How are we doing? An overview from the Second Generation

Plenary Session
Child Survivor Conference
August 26, 2006
Detroit, Michigan

Charles Silow, PhD

My name is Charley Silow and I am a child of survivors. First of all I want to say that I feel honored to address you all this afternoon. I would like to add my comments to our esteemed panelists regarding how we the second generation are doing.
Let me begin by saying that every child of survivor is a unique individual. We are all different and distinct human beings. We must always be cautious whenever we speak about populations as a whole, we must always remember that there will be differences.

Let me first say that when survivors of the Holocaust come together, they invariably will talk about their experiences in the Holocaust. Interestingly, I have noticed that a similar phenomenon takes place amongst children of survivors. When we children of survivors come together and speak deeply about ourselves, we invariably will talk about the experiences that our parents’ went though. Even though we did not go through the Holocaust directly, (thank God), it is as though our parents experiences are our experiences.

The Holocaust was so powerful, so horrific, so enormous, and so overwhelming, its reverberations have continued through today, over 60 years later. The Holocaust affected our parents so enormously; many were shattered by their overwhelming personal losses and tragedies. Survivors however are also very resilient. After the tragedies of the Holocaust, survivors were able to build new lives in new lands.

As a microcosm for many others, I would like to speak about experiences as a child of survivors. My parents are from Lodz, Poland. My mother survived the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen. My father was able to flee Poland to Russia. I grew up with no family to speak of, only my parents lived in the United States. The few distant remaining relatives live in Israel and Belgium.

As a child of survivors, I knew the Holocaust. At the Seder, my father would turn to me and ask how come there was not a holiday to remember the Holocaust. Why do we remember just the slavery in Egypt, that what my mother went through was much worse than Egypt? And why didn’t God bring plagues to stop the Holocaust. At the Passover Seder, we answer questions. In my adult years as I think about my father’s question, I recognize that there is no real answer. However, there is something, an observation perhaps. The nightmare of the slavery and persecution of the Jewish people in Egypt did end; the nightmare of the slavery and persecution of the Jewish people during the Holocaust also eventually ended. The Jewish people survived, we are here, “mir zeinen du.”

As a child of survivors growing up, as many of my peers have also experienced, I felt a sense of different-ness from my American friends. My parents were older than my friends’ parents and my parents spoke with an accent.

In 1979, I read Helen Epstein’s book “Children of the Holocaust,” I attended the Zachor conference in New York and met children of survivors from Boston, New York and Chicago and a light came on. I came home inspired and started with others, our children of survivor’s organization called CHAIM-Children of Holocaust Survivors Association In Michigan. For the past 26 years, CHAIM has had support groups, a variety of educational forums on the Holocaust, has raised money to help survivor causes, and very importantly has developed a community of friendships.

Professionally, as a psychologist, I now have the privilege to work with survivors and children of survivors. Here in Detroit we have developed a comprehensive psychosocial program, through the Jewish Home and Aging Services, to especially help survivors as they age.

Together with our second-generation organization, CHAIM, we are involved in a project called Portraits of Honor: Michigan’s Holocaust Survivors in which we photograph and interview survivors for purposes of education and posterity. Also we are involved in a friendly visitor for survivors that we call Yad B’Yad, “Hand in Hand” in which we visit survivors and provide companionship and friendship. Through my work with survivors, I have developed a new perspective about survivors as real people. Through my contacts with children of survivors, I have developed a new perspective about the second generation. I would like to focus on the second generation, the children of survivors. First of all, we children of survivors are not children. We are adults. Many of us, who are the descendants of the older survivors, are, relatively speaking, older ourselves. Many of us are married and have children. Some of us are even grandparents. We’re not kids anymore.

For so long, many of us have struggled with our parents’ issues and how the Holocaust has affected them as well as on ourselves. Many of us have dealt with our frustrations about some of our parents’ issues. We have tried to forge ahead with life. We are now older and so too are our parents. As we have become parents ourselves, we have hopefully grown. We have grown and as such, have tried to make peace with them.

Many of us are at a point now in our lives where we watch are parents become more frail and we recognize that they need our help. We recognize that we must parent our parents and that we become their “tatelehs” and “mamelas”. We recognize a new responsibility as second generation, that we must be advocates for them as individuals and as a whole. We are fluent in English and in how systems work, and we must use our knowledge to help them as they age. We are at a point in their lives where we see our parents passing away. Many of us are at a point where we must learn to say good-bye.

The torch is being passed to us whether we like it or not. We are now adults and we must act on it. We have what is commonly referred to as the Legacy. We must carry on their stories for the future. We must carry on the messages of the Holocaust and become educators. As it becomes more difficult for them to speak, we must speak for them. We must speak for our relatives who perished in the Holocaust and we must not forget them. If we do not speak for them, then who will?

And we must do everything in our power to ensure the preservation and the continuation of the Jewish people. Anti-Semitism seems to be one the rise; and once again, fanatics and fanatacism are threatening the Jewish people. We must do all that we can to help and support the state of Israel to survive.

And lastly I believe we must channel our goodness and our creativity to help create a better and loving world.

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