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Stories my parents told me, too.

August 27, 2009 – 8:37 pm8 Comments

everythingisBy The Hasid

Many of you may have read Mark Dapin’s article about second generation Holocaust survivors, “Stories My Parents Told Me”, in Good Weekend last Saturday (22 August). The article was sensitive and well-written, and the experiences of the interviewees were probably very familiar to anyone who has grown up Jewish in Melbourne. Unfortunately I can’t provide a link to the complete article as Good Weekend content is not posted on any of the Fairfax websites (get thee to a hard copy).

What irked me slightly about the piece, though, was the ending. Dapin quotes one of the interviewees, who mentions her children going out for drinks on Friday night, and he seems to extrapolate this as representative of a general concern that second generation survivors have about their children – that they may not fully appreciate the sacrifices made by their grandparents. It seems an odd conclusion to me – one that comes in through the back door, so to speak, when no grandchildren of Holocaust survivors have been interviewed or mentioned in the article at all.

“It’s one of the things I’m struggling with now,” says Magda, “because my kids work in the city and it’s the done thing that you go for drinks after work on a Friday night. In my day, I wouldn’t dream of not being home for Friday night [for the Sabbath dinner]. They don’t feel the pull of what our parents would’ve said. That is, ‘You’re not missing out by not drinking.’”

“But our parents had a wonderful way of working with words,” says Erica, “to get us to do what they wanted us to do. They knew which buttons were the guilt buttons.”

“And our kids don’t feel guilt about anything,” says Magda. “We over-compensated. Our kids have to be happy. Our kids have to never feel guilty. Our kids have to have options.”

Nobody wants to keep alive their parents’ anguish and apprehension, their mistrust and dismay, but some of the second generation worry their children have forgotten the lessons learnt behind barbed wire, and don’t understand the sacrifices made in the camps and in the forests, the unstated pacts across family lines. While the second generation grew up feeling the weight – or even the reward – of the history of the 20th century, they fear that the past has lost meaning for the present – and, in the future, not even memory will survive.

Weird conclusion, no?

It’s something of a sombre, depressing ending. And kind of makes me (a grandchild of Holocaust survivors) angry. The suggestion that the third generation may not “understand the sacrifices made in the camps” could not be further from my experience and that of my friends. The Holocaust was in the ether of my childhood and education. My parents have been deeply affected by the experiences of their parents, older relatives and friends’ parents. As an adult, it informs who I am and how I see the world. Call it guilt, memory, whatever you like: not a day goes by when I do not reflect (however briefly) upon my grandparents’ survival, the ‘accident’ of my birth, and the responsibility of perpetuating the memory of the Holocaust. I think it makes me a better, more compassionate person. And sometimes a bit… prone to worrying. But in a good way, you know?

A friend of mine, also in her twenties, recently told me a story I found at once funny, sad and poignant. She clearly remembers attending an after-school activity when she was very young (5 or 6, I think). Many of the other children in attendance were Jewish. My friend asked one of the other children if she was Jewish, to which she responded in the affirmative, but added in a hushed tone, “Shhh. Don’t tell anyone!” My friend asked why. “Because of the the Holocaust,” the other girl whispered.

Part of me gets the angle Dapin is going for. I can understand the concerns expressed by the individuals he interviewed (though they wouldn’t have been aware of how Dapin would interpret their comments). If that’s how they feel, then that’s how they feel. But for Dapin to suggest (and to be fair, he suggests, doesn’t assert) that my generation not feeling guilty (and ohhhh, let me assure you, we feel guilty!) means that we don’t understand the sacrifices made by our grandparents, or don’t appreciate the lessons of history, is kind of simplistic. And also not true. While I don’t go out for drinks on Friday night, I don’t really see why doing so precludes one from having a deep appreciation of the legacy of the Holocaust. (I’m not sure that that’s what Kron was implying either – it seemed to me more that she was pointing out the generational differences. But I’m just speculating here, because obviously I have no way of knowing what went on in the interview.)

What do you think? Is Dapin right?

How do you relate to this conclusion, whether you’re a descendant of Holocaust survivors or not?

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  • frosh says:

    Hi Hasid,

    Firstly, I haven’t read the original article you refer to.Nevertheless, I can kind of see what they are driving at.

    Like you (I think), I’m not so sure this issue should be linked with Shoah-guilt. However, the “work drinks on a Friday evening” could easily be an issue on its own for Galus Australis.

    This is an issue that presents itself only to a certain type of ‘traditional’ (but not legitimately shomer shabbos) Jewish family.

    The third generation children work in the city, and would
    a) like to attend drinks with the firm rather than go home for Shabbos

    b) prefer to go home for shabbos, but feel under pressure to go for drinks, in order to seem sociable, a loyal employee, or whatever.

    Just to look at (b)
    What we have is a clash of cultures in the antipodes. In the Anglo-Celtic Australian culture (and many other cultures for that matter), there is a tremendous pressure to participate in certain drinking rituals. The Aussie culture almost looks on people suspiciously who do not partake in group drinking. It can actually take considerable will power to resist this social pressure.

    For Jews who are shomer shabbos (halachically), they have more clearly defined boundaries, so the decision in a way may be less difficult.

    However, for Jews whose shabbos observance is merely ‘traditional’ (rather than halachic), then there are less clearly defined boundaries, and the competing pressures can force them to make a difficult decision.

    (Ok, I’m on some pain killers after an operation, so my comment may not have made much sense…it feels a bit incoherent even to me…apologies to all).

  • Chaim says:

    Maybe she is upset that her children are neglecting something that the holocaust made her subsequently, personally feel is so important ie family values / connection.

    Most survivors lost some or all of their immediate family.

    Friday nights or Shabbos to many are not about religious values but rather the one time a week everyone sits down together for dinner for an extended time without distractions like TV.

    Unfortunately the holocaust has turned into such a “guilt syndrome” rather than learning pertinent lessons. Non-Jews including young Germans seem a little tired of having to feel guilty about what happened to Jews 60 yrs ago.

    This guilt phenomena is pervasive in Jewish culture (was it always?). But is it really a positive force at all? It makes people feel bad.. but does it change opinion or actions. Does it last?

    Parenting has come a long way in the last 10-20 years and studies have really addressed what really works and what does not. e.g compliments really are only believable to children up to age 7 and punishment escalation actually makes kids into greater liars. I don’t think guilt really plays a part in successful parenting.

    In our personal lives, guilt should be short but truthful and lead to a positive change and then move on to new positive experiences.

    Don’t worry be happy.

  • ariel says:

    Like frosh, I haven’t read the original article, mainly because I steer clear of Fairfax press, but I get the gist.

    I am the grandson of Holocaust survivors, although my grandparents managed to evade concentration camps due to a mix of “fortune” and location. Even though they managed to escape, their immediate families (particularly the older members) were not so fortunate.

    I never grew up with any guilt over anything to do with the Holocaust. My grandparents (at least on one side, with whom I happened to spend more time) decided long ago that they were in Australia to begin a new life and there was no point dwelling on the past tragedies, even though it was important to bear them in mind. My Jewish identity has always predominantly revolved around the positive aspects of Jewish history – mainly the miracle of the return of Jewish sovreignty to Israel – rather than the negative “guilt-ridden” experiences of the Holocaust. In fact, this focus on Israel is what originally made me decide that the only option was to believe in G-d and His Torah. (In addition to the fact that had it not have been for the Holocaust, my grandparents would never have met and I would likely not be here, c.f. Hasid’s reference to an “‘accidental’ birth”).

    When it comes to going for drinks on Friday night, I have also never experienced the pressure because as frosh points out, I am halachically shomer Shabbos so the dilemma doesn’t occur to me. (It also helps that the people I work with in the city office tend to live far away and don’t want to hang around any longer than they have to).

    I don’t understand the focus on guilt because of what our grandparents went through. We should be actively Jewish because the gift of being a Jew and the positives it entails should inspire us. Let’s not make the darkest point in modern Jewish history the focus of our connection to our heritage, because such an approach can never last.

  • ra says:


    Interesting interpretation.

    I read the article and to be honest I didn’t take Dapin’s conclusion as being directed at us (the third generation) at all. Rather, I understood it as a reflection of the feelings of those he interviewed. Indeed the entire article seemed (to me) to be solely concerned with the feelings & emotions of the second gen, irrespective of whether such feelings were rational, irrational or even misguided.

    I don’t think it was a ‘search for the truth’ of whether in fact the third gen takes the sacrifices of their parents & grandparents for granted. Of course, many probably do, and an equal number of others probably don’t.

  • markdapin says:

    As the author of the article under discussion, I’d like to point out that I’m not, personally, suggesting anything about the third generation. What I am stating is that, as I said, “some of the second generation worry” about the issues I highlighted (or, rather, they highlighted to me). I have no opinion whatever on these point. I was simply trying to give a voice to the collective feelings of those present.
    I haven’t been at home on a Friday night for, oh, 30 years or so.

  • The Hasid says:

    Thank you for the clarification, Mark. Great to have your comment. And I humbly stand corrected!

    Though I do think the issues your interviewees raised are a… point of contention for me, I ‘spose.

    Anyway, If you ever have need to interview any opinionated grandchildren of Holocaust survivors (ahem), I can totally hook you up. And Shabbos dinner, too. Galus Australis would be delighted to have you. (Just email editorial@galusaustralis.com.)

    30 years is a long time between chicken soups.

  • Mark says:

    Where abouts can I go to read the original article???

  • The Hasid says:

    Mark — the article isn’t available for free online. I think you will have to seek out a hard copy, or perhaps a microfiche at the library?! (Bit 19th century, eh?)
    Maybe you can buy a digital copy for a small fee from the Fairfax archive…?

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