Almost 100 sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors, as well as survivors and their grandchildren, gathered at a Jewish Family Services-sponsored event at the Jewish Community Center in Paramus called “Embracing the Past to Build the Future.” The 2Gs – members of what’s called the Second Generation – came to learn about how the Holocaust shaped them and how they can help care for their aging parents.
The keynote speaker, Paula David, considered “the legacy of trauma and survival – how do we translate incredible pain, loss and grief and trauma into the next hundred years of life? For 21 years, David was the director of the respected Holocaust Resource Program at the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto and is now a professor of social work at the University of Toronto.
The goal of the conference was to offer 2Gs and their families a supportive venue at which to share their experiences. David explained that the survivors never had role models of adult children caring for their parents, so they supported each other as they all started aging at the same time. Now, she said, when they lose friends, they find the losses devastating. As the Second Generation witnesses the aging of their own parents, they realize they cannot take instruction from them. They have to find their own way and David offered guidelines and information to help them. She has written a manual on caring for aging Holocaust survivors available as a free download from http://www.baycrest.org/Publications/7609.asp.
According to David, survivor families have much to celebrate. She exploded myths about survivors and their descendants being “damaged goods” and explained that previous research was based on poor samplings focusing primarily on dysfunctional cases. She also described the survivors’ creativity in telling their stories in poems, artwork, and beautifully crafted quilts – like the one on display in the conference room.
Explaining the broad definition of a survivor, she said the designation ranged from anyone “in a work camp, death camp, or ghetto, to anyone hiding in Nazi-occupied territory, to children hidden by righteous gentiles, to the flee cases. Sixty-four years later, it doesn’t seem to make much difference where the survivors were; they faced lots of losses and survived. We don’t mention the trauma; it’s not a contest. How we honor a survivor’s losses is what matters.”
David described how the survivors at Baycrest coped with the SARS epidemic in Toronto, saying that they were better able to adapt than their families on the outside. Nevertheless, she noted that a caregiver’s obligation to every survivor is not to inflict more trauma. With survivors facing end-of-life issues, she said, adult children must tell caregivers that their parents are Holocaust survivors, inasmuch as hospitals can trigger post-traumatic stress, and doctors, nurses, and aides need to be alerted to their special status.
One of the highlights was the workshop on “Faith After the Holocaust” led by Janet R. Kirchheimer from the Center for Learning and Leadership. The lively, fascinating debate covered the spectrum from those who believe in God to those who no longer do. Her poetry, which closed the conference, resonated with those who heard her. In David’s words, “She nails it.”
Kirchheimer’s book, “How to Spot One of Us,” is available from http://www.clal.org/How_to_spot_orderform.html.
The conference was sponsored by Jewish Family Service of Bergen County in Teaneck and Jewish Family and Children’s Services of North Jersey in Wayne.