Though they did not directly experience the horrors of the Holocaust, the children of survivors often had to make their own peace with this dark period in history. Most children knew growing up that their parents had lived through a nightmare, though many survivors refused to share more details about their experience with their children. The strain of the past took its toll on both parents and children. Survivors were forced to reconcile their own painful memories of the past while also taking on the challenge of raising a family, while their children often absorbed the emotional trauma of their parents and struggled to make meaning of their identity as quasi-survivors.
Commonly referred to as the “Second Generation,” children of the survivors often spent their childhood trying to understand their parents’ experiences in relation to their own lives. Some children of survivors were born in postwar Europe, while others were born after immigrating to countries like Israel, the United States, Canada or Australia. Their experiences in coping with their parents’ trauma, however, were much the same. Some in the Second Generation felt that they did not deserve to be happy since their parents went through such horrors. They also compared the “plenty of now” to the “scarcity of then”, questioning their material abundance and safety while still carrying a sense of not feeling secure.
Survivor guilt, which some Holocaust survivors suffer from, can also be found among the Second Generation. Those whose parents survived often questioned their own existence and wrestled with the ghosts of murdered grandparents, aunts and uncles, and in some cases, former sibling murdered during the Holocaust (see also Art Spiegelman). Sometimes, survivors who had children murdered during the war kept such information from their new families. Such secrets could mark the lives of survivor families even in the surroundings of their new homes.
Holocaust survivors may have had what is currently referred to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It can have lasting effects on both survivors and their children, perhaps even down to the increase in stress hormone cortisol, as some studies suggest. The long-term effects of the Holocaust continue to leave traces even in the third and fourth generations. For more information on children of Holocaust survivors:
Helen Epstein, Children of the Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors (Putnam, 1979)
Björn Krondorfer, Remembrance and Reconciliation: Encounters Between Young Jews and Germans (Yale University Press, 1995)