Growing up as a child of Holocaust Survivors
by Dr. Jack Felman
From the beginning I would like to say that this speech reflects a personal account and in no way do I claim to represent any other people or their experiences. Many years ago, my late father, Oleh Hashalom, came home after buying a pair of shoes from a friend of his who had a shoe import business. Buying wholesale was a way of life for us. The word retail had no equivalent in Yiddish. Anyway, he came home triumphantly with a pair of handsome shoes. My mother, typical of her heritage, had only one comment. What was it? You guessed it. "How much did they cost?" My father wasnt from Lodz for nothing. Before the war, he had outsmarted and out-run goyim (non Jews) much tougher than my mother. So, quick as a flash, he proudly announced, the vilder metziah (bargain) of the year, $36", he answered her. Then he turned to me, and quietly added. "Each shoe." Clearly, my mother was a force to be reckoned with, but the war, and subsequent years of experience had taught my father to think and act quickly.
My parents owned a grocery store, right in the heart of the Goyim, Glen Iris. "Anglo Saxon Wasps wearing white henshkess, (gloves)," my mother would say. My mother was a product of the Warsaw Jewish aristocracy and amongst fellow Polish Jews, she felt they should be in awe of her. Her Polish was unquestionably superior to those from lesser cities, towns and G-d forbid, shtetls (villages). However between non-Jews she felt embarrassed by her thick accent. She spent many years during the war pretending to be a Christian. She was an expert at blending in. Maybe in Poland she could disguise her origins, but definitely not in Glen Iris, Australia. One day, one of these Glen Iris ladies asked my mother, "tell me, where do you come from?" After a slight hesitation, my mother replied. "I was born in Manchester, England, but my parents moved to Poland when I was a little girl." My father looked at her azoy ve a meshigener, (as if she was crazy) and from then on, the family joke was, if you want to know something, or desire an expert opinion, ask my mother, she's the one who was born in England.
I guess that's what it was like, growing up as a child of holocaust survivors. What did I learn from this? Well my father's shoes taught me the meaning of buying from a factory, cheapest price. Wholesale. Discount. And my mother's marseh, (episode) taught me the concept of ghetto mentality. It's safer to be amongst Jews. It's best not to stand out in the gentile society.
I ask your forgiveness if I digress for a few moments. I would like to dedicate this speech to the memory of my late sister, Freda, who died 2 years ago aged 57. She was a child survivor. But during my youth, as it may have been for many other child survivors, being a child survivor was never talked about, or openly acknowledged. My sister was born in February 1940 in Warsaw. As I said at her funeral service, I believe it was the worst time and the worst place for a child to be born in the history of the world. I know very little about this period of her life. I did hear how my father saved her life by smuggling her out of the Warsaw Ghetto hidden in a sack of potatoes. Like the hiding place in "The Diary of Anne Frank", my parents hid with my sister in a small cupboard behind a false wall.
After 2 years, my parents realized the danger of hiding with my sister and she entrusted my sister to a close friend together with all the money she had left instructing her to look after her daughter and to raise her as her own in the event that my mother did not return. This woman was obviously frightened at having to take in a Jewish child, especially one who could talk and who knew she was Jewish. The penalty for hiding a Jew was of course death. I can only surmise that the woman became frightened and other neighbours witnessed that this woman abandoned my sister in the local gardens near a lake, hoping she would drown and the problem would be resolved. My 3 year old sister was left alone in the park and survived for a few days eating grass while Hitler's bombs rained down over Warsaw. Witnesses later told my mother they had seen this but were too frightened to intervene. Finally some nuns found my sister and took her to a convent where she survived the war.
Miraculously my parents survived the war and after what I can only imagine were frantic and desperate months of searching, my mother found my sister. Again this period of my parents' life were never discussed. My mother would justify her decision to give up her daughter to neighbours as having been necessary to save my sister's life. I wonder if perhaps my mother felt guilt that she had given birth to a child at this time and place in history and that she was forced to give up her child at a time when my sister must have understood that she was being abandoned by her mother. I can't even begin to appreciate the feelings of my mother and my sister at this time.
Having children of my own I shudder to think of my own reaction if faced with a similar prospect. I don't believe my mother ever asked my sister what, if anything, she remembered. I believe my parents felt if they didn't mention the war years my sister would forget and live a normal life. They were wrong. My sister was affected but I only realise that now when reflecting on her life as I wrote this speech. She was nervous, sensitive and absolutely terrified of loud noises including loud voices and especially people screaming. I remember that I was never allowed to blow up a balloon in her presence. If I did try to annoy her as younger brothers will do, my mother immediately flew into a rage to say nothing about its effect on my sister. If I ever argued or yelled at my sister, my mother insisted I stop as my sister was a "gelitener kint" - a child who had suffered. I can still remember having a fight with my sister when I was about 8 or 9 and the worst swear words in those days was "drop dead".
The two words hadn't left my lips before my mother let loose with a verbal tirade that I had never heard before. My mother didn't know how she should handle my sister other than to protect her from all external traumas. But as you well know that during those years when we were growing up, there was no such thing as trauma counselling or even worse, a referral to a Psychiatrist which would have been the best thing for my sister and my mother. My parents were themselves trying to deal with surviving the Holocaust inferno, losing their families and starting a new life in a foreign country. However that's all in the past and can't be changed.
During my youth, it never occurred to me that perhaps I was different. All my friends came from similar backgrounds. I was fortunate enough to attend Mt. Scopus College, a Jewish school, so my contact with non-Jews, was minimal. The atmosphere I grew up in was stable and constant. People fitted into categories. All my friends' parents spoke with heavy accents and were either shopkeepers or manufacturers. The Jews from Poland played Polish Rummy and the Jews from Germany and Austria - the Yekkers went to the theatre, plays and concerts. The Polish Jews went to Daylesford for cards, bubble and electric baths and the Yekkers went to Mount Buffalo for walks and horse riding. The Magyars weren't even discussed. There were clear cut divisions and we all knew exactly where we stood. Except for my mother whose roots apparently lay in Manchester and Warsaw. But I digress.
In the early years we all knew that when visitors came, after certain formalities, after the economic and political situation in Australia and Israel had been carefully digested, analyzed and commented on, the discussion invariably drifted to stories of the war. We heard words like Larger, Katzet, de kreeg, SS, banditen, death, crematoria, gas chambers, starvation with my mother often repeating how she had to skin a cat and make a soup from it.
We heard about relatives who perished. Polish school friends who turned on their Jewish friends and informed the Nazis who were Jews. An intense hatred of Poles and Germans was more than evident in our home. When my wife and I visited Poland in 1975 I can still vividly remember the intense hatred I felt for the 8 days I had to endure in this country. Although I acknowledge the fact, I find it unbelievable that there are so many Jewish survivors who re-visit this country. As a doctor, I have had to counsel a number of these people who were traumatised after going back to Poland. In my own case, my parents shuddered at the prospect of going back, even when I told them that my wife and I were goint to visit Poland. I believe my father's trauma at losing a son and the total extermination of my mother's family prohibited them from returning even out of interest. I remember my mother telling me that if she ever had to return, she would probably have a heart attack at the airport on arrival, so strong were her emotions. For my father especially, life began in 1945. I believe that this denial process helped him survive, and become a happy person from whom I am proud to say I inherited a great sense of humour.
However there was a door in my father's personality which if opened issued forth a black cloud which warned me to close it quickly. If I ever asked my father about his mother, my grandmother, all he could bring himself to say was that "Ma mamma is geveyn farbrent in Treblinka." "My mother went to the crematoriums in Treblinka." As a child and an adult I respected my father's right to silence and never attempted to inquire about what happened to him in the war.
The only time I did open a discussion was when I returned from visiting Poland and I asked him some questions. He told me that during the War, they had been hiding in a cellar and would scavenge for food at night. I told him that he was lucky that the Nazis didn't catch him. He looked at me and said quite bluntly that he was caught once at night. I remember looking at him shocked and asking what happened.
He told me very quietly that he had to kill the Nazi with his bare hands not just for his own survival but because there were 50 or so other Jews hiding in the cellar with him and he couldn't take the risk of being tortured and revealing the hiding place. I was shocked. I couldn't imagine MY father killing anyone. I remember I didn't ask any more questions. Perhaps I was frightened to discover other things about my father.
When I announced to my parents that I had proposed to my wife, we had a meeting of the prospective machertunim, (in-laws). There were 5 minutes of polite introductions and then the next question was "Where were you in the war?" When my parents heard that my in-laws had been in Auschwitz and then Bergen Belsen, a bond was immediately established. They were - all four parents - gelitener menshen. People who had suffered. They continued speaking until well into the early hours of the morning. We immediately left the room. There was no point in staying, we had heard it all before.
I think that the sad part about it is that we weren't horrified or shocked. We had grown up with these stories. Each story was different. Yet all were the same. They were tales of horror. Experiences of the greatest degradation known to mankind. Elie Wiesel sums it up as "this war was the most atrocious, the most brutal, and the deadliest in mankind's history." Like many others of my generation, I heard how every one of my mother's family had been annihilated for no other reason other than they were Jewish.
It's only recently, perhaps as a doctor examining the psychological impact of such an upbringing, that I can attempt to bring some objectivity and understanding to my childhood. It cannot be normal for a child at such a young age to hear such stories. Child Psychology teaches us to be aware of the impact that traumas in early life can have on children's development. I remember when my own children were very little I would read fairy stories which I noticed were often quite violent. Like the witch in Hansel and Gretel who puts the children in the oven or the wolf who gobbles up the pigs.
I was so concerned that the children might get frightened by these stories that using my own joking nature and imagination I would modify the stories. Perhaps I did this out of an awareness of traumatizing children. Perhaps I did this to avoid them hearing terrifying stories that I heard, indirectly, as a child. While other children heard stories about their grandparents' life in Ballarat shooting rabbits or in Shepparton picking fruit, I heard how my grandmother was incinerated in Treblinka. How my parents were starved so that they had to eat cats, farfolter (rotten) bread. How people in the camps would fight over a potato peel, even kill each other.
So how did this affect me? Well, I could have become depressed. Perhaps neurotic. Maybe I'm both. In fact I'm amazed that I don't feel either. Perhaps inwardly I suppress these vivid and horrific images and outwardly I react by being funny. I enjoy making people laugh, even to this day. Some of the things I do to make people laugh might very possibly interest a psychiatrist. Perhaps I even became a doctor in order to help people and make up for my inability to have been able to help my parents, family and fellow Jews during the war. Who knows my motives. Maybe I just wanted to be a doctor. Maybe I don't want to face the truth that my mother wanted me to be a doctor.
I am fortunate that I can see humour in when it seems taboo. I remember at my Bar Mitzvah I was given a book of Jewish humour. One of the first jokes I read I was never able to repeat. It initially shocked me that a joke could be made of the Holocaust and the second shock was that I thought it was funny. A Jewish man was walking along the streets of Berlin during the war. A Nazi officer was walking toward him. As the Nazi approached, he clicked his heels and contemptuously called to the Jew, "Shveinhunt". Unhestitatingly the Jewish man clicked his heels and replied, "Rosenbaum." G-d forbid I should have ever repeated this joke to my parents or anyone for that matter. I was ashamed that I found this funny. Perhaps it set me on the path of humour.
Do I condemn my parents? Certainly not. I'm amazed and surprised that they did not recognise that their stories and their experiences would have any effect on their children. Their attitude was that we, their children, weren't in the war so how could we possibly have suffered. Perhaps the schools at the time should have addressed some of these issues. I don't remember but I think the topic of the Holocaust during my school years was pretty much a closed subject.
I am grateful to the organisation I belong to, Descendants of the Shoah, which has given me the opportunity to hear others of my generation talk about their experiences growing up. It has allowed me the opportunity to express my feelings and be acknowledged by those who share my background. Only after listening to the experiences of my contemporaries do I really appreciate how good I had it compared to others.
One of my regrets is that my parents never realised the impact that these stories and their suffering had on their children. Ironically enough they didn't consider this impact yet they protected us far above and beyond what was necessary. Their attitude was that if anything bad happened to us, their children, they invariably suffered more than we did. So suffering was a key element in our homes. Our parents often suffered from poverty and anti-Semitism in Poland before the war. Naturally they suffered during the war. Life was very difficult when they came to Australia with no money, no language and no profession, so the suffering continued.
If we, their offspring, got sick, misbehaved, or did poorly at school, then once again our parents suffered. If we married a person not to their liking or we failed to ring them every day after we got married, and if our chosen profession fell short of their expectation, again they suffered. If their grandchildren didn't eat, or walked around with no shoes on, or didn't wear sweaters or coats on a cold day, again our parents suffered. Then just as they got used to the trials and tribulations of life, they got sick and once more they suffered.
We were special children. Precious children. Many of our parents lost children in the war. After the war, many women were amazed that they were able to conceive and bear normal children. We were important because we represented everything they had lost and we were their future and subconsciously perhaps we represented their triumph over the Nazis. But in many ways these people displayed a self centered and selfish attitude to life. Undoubtedly influenced by their war experiences. To them we were an appendage, an extension of themselves. Their feelings and emotions took priority over ours. We had to conform to their expectations, feelings, morals, ideals and to those of their friends because they had suffered and we hadn't. Our feelings and opinions were secondary. We were on display before their friends, before the whole community. They had to be able to boast about their precious children whether it was real or imaginery.
My alter ego, The Booba, often boasts that her grandson is studying to be a doctor. Oh yes, by the way, he's turning 7 next May. Whenever I fought with my parents it was always up to me to go and apologise. They were simply never wrong. I had to make the peace and not upset them more than was absolutely necessary. And I accepted this quite matter of fact.
In fact, it's only recently that I reflect with amazement at my adolescence. It took place during the sixties when many of my generation rebelled, smoked pot, wore caftans and flowers in their hair, experienced free love and the other myriad of images this era conjures up. What did I and my contemporaries do? Absolutely nothing. Every other nation has rebelled at one stage or another in history, but not in Melbourne, if you knew what was good for you. Perhaps we were born with a gene which inhibited us from rebelling.
It interests me as a doctor when I see the sympathy, understanding and counselling given to those who have endured a trauma such as rape or involved in a bank hold up. Even poor Paula Jones suffered unspeakable trauma at the hands, or perhaps some other anatomical organ, of President Clinton. If any group of people needed counselling it was these survivors in 1945. Yet they seemed to get on with their lives, to struggle forward, to form new relationships, new families and new occupations.
I think that one of the reasons the survivors survived and were able to live fulfilling, enjoyable and successful lives was they they had each other. Getting together with those who shared similar experiences was like group psychotherapy. Self help groups. Having each other to talk to about the Holocaust saved many of their children from bearing the brunt of parental outpourings. Yes, the Goyim were not to be trusted. Yes, the Goyim lived for today and we saved for tomorrow. What did the church sign say? "Jesus Saves" while underneath it someone added, "Moses Invests." Their common suffering helped them come to terms with what they endured. There was security in numbers. Their friendships were firm; they supported each other. They helped each other financially. They played together, cried together, ate and drank together and mourned together. And we, stood by and watched this phenomenon but could not take part.
What would a talk by a Jewish boy be without reference to food. I didn't get to look like this from drinking beer with my dad in a pub. Our generation were well nourished. Not only was food in plentiful supply but the rule of the day was eat everything on the plate. In my home you ate because during the war we had no food and you should be grateful. Even if you weren't initially hungry, once you started to eat the appetite would come. Of that we were assured. And according to my mother, you didn't even have to be hungry to eat compote - dessert. Compote was the lubricant to help the rest of the food move along the digestive tract. As if the food needed any help. And just in case you felt it was safe to leave something on the plate, the stern warning that "It's a sin to throw away food" got you. You were trapped. Appetite was irrelevant. Gratitude and Godliness were the order of the day.
If I can be flippant about food, the opposite applies to the role we, as children of survivors, played in the family setup. We represented not only those members of the family who died, but our role as children was unlike that of other migrants. Our task, our duty, was to ensure that our parents were happy. On no account were we to cause embarrassment, upset and G-d forbid, bring shunder (shame) to our parents. Many of us often acted as parents to our parents. My mother called tatalle (daddy). My wife's mother called her Mama. A reversal of roles.
But this reversal was often to our deteriment. In my home I was not able to tell my parents if something bothered me because it would cause them to worry. I certainly wasn't able to reveal any exam results below an A. It would have disappointed them. This was a fact that I learnt to live with. I guess I didn't even think twice about my role. It seemed so natural to avoid upsetting my parents who had already suffered so much during the war.
Many of my friends refuse to acknowledge that guilt played any part in their upbringing. Well I disagree. I feel very guilty and angry that my grandparents, uncles and aunts died and I couldn't do anything about it. I feel guilty and angry that millions of Jews were murdered and I wasn't able to help. I find these feelings surface when I see documentaries about the war and I feel the anger and hostility well up inside me wanting to burst out and kill the murderers I see on the screen. I find this aspect of my mornally placed character very disturbing. But that's how it is. My guilt also extends to my parents who lived under unspeakable conditions for 6 years and I WAS NOT ABLE TO HELP THEM. It's not such an unusual reaction. You have children. Imagine your reaction if on the last day of their high school, the teacher called you in and told you that for the last 6 years, your son/daughter had been victimized, brutalized, beaten on a daily basis. And for 6 years your child hadn't told you. You hadn't been able to protect or help them. Just imagine how you would feel towards the child you lovved and towards the perpetrators. Well, that's me.
Of course I never came to terms with my feelings during my youth. What I did notice was that I avoided watching war films and I avoided listening to my parents' experiences. I was often berated for being uncaring, for not having the patience to listen to my parents' stories. I never understood why. Only now do I realise the truth that I didn't want to hear how those who I loved, my father and mother, had to endure starvation, torture, beatings, hiding, running and the murder of their parents, brothers, sisters and in some cases husbands and wives and children. Yes, I felt guilty that I didn't want to hear these things and I was too young to understand why. I lacked the maturity to explain to my parents that I did care. I did love them, but I couldn't hear over and over and over again their stories, and their pain.
Apart from the information my parents did want to impart to me, there were areas that were strictly forbidden. There were secrets that if revealed could only upset my father, my mother and my sister. Because I was 9 years younger than my sister I only discovered glimpses, fragments of what happened prior to 1945. But there was one photo of a little boy and if I ever asked who he was, the photo would be immediately taken from my hand and replaced without a word of explanation. I heard various whispers, usually in Polish, from Uncles and Aunts and being an astute child I very quickly realised that all was not well with my family. Unfortunately I perceived these secrets as representing terrible things. I felt they were hiding something so shameful that it just couldn't be mentioned. I felt I was part of this shame and had to bare part of the guilt. It wasn't something I desired, it just happened.
I eventually realised the photo was of my father's dead son, who was after all, my brother. My imagination created monsters that haunted me until I stood up at a second generation sharing session a few years ago. When my youngest son did his Roots Project at school a few years ago, I took out this photo from the box and asked him to include the photo as the little boy was a member of the family. The tragedy was that the little boy had no name and I explained to my son that by including him in the Roots Project we were giving an identity to a child who for over fifty years had had no identity and no one to mourn him apart from the silent thoughts or nightmares of my late father.
The secrets haunted me and I was never able to discuss them with either of my parents. I assumed that they were so dreadful, that they would only cause anguish and hurt and consequently it was my role, my duty to avoid mentioning anything that might upset my parents. These secrets not only can frighten and disturb a child but they sew seeds of doubts in the mind. If my parents are hiding these things from me, what else haven't they told me?
It took me 45 years to come to terms with the fact that it ws no shame that husbands, wives and children died in the Holocaust. I never understood that the silence was as a result of pain and not guilt. I am able only now to understand that it was beyond my parents' power to save these people. My parents were not criminals. They were the miserable victims of a type of criminal never before seen on this planet.
Illness and death were two topics that held special places in our home. Illness was to be feared. It was beyond my parents' control. It represented the unknown and the worst thing was that it could lead to death. Illness, even a trivial chest infection, before the war and during the war usually led to death because of the poor living conditions and lack of medical treatment. Many parents were not able to show compassion when their children became ill. It represented a terrifying fear that they may lose their child. Instead they often became angry. I find myself repeating this phenomen towards my children. Even as a doctor, I experienced fear each time on of my children became ill. When it came to my children, my medical common sense disappeared and I was invariably consumed with the fear that they might die from their illness.
Death was such a terrible concept that even to mention let alone discuss a weill, was forbidden. Many of my generation never attended a funeral until they were well into their twenties. We had to be protected from this experience. Death represented ultimate separation. Even the thought of being separated from their children temporarily was a nightmare. Jewish parents don't respond well to separation. Just ask those with children who moved to Doncaster. A tragedia. Try not ringing your mother for a few days and see what happens.
To prevent death and illness, superstition was a part of normal life in Europe which followed the migrants to Australia. Remember the "tu tu tu", the einer hora, leaving the house on the right foot, never go back inside the house if you have forgotten something, the red piece of ribbon in the baby's cot or pram. The list is endless. Many believe that the evil eye brought bad luck which just encouraged the angel of death. They had to have ways and means of confusing this angel of death. Boy was he confused. Perhaps their fear emanated from watching or experiencing the death of parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, wives, husbands and even children during the war.
I can't condense all the experiences of my youth in one speech. These are just fragments, snippets from my life. It's too easy to trivialize and make fun of our experiences as children of Holocaust survivors. As much as I see the humour in growing up in such an atmosphere and I frequently express that humour dressed up as a Jewish Booba, it is perhaps as a result of my experiences that I am able to laugh about what I saw and still see. But make no mistake, beneath the humour there is a strong element of suffering which we as children of survivors feel as innocent bystanders. The Nazi killng machine extended further than their intended victims. It actively affected the survivors' children and it has touched their grandchildren. I believe it will only be my grandchildren who will be unaffected by the Holocaust and will be able to view it as a historical tragedy which befell their people.