The World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants was founded in 1985 by those of us who were children during the Holocaust. Our unique experiences as child victims had never been considered, our memories were discounted, as was our understanding of the terrible losses we had suffered.
Our organization had its beginning in 1985, at an American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Dr Judith Kestenberg, a child psychiatrist who had begun world-wide interviews of people who had survived World War II as children, convened a session. There were attendees from all over the U.S. and Canada, including myself, Stefanie Seltzer. Most of us did not know each other; I certainly knew no one in the room.
Dr. Kestenberg spoke about the fact that we who had survived as children were most often not seen as survivors by the older, especially, the concentration camp survivors. I had certainly had such experiences; I had wanted to join a group of older survivors, but they looked me up and down, and said to me: “what could you possibly remember? You were only a child!” That was very hard for me; I certainly had very clear, painful memories.
A group of child survivors had been convened a few years before in Los Angeles, by Dr. Sarah Moscowitz (author of Love Despite Hate: Child Survivors of the Holocaust), who had spent two years searching for the children who had survived concentration camps and been sent to England to a home under the care of Anna Freud, the daughter of Sigmund Freud. The psychological professionals of that time had thought that these children would not be able to live independent lives, as they had never known parenting. As Sarah traveled, wherever she went and convened meetings of people who had survived as children, groups formed.
After the introduction by Dr. Kestenberg, a member of the Los Angeles group stood in front of the room and spoke: “They tell us that we cannot remember, because we were only children. But I remember how they took the children by the legs and swung their heads against the wall.”
The room went quiet—no one spoke. This was the last meeting of the day, in the old Convention Center in Philadelphia—the air-conditioning was turned off, the lights were flickering——but no one moved. I finally stood up and said “ we need to get together again.” Dr. Kestenberg answered that we could not meet alone, we had been through too much trauma, we needed to meet with a psychiatrist or psychologist. I countered “but we’re here now.” I took some sheets of paper and asked people to give me their names and phone numbers. In further conversation with Dr. Kestenberg she did give me the names and contact information of people in other cities, where groups were forming.
About 3 weeks later I had a picnic in a park near me, and 35 people came—from New York, Boston, Washington/Baltimore, and the Philadelphia/New Jersey area. Dr. Judith Kestenberg came as well as Dr. Eva Fogelman, who was already working with Dr Kestenberg. Everyone shared experiences; Michael Gleiberman, from Lancaster, PA said to me: “ we all have so much to talk about; why don’t we all get together at my hotel; I’ll give everybody a good rate over a weekend.” I thought to myself—who is going to do that? shlepp to Lancaster? But, I did not then live far from Lancaster, so I said I would try to organize something.
I contacted some of the people whose names I had and we had a first meeting of The Lancaster 18; that being the number of us who got together. I remember that I shared a room with 2 other women and we talked through the entire night. When all of us met again in the morning we decided to plan for a big gathering, about which we would spread the word.
This was before the means of mass communications; computers, cell phones, but by word of mouth the news spread. Our first large gathering was held the following year. 174 people came from Canada and throughout the USA. Everyone wanted to be able to keep in touch with each other; we were now a family. Dr. Sarah Moskowitz came with her husband Itzik who took my lists of attendees and went to Staples to make copies.
Following that wonderful get-together we were constantly on the phone with each other, discovering common experiences, even finding relatives for each other. One of the people who had come from Boston was Marika Barnett, who did have computer skills and was immensely helpful in helping us to connect with each other, to reach out and spread the word as we rapidly increased the numbers of attendees. We became a core of people who have worked together all thee years to organize our conferences.
Many of us came out of our childhoods without any support systems. No parents, siblings, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins – no one. We were sometimes sent off to distant relatives in other parts of the world who felt compelled to take us in, and in many cases we were misused, and even abused.
For decades after the war we were told we were merely children who did not really understand what had happened, or that we had not really suffered, or that our memories were inaccurate; we should forget about the past and go forward. And we did. For several decades we did not speak or identify ourselves as Holocaust survivors.
In the early 1980’s some of us were asked to participate in Holocaust remembrance activities, and in some cases to be included in audiovisual testimonies that were being conducted of “Child Survivors.” This was a new term – and a “light bulb” went on for many of us.
We began to form small groups in a number of communities worldwide, and came together to confront the loss of our childhood. We discovered a new world of possibilities, addressing our histories and speaking openly about our wounds and our scars. Together we were able to do so in a safe and understanding environment. We found others who clearly understood, made no judgments, and accepted us as “phantom siblings,” as we sometime called one another.
To bring us all together we founded the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust. We wanted to give our organization an all-inclusive name; to include all who had survived as children, regardless of the circumstances of their survival—whether in camps, via Kindertransports, in hiding, by escaping to Shanghai, Russia, Siberia. We began holding Conferences every year in cities across the U.S. and Canada, and in Amsterdam, Prague, Jerusalem, Warsaw, and yes, even Berlin. Soon we included Descendants of Survivors, as we recognized that next generations too have been deeply affected by their families’ histories.
In 2018 we are planning our 30th annual gathering, to be held in West Palm Beach, Florida, November 9th to the 12th. Each year our gatherings attract between 300 to 500 attendees who come from around the world. We look forward to seeing one another at these annual “family” reunions, and although some of us don’t see each other but once a year, we always delight in our yearly meetings. We will share, remember, explore, cry and laugh together, sing and dance, as we have done over these many years.
We, the youngest generation of survivors, mean to continue to come together with each other and with the next generations to remember, and to celebrate one another for as long as we possibly can. This 30th annual reunion will also once again serve as an opportunity to bring together our next generations to inspire and remind them about the importance of remembrance and of education about what can happen when hatred and intolerance take hold.
– Stefanie Seltzer and Daisy Miller