Children of Shoah survivors share in parents’ losses

Elaine Alexander’s mother, Paula Zysling Kempinski, is shown at top right in this photo of Holocaust survivors from Klodawa, Poland. The image was taken in 1947 at the former Displaced Persons Camp in Landsberg, Germany. The sign is translated as “Memorial, 1942 to 1947 to remember 350 Jewish families — martyrs — who fell at the hands of the Nazis in Klodawa, 5702 – 22 Tevet / Jan. 11, 1942.


As my sisters, and I were growing up, Auschwitz – which each of our parents had survived – was a phantom presence. Auschwitz breathed our air, sat with us at supper, and shared our slumber.

In the earliest years, we were witnesses to our parents’ deepest grief. We ourselves adopted habits of mourning. But we knew little about what it was we grieved. The devastation was explained with minimal facts given as a barrier to further questions.

But the more I learned, the greater my sense of having it too easy. I had never been in “the camps.” My flesh had not been needled and marked with turquoise numbers as perfectly formed as the digits on a clock. I had not had only flimsy garments to endure Polish winters. I had not known bone-deep hunger and real starvation. It was not my universe that had become smoke and ashes.

Both of my parents were from small towns west of Lodz, Poland and nine of ten Polish Jews were murdered. (The Jews of Latvia, Lithuania and Czechoslovakia suffered the same fate.) Not surprising then, that our household was isolated and without extended family. Only much later, did I understand that we had been deprived of the affection of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and the security that comes with being connected to something bigger than yourself. Meanwhile, because there was no-one with whom to gather on holidays, there were no holidays-even though my parents had each grown up in observant households…

That was something, but not all of what I had written about being a second-generation survivor. Even though, I had left the worst stuff out, I was uneasy about what might be purposelessly, revealing information about my parents. So I solicited opinion. The diversity of reaction amongst ten people astonished me.

“Samuel” said that he himself would never use the phrase “second-generation survivor.” It would be, he wrote, an unwarranted comparison between himself and his parents, whose lives had been truly threatened, not merely difficult. I had written a paragraph about how, in a crisis, adult-sized jobs, were given to children. I described being 11, and having to manage our egg farm (badly) weekend after weekend, once while having to nurse (badly) my younger sister, who was ill with a high fever. Samuel wanted to know the point of these details so many years later.

I shared my piece with other 2Gs. “Anne” was chilled by my account, but acknowledged generously that her mother had been one of the more “intact” survivors. (And I think it mattered in Anne’s case that only one parent was a survivor.) “Hannah” found accurate expression of her own childhood, especially in the paragraph about a parent, “whose blows were in a dimension well beyond spanking and who pierced us with words: Yiddish insults a parent should not utter in any language; words that mocked us (our tears, our appearance, our personalities, “trivial” desires-for things, time to be alone); and words that blamed us (for a sibling’s injury, the early death of our father, being born).”

This would be a good time to say how much I appreciate Dan Reich, the curator of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum, who week in, week out is a constant mentor. Dan asked: did I have anything to say about third-generation survivors? I do. Fasten your belts.

My daughter, Ariel, abandoned email and phoned me, ardent about things which I must strike, for instance: Survivors were maimed, when there were no doctors to set bones for Jews at forced labor. I protested. “But Ariel, Papa Max was liberated at age 34. Young! Like your husband and brother. He enjoyed being a handsome man, but he had that limp. He was ashamed of it. He couldn’t run or dance.”

Ariel has just earned her doctorate in music. She pulled rank, “You’re arguing with a doctor?”

Ariel particularly wanted me to delete reference to a Sunday morning when I was eight and asked to go downstairs and bring back glasses of hot tea-and encouraged to wear the robe that was ankle length on my mother. I had neatly summed the outcome: It was a six-inch swath of steamed skin that peeled away with the pajama pants.

“Mom! No! That was just bad parenting!” Good point, Ariel.

Or…maybe not. Because how much the Shoah scarred parents-and changed them from who they would have been-defies quantification. One day last fall, a photo I had never seen before bloomed on my computer screen. It had been taken in Germany (at the site of a displaced persons camp) when my mother was 23. (Ariel is 28.) “Yizkor/memorial” I deciphered from the first line of a plywood placard around which my mother and 22 other survivors were clustered to remember the day in 1942 that the 350 Jewish families of Klodawa, Poland had been murdered in the gas vans at Chelmno. My mother’s parents, two sisters, nine-year-old brother and most every other of her 80 relatives were among those who perished. And with just that burden of sorrow wouldn’t she have had less patience, less understanding, less energy, less joy for her offspring?

Wasn’t my mother altered when she woke and saw that all nine of her bunkmates had died in the night? Could all of a person come back from Auschwitz?

In one sense, the Holocaust ended when its surviving victims were liberated in 1945. But in different ways, in different families the claws of the Shoah have reached into the next generation.

Yom HaShoah commentary

Elaine K. Alexander is a freelance writer living in Creve Coeur with a personal connection to the Holocaust. Both of her parents, Polish Jews, were sole survivors of their immediate families.