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Krzysztof Szwajca

The Question of Identity in Children of the Survivors of the Holocaust

       The second generation of survivors of the Holocaust face the problem of how to overcome the feelings of shame, inferiority, and secrecy that surrounds their lives and the image they project. They have to overcome anxiety, and may have divided loyalties to parents who have social, cultural or religious conflicts with each other.

       I always wished that you would admire my starvation. Said the starveling...
So we do! Said the Porter politely.
Really you shouldn't admire it. Said the Starveling
All right, we will not admire it - said the porter - but why shouldn't we?
Because I have to starve, I cannot do otherwise. Said the starveling
See, see! Why is it so? Asked the Porter.
Because! Said the Starveling, lifting his head and speaking right into the ear of the Porter, his lips pouting like a kiss. Because I didn't find a meal that I would like to eat. If I did find it, I would not try to make a fuss, but I would eat it like everyone else.
Franz Kafka,The Starveling


       I would like to tell a story about people who do not exist. They are not significant in the results of the population Census;, they are not a problem for social and health care institutions, nor for public administration. In the whole of Poland they constitute a very small group - less than those who are afflicted with rare and exotic diseases. No one knows how many there are or what criteria are needed in order to count them. There might be dozens or hundreds of them.

       This small group pf people are the children of the children who survived the Holocaust. I am one of them. I am also a psychiatrist and therapist participating in the a scientific programme of studies under the guidance of Professor Maria Orwid who is my mentor and an authority on the subject. When I was thinking about how to approach this subject, I came to the conclusion that the most honest approach would be base it on my own experience. It is difficult for me to be an objective scientist, a cold observer who describes symptoms and tries to understand the mechanism of their origins.

       There are numerous scientific papers concerned with the so-called second generation of survivors of the Holocaust, but there is something missing in all of them. Perhaps Woody Allen had a point when he said "We can locate erogenous parts of your body, but what about the dybbuk?" Those who are dead but do not want to die are not very visible under the scrutiny of modern scientific tools.




       Stories about life after the Holocaust are laconic, unfinished and sparsely drafted. This is a typical ending of the story told by one survivor: "when I received my degree, I got married and went to live in Silesia where I worked as an economist in an industrial enterprise. I have two wonder ful daughters, also with degrees, and four grandchildren. In 1995 was divorced... I retired in 1992..." This is a strange, shy ending to a story about what really matters, what maybe interesting to others, and what might be a testimony that forms part of history of mankind. And yet that incomplete story has something to say, its historical, educational and ethical value is justified. Hanna Krall writes "the stories told by 'Others', those who survived, have their beginning, middle and ending. For them, the ending is astonishing: they are alive. The stories told by children and grandchildren have no middle and no beginning. They end where they should begin; speaking honestly, they are not stories at all..."

       In my professional life, I am familiar with the more or less detailed stories of people with a similar background to my own. These stories are known to me from my participation in group therapy for the second generation of survivors conducted by Prof. Orvid since 1997. The stories of people who attended the meetings only once are often very short, but there is also a large group of people who participated significantly and whose emotions and life stories I know well. I am familiar with the transcripts of very detailed interviews with twenty survivors and their children, conducted by Prof. Orwid and her team in 1990 -1992. I also have friends who, like myself, have one parent who is a survivor of Holocaust ...

       If I were to create a profile of the child of Holocaust survivor, it would be of someone just over 40 years old, possessing university degree (80% of this group are graduates, while the national average for this age group is 7-10%). This person would live in Warsaw, Kracow or in one of the small towns in the south of Poland, and would not be a member of any of the Jewish organisations... He or she would not have a very stable personal life: among the participants of the therapy group, about a third had never had a formal relationship, a third were divorced, and only a third remained married. Research conducted ten years ago on 30 year-olds found that only half them had married; in comparison with the population as whole, they had children less often and were more likely to have only one child. Those I know personally usually come from mixed marriages when it is most likely that the mother is Jewish and survived as a child. The mother's origins, and her experience during the War, were surrounded by secrecy and the children were brought up with a Polish identity. In many cases, the children were brought up in the Catholic religion. Mostly, breaking the taboo of them being Jewish occurred during adolescence but sometimes happened later in adulthood.

       There were several obstacles to forming a Jewish identity:
- it is understandable that survivors were middle class children, who were educated between the two World Wars and had leanings toward Polish culture, living on the borders of the Jewish and Polish worlds;
- in the waves of post-war emigration from Poland, those who left had a Jewish identity, with the exception of the enforced immigration of 1968-69, when people who considered themselves to be Polish did not fulfil racial criteria;
- those who stayed in Poland survived as very young children and had no memories of real Jewish religious customs and rites;
- those who survived the Holocaust attempted to construct a new life for themselves, often intentionally were cutting their Jewish ties. They were seeking something other than ethnic identity, trying to blend with Polish society, and entering marriages with Christian partners;
- after 1968, the opportunities for a functioning Jewish community were extremely difficult; the Jewish population was decimated, not only in terms of numbers but also (since the 1940s) by a gradual loss of autonomy and the possibility of developing an active Jewish life;
- between 1968 and the 1980s the Jewish question was not part of public debate, except in articles of an anti-Semitic character. It was impossible to "learn how to be a Jew".

       Without risking over-simplification, the people I describe - their identity, culture, historical continuity, sense of togetherness, and even religion - were Polish. In such a context, surrounded by fear, tension and secrecy, came the revelation of the closest relative's experience of the Holocaust. This information was revealed during adolescence, at the age of a normal crisis of identity when an adolescent asks the question, "who am I?" The new information had extremely meaningful implications... It could be accepted, rejected or negated; the people I talked to usually chose the first option, but that choice was neither simple nor obvious.

       What happened to me and to other fifteen and sixteen year olds, when they learned the secret? We had a very personal response towards the mass murders - the millions of gassed and starved were telling us something. Among the dead were our grandparents and uncles; the relatives whose absence in our lives we had always missed. When we found them we did so with many unanswered questions.




Do they demand anything from us?
       What do we have to do to show our loyalty? They died because they were Jews, should I become one? How can I become a Jew? What does it mean to be a Jew? Nobody close to us knew the answer - maybe nobody knew. You could not discuss these questions because this is a subject nobody talks about... Why is this topic a secret, why is it shameful? You could not say the word "Jew" and sound neutral: in general, you do not use this word on social occasions, there is something insulting about the word, this one syllable is spoken more softly or louder than other words - artificially. Faster or slower than other words, the word breaks sentences and grates in the mouth: "do not be a Jew" means do not be mean, do not be an egoist, lend me money for ice-cream or a crayon.

¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†The diminutive of Jew (in Polish, "Ňľydek") is not the same as the diminutive of cat - "kitten"; to say "Ňľydek" sounds condescending, deprecating, or contemptuous. Perhaps there are other expressions - "Israelite", "a believer in the teaching of Moses", "an adept of the Old Testament" - but these are anachronisms that are unnatural and do not lend themselves to the present reality where identity is not defined by religion.

       How, then, can I describe myself: that my mother is of Jewish extraction? Or rather, how do I think of myself since I cannot talk about it? My parents cared about the silence. They wanted to protect us, but from what? Why isthis dangerous?Is everyone around us anti-Semitic? Can it happened again?

       And who were the perpetrators - Germans, Nazis, ideologists, civil servants, people? Whom do we hate - do we need to hate? Whom do we fear? Why are we so much disliked or rather why are they, the Jews, so disliked? If everyone dislikes them, there must a reason. But what? Why am I ashamed of it? I feel as if I am betraying my ancestors; I am ashamed to be ashamed. I feel guilty because I was not nice enough to the parent who survived. I feel guilty and wronged. Why did my parent do it to me? Why did he hide this from me and why does continue to make sacrifices and still protect me? Why is he still afraid and why did he contaminate me with this fear? I now know the answer and I cannot blame him.

       Why did my relatives go like sheep to their doom? Why did they not fight? I know so much about the heroic resistance of the Polish people, of the uprising in Warsaw, the child couriers, the nurses. Why did they (the Jews) die a less heroic death? What did they feel in gas chambers? What did they feel before, what did they believe in, what was their work, what kind of people were they, what were their names? Why does nobody remember them?

       Perhaps some detail is remembered: glasses, a long nose, a wavering step, but no photographs? Why were they not helped? Of course, the Poles were helpful, they were hiding them, they sacrificed their safety: or should I say "we" helped, or hid, or sacrificed... If that is so, what does betrayer ("szmalcownik") mean? Why do we talk about them only at home? Are they also Polish? Maybe they are Volksdeutschen or Ukrainians? What did my father do when the Germans were killing my mother? They were not successful and my father was only a child then but about his father. Was this important to my grandfather? Why is this not important anymore? Am I the only one in the world torn in half?

Is this about me? Kafka says "you are not from the Castle, you are not from the village, you are nobody?". We looked on with indifference when they were being killed and maybe they looked at us the same way when we were being murdered? Can I talk about it with my girlfriend - and what if she is frightened by such stories? What if she does not understand? She will certainly not understand. Can I be close to her if I do not tell her about it? How can I tell her if I do not have the vocabulary? Why we/them presently occupy Palestine? Are we/them the same as Nazis? Who am I? Why is it so important to me and how can I free myself?

Some people succeed. These are old stories why do we have to bother with ancient history; life goes on; Mother stop telling me again about the grandfather. But, to quote Wieslawa Szymborska:

"I choose to discard, there is no other way
but what I discard is larger,
thicker, more exigent than ever before"


       One becomes an engineer, gets married in church, becomes a Pole. What is thick and exigent is hidden deeply at the back of ones head. Philip Roth wrote: " Well, the Jew that runs away never runs away totally"... He runs away from thousands of questions. He minimizes, separates himself, simplifies. Maybe forgets. Sometimes he returns to these questions after many years; they seem easier to answer now...

       We live now in a civil society, with a free flow of information, huge debates about national mythology and a genuine interest in Jewish culture. The questions I have been asking were important to us in the 70s and 80s, in a sombre country, flooded with state propaganda where many thousands of Jews were forced to leave... I remember Press reports of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict comparing Israel to the Nazis. The land acquired by Israel during the 1967 war was continually called "the Occupied Territories ", and Israel was presented as a brutal aggressor.

       Jews were hardly mentioned. An article in a popular women's magazine reported that 70% of the prostitutes in pre-War Warsaw were Jewish. Then, in the second part of the 80s, I started writing the names of great scientists, writers and other creative people of Jewish origin among intimate personal notes in my school jotter... I quickly filled many pages.

       In my quest, I was drifting closer to Jewish history, culture and religion... While I became familiar with Jewish luminaries from the past and present, my encounters with those who were murdered was the most difficult and painful. All the time I was fighting a temptation to run away from them; I knew already how to avoid them... Marek Edelman in conversation with Hanna Krall talks about two kinds of death: Polish partisan death and Jewish death in the ghettos: the first, "beautiful life and beautiful death. Truly beautiful life and truly beautiful death. Truly aesthetic death; that is how one should die - but only beautiful and luminous people die like that. The dark and ugly die unattractively: in fear and darkness (...) The dark and ugly lie, weak from hunger, on damp bedding, starving and waiting...".

       My family history illustrates this division; different deaths and different histories. I am the bearer of these divisions.

       My father is a Catholic and comes from a village near Cracow, from a family with patriotic traditions. My father's stories are like a lens, embracing the most important events in recent Polish history. His brothers were members of Polish underground army - the Armia Krajowa, and my father at fourteen years old was guiding the guards, hiding ammunition and, during the time of Russian Offensive, sabotaging the defences the Germans were building around Cracow. When discovered, he was nearly shot. The bravest of the brothers did not hand in his weapons, declared his allegiance to the Polish Government in Exile, and had to flee from the Communist intelligence police. For many years, my father's stories were my only link to the past. They were dear to my heart, I was proud of them. They were clear, full of heroism, sacrifice and patriotism. They were "easy" and necessary to an adolescent who grew up on movies describing the glorious past of powerful Poland and the heroic fight of her sons for the independence of their fatherland.

       My mother and grandmother were silent about the past for a long time . As the time passed I learned about her father when an image of a good, honest man emerged. He was just and kind, tender and sensitive, and always ready to help others. He perished in Auschwitz. He died tormented, humiliated, degraded and in darkness. Once a year on the Catholic holiday of All Souls Day, for as long as I remember, we went to Auschwitz. Among the heap of luggage belonging to the dead, there was the suitcase of my grandfather, the only souvenir left. I hated those visits to the death camp. I could not cope with my imaginings and emotions and could not suppress my feelings. When I found out that all my Jewish family had perished in ghettos and death camps, suffering a dark Jewish death, I had to make an enormous effort to assimilate this knowledge. When I did, my feelings became those of great respect.




       The problem of identity for the second generation of the survivors of the Holocaust may be resolved in several ways. One has to overcome the feeling of shame and inferiority, come to terms with secrets, find a way of presenting oneself , overcome anxiety, and learn to be loyal to both parents, even when those loyalties are conflicting. In this jungle of unclear and conflicting emotions, many solutions are possible. One is to find people of similar experience, sharing the experience and finding a common denominator for that generation. In other words, making a coherent story out of the experience. This is what I tried to do it four years ago when I published a paper in a Jewish periodical "Midrasz"...

       We are different and because of that we are lonely. There is no place for us to feel at home. From the moment we are born we are different: we did not have aunts, grandmothers, or large families. One of our parents did not speak of the past, of the war years and families. At home we lived in an atmosphere of anxiety, worry and silences rather than joy and laughter. There were arguments and conflicts between our parents. We loved both but they were often silent and on the opposite side of an abyss. We were closer to the parent who nervous and sad; in time we learned to ask questions.

       Our parents loved us dearly, but they worried about us and we worried about them. They were upset, or overexcited and sad, and we too were anxious. We were frightened and afraid to part with mother and father when we had to go to nursery. We did not have many friends - the world outside home was dangerous and threatening. We were carrying secrets but we did not know them. When we were growing up, we asked questions, and were coming closer to unravelling the mystery. Then, one day, the taboo burst and we knew. This was the time of our adolescence. It became obvious that our mother or father were Jewish (very rarely both; generally we come from mixed marriages). They had lived through the hell of annihilation and told us about it. We got to know the exotic names of members of their families and the suffering they had endured.

       Nothing was the same any more. We felt guilty toward our parents and wanted to take care of them. We came straight home from school and we had good grades, but somehow they were not satisfied. They concentrated on us: we were the centre of their world and we lived under the weight of their exaggerated expectations. We marry less often and later, and experience difficulties in forming deeper relationships... When we decide to have children, like our parents, we concentrate on them, their health, their school achievements, and their futures...

       We have split identity. We do not always want to, but mostly we do not know how to define our religion or nationality. We are well educated, we have careers, we succeed, and it seems that we function very well, but we are not happy. We even doubt if we have the right to be happy. What is most painful is that we hide these problems very deeply and feel that we cannot communicate with those who did not share our experience. We have these problems because we have learned to hide secrets. We live in emotional chaos, looking for something with which we can identify even if we do not entirely understand ourselves.


       When, four years ago, I gathered information from the children of survivors and had a broad picture of their experience, I became excited about the similarity of our perception of the world - family relations, sensitivities and idiosyncrasies. These were different people linked by one essential event: the Holocaust. This discovery brought me a real sense of relief and with delight I started using the dangerous word "we". I was no longer unusual, lonely and different, and in my loneliness and particularity I had found soul-mates. I had found an answer to the question posed by Pablo Neruda: "does what happens to me also happen to others: are the others the same as me?" However, the fact that "others are the same as me" is not a very optimistic prospect. The interaction within post-Holocaust families, the revelation of the burden of experience from many years before, public debate in the press, statements on city walls and daily exchanges on street corners, crystallized and clarified the difficult emotions of the generation previous to mine. They felt anxiety, anger, resentment and unfairness.

       This discovery about our families brought a new worry that I would like to express by quoting Imre Kartesz: "To no end she is seeking false explanations and complicated justifications. She is Jewish for one and only reason and nothing else, the fact that she was not in Auschwitz".

       Am I a Jew because I was not in Auschwitz? Am I a Jew at all? Should I be a Jew because I was not in Auschwitz? Do I want to be a Jew?

       To put it simply, perhaps even oversimplifying greatly, I think of myself as being Jewish. I am, of course, also a Pole. I do not think these are mutually exclusive categories. I am a Pole by the nature of things, it was given to me, I did not reject it and to this day I feel more natural in my Polishness than my Jewishness - which I chose although without knowledge of Yiddish, or Hebrew, and with a lack of religion. In spite of all that I think I had the right to choose.

       When I was twenty years old, I read a story by Eli Wiesel, about a Marrano who lived in Saragossa... A small piece of parchment written in Hebrew was passed from father to son in his family for four hundred years. On it was written, "I, Moses, son of Abraham, forced to abandon the ties with my people and my faith, leave these words to the children of my children and their children, until the day when Israel will again walk with head raised high, without fear, without guilty conscience, so that they will know where their roots are". These are the words of a Spanish Jew in the fifteenth century who converted to Christianity to avoid persecution. Elie Wiesel met a man in Jerusalem to whom this message was addressed; the Spaniard and his family converted to Judaism as instructed in the missive.

       My grandfather, with his family and the family of my grandmother, died because he was a Jew. I cannot forget that. The refusal to forget is my choice.

       When I encounter a Pole, who is a Pole like me, I say: "I am a Jew". This is much simpler than using all the other definitions such as 'Pole of Jewish extraction', 'Polish Jew', 'Jew of Polish extraction' ... etc. I do not want to bother anymore with finding the right formula. I am grateful that my ethnic identity is not painful; I am proud of my Jewishness... Philip Roth wrote about being a Jew: "it is a complicated experience, interesting, morally binding, and quite extraordinary and as such suits me very well...".




       I am embarrassed and ashamed that I am not a proper Jew. My secular Judaism can be questioned. But I do not know how and perhaps do not want to know how to practice Judaism. This a problem for many people with a similar experience to mine. I quote from the article published in 2000 by Professor Orwid and her team :

"For the group of people we work with, the choice of religion, the decision whether to practice Christianity, Catholicism, or Judaism is fundamental to solving their problem of identity. They feel alienated among Jews, because they are not quite believers, because they are not fully committed to Judaism or are not committed at all... They do not want or they do not know how to become believers if we can put it this way."

       There is a visible trend in Poland among second generation intellectuals, particularly in Warsaw, to identify being Jewish with practising and knowing the principles of Jewish religion. It poses a very sharp and urgent dilemma for our group.

       My Polish identity is doing well, but my movement toward Jewish identity has undergone re-evaluation. I soon understood that there is not one history - there are many histories and the heroes of one become the demons of the other. Very quickly, for my small personal use I had to deconstruct a certain model of the history of my country. I did not perceive the history which inspires the love of country, creates a beautiful myth and warms your heart as something I could accept. Soon after the end of the War, in the church where my father went to pray, a commemorative plaque was hung to honour the soldiers of the National Army. I knew even then that the soldiers of this Army killed Jews, and that their views about Poland were foreign and even abhorrent to me... They were not my heroes. I had already lost my faith, but I also felt that it was difficult for me to participate in these collective emotions; that my background made me different. This oppressive feeling of alienation is still with me. There are, however, areas where I do feel "at home". This feeling is not spontaneous or instinctive, and it is always a difficult choice needing hard work to overcome fear and anxiety. Knowledge of the destructiveness of stereotyping and simplifications, and an understanding the meaning of propaganda and prejudice, mean that I have gained from the Holocaust a resistance to xenophobia, nationalism and racism. For that I am grateful. I find my place in life with people who are socially responsible and sensitive and who are interested in others. I do not think that I am better than others - I do not rush to India to help those who beg. What it does mean is that I have rejected ideas and beliefs which would make me feel ashamed when I looked back at my life.

       I am sorry that I have spoken so much about myself. My choices and experiences are within the spectrum of people with a similar background to mine. I know people who have chosen an orthodox religious way of life in Israel and in Poland... I also know people who have chosen Catholicism, defining themselves as Polish and refuting even the most subtle allusions to their "Jewishness", while still having a need to belong to a group of people whose parents were the victims of Holocaust. I have already mentioned a group of people who totally reject any part of their history which has to do with the Holocaust. Between these extremes there is a group with a mixed identity, composite, altered and dual. This group is contemplating its identity, does not rely on established models, and does not seek short cuts. It is not the worst way to live one's life,
"The bodies of the dead are still in the cellar"
[Hans Magnus Enzensberger]



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