to church, were a lot more mentshlich, where you know, you dealt with them. My father did them a lot of favors, and so they always knew, you know, where you could come, where you could find a place to sleep over, and to have a meal. And because they were very poor, those fishermen, too. And my father, if he had a few zlotys, which was the Polish money, saved, what he would do, he would go and buy new nets, and bring it to the fishermen. And he would give it to them, and he would say, “Look. I know you don’t have money. Catch fish. I will, as I buy the fish from you, you will slowly pay me out, because you need the tools to work.” And they appreciated it very much. Because a farmer who had nothing could not get enough credit to buy a new net or something like that. So he showed a lot of kindness to them, and these are the people who later on in the war years, helped us really, with our survival.
INT: But it was the people closest to you who were the ones who made the most trouble.
ANN: That’s right. The ones in the shtetl, who lived in the shtetl, and sometimes they would bring in instigators from outside, that were not even local people. And the anti-Semitism was felt, as a child, I remember very much so. My older brother, who already went to a Christian school, to the public school, what we call. I remember we always, my mother would run ahead and see to it that the kids don’t beat him up on the way home. The Christian children. Because Jewish kids were a very easy target. First of all, Jewish kids didn’t fight back. I have a cousin who’s a few years older than myself, and I just met him on a trip, when we went back to my home town. And I asked him, “How come you were the only one who wasn’t afraid of the Christian kids?” He says, “What do you mean? I was afraid like everybody else.” But in those days, you carried your books to school in a wooden box, you know, like a carrying little case, made out of wood. So he said, “I made sure that my schoolbag, that wooden schoolbag, I always carried an extra rock in it to make it heavy. And I would go very quietly, I never ran from them. And as soon as I would see one of them sneaking up in back of me, I would take that wooden box, and I would swing it back. And when they saw that they cannot start up with me, that’s when they left me alone.”
INT: Were you personally afraid?
ANN: Yes. I remember being afraid. I do remember that I was personally never beaten up. My brother, my older brother was. But I was not. But I was afraid, of course. Especially on a Sunday, when they would come from the villages and start drinking. And when they were drunk, it very often happened, that they either would fight with each other, or the easy target was a Jewish home. To come by and break the windows. (pause)
INT: What do you think about the changes that have taken place in Europe since the war?
ANN: I don’t see big changes. (laughs) To be honest with you. The change is only now, they have less Jews to hate. But having gone back. But having gone back twice already to my area where I was born and raised, and I will tell you, I doubt it whether their hatred, even though there are no Jews left, Jews have not lived in my home village for fifty years, and they seem to be, Ach, so glad when we come, only because we can dish out and give them things that they want. But to say that I see any particular love, or regret at least, for what happened, unfortunately, I have not found it. That is, so I don’t really think that much has changed, especially in Eastern Europe. I have not gone back to Germany since I left it, but from what I read and I hear, they are trying to do something in the schools to make the younger generation more sensitive to what happened, and teach them about the Holocaust. Hopefully it will have some effect. But not having lived there, you know, for the past forty some years, I really don’t know whether any changes have come about or not.
INT: Do you think it’s possible, or likely for the people to change?
ANN: I don’t know whether change, but certainly the Germans are intelligent people, and if properly taught what their dictatorship of Hitler has brought about, hopefully they will become a little bit more sensitive to others. They still, you can see how they feel about foreigners. All those countries that are very nationalistic, are prone to this kind of discrimination. If it’s not Jews, then they have Turks there now, they have other minorities.
INT: So it’s others. It’s the “otherness.” It’s the xenophobia that they have.
ANN: That’s right. It’s always looking for an excuse. Somebody else’s fault for the ills of the country. And if you’re a foreigner, you’re a very easy target. And the Jews were always considered as being foreigners, outsiders, you know, and especially when you are an affluent group, amongst, you know…
INT: And the irony, of course, is that the Jews felt so much at home in Germany, and they really felt like they were Germans.
ANN: That’s right. You see, there, the hurt was even greater, probably. In Poland, at least, we were never equal citizens.
INT: You didn’t have any illusions.
ANN: There is always anti-Semitism. We always felt like, not second or third class citizens. And so we knew our place. We knew we never had any hopes of achieving, being equals to it.
INT: So you weren’t rejected, and you weren’t disappointed?
ANN: I remember always living in fear, even before the Nazis came. Pogroms. I mean, we were at their mercy. We would buy our peace and tranquility with favors, and with money, from the local, you know, from the local population. So it’s no wonder that when the time came, that they were so eagerly participating with the Nazis to get rid of the Jews.
INT: I wonder, too, with that difference in attitude, whether it helped the Polish Jews to think about saving themselves, whereas the German Jews might have felt safer for too long?
ANN: (sighs) Maybe it was easier for some of the Polish Jews, because they already knew, they’ve learned, they knew what was coming. The German Jews were taken, probably, by surprise. They could not believe that in their cultured country, it will happen such a thing. We already, we expected, you know, that if a change comes, that we didn’t expect much mercy from them.
INT: And you lived among simple people, too.
ANN: Yes. I lived in a small village. Shtetl. What you call today, you’d call it a village.
INT: So the people were not sophisticated to begin with, so you didn’t have the illusion that you were all part of the same intellectual cultured class.
ANN: No, definitely not.
NARRATOR: Ann discussed in her interview the idea of seeking revenge after liberation.
ANN: There was a law; it was called Anderson’s Law. There was a Polish general Anderson. And he helped the Russians fight the Nazis, with the condition that after the war, you know, when Poland will become an independent state, that all former Polish citizens will be able to allowed to return to Poland. Now, we were considered former Polish citizens, so we had an opportunity to leave Russia. And my father saw it, and he said, “No way are we staying here. We are leaving as quickly as we can.” Because one of the militia men from my home town was captured, and he was brought to trial in a neighboring town, and my father went to be a witness. And when he was asked, what did he do? And my father said, “He tortured and killed most of the Jews in our home town.” And the Russian judge looked at him and he said, “Can you tell me what else did he do besides killing Jews?” You know, as if killing Jews was no crime, you know. So when my father came back, my father thought quickly. He says, “Yes. He killed communists.” That was already a crime, you see? So he was given fifteen years, and fifteen years later we heard he was released, and he is living somewhere, if he’s still alive, without…
INT: But that took courage on your father’s part to speak up. Why would he want to call attention to himself?
ANN: This was already after the war, you understand? Because we wanted, if they caught one of those murderers, we wanted them to be punished. And we never took the law in our own hands. There were opportunities where we could have probably captured them. Once captured, we could have quietly killed them. See, this is the makeup of the Jewish people. We do not look for vengeance. We look for justice. And so my father came back very disappointed. He says, “The communists are no better than the Nazis, probably. They don’t like us here either. If killing Jews is not a crime, then we’ve got to get out of here as soon as possible.”
INT: He was wise enough in that instance to see.
ANN: To see the light. Yes. And not only himself, but every other Jew there in town, he was very much respected by all the people.
INT: He told them all to get out?
ANN: Everybody. As a matter of fact, I found one Jewish girlfriend there now, and she remembers that my father came and begged her aunt. He said, “You are Jewish. Why are you staying? Get out of here. You have no business.” And she refused to go, and that’s how she stayed. And my father wanted to take that girl away from her aunt. And adopt her and take her with us, and her aunt wouldn’t let her. So she stayed.
INT: So she lived her life there.
ANN: Right. And she’s not interested in leaving now, because she says she has never known any Jewish life. She married a Russian, who abandoned her with a child, and her daughter, who thinks of herself as being a Russian, married a Russian, and her grandchildren are Russians, so she says, “Where will I go?” You know? That’s where I will remain. They constantly joke about the fact that their babushka, that their grandmother, is a “Yavrika,” is a Jewess. (laughs)
INT: So you went…
ANN: From that town, yes, we left, the first opportunity we had, we took that transport out of Russia into Poland. We came to Poland and we realized, there, too, it’s, we thought it would be an independent Poland. But we looked around, and we see that it’s the same communists occupied by Russian forces, and by then the Israeli Bricha, what was called, was already well-organized in Poland. And they helped, you know, with the underground, it was an underground..
INT: What was the Bricha?
ANN: Bricha was the Israeli organized secret armed forces.
INT: Does it come from the word baruch?
ANN: No, no. These are probably the first letters of…
INT: Oh, it’s an acronym?
ANN: An acronym of some kind of organization. But they were the ones who volunteered to come into Poland and into Russia everywhere, and to quietly smuggle out the Jews from there. And they were the people. And they told us, you know, there is a way of getting out from Poland. We did. We followed their example. And we left Poland at night, smuggled out with a guide to Czechoslovakia. From Czechoslovakia they smuggled us out to Austria, and from Austria into Western Germany, under American occupation, and this is how we ended up.
INT: So did you end up in a DP camp?
ANN: DP camps in Western Germany, right, where we lived for, what, from 1946 until 1951.
NARRATOR: Ann continues in the interview to explain her belief on the importance of tolerance.
INT: Ann Jaffe, a survivor, and today’s date is November 11, 1994. This is tape number three.
Now I was just beginning to speak to Ann. She was telling me that she had attended a conference, and I was asking something about it. So why don’t you tell me.
ANN: Yes. Here in Wilmington we have, it’s called the Helena Wynne Preston Holocaust Education Committee, and I’m part of it. I head a speaker’s bureau, and that’s why I’m always invited to come and speak to the people. Once a year we have a seminar, educational seminar, for teachers from public schools, to show them how to teach the Holocaust. And then at the very end of it, it culminates with, they break up in small groups, and a survivor speaks to them, shares their story, and tells them what we do when we come into the classroom. After they finish the unit, we would like them to invite one of us to talk to the children and share our story.
INT: So this is really a selling job on the teachers first.
ANN: On the teachers…
INT: To convince them of the need and to let them know what you can do, and perhaps allay some of their fears.
ANN: Teachers must know first, themselves, what happened, and how to teach, and then…they can start. And I must say, in Delaware, we’ve been very fortunate. They’ve agreed to implement Holocaust education in public schools, and so we have a tremendous demand now on speakers. And unfortunately, not enough who are willing to go out and speak to the schools. But those few of us who do, we have four, who go willingly. And…
INT: What’s the most gratifying thing that happens to you, when you go to a school and talk? Can you give me an example of a child, or some situation?
ANN: Yes, yes. In many schools — this happened to me in a church rather than a school. The CCD group, that’s from the Catholic Church, their youth group, which I used to go here in one of Mary Magdalene’s, every year. And after I finished talking to the young people — these are high school age students — one young man came over to me, and he shook my hand, and he says, “Mrs. Jaffe, you have changed my life. I will never look at life the same,” he said. “You have opened up my eyes to what it means to be a human being, a forgiving human being.”
INT: So he was touched by the fact that…
ANN: That I harbor no hate against anyone. That I realize that people have behaved very cruelly towards the Jews, but I realize that it’s not because each and every one of them is a cruel individual, it’s because they were taught from childhood to hate Jews, and these are the effects from teaching hatred. If these same human beings would have taught tolerance and kindness and love, I’m sure we would live peacefully with our Christian neighbors; they would not have behaved so cruelly towards us. This is a result, and that’s why I try to always emphasize, when I talk to them, they have to stop, even in their own families. When they hear a derogatory joke made about, whether it’s about Jews, or Blacks, or any other ethnic group, they should not just sit and laugh along and have fun, but it has to be stopped and explained that there is no such thing as “I’m better than somebody else.”
INT: Almost forcing somebody to take individual responsibility to speak out.
ANN: That’s exactly what I tell them. I show them that the whole world were not murderers, but they stood by and watched and did nothing. And this is why Hitler could accomplish what he did. If those well-meaning people would have spoken up, and would have protested against it, he would not have reigned so freely as he did. He thought that nobody cared, so why shouldn’t he proceed with his plan to exterminate the Jews? I whole-heartedly believe that.
INT: So is this what keeps you going, and doing these things, despite the terrible pain that it causes you?
ANN: It is painful every time. And I speak so often. I go, ach, there are years when I am at least, at least a dozen or two dozen times in different schools. And every time you remember something new, and it touches your emotions and you become overwhelmed, and the rest of the day I cannot function properly anymore. But yet I feel it’s my duty to do that, because I am one of the few very, very fortunate survivors who survived with my parents. 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 into a positive force. And that’s why I feel, I have the obligation to do it.
INT: So you feel if your parents had not…
ANN: I might have been an entirely different person. If I would have survived all by myself, and had no one to turn to, and no one to teach me the difference between wrong and right, I might have been an entirely different person.
INT: But they must have been unique, because why was it that they didn’t feel terribly bitter? Your mother’s mother willed herself to die after everything started. What was it about them?
ANN: With my mother it was a very strong and deep faith in G-d. She truly believed, you know, she did not think that G-d had a hand in it, but…
INT: She didn’t feel that G-d had caused it?
ANN: Caused this to happen, of course. But she had a very strong and deep faith in G-d, and this is what Judaism teaches us, you know, love thy neighbor. And “thy neighbor” doesn’t only mean the Jewish neighbor, it means all mankind.
INT: Well, your mother lived her life that way when she was in the old country.
ANN: Yes, even in the old country, and here, too. She came here without knowing the language, and lived amongst Christian people, and you should see how all her Christian neighbors loved her. With great respect, because she respected them. And went out of her way to be nice and kind to them, and they in turn responded to her the same way.
My father unfortunately died shortly right after he came here. But he was very instrumental. Because I had many discussions with him after the war about hating those people, and you know, he always stopped me. He never let it go any further. And he said, “I know it’s terrible to suffer,” he said, “but will you be happier if you will turn into the type of individual that have hated us?” He says, “It’s not right. That’s why we suffered, because others hated us. If you will become a hateful person, you’ll only hurt yourself, and not the people that you hate.” And he was absolutely right.
INT: It’s incredible for somebody to be able to feel that way, and express that. How old was your father when he came here?
ANN: My father, we came in 1951 to Canada. He died in Canada. And he was born in l899, so he was then 52 years old. And he died when he was about 57.
INT: He got a late start being a parent.
ANN: Yes, yes. He was a unique individual. Both my parents. I feel I was very fortunate to have such wonderful parents.
INT: Do your children get upset when they see the amount of time that you spend doing this, and the affect that it has on you?
ANN: No, no. My children are so supportive of everything that I do. And not only that. They admire me. Every time my son calls, he says, “Ma, you’re the greatest. Ma, keep on doing it.” He feels that I’m doing the right thing. My husband is not very happy with it. (laughs)
INT: What is his concern?
ANN: His concern, he feels that I should be a little bit more selfish, and think of myself, and if it upsets me, I should not do it. But then, he didn’t go through the Holocaust, and so he doesn’t know the obligation and the responsibility that we feel.
INT: So he’s looking at it more as…
ANN: From a more selfish point of view, right. Why should I be upset, and why should I do this kind of thing. He always says, “You’re driven, you have to do all those things.” And it’s not just speaking about the Holocaust. It’s other things that I do for Israel and for other organizations. And I feel that this is what life is all about. He always tells me, “You could have such an easy life. Why do you have to get involved in everything?” But I feel that to have an easy life and not an interesting life is terrible. It’s terribly dull.
INT: So do you have memories of a lot of the children, a lot of the people that you’ve met over the years, and their reaction to you? Is that important?
ANN: It is important, but I very rarely find a Christian child that comes up to me and will later on say, “Oh, you spoke to us.” It happened a couple of times, but not too often. But very often after I’ve finished speaking, they will come by, and very quietly say they admire me. They are so sorry that I had to suffer so much in my childhood. And that they appreciate the fact that I have enlightened them, and after they’ve studied about the Holocaust, that they actually met somebody. Some say, “We feel it’s a privilege that we actually met a survivor in person.”
INT: So what you’re really doing, is you’re putting a face on the number six million.
INT: Because it’s hard to imagine numbers, but to meet somebody, and hear her story, all of a sudden, it personalizes it.
ANN: That’s exactly what I tell the children, when I start out. I say, “Six million is a very large number. Some of you don’t probably know how to write that down on paper. But to me, it’s not six million. To me it’s three hundred individuals that I knew as a child. Faces, names.” This is what it means to me.
INT: And you have no way of knowing, also, how it affects the children after they leave. What they might, how they might feel. So…
ANN: I will tell you. I spoke in a school this week. I don’t know whether I told you about it. When they came in, and how they reacted. And at the end, when I finished speaking, and they finished with all their questions, those rough and tough kids who…
INT: This is from an inner city school.
ANN: Inner city school, right. How when they walked by, and “Thank you, thank you, thank you. We are so glad you came. Oh, boy, were you good. We can tell you’re a teacher.” From these kind of kids, I don’t expect any other remark. But that was a lot from them.
NARRATOR: Ann’s interview also demonstrates the importance of messages that the survivors received from members of their prewar families, often parents, but sometimes a sibling or grandparent—that functioned as a guide for their future tolerant attitudes. The messages may have been given to them just prior to the war, in the normal course of growing up, during the war, or after the war. In the chapter, “If Somebody Throws a Rock on You, You Throw Back Bread,” in the book Transcending Trauma: Survival, Resilience, and Clinical Implications in Survivor Families, I have written in more depth about tolerance and intolerance in Holocaust survivor families. Ann’s story demonstrates the conclusions in this chapter on the influence of prewar family of origin relationships and messages for positive impacting beliefs about tolerance.
Faith: Podcast Of Dora Freilich’s Interview
Where was God during the Holocaust? Why didn’t he save my family members? Why did I survive when so many I loved were killed? In their attempts to find answers to these questions, survivors’ prewar faith systems were lost, retained, or significantly altered. Despite questions regarding God’s role in the Holocaust, faith or ritual practice became important long-term strategies used by the majority of our survivor respondents to cope with the massive losses suffered in the war.
Full Podcast Transcript
NARRATOR: Chapter 7 written by Dr. Jennifer Goldenberg in the book Transcending Trauma: Survival, Resilience and Clinical Implications in Survivor Families discusses the importance of faith as a coping strategy during the war and in the survivors’ postwar years of rebuilding. Dr. Goldenberg writes, “Through the predictability of ritual, and the practice of it within a group setting with other Jews who had gone through similar circumstances, survivors found strength in the familiar practices of Their Jewish tradition. There were important, comforting echoes of their prewar lives, homes, lost family members and friends….Once in the United States, the reestablishment of Jewish community in particular, and specifically within a synagogue framework, was particularly critical as a coping strategy…holding on to the familiar in an unfamiliar post-Holocaust world was a fundamental, foundational, and pervasive coping strategy for these survivors. Family, community, and way of life were destroyed but the beliefs, practices, and values of those families and communities were the powerful vestiges that remained. Forced to learn new languages, live in new countries, build new communities, and create new families, survivors tried to retain their faith and hold on to the familiar rituals, as life rafts in uncharted waters.” Here are one survivor’s reflections on faith.
Dora was born in 1926 in Pruzhany, Poland. She was the second of four children.
Her father owned the biggest bakery in town and was wealthy. She learned Hebrew and Yiddish at home. Tutors came to her home to teach Dora and her sister reading and writing. They also lit candles at home. While the family worked on Shabbat, they celebrated holidays and kept kosher. She says, “We were observant Jews. I loved it. I never hid being Jewish.” She felt proud to be Jewish.
After the war Dora married Bernie in 1946. They had two children, Elaine, and Harold. At the time of the interview Harold was a lawyer and married for sixteen years to another lawyer. He had two children, aged thirteen and eight. Elaine is a teacher and has a career in Holocaust education. She is married to Jim, a convert to Judaism, and has one son, Joshua. At the time of the interview, Dora and Bernie belonged to a Conservative synagogue in Northeast Philadelphia and were involved in synagogue and Holocaust-related activities.
Pruzhany, where Dora was from, was in eastern Poland, very close to the Russian border. The Russians invaded in 1939, but village life wasn’t too disrupted until 1941 when Hitler broke his pact with Stalin. Dora’s mother and younger brothers were sent on a transport to Auschwitz and she never saw them again. She and her sister and her father were put on a later transport to Auschwitz.
While they were on the transport her father jumped out the window, leaving her and her sister alone. He gave a little money to her sister. People on the train were encouraging him, saying, “You’re going to die anyway, you might as well go.” He told the girls that “If we survive, we’ll meet home.” However, she never saw him again. She was on work detail with her sister in Auschwitz. Her sister spilled soup and was beaten to death by the guards. Dora had to help carry her body back to camp. She was liberated in 1945 from Auschwitz. When asked if she was observant Dora replied, “learned. Education in our house was everything…”
NARRATOR: Dora comments on using faith to cope with events during the war through writing a letter to God. Here she speaks about the power of the letter.
DORA: …she knew only that I’m writing a lot. And she said, Mommy, can I read it someday? I said, I’ll tell you what. I’m writing in Polish and I’m writing in Yiddish, so both languages you don’t know.
INT: How do you use writing? How is it helping you?
DORA: It helped me a lot. I had written one-I don’t know if it’s a poem, it’s a story, whatever it is. Maybe one time I’ll prepare it for you and you’ll read it. But I had put together in Birkenau and in Auschwitz, I had it put together in Polish and the minute-when I woke up and I started going to work, I repeated it every day. The letter was to G-d. I didn’t have nobody else to write to. And I wrote to him and I was very mad. I was very mad. Our family was not very, very religious but I know my family worked. When you work you cannot be that very religious. But our holidays and we had, you know, “milchig” [dairy] and “fleishig” [meat]. I mean it was a Jewish family. We knew about the holidays. We celebrated them with all the children. I just couldn’t think that G-d could do something like this to us, and why.
INT: You were angry at Him.
DORA: I was very angry. I was absolutely very, very angry. I was angry. I wouldn’t trust Him anymore. I-I just thought that if He did-I just didn’t want to be alive. I just wanted to die, that’s all. So my old writing, my old poem and my whole whatever I had written was to Him. It was to Him, and I just told Him the way I feel and what could one have to live anyway? I don’t find it-I can’t live. I don’t need to live and what I was-I didn’t try for myself even. I really did not try, but somehow, as they say, if I tell you that the doctor-Doctor -I don’t remember his name, the one with the other name, Mengele, that Mengele had saved my life. I was very, very sick. Very sick.
INT: When you hear something and smell and it triggers memories?
DORA: This is-this is something that is unbelievable. I can smell it from miles away. I used to walk out of stores when we were near a car, this always used to bring to me those smells and those smells were always in my dreams. My dreams I was always running and I always smelled the smells that I will never run away from it. It will always be in my dreams.
INT: So recurring dreams?
DORA: Constantly. I don’t think they will ever go away. They will never go away. It’s just, you know, you don’t talk about it. You try not to talk about it that much, but if you sit in a company with people, you can talk about anything. About weddings, about different things, and it will come down and this is like conversation. It’s like-this is it. This is our life.
INT: You started saying that when you were in the camps and you were seeing all the horrible atrocities, you shut down, got numb.
INT: Can you talk some more about where you were in your mind?
DORA: As I told you, I will prepare that letter that I had written to G-d and I had hung on for-this was this. Like: “If You’re listening and if You know what I’m writing, You gotta help me; if not I have nothing left to do here.” I had nobody. All my friends, we are piled up on one bed or whatever you call it, you know, and we were there about fourteen girls. My cousins, my friends, my sister’s friends, and nobody was left around, they all just died one after the other. And they took them out and they piled them up in front of the barrack, and then they-they used to bring a big-a horse with a wagon or they used to bring a truck. Pile them up and take them to be burned. That was right across from our barrack, and you could see it. We saw, later on.
INT: Ashes, smoke.
DORA: Constantly. The sky was always red. The sky was never blue in those places. And that’s why-you see, right now you could not make me go to Poland anymore. I cannot think of going in there anymore. I think I would die, because of all the things that they had done there, that it’s really just a preserve that people could see, but not the truth. It is not the truth. What you see there is not the way it was there.
INT: A shell of what it was, or an image.
DORA: There was-it was so wet there. It was so much filth there, that I don’t know what they do to it. Now it’s dry and grass is growing and, you know, and where was it all? We used to walk up to here and you got your outfit, whatever you got, you got it for the whole season. They didn’t change it for you. And then came a time when the lice-it was just unbelievable.
INT: There was dirt and mud.
DORA: They were sticking in the walls, so we took off everything that we had, and they-we had a-a something to tie it together. I think the tied it together with a belt and they threw it into a big cooking barrel, whatever, that was boiling with hot water, and then they took it out and they just tossed it out, it should freeze. And then they gave it to you. So when you started untying it, a sleeve fell off, your shoes broke in half, so you were left with like one sleeve, and this was winter, and winter in Poland is like last year’s winter. This is the winters we had there. So it was really-it was very, very hard to go on. Very hard to go on. Maybe men as a rule, maybe they tried. Men-men got along between themselves better than girls, than women did. I don’t know what makes it…
NARRATOR: Elaine, Dora’s daughter, brought a young non-Jewish man home as the person she wanted to marry. Dora comments on how that felt to her as a survivor.
DORA: In the meantime we went to the rabbi. And you know, friends, our closest friends we told the story. And from the very, very first ones. And, you know, everybody tried to help us, you know, with work and this and that and then they go away and you’re left with the same thing again and you have to decide for yourself. And we went to the rabbi. We belonged-we always belonged to a synagogue.
INT: A Conservative synagogue?
DORA: Conservative. Somehow, in my-I knew that there was a G-d from there. I just wanted-I wanted to punish Him, and I said: “If I’m not gonna go to synagogue, that’s the way I’m gonna punish Him.” And then I figured out that this is not the right way, that I must have somebody that I look up to, that I know it’s there and taking care of me. I don’t know what it is, but this is the way I live. And we went to our rabbi and we told him the story and our rabbi is a very good friend of ours. He likes us because we always belonged to a synagogue and, you know, we-we like to donate to the synagogue money and everything. And every synagogue is always short of money and we know about it so we always try to do our best by it. The kids went to Hebrew school there and we go there for service. When we worked we could not go as much, but now we really, we go Friday and Saturday to services. We like it.
INT: In this area, the northeast?
DORA: Yeah, the OCJC, which is on Algon. It’s not far. And the synagogue can give you entertainment and everything for the whole week, every week, three hundred…fifty-two weeks of the year. They have all kinds of different things and we enjoy it. And we went to the rabbi and we told him the story and he said: “Look, we will try to talk her out of it.” I said: “We tried already. You won’t do it.” He said: “Try once more and if you can’t…” I said: “I can’t even talk to her. I can’t even sit and look at her. I don’t know what to say to her.”
He said: “Try to tell her how you feel the best you can and how much it hurts us; that we have nothing against the boy. We don’t know him. He might be the best, the nicest boy, the kindest person in the world, but to us, after a war like this, you know, I want to keep it close with our people.” And she said she wants to bring him over. I saw that we cannot get out of this, and she brought him over one evening. And if he tried or not, he was very nice. He was very nice. He was very knowledgeable. He spoke very nicely and he was a really nice person. And he said that he wants to marry Elaine. I said: “Look, I am not the cleverest person in the world.” I am only -I was then…she was twenty-one, so I was forty-two. I said: “And I’ve seen already on television, I’ve seen groups that comes out for mixed marriages. It never works. I see marriages here don’t work at all. Marriages that are married by parties of the same faith, and it’s very, very difficult.”
“You don’t see it in the beginning. You are in love, but then come children and you want it raised one way, and she wants it raised the other way, and it just doesn’t work out.” He said that he wants to convert completely, without any questions. He wants to be a Jew. Even if he’s not gonna marry Elaine, he’s gonna become a Jew, because he likes this part of the religion. It’s very…to him it’s something that he really appreciated; that he’s not finding in his [religion]. Well, to make the story short, it happened. He was very nice. He converted with every little thing. Rabbi Weinrovsky helped him and he started…he wrote a paper, A Jew by Choice; very nice paper. He helped in the school where the converts come in. He taught them yet before they even got married, and I saw that he’s going the right way. He was not a run around. He was not a man that, you know, that comes out from a very big home and eats everything in one minute. He was a man, a working man, that could not find a place for himself with his family. I don’t think that he cared for his religion that much. It was something that he could not…he liked to help people. He was out all day in countries like…when he came here to Philadelphia; I think he came from Haiti or something.
INT: He must have been in the Peace Corps.
DORA: Yeah, the Peace Corps, yeah. And he started reading books and he started learning Hebrew, and he knew already more than I knew. If I had to ask him something and it was him that I asked. So I said: “Look, I want you to be happy and I’ll make you a wedding like the best I can.” And we did. We made her a beautiful, beautiful wedding. A beautiful wedding.
I remember my girlfriend used to sit Saturday night and wait until a star came out in the sky that I should be able to go and play. I could not go before. As I told you, we are not religious but we are observant Jews and I love it and I never hid it. I always was very proud of it and I am proud of it now. I am a-I love Judaism. I know-I read about it and I learned about it. I know Hebrew very good. I know Yiddish very good. And I like it. I like it very much.
INT: Any organizations you belong to or any Holocaust related activities?
DORA: Well, we belong-we had an organization the Jewish Holocaust Survivors, which is our melting pot. We are-I think we achieved a lot. We had built and equipped a few hospitals in Israel that was all from our doing, and we also had the monument which we were the first city in the United States that we put up the monument on Sixteen and the Parkway. We had very nice get-togethers with all organizations and, you know, we had JHS and we get together to buy bonds. Every evening we spent for something that it had to do with tzedakah. You know, we always give. Now we-we participate in the March of the Living. We give some money. Not all of it, but as much as we can, to give money so it should be for the kids that want to go and cannot go.
Last Saturday — no, two Saturdays ago — we had a luncheon in our Shul and we had three youngsters speaking about their impressions and whatever. They went on the March of the Living, and one boy said that Joshua, that our Joshua, talked to him and told him what an experience [it was]. Those three kids presented that it was just unbelievable. I couldn’t sit. It was like I was sitting there. They were there writing. One was without notes altogether. He was just bar mitzvah now at synagogue three years ago. He’s now sixteen-seventeen years old and there’s another boy and a girl from Washington Heights. Unbelievable. And then I-when they finished I, you know, I raised my hand, I said, I must say something, because I have spoken in the synagogue many, many times, and in many other places. And I said: “Your presentation was so sensitive and so good and you observed everything and you know exactly. I mean you went like children and you came grown-up people.”
That’s exactly what they said they did. And he said, you know, that Joshua talked to me. I said: “Are you sorry or angry?” He says: “No, if my father gives me money,” looks at his father, “I would go again.” And so our organization gives some money for this too, which we are very-we always had a scholarship fund that was after somebody that passed away a long, long time ago, from the first deaths, and we made in his name a scholarship fund, so yesterday-for a kid that needs it most. And now that we don’t have already any kids in school, not the second generation, the third is the parents can give them. So we give it to all the students from-from Hillel or we have from Gratz. The money is always needed so we give it to them. And this has been really for us a very…first of all, you know, we are together, and this is for us very important. And a lot of Americans have come to that organization. A lot that are married with American people. They enjoy it too. They enjoy it very much. And, you know, you talk about your things and we have concerts and we have dances.
So what I have in mind is to really preserve myself and try to survive. It was not-that’s what I told you last time. I really had no desire and I didn’t do nothing about it. You know, like some other people really tried with the thought of it that they’re gonna survive and they’re gonna tell the whole story. It never dawned on me that I’m gonna do it and it really didn’t matter to me if I lived or I didn’t live. And this was what I had in my head like made up. It’s not in a poem but I was-wherever I went to, work or sleep, I was just saying this one thing. I did not blame anybody but G-d. I just was sickly, insane and mad at G-d. I don’t know why. I thought that He is doing it all and He should do things like this that was really not fair. So it really didn’t matter to me one way or the other if I survived or I didn’t survive. I just went on like everybody else and this is what I’m saying. I said it in my head. I said it in my head in Jewish. I put it together when I came to the United States. Can I read it for you?
INT: Was this your letter to G-d that you referred to, that you were so angry, mad, that you didn’t want to live?
DORA: It didn’t matter to me one way the other. That would be like on December 1st, 1944. I mean I had it in my head in Yiddish and in Polish. I repeated it to myself. When I knew a little bit of English I tried to put it together.
A letter to G-d.
DORA: Today, G-d I need to talk with You, whether I am in debt to You for my life, or perhaps are You in debt to me. First make clear to me, G-d, give me an accounting for things as they are. Why are the best going to death and lesser persons committed to get breath of life? Why didn’t the world come apart and sink into nothingness at the unbelievable horror and monstrosity of this mad Holocaust thrust upon millions of Your chosen ones? Where were You? Where was Your compassion, G-d, Your mercy, Your graciousness to Your people who were annihilated on the spot? When the children struggled against the fires, when the children were gassed, when they screamed at being thrown from their mother’s arms, when they stood naked, unbelief in their staring, frightened eyes. They attend a little body dropped in freezing cold and drenching rain, waiting for certain death. Why did not the world burn and consume itself in the bloody laments of the doomed people? Why? Why did the world suddenly become dead to the anguish and bloodshed of so many millions? Why were Your benevolent ears closed to the death struggle of Your people? Oh Lord, did You not hear eyes and lips beg for mercy? The lips that prayed for shreds of hope. Lips that could barely frame the words to the presence of pain, just a prayer. Fearful heart and they all call Your name. But You, Lord, were silent. One shudders thinking that they knew their certain end, yet they prayed. They called upon You. Where, oh where, were You, G-d? Above there in heaven, high above, far from the brutal sordid world, that screams from the crackling of the flames, the gasp and gagging in the throat of the little ones. Did those sounds and sighs not reach You, Almighty, all-seeing G-d? Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec. Your symbol of mercy, and You, Lord, were silent. The gush and flow of blood was like the outpouring of a lush year of harvest. When gassed, they piled them in heaps and mounds on the floor of the extermination chambers. Children so innocent so to perish. No thank You, G-d, of the world that you stole my life. But please, G-d, give me my accounting for myself, why G-d, why?
This was like my litany to G-d. Walked with and said it in all kinds of languages that I…and then when I knew a little bit of English, I translated it from Polish into English, and as you can see, my desire to live was not at all there. I did not want the world to know what it was. I didn’t think I will ever make it for the world, and I didn’t have no desire. But I survived.
INT: What do you think helped you survive? What can you say about that?
DORA: It is very hard to say. Everybody says, how did you survive? It is not health, it is not-it is just one of these things. I really don’t know. I don’t know what helped me to survive. I just survived and that’s all there is to it. And here I am.
INT: So you questioned your faith in G-d, his word and what happened?
DORA: Yeah, I wasn’t, you can see, in that thing that I had written, I blamed it all on Him. I thought that He’s the ruler of the world, that He…that’s what I learned home. I was small and that’s all I heard. And why would He do something like this to us, to little children, to infants, to whatever I saw? It was just unbelievable to me, and I blamed Him for everything that happened. I don’t know, up till now, I’m almost an old lady and I believe in G-d. This would help me to come back to survive maybe and to begin a new life, to raise a family. I believe in G-d. We go to synagogue. We are not, um, how do you say it? I believe in G-d, and everybody asked me: “How can you do it? How can you believe in G-d after what you saw?” But I think that you have to believe in something that is there greater than us. Maybe after we all perish from this world and a hundred years later they’ll find out what happened. What was it and why it happened. Right now I don’t think anybody knows why there is different questions and answers, but somehow they really don’t know why it happened.
INT: How did it change, your faith and belief in G-d?
DORA: In fact, I think I believe in G-d because I must believe in something that is higher and stronger than anybody else; otherwise you cannot exist. I cannot exist any other way. I believe in G-d. Why he did it, I don’t question it. For years I tried to push it away. I mean, I didn’t want to talk about it. Nobody wanted to listen to it, and everything that we told or said-
INT: You mean what?
DORA: People, American people, family that I came to in America, and up till this day, I struggle with questions. Maybe they didn’t want to hurt me, to ask what happened there. (pauses)
INT: You struggle with keeping your feelings, thoughts, stories, memories?
DORA: Yes. A lot of things it don’t even try to tell, because they look so ugly and so awful that nobody will believe it. I myself am doubting if that is true, but I know it was true. I believe it. I read different books, always on the same subject. My husband hollers at me, but somehow, I don’t know why, when I go, I always get a book about the Holocaust. It’s something that happened to me and I want to see what other people have to say about it, how they survived, what they did after, how did they raise families, and how they go on in the world. I think the only thing that helped me is that I was very young, and I bounced back, and this is, I think, the only-the only thing that helped me is youth. I was not even twenty, and…I was nineteen. I was eighteen and something, and this when you survive and you’re young and you’re with a crowd of people.
You go together to find out and they say there is a chance that people write down their names and everybody passes through the towns and people have found their brothers and sisters and parents, and so this becomes like a involvement that you go through, although deep in my heart I knew that this is not the same with me, but I pretended that maybe. I knew that my father jumped out from the train when we were going there and that he is not alive, because I went back to my hometown and I have asked around. Nobody saw him, so I know that he got killed right away when he jumped. My mother and my little brother and my little baby sister who was two years old, they went with a transport before and I know that they are not there. My sister was with me and she got killed in Auschwitz, so I know that she is not alive either, so I really don’t have-I don’t have where to look because I know nobody’s there.
NARRATOR: Dora’s comments on the importance of saying Kaddish, the Jewish memorial prayer, for the relatives she lost in the war.
INT: What did that mean? That was important, to marry a survivor?
DORA: It’s very important. Very, very important. I just recently…we go now to Florida for three months, and I have a friend of mine that comes from Canada, and he married a Canadian girl so somehow we were sitting and talking and I say to him: “Tell me, is it a difference of marrying a girl that was not in the camps?” He says: “Yeah.” I said: “What is the difference.” He said: “You don’t have constantly to talk about the camps. If I start, and she knows that it’s not good for me, that, you know, I get very upset, she doesn’t let me talk about it.” Were we, as two survivors, we won’t stop each other. I mean with this…and this is really — I can believe that this is true, –because it’s fifty years after the liberation. I mean, we have talked about it. No matter-no matter what we talk about, this is the last thing that we finish off with. It’s always about the concentration camp. And he explained to me that she would not let him talk about this. And I think this is-if I would know before, maybe I would also look, but you wanted to be with somebody that went through the same thing and-
INT: So there was comfort and compassion?
DORA: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And as we have seen through the years, most of us are married to each other, you know, from different…but all of them that went-of course there is I would say maybe, I don’t know if there is five percent people that are married to, how do you call them? Non-survivors. But, you know, they make non-survivors come to the organization. They made them, otherwise they did not take them away to their-they came rather to us, and the find the comfort what we are doing. We have built a beautiful monument and we have a cemetery for ourselves. We built a beautiful monument there. I mean a beautiful…we don’t have where to say kaddish, you know, to come, so we decided that we’re going to build and put our names, the names of our parents and the children and whoever we want, and when you come there you feel like you-this is where it is. I mean you look up and you see the name of your father, of your mother, of your sisters and brothers, and we come there.
We have our get-togethers, what we girls, and you feel that this is the place. Maybe they are not buried there, but at least it’s close, because none of us know where they are. Their ashes are thrown all over the land, all over the universe. But this brings us together and makes us feel that this is the place. That we did the right thing. That some have gone to Israel. Some have gone to Poland and they brought some ashes, they brought some earth. And this is all buried there. So it gives you the-the feeling, you know, like this is death. You should come. And many times I just go with my husband there just for a while. We look at the…and we say a prayer. You don’t have to go with the whole organization or with everybody. You just go for peace of mind, and it’s very satisfying. Very satisfying.
NARRATOR: Dora discusses the transmission of her religious beliefs and identity to the second and third generations in her survivor family. She elaborates on the circumstances surrounding her daughter’s engagement to a non-Jewish man who converted to Judaism before they married.
DORA: Yes. I’m proud of my children, but I don’t say that I am behind this all, that I did it. No. They did it on their own. We helped and we told them stories the way we grew up, the truth, and which were stories, you know, nice things in families. We value very much, you know, family life. I think it’s very important. We go to synagogue. I don’t want nobody to become so that…but I think, you know, as they say: “If you pray together, you stay together.” I think, you know, nothing bad comes out of it. It comes out if anything some good, you know. Synagogue doesn’t teach you any bad things. It gives you a lot of life. You meet friends, nice friends and etc., etc. It’s-it’s good.
INT: So it sounds like you see an important role of faith and Jewish tradition in the family.
DORA: Yes, yes, yes. Yes.
INT: And in your own family, this played a role.
DORA: When she told us about it we were devastated. Absolutely devastated. And we tried to talk her out of it. We tried different ways, and then we went to our Rabbi. And we made an appointment. We spoke to him and told him the story so he said he wants to talk to her and to him and I don’t know. I don’t even remember if they went to speak. I said: “Rabbi, there is no use. I can tell that she is not going to be talked out of it or whatever.”
And then a friend of hers who she’s close with them very much — that’s my friend’s son — and I said: “Benny, what do you say?” He says: “You know, he’s a very nice guy. Meet him.” I said: “I just don’t know what to say. We can’t.” And he says: “Meet him and you’ll see.” Well, it went by, I think, a couple of months or more, and I said: “I’m not against the guy. I mean, I have nothing against him.” But I felt that she shouldn’t have done this to us. But, you know, it happened.
INT: The choice she made-she didn’t see it as doing something to you.
DORA: No. She was-I don’t think she was…she met this guy who was very understanding, who’s a very nice fellow, who is family-orientated, who has a lot of respect for us. At that time they were going to synagogue. He loved the synagogue. That’s the only thing that I really-that when they moved away they belonged to another synagogue, which was now sold to a…and they joined our synagogue back, and I really wanted them to be more synagogue [involved], you know, to go more to synagogue. I don’t mean every day or etc., but the holidays they come, but, you know, it’s or you go or it like evaporates.
INT: That’s what you worried about.
DORA: If I feel if he knows so much, he knew so much of Judaism. He knows. He still does. And that if she would have gone to the synagogue, you know, on a daily basis like maybe Friday, Saturday, they don’t have the time. It’s true. They don’t have the time. But I think if you want very much you would find the time. And this is one thing where I am really hurting. I wanted Josh to be more in the synagogue, I, you know, something like this. He is right now between things. He’s Jewish but he’s not. I mean he’s both things.
INT: It doesn’t mean the same to Elaine, her husband and grandson as religion does to you?
DORA: They give him a lot of freedom, you know, to make up his mind, to choose his professions, to go to school. He now’s taking…the University of Pennsylvania. He’s very bright, but a lot of things that I would probably do different if he would be my son. Before I couldn’t do much, but being born here and etc., etc., I would probably do a lot of things different. But they give him a lot of freedom, and he stayed this summer-he’s staying in a rooming house where he’s gonna live. He works, and he likes it very much. The reason is that he has all his friends there and he’s working in the library and he’s trying to get a job in a book store, which they promised him, and he seems very happy.
So I guess… look, the main thing is that he should be happy about it. They trust him. He’s getting along fine. He’s a very good-hearted boy. He’s like his father…very very good boy.
NARRATOR: Dr. Goldenberg sums up the importance of faith to survivors. She writes, “Faith is rarely static in the face of adversity; it is strengthened, changed or abandoned. Helping survivors of faith understand how their belief systems have been affected by their experiences is an important part of reintegration and healing often ignored by mental health practitioners.” We hope that sharing Dora’s thoughts on the role of faith in her life will be of help to others.
Communication: Dora Freilich and Elaine Culbertson Interviews
This podcast will explore the post war communication dynamics of the Freilich family, specifically the relationship between Dora and Elaine. This mother daughter pair highlights interesting points from the research about how an essentially positive parental relationship can mitigate the potential negative effects on the child of being exposed to parental pain at an early age. The Freilich family illustrates how, in the context of strong familial relationship, a child of of survivors has been able to metabolize her parents’ pain into a set of positive lessons and values, which then became the basis for her life’s work.
Elaine is the daughter of Dora and Bernard Freilich, both survivors of the Holocaust. She was born in Brooklyn in 1949. Elaine and her husband Jim, a convert to Judaism, as well as their son Joshua, are active in Holocaust activities. At the time of the interview, Elaine was a curriculum coordinator for English Language Arts for the Philadelphia school system and taught Holocaust material. In the following clip, Elaine talks about her commitment to educating about the Holocaust, and to breaking the culture of silence she has encountered in America.
Full Podcast Transcript
ELAINE: I became involved in something called Pennsylvania Holocaust Education Task Force, which is a volunteer group of people, primarily teachers but not all teachers, who are interested in two things I guess. Assuring that the lessons of the Holocaust are taught in Pennsylvania schools, and training teachers and providing materials in order to make that happen. … So I-I’ve been doing that for quite a few years and from that, more thing spun out and that was being asked to speak about teaching about the Holocaust, which I’ve been doing for a number of years. I had also gone on a trip to Israel in 1988. Forty-five teachers from around the country, and that was about learning to teach the lessons of the Holocaust and Jewish resistance to the Holocaust, and then this past year I was asked to work for that group, to help lead the teachers on that group, and that now goes to Poland and to Israel, so that’s a wonderful opportunity. I did that last summer, and I will go again this summer….So I have lots of involvement. I sit on different Boards and I write for different publications and I speak to lots of people and I do a lot of stuff with teacher training, and that’s basically where I think the most important aspect is. Training teachers to incorporate the lessons in a conscientious way. Not just to do something that they think is going to cover this topic or-or somehow skirt the issue and get past it, because for some people it’s very uncomfortable.
ELAINE: I don’t think Americans were ready to talk about the Holocaust. …. There was no discussion about the Holocaust because that was not a pleasant time to talk about, and I know from my own parents, that when they came, nobody wanted to hear it. So Americans either were struggling with we didn’t do enough or let’s forget about that, now you’re in America, you’re safe, you have money, whatever. Everything’s okay. And they just did not want to know about that. Plus, some of this stuff is pretty awful…And even the particular things that ever were out, like the diary of Anne Frank, is not really about the Holocaust. It’s about a girl growing up. She happens to be stuck in this attic so the confines make her interactions with her mother, her sister, her father, etcetera, much tighter, because she has no place to go, but the play actually ends when the Nazis break in, and most kids never know what happened to her. They don’t know that she died in concentration camp, so unless a teacher makes an effort to explain that, how much of this book is really about the Holocaust? And you could read this book and just say, well, they were hiding from someone and not ever know the real circumstances, and I think that’s part of the problem. That you didn’t see the kinds of material that are available now, more…and it doesn’t-it’s not necessarily that it’s more graphic or gory, but that it’s more realistic in that it talks about what was happening—like Schindler’s List, for example.
INT: So you talk from direct experience knowing that there was a conspiracy of silence?
INT: In the United States.
INT: From some level inside the family, community or in the larger culture.
ELAINE: Yeah, and I’m not sure which came first, if the conspiracy started from the larger culture and went back to the family or the families said, let’s not talk about it. It’s probably a little bit of both. In my family we always talked, so I always knew everything, yet I knew that I grew up in a community of survivors, where there are other people who never said anything.
NARRATOR: Most survivors share this experience—society’s unwillingness to bear witness to their pain. While some bring this culture of silence into their families, while others are compelled to speak about the atrocities of war. Researchers have identified a number of motivations that survivors have for sharing their stories. Stories are a way to honor the past, fulfill obligations to relatives, and instill values in their children such as preparedness, gratitude for the advantages of the present.
The TTP interviews highlight how difficult it often was for survivors to know exactly how to share these important stories with their children. If the survivor is still in the throes of a post traumatic response, they are at risk of compulsively sharing with their children, and in graphic detail that may not be age appropriate for the child. However, the following excerpts will speak to how even if survivors were able stay age appropriate in the content of their stories, the pain of their trauma still made its way through. Many survivors struggled to have enough emotional distance from the material to be able to convey the message without conveying the intense emotions behind it. In Dora’s interview, she expressed in numerous ways how crucial she felt it was for survivors share their stories, and break the culture of silence.
DORA: I think it’s very good, important, that the children should go and see it and bring their own visions of it. Very important. As far as all the shows on television, everything, they can never bring the real truth what it was there, but there is more and more, you know, you see survivors talking and it’s important. It’s very, very important. I don’t think that everybody’s anti- Semitic. I think that a lot of people want to know what’s going on, and they are trying to know what’s going on. Of course we cannot change the world. We can only show them what it was, and see that it shouldn’t happen again. That’s-that’s what it is.
I’m so glad that they have these trips now of the March of the Living. This was one of the best things that they had to do, because I see the children that are going there knowing a little bit, and come out menschen, you know. They are like different people, and this is what makes me very happy.
DORA: Their impressions of what they saw. A lot of pictures. A lot of their poems. A lot of their…and I am very happy about it, because I see they are-they are strong, kinahara, they know what was going on. They are seeing it first-hand. They have their own way of expressing themselves, and this, I think, is wonderful. Wonderful. I would sponsor a child to go there and with that-and bring that knowledge back. I think the children come out of there like grown up people, and this is what I think that we keep, I mean, I saw a few of them in the synagogue too, but those three I will never forget. Never. So I think it’s doing something good and I think that’s what we need. We have to go on and teach the children to be good citizens, to be good people and that’s it. That’s what I feel.
NARRATOR: Dora also broke the silence by sharing her stories with her children. These were difficult conversations to navigate, because when Elaine was young, Dora was still very much coping with the effects of the war. In the following segment, Dora discusses the various effects of the war on her orientation to the world and the values she brought to her family.
DORA: Yes. Yes. I thought that they have to know, but now knowing anything how to deal with it, we ourselves made a resolution that we’re not going to tell them too much. We thought the children are growing up, you know, television and this and that, and we are not going to put over them a burden like this, so…You cannot overburden them, but you have to tell them the truth, but only at that time what they understand, not more than they understand at the age. And this is what we did. She knew, I wouldn’t say very much, but she knew a lot about…I would tell them little things. I would not-I did not feel that I had to tell them everything. I just told them as much as they could understand this year, when they were that year and that’s it.
INT: Do you mean about your background, the Holocaust?
DORA: About my background, yes. They felt themselves, you know, that there is something different in our family than in other families.
NARRATOR: Dora notes the importance of the content of the stories being age appropriate, and she was mindful of this in her sharing. However, despite Dora’s best intentions to share her war story with her children in a manageable, age appropriate way, Elaine does not remember her experience with her mother this way. This is because the trauma of the war is, by definition, a pain that could not be made manageable. Elaine’s narrative demonstrates how even with the best of intentions, the survivor often struggles to tell the story without also communicating enormous pain. Elaine talks about the effects that this sharing has had on her:
ELAINE: Well, my mother has a number on her arm, so I asked her when I was very young
what that was, and that began the whole thing. I couldn’t have been more than about three. And she was too close to it to be able to make up a story. She started telling me what had happened. I always listened when they were talking about it, even when I wasn’t supposed to be listening, because they were telling things that were probably too-too horrible for a child to hear, but for me it was very compelling. I couldn’t imagine that this had happened to my parents, although I could imagine that it had happened to them, so I knew very early on that bad things had happened, and that I did not have the “average household of the neighbor children.” I had the “average household” of the survivor families that we knew, but that was different of my friends.
INT: How were you able to handle all of this?
ELAINE: Probably I suppressed a lot of it.
INT: This overwhelming?
ELAINE: Yes. Yes. It’s horrible. Dealt with it on a story by story basis. Felt sorry for them, felt angry for what it had done to them and what it had done to me and didn’t talk about it for a long time. Never-never identified myself as, and I guess most of us didn’t identify ourselves as survivor’s children. There wasn’t a category then. It became a category later. But internalized a lot of the stories, and then tried to argue my parents out of thinking that they weren’t that different, like saying, it doesn’t matter. You’re in America now, kind of thing. And then realizing that obviously it did matter.
INT: A burden you carried…
ELAINE: But you can’t…even as close as we were to, you know, anybody who’s a child of survivors, we still are not there in the same way that they were, so you-you grow up in what seems like privileged surroundings in comparison to what happened to theme
INT: You sound like from a pretty early age you had the sense of growing up different?
ELAINE: Absolutely. Absolutely. I-I don’t know. I’m not saying I was any smarter than
anybody else, but, you know, sometimes you just have a sense about something, a sixth sense about things, and some people have it about sports or some people have it…I just had it about that. I knew. I knew that something-I’m not going to say it was not right, that something was different, and I could read the world and knew that the world outside my house was not the same as the world inside my house. And I knew that the world outside my house was a happier place than the world inside my house.
INT: So as you became older, did your parents give you more information, more details?
INT: Did they show emotions with this material? And if that happened, were you receptive or had a period where you weren’t receptive?
ELAINE: Yeah, there were times that I didn’t want to hear. There were times I didn’t want to hear. I got-you told me this story already, with that kind of exasperated… enough, I know this.
NARRATOR: Although Dora was careful about how she communicated traumatic material, her unspoken trauma still shone through in how she interacted with her family. From an early age, Elaine knew enough of what her parents had been through to know how much pain they had endured. She expresses a deep sense of obligation to her parents, which is common in children of survivors. Elaine knew who her mother needed her to be, and she worked very hard to be that person.
One way that Dora communicated her trauma to Elaine was by being overprotective and somewhat intrusive. This intrusiveness was a constant reminder to Elaine that her mother had been traumatized, and no longer saw the world as a safe place. In the following segments, Dora talks about the stress of Elaine leaving home for the first time.
DORA: I thought that-this is the way I-I thought of myself, why would she want to go away? I mean, she has everything that she needs, that she wants. …And I took it like a punishment. I was ashamed. I was afraid. I said, what are people going to talk about us? But later on, when I learned that everybody is doing it, that it’s the right thing to do, the children have to go, they have to taste the outside world. When my son was ready to go to college, I put no…so that’s what my daughter said, that she had to make the way and after this, I didn’t-he already, when he wanted to go to college, I said, no, I even tried to tell him that he should go away. So they both went away.
INT: So why do you think it was so hard for you to let her go?
DORA: I don’t know, because that was the only thing that I had that I could hold, that it was mine. That was mine.
I-my head used to spin. I used to see all kinds of different things. Even now, they learned already, they don’t tell me when they are flying; they don’t tell me when they are going. They come when they come. I would imagine all kinds of different things. So I remember when she went to her first birthday from the one that you go to the prom, and then she was going out with him, and he was a nice kid from the neighborhood, not far. And she told me, Mom, you know, and I’m running to the window looking if she’s there. And that was the same
stuff all over. And it was after twelve o’clock. My husband was sleeping already. He didn’t know if I’m there or not. And she was not home. And I was already thinking all kinds of things. And then suddenly at five of one or five after one she came. So she was going up the porch, I couldn’t control myself and just opened the door and I smacked her in front of the boy. Well, I couldn’t live this down for a very, very…I said, why didn’t you call? Here’s a dime or a nickel. Just…Mom, I’m not a baby and this and that…And, you know, you live through the same thing like every mother, you know. You worry about your children, but you cannot keep them chained to your chair, so you let them-so you let them do and then Elaine went to college and she went to Temple because we wouldn’t let her go away. I told you this. I thought it’s a shame to live out and whatever. So she made Temple in three years and she got a fellowship to go to University of Pennsylvania. And she made it in two years.
INT: Were you as protective as your son, or is it in different ways girls are treated-
DORA: I think I was more protective of Elaine. Yeah. I was more protective of Elaine. I don’t know why, but somehow I felt that the boys can take care on himself better, so I was more protective of her. And she felt it and she knew it. Up to this day, you know, it’s like I am more secure with him, and now that she’s doing all the things, you know, that she’s driving so much and she’s flying so much, I’m not very happy with it at all.
NARRATOR: In both Elaine and Dora’s interviews it is clear how important Dora’s children were to her. This was communicated both implicitly and explicitly to Elaine throughout her childhood, and she continues to struggle with both the gift and the burden of being the center of her mother’s world in many ways. Dora’s extreme closeness and protectiveness communicated her trauma. For Dora, her children also may have represented an opportunity to address her own loss of childhood, as Elaine describes:
ELAINE: One of the things that I-one of the perceptions that I had figured out over the years was that I represented, for my mother in particular, all of the adolescence that she had never had. And I need to go back and say that I did mention my mother was from a well to do family. They certainly had enough of everything. And my mother was a playful kind of carefree child. I don’t think the same is true for my father. My mother’s notions about growing up were romantic notions. You grow up and you meet somebody handsome and he marries you and ah, you know, and I think that the war, rather than take that away intensified that, and the longing for that was really there, so that when she came to America and she had a daughter and she watched television, and my mother’s introduction to America, she read True Confessions magazine and it was so romance-orientated, and these are the things that I remember being scattered around the house. And movie magazines and those sorts of things, so she really bought into this notion of what an American teenagers life was like, and of course this is at the time when-
ELAINE: Late fifties, early sixties was…the television shows were all oriented to the teens sort of coming into their own and what they looked like and the way they behaved was very, very clear on television and I was not like that at all and so I was trouble. Problematic.
INT: These were her hopes for you.
ELAINE: These were her hopes, which I-I didn’t understand at the time. I mean, I didn’t-I wasn’t able to say, oh, excuse me, you missed your whole adolescence, I’ll do it for you. You can’t do that for somebody else. You’re busy doing it for yourself, struggling with your own things.
ELAINE: Well, I think even among the children of survivors I was the more studious sort of…I wouldn’t say shy. I don’t think I was shy, but I was serious. I was going to be successful in school. I was going to make a success of myself in school and I was not comfortable competing in the girlfriend-boyfriend arena, so I kind of hung back from that, and I remember I wore
glasses as a little kid. I mean I’m blind (laughter) and my mother would be ripping my glasses off my face, saying that no boy would ever marry me. You know, I’m ten years old. I don’t thing
it’s an issue at ten, but everything was in preparation for marriage. That was the ultimate success. I-I’m not sure-
INT: Those are pretty traditional values.
ELAINE: Yes, yeah.
INT: Both from her family, the way she was raised, and then also a function of the fifties?
ELAINE: Oh, very much. Very much a function of the fifties. The look of the fifties, the
glamour girl look of the fifties, was the look that my mother wanted me to attain, and she wasn’t looking for alternatives. She was looking for that. I can’t fault her. I can laugh about it now. It was not funny then.
NARRATOR: The lives of Dora’s children became symbols of rebuilding and moving forward from trauma. As a result, Elaine struggled with tremendous pressure to be a “good kid” in very specific ways.
DORA: She was a good girl. But, you know, like every child is, they have their meshugasen, you know, but as a rule, they…now I hear, you know, here and there, that they knew that there is something different about us, about the parents, and they tried to be good children, be good in school, to satisfy us, that we should not have more anxiety and more, you know…they tried to be good, and they were good. They were good kids. I think a lot of their upbringing was to make us happy, not to make us ashamed and not to make us mad.
NARRATOR: Elaine internalized the expectation that she had to be the good kid, and was aware of how important this was to her parents. The trauma of her mother’s past experiences sent the message to Elaine that she had no excuse not to be a good kid, and that any hardship she experienced, compared to her mother’s pain, was nothing. This manifested in Elaine feeling like she was not allowed to express emotions.
ELAINE: Not allowed to be angry. You had nothing to be angry about. You have
everything you need and more…I have a very hard time expressing anger. a very hard time. I have to be pushed way over the edge and then I am inarticulate (laughter) and I’m punishing myself for being angry so I’m usually off in a corner somewhere torturing myself for allowing myself to get angry over whatever it is that has pushed me…it’s so complicated. Too many layers to even think about.
INT: So there was guilt about am I allowed to feel angry and expressive.
ELAINE: Am I allowed to feel anything except just sort of happy all the time, not happy all the time, just sort of the middle of the road. Coping. Coping all the time. I never thought much about this. This is interesting because my husband has said things to me about this, about my inability to express really anger and I just have said, well, I’m not angry. Hah! (Laughter) Not much, huh.
ELAINE: Oh, my mother watched her sister die in concentration camp. It was awful, and, um, I
think there’s all of this why did I live and she didn’t. That, to me, has to be the biggest thing.
What makes me more worthy that I’m here and she’s not, so there’s all of the guilt over that, and the, just the sorrow. I think the longing. I don’t think my mother and her sister were particularly close, but then the situation forces them to be close, so this is all you have, and to see your sister die is not good. I think the same is true when your parents are taken from you at a very young age. Your parents become idealized in your mind. They’ve never done any wrong. They never said a harsh word. You never were angry at them. What you remember is perfection and so my mother would say things to me like, would I ever talk to my mother the way you’re speaking to me? Well, probably, but you don’t remember that because, you know, that’s been cleansed from your mind. Also, my mother never went beyond being a fifteen-year-old with her mother, so-and those…from the time she was eleven until she was fifteen were very strange years because they were in the ghetto and-and hardship and all of that kind of stuff, so normal life was not really going on. I don’t think she had resolution of those sorts of adolescent issues that are crucial, so she never broke the tide. It was broken for her. She never had to struggle for independence of any kind. It was handed to her and taken away in the same moment. That kind of thing. It’s just-it’s so abnormal. It’s so unfortunate. I mean I used to feel tremendously guilty like I caused this or something. I remember screaming at one point, I am not Hitler. I did not kill them, thinking, how long am I going to pay for this kind of stuff and why. What do I have to do with this? You know, as you get older you sort of like figure it out and say, oh well, that’s why that’s happening. I understand. Now that’s terrible, that’s too bad. That kind of thing.
ELAINE: Because I was the older one, more was always expected of me, but also, I think, because I was a female, different things were expected. I was supposed to take care of my brother. I was responsible for my brother, you know. Being six and having a three-year-old tagging after you, I hardly would invest much responsibility, but that’s not the way my parents felt. I remember my father always saying to me, I’m speaking to you like you’re an adult. And I would be looking around, who is he talking to? He’s talking to me? I’m six. I’m seven. I’m not an adult. I don’t want to be an adult. And I remember thinking; I will never do that to my child. I will never invest this sort of responsibility or foist it on him, but yes, I had responsibilities. One of the things, obviously, was this what I’ve later come to term translating the world for my parents, and that means a lot of things. It’s not only translating in language, but translating the social customs of the world. I was the one responsible for that. I remember explaining to my mother that you had to have five things to wear to school so that you wore a different thing every day. You could repeat the next week, but you couldn’t repeat within the week. It sounds so petty, however it is not when you’re trying, you know, when you’re growing up. And my mother said she didn’t understand that because she would wash my dress and iron it for the next day. And I said, I can’t wear this the next day. I have to have something else. Now where did I learn this? I watched the other children, and I watched my teachers. My teachers were the ambassadors to this new world, which was not happening in my house. It was happening at school, so school was the melting pot, the transition place and I was coming home with information from school which I was translating for my parents… I-I became the mother. Even more than the mother. I became the superintendent. I don’t know exactly. I was the teacher. I was-I was teaching them how it was supposed to be in this family. This is how we have to do this. Sometimes it was so painful because I would go through a period of humiliation in order to learn the lesson. Sometimes it was much more passive than that. You could just watch something happen and say, okay, keep that. Record that for future needs or whatever. Other times it was happening to me and I-I would just say this will never happen again. I won’t allow this to happen. And I would…when I was really little I would come home and I would try to explain it to my parents and they were always offended. They felt that were doing their best. Later on I learned it was best not to explain it to them, just take care of it. To move the process along so that they felt that they were part of it, not knowing that-that their initial reaction would have been to do it this other way.
INT: So it sounds like you withheld the feeling of shame and embarrassment?
ELAINE: Yeah. Yes.
INT: And just conveyed to them this is how we do it.
ELAINE: Yes. We could not register shame at anything. That was not acceptable.
INT: Sounds like you communicated at an early age what that was like for you?
ELAINE: But then they would be angry and their frustration would be-what are we, not trying
our best? Are we trying to hurt you in some way? That would just be so…you could tell that that was so painful for them that you couldn’t do that to them. I couldn’t do that. So I would try to turn it around into something else. I mean I certainly had-I had teenage battles with my mother galore over what I was and was not going to do and what I was going to wear or not wear, my mother being on the side of wearing things which were more I’m going to use the term sexy or revealing or-in order to fit in with this sort of Barbie doll mode that she was into. And where I was going to go, what I was going to do. Those sorts of things, just a constant kind of education as to what was going on, where I fit in and where they fit in.
INT: Do you think that results in minimizing your own feelings, that in compared to problems or difficulties that you have or had at different periods of time because of your parents’ suffering?
INT: That is a common experience for children of survivors?
ELAINE: Yes. Yes. You’re not allowed to be unhappy or suffer, because in comparison, what are you suffering about? I remember being told this. What could you possibly have to be not happy about? You have everything in the world that you could want. Why-why are you crying? Is your mother or your father dead? The, you know, those sorts of things…so yes, you tend to minimize or completely mask your feelings about stuff. It definitely affects your life in other areas. Your ability to cope with things or to talk about your needs and wants in a relationship. How could you do that? You’re not supposed to have any needs and wants? So, you know, I-I found that to be very…of course, you don’t realize it until you’re old enough to have somebody point it out to you, that you are not capable of-of reacting or acting in this sphere. That there’s something wrong here.
INT: How else did they express feelings? Did you see sadness, anger, anxiety, worry?
ELAINE: Anxiety and worry are probably the biggest ones. Most definitely. Very nervous.
Both of them, very, very anxious. My mother, in fact, always thinking that the worst will occur. Whatever it is. You didn’t call, it’s because you’re dead. You’re late, it’s because you’re dead. That kind of thing.
NARRATOR: The discrepancy between Elaine and Dora’s stories highlights the enormity of the pain that survivors of trauma carry— it seeps into interactions and reorganizes their world. Even if a story is told in an age-appropriate way, with the intention of teaching a lesson or memorializing loved ones lost, other implicit messages, and expressions of pain, inevitably come with the story. However, the Freilich family had a number of protective factors that facilitated Elaine’s ability to tolerate and digest the material and make meaning out of her family experience. Throughout her interview, Elaine is able to express healthy disappointment with certain things about her family, but was also able to acknowledge and respect that her parents were doing their best.
DORA: The children are raised a certain, different way. Different way. Although I find a lot-a lot of children of, you know, not survivors, that are raised the same way, but I think our children are achievers because-because of us. Not that we pushed them so much, but it was their way of showing to us their gratitude of being-of doing well, and I think in the fifty years it proved, you know, that they were doing good. They are good children.
DORA: I think of…they knew that we are like the beginning of a generation. Later on, when they grew up, they all knew our past. We told them about their grandparents, we told them about their aunts and uncles and how they died. They were learning. They were reading books about it. That was where they learned. They were reading in school was Anne Frank’s story, and then the ones that were more interested read other things and they were really the first generation of children that grew out of us, so they-they had heard of our stories back home, and it was a different world. It was-it was a world of learning and goodness and…in the families, I mean in the family, as ??? for parents, for grandparents, all those things that we don’t have now anymore. And this, I think, what it starts at home. It’s a very big plus in a family.
DORA: Family was everything. This was our first thing that was ours, that belonged to us. Nothing else belonged to us… We tried our best for our kids. To assimilate. To fit in.
NARRATOR: The emotional content of her mother’s stories was coupled with enough of a lesson that it could be digested and used productively. Elaine describes her experience as a young child watching the Diary of Anne Frank. Despite the emotional content of the movie, this sparked Elaine’s interest in education Americans about the Holocaust, a cause that she has dedicated her life to.
ELAINE: I remember going to see the Diary of Anne Frank, the movie. I must have been about ten years old when it came out, and my father sent me to see it. He didn’t come with me. I don’t know why. And I was profoundly affected by that at the time, although in retrospect, it was really not anywhere near what my parents went through. It’s a holiday in comparison. Yet for me it was the first sort of public depiction of something that I didn’t know that other people knew about. Here’s a point. I thought my parents were telling me stories about their lives that were somehow not really connected to history. Now that sounds crazy, but I think this is a child’s way of putting it. I didn’t think that anybody else thought about this. I knew there was a World War II. I knew that America had fought in the war. I didn’t think that anybody really knew about what had happened to people like my parents. It was sort of like they were casualties of the war, but it wasn’t common knowledge because you want to know something? I think I thought if it was common knowledge, how could people have allowed that to happen? So that was one of my rationalizations. If people had known about this, they definitely would have gone over there and done something. This is just too horrible. So in the early stages I think I believed the Americans could not have known this, and I’m-I’m kind of coming to this realization right now, but it’s very interesting because it parallels some stuff that I’m doing with the way Jews in Europe reacted to the war. So the Americans could not have known this. Then when I started realizing that the Americans must have known this, that was not a happy time for me, because now I know that people can know about evil and not do anything about it. So how do you put all of that together? Well, if they knew about it and they didn’t do anything about it, why didn’t they do anything about it? It wasn’t important enough? It wasn’t happening to people who mattered? It wasn’t happening to enough people? It wasn’t happening to their people? All of those kinds of things. Well, if it wasn’t happening to their people or people that mattered, does that mean that I, as a human being, don’t matter in this culture of America because I’m a Jew. Does that mean that Jews are throwaway people, and I think I went through a lot of that kind of stuff too. So lots of different stages here of trying to figure out why people didn’t do more if they knew. That became a problem for me.
NARRATOR: One finding from the Transcending Trauma Project was that children were better able to digest Holocaust stories if the parents were sharing in order to teach a particular lesson, rather than merely sharing emotional content. In the case of the Freilich’s, these messages centered around the importance of education, hard work, speaking and educating about the war, and appreciating one’s circumstances. Despite receiving many messages about who her mother needed her to be, Elaine also received many constructive messages that she was able to use to make meaning and chose a direction in her life.
ELAINE: If you’re told that you’re supposed to have the perspective of an adult when you’re a child, well where does that leave you? You have nothing to grow into. My father would say to me when I was four; I want to tell you this. I want you to think like an adult. I don’t think so. You know, but-so if you’re expected to do that it’s all your life. Maybe you get a lot of practice being an adult very early on. Making decisions. I had a lot of practice making decisions.
ELAINE: Just, I think that they will tell you that I am very good at decision making and that that was-they’re proud of that, and the influence was only that I was-I had a lot of practice at making decisions, and in fact got consulted on things very early on. And a lot-I guess a lot of my decisions are about working through the red tape. What do we want? What do we want to have happen? How do we make that happen?
NARRATOR: Despite the frustration with her family of origin that Elaine describes, there is also a clear sense of empathy. She saw that her parents were doing the best that they could, and was appreciative of what they were able to do for her given their traumatic histories.
ELAINE: I think that-I think that they did as good a job as they could, given what happened. I don’t have anger against them for that kind of stuff. I mean it’s not their fault, and if you could take a test to qualify for being a parent, a lot of us would fail. Not only survivors. I
think that they had problems about closeness. I think that they had problems about unresolved issues with their own parents, that they couldn’t even admit to to this day. You know, I think that it’s remarkable that they were able to do what they did. I’m not sure I would have been able to do it. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. You kind of fall into something. You go ahead and have kids. Hopefully everything works out all right. They would probably tell you that the most important thing in the world for them was having us. That it was the most reassuring thing. So-but I do think that they didn’t have physical problems when we were younger. You know, now they have a couple of things but nothing really terrible, but they’ve had emotional things that were not crippling but hindering.
INT: We may have touched on this, this sense or awareness of being a child of survivors became much more meaningful later on as an adult.
INT: What was that conflict?
ELAINE: That was a process of being able to admit the differences and then finding out that there was a community of people who also had those differences and-so that was-that kind of coincided with America’s recognition of the Holocaust too, so that if you said, my parents are Holocaust survivors, people understood what you meant. So that, coupled with an ability to admit to myself that there were things in my personality that were formed by that, because when I was younger I was damned if it was going to get to me, and then when I was older I finally realized well, guess what, it did get to me. I might as well admit it and just go with it, because it’s here. Now, and it’s real easy to fall into that thing of well, okay, I’m this way because of them. Well, I’m not this way only because of them. I’m this way because of a conglomeration of events, some of which have to do with them.
NARRATOR: Elaine has taken the lessons she has learned in her family of origin and her balanced perspective on her own strengths and weaknesses to inform how she parents her own child.
ELAINE: I think I can express affection and anger without making him feel in jeopardy that one sits at the mercy of the other, that I can be angry but still care, whereas with my parents, when they were angry you always felt that they didn’t care anymore.
INT: Is that more conditional?
ELAINE: Yeah. And that, for me, was always scary. When the criticism was being heaped on you, you sort of got this sense, if you don’t shape up, we’re not going to love you anymore. And I don’t think I ever did that with my son. I hope I didn’t. Of course, he might testify differently.
INT: How about in terms of a philosophy or attitude about life that you may have transmitted to your son?
ELAINE: That the infinite is sort of housed inside of you and that the possibilities are there
within and without, that he can do whatever he wants to do. I think that-that people are good, not bad. And I-that there’s a place for him in the world.
INT: When you think about your parents, how do you think the impact of the Holocaust will be on the next generation?
ELAINE: I-I wouldn’t have been able to predict that a while ago. I guess I was never sure how much he was listening to what was going on, although you would have really had to have been totally deaf to have missed it. (Laughter) My parents have sat in this very kitchen and told stories and my father has made it a point to target Joshua as the designated listener that day, and Joshua has transcribed things that my mother has written and stuff like that, so I think that a lot of the stories belong to him too now. He, after the March of the Living, is a different person. His sense
of values about it are very sharpened, so I think that he carries within him the stories, but not the negative stuff around them, and that’s a real powerful possibility.
NARRATOR: The values of education and involvement and Holocaust activities have been a source of strength and motivation for Dora, Elaine, and Joshua. In literature, Elaine would be referred to as the memorial candle, the child in a family that carries the memories of the survivor parents as a repository for all that was loved and lost. This child assumes the responsibility to pass on the memories to others. Her son is now carrying on this legacy, and developing his own relationship with his family’s history.
ELAINE: It’s a mixed blessing. Everybody gets a legacy from their parents. My husband’s legacy is completely different than mine. Mine colors every day of my life. Inadvertently, I think, it became something that I-it became part of my job. I never-if you would have told me that twenty years ago I never would have believed that. I would have told you you were out of
your mind. It makes me deal with people differently. It makes me-my values are different about certain things. The way I confront people is different as a result of that, so it’s-I am-I’m not
happy that it happened to them. I’m not happy that it happened to me. I am blessed in a way that I can use those things, I think, in a positive way. That sounds a little corny. Maybe I want to temper that and just say that it would be good to think that I could-that I could use what I know of their lives for-for some good.
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