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Third Generation Comes of Age

Discussion in 'News, Politics & Debates' started by batgirl, Oct 20, 2007.

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    Grandchildren of Holocaust survivors acknowledge legacy, importance of preserving lessons learned from Shoah. “I’m losing my grandparents,” says Maya Groys, 32. “Who’s going to bear witness (to the Holocaust) now?”

    Jonah Firestone, 12, has nightmares about Nazis chasing him out of his house in Beachwood.

    “A big part of me wants to change the world and go to Africa and help AIDS victims,” declares Ariela Alpert, 19.

    These three young people are part of the Third Generation, a growing legion of grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. Far from shrugging off their legacy, they recognize how much their identity has been shaped by their grandparents’ experiences during World War II and its effect on their own parents. As this Third Generation matures, its members are determined to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, not only for the sake of the Jewish people, but for other oppressed minorities.

    Inheriting Legacy of Strength

    A student at Beachwood Middle School, Jonah Firestone spent hours listening to his great-grandmother Ruth Solomon describe her experiences in wartime Belgium. She hid her baby daughter Helen from the Nazis in a storage warehouse in Antwerp and later left her with a Catholic family. Eventually, Ruth and her husband, a survivor of Auschwitz, settled in Cleveland. But for years, Helen (Jonah’s grandmother) still considered her Belgian foster parents her real family. She grew up fearful of trusting anyone because of her childhood sense of abandonment and the lies she had been told by adults, albeit to protect her.

    “Sometimes the aftermath of the events is so painful it can take years to sort out the feelings involved,” says Dr. Mark Lovinger, a clinical psychologist in Beachwood, who is also the offspring of survivors. “And sometimes it just doesn’t happen.”

    It was years, for example, before Ruth Solomon could speak openly about her wartime experiences. Beset with dreams about Nazis chasing her, the University Heights seamstress slept with an ax tucked in her bedside dresser. In later years, she had recurring nightmares. During the last year of her life (she died last year at age 91), she insisted that a Nazi carrying a dead baby was living in her house.

    Like many survivors, Solomon was undoubtedly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), says Lovinger, an assistant professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. He has spent years studying the emotional ramifications of the Holocaust on family members.“Survivors often live their own interrupted life vicariously through their children.” Dr. Mark Lovinger, clinical psychologist. “For the first 20-30 years after the war, a healthy coping mechanism of denial kicks in,” he explains. “You feel resilient, and you try to put the past behind you and create a new life. But problems can surface years later because of the magnitude of the trauma. Memories can come back in the form of nightmares.”

    The dreams Solomon had were so vivid and real to her that she transmitted her distress to her children and grandchildren, Lovinger says. “To her credit, however, she was able to talk to them about her traumatic experiences.” In spite of Solomon’s problems, she left behind a legacy of strength and compassion, her family points out. “She lived on a meager income, but she collected clothes for the poor, kept a tsedakah box, helped us make lemonade stands for charity, and never passed up a request for a donation,” says Wendy Firestone, Jonah’s mom. “She found the goodness in everything.”

    “I am definitely different from other people. I am more aware of other people’s emotions and have greater awareness of not hurting them.” Firestone is a school psychologist who, like her siblings, sought out careers in the helping professions. “What is extremely important and supported by my research is how often survivors’ children (and now, their grandchildren) choose careers taking care of others,” especially in the area of mental health, says Lovinger. “You would think that after knowing about the evil and destruction their elders endured, their descendants would lose all faith in humanity. But the survivors also told stories about how they were saved by other people, even Germans. So many urged their children to become accomplished professionals and focus on helping others.”

    Jonah Firestone’s eyes well with tears as he talks about his beloved great-grandmother. “I know kids that are trying to fit in with the group, be cool, and not worry about who they really are. But the most important thing is to be true to yourself,” a lesson he says his great-grandmother taught him.

    Coping With Hypervigilance

    Ariela Alpert, a sophomore at Brandeis University, knows that every day, regular as clockwork, she’s going to get a call from her dad, Beachwood resident Marty Alpert. The only child of survivors of Dachau and Shtuthoff, Alpert says his parents were even more possessive. “I never played baseball or went skiing. When I went on the swings on the playground, my mother would hide behind the trees, watching. “Even when the doctor told my parents I should lose weight, they kept giving me more food. My parents monitored everything I did n what I wore, how long I took to do everyday things.”

    As a result, Alpert says, “I probably overcompensated as an adult, flying planes or taking a risk as an entrepreneur.” But, like his own parents, Alpert likes to keep tabs on his children. “Survivors (and their children) can become hyper-vigilant when there is a perceived threat to their own safety or to their loved ones,” says Lovinger. “They also need to be in control. They think to themselves, ‘I didn’t have control over anything n my body, my possessions, my children, my siblings. So, boy, am I going to take charge now.’

    “They take immense pride in their children,” he adds. “Their lives, their education, their own psychological development were interrupted and arrested at the point of the trauma.”

    As a result, “Survivors often live their own interrupted life vicariously through their children. They couldn’t reach their own goals, and so what they want most is to get naches from their children.” This can put extra pressure on the younger generation, because they can’t make up for losses that will never be healed, he notes.

    Marty Alpert says he tried his best to live up to his parents’ expectations, first becoming an engineer, then a physician. However, he never practiced medicine, choosing instead to get in on the ground floor of the computer industry. In 1981, he and his wife Carolyn, members of Shaarey Tikvah, started their Tecmar company and grew it into a $70 million business. To celebrate their success, the Alperts threw a party at the Arcade for nearly 1,000 employees. Although his mother was proud of her son’s achievements, she remarked, “But he’s not a (practicing) doctor.”

    Now 58, Alpert observes, “It was only a few years ago that I realized it wasn’t in my power to make my parents happy; I couldn’t make up for what they lost, no matter how much I tried.”

    Alpert’s father died two years ago, but his mother, 85, lives in her own home nearby, and her son sees her almost every day. “Some children of survivors rebel, and others want nothing to do with the Holocaust,” says Lovinger. “But many are extremely good children in the sense of being very connected and taking care of parents as they get older.”

    “My father is definitely a worrier,” says Ariela, observing how her father prepares for every scenario, even keeping a small ladder in his daughter’s bedroom so she can escape in case of fire. “I understand where he’s coming from.” In a recent article Ariela wrote for the CJN, she offered advice about addressing injustice in Darfur, Sudan, and other parts of the world. “As Jews, our legacy leaves us with an explicit obligation to fight against genocide,” she declared.

    Coping Well With Trauma

    Sarah Zaas, 18, granddaughter of Hungarian survivor Erika Gold, says that studying the Holocaust at Solon High School proved to be unexpectedly painful. In fact, she asked permission to leave class during the discussion. “I got so angry and sad about the (non-Jewish) kids who didn’t get it and obviously didn’t care.” Her eyes filling with tears, she remarks, “I won’t laugh at jokes like calling a school crossing guard a ‘Nazi.’ I don’t think it’s at all funny.”

    When Sarah and her siblings were in elementary school, her mother, Marilyn Zaas and her grandmother made a conscious decision to tell the children about the Holocaust. “We thought they were mature enough to handle it,” Zaas says.

    A few years ago, Gold began asking if her grandchildren had been traumatized by her stories about the Shoah or if she had been overprotective with her own kids. “I told her you’re no more mishuggenah than other Jewish mothers,” smiles Zaas, a member of Temple Emanu El. When she accompanied her mother to an international conference of child survivors of the Holocaust and observed how others had been affected by their parents’ experiences, Zaas realized how well her mom had dealt with the trauma. Gold had gone through the Holocaust with her own mother, “a very gutsy lady. They stuck together, and they survived together,” observes Zaas.

    “One should be careful not to identify survivors, their children and their grandchildren largely by their association with the Holocaust. It’s just a part of who they are today,” says Lovinger. “But it’s fair to say that in spite of everything the survivors suffered, most adapted amazingly well and created beautiful lives.”

    In some ways, Lovinger speculates, the Third Generation is better prepared to deal with today’s volatile world than others in their age group because of role models in their family who coped so well with trauma.

    Source: Ellen Harris, Cleveland Jewish News
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