Shira Sheps remembers walking through an exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan and stumbling upon her grandmother’s long-ago school reports alongside family photos and her great-grandparents’ wedding invitation.

Sheps, 25, had known that shortly after Kristallnacht, her grandmother, Marion Achtentuch, at age 9, had left Furth, Germany, on a Kindertransport to England. Seeing personal mementos, however, of the life that had been taken from the family, as well as her grandmother’s uncanny resemblance as a young girl to Sheps’ younger sister at that age, “I freaked out,” she says.

As a child, Sheps would listen to her grandmother’s stories of a childhood lived during the eve of World War II. The stories, she says, “profoundly affected me. No matter what I do, I come back to it.”

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Marion Achtentuch, 83, with her granddaughter, Shira Sheps, 25, a social worker in Fair Lawn. Courtesy Shira Sheps

A social worker in Fair Lawn who is pursuing her master’s degree at the Hunter College School of Social Work in New York, Sheps has spent the past several years researching and studying the effects of intergenerational trauma.

“It gives me an excuse, gives meaning to [my studies]. It’s a fixation,” she said in an interview a few days before Yom Hashoah, which this year began on Wednesday evening. “I’m bearing witness. I’m doing what I was taught for the purpose of remembering.”

She is among the many grandchildren of Shoah survivors – often referred to as the Third Generation – who feel an obligation to share memories of the Holocaust.

The bond that many in the Third Generation have with their grandparents has been noted by psychologists and researchers who have studied the effect of the Shoah on families.

For many survivors, it was easier to share their experiences with their grandchildren than with their children, says Peppy Margolis, director of the Institute of Genocide and Holocaust Studies at Raritan Valley Community College, who recently produced a 30-minute documentary titled “The Second Generation: Ripples from the Holocaust.”

Through the dozens of interviews she conducted, Margolis says she found that for survivors in general, the Shoah was “too close” and “many were still processing what had happened and burying the pain in their work and raising their children.”

Their experiences also left many ill equipped to be parents, adds Margolis, herself a child of Shoah survivors. “But the majority talked to their grandchildren and not with the same pain and bitterness; enough time has passed and it’s not as traumatic.”

While her film explores what it means to be a member of the Second Generation and to grow up with a parent who lived through the Nazi atrocities and World War II, she says it also has helped those of the Third Generation to better understand their own parents.

Although his grandfather died before he was born, Aaron Biterman, 29, says the experience of living in a home with a parent suffering from the trauma of surviving the Nazi death camps took a toll on his father and aunt. His grandfather never talked about the Shoah because he was so traumatized, Biterman recalls his father telling him.

“He lived, but wasn’t living,” Biterman, a fundraiser in Arlington, Va., says of the grandfather he never met.

His grandmother survived the Shoah in Poland and for many years was not eager to share her experiences. Yet after she retired, says Biterman, she began to open up. Eventually, she recorded her story with Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation and began speaking to student groups.

Biterman’s desire “to connect with my family history and to my story” was only strengthened by knowing that his father grew up in a home “where something was the matter.” In 2006, he began a Facebook group for grandchildren of the Shoah that today has more than 2,000 friends. “It’s just a network to organize, ask questions, get answers, and educate others,” he says.

Education is the key for the Third Generation. “It is important that the past not be forgotten,” Biterman says.

JTA Wire Service