'My childhood was ruined by the trauma of the Nazi death camps. Now I want compensation'

Edna Noy's parents survived the Nazi death camps but her childhood was ruined. Now she, and thousands like her, are seeking compensation
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The Independent Online

One of Edna Noy's earliest memories is of tiptoeing into a room where her mother was taking an afternoon nap and helping herself to a sweet from a jar on the dining-room table. Some of the hard sweets spilt out of the jar and clattered on to the table awakening her mother.

She got up, shook Noy hard and screamed: "What on earth do you think you're doing?"

Noy, now 57, who lives in Israel, could not understand why spilling a few sweets had elicited such an extreme reaction. It was only years later that she understood that her mother, like her father, a Holocaust survivor, had nightmares about the Nazi death camps every time she closed her eyes. One such nightmare was still vividly with her when she jumped up and shouted at Noy.

Noy moved through her childhood very aware of the horrors of the Holocaust that her parents had survived, but it wasn't until she was 22 years old and having therapy that she began to understand how her parents' terrible experience had affected their attitude towards her. Her father lost his wife and two children in the camps, and after he married her mother, her mother lost two babies. She was the first one to survive.

"I was my dad's fifth child and my mum's third and for both the only one who survived. They wanted to rebuild their lives with the birth of a child. They named me Edna, taken from the Biblical word for rejuvenation used in the story of Abraham's wife Sarah, who is visited by three angels and told that although she is in her 1990s she is going to have a child. "Are you telling me I'm rejuvenated?" Sarah asked the angels.

Being so precious to your parents can put an enormous strain on a child, she says. "After what they'd been through my parents so, so wanted me to lead an anguish-free life but unfortunately I have absorbed all their anguish, all their pain."

Her parents were excessively protective of her and she felt an obligation to be successful in life to try to repay them for their love. She was successful, doing well academically and becoming a TV presenter, but didn't understand why she was so miserable and dislocated from the outwardly happy life she was leading, combining her career with a husband and three children. Therapy, she says, helped her to gain a sense of her true identity, to understand her role in her parents' lives and to decipher the painful emotions she was experiencing.

Israeli lawyer Gideon Fisher, himself a child of Holocaust survivors, has launched a class action against the German government to provide therapy for the children of Holocaust survivors who, he argues, are psychologically damaged by their parents' experiences in the camps. There are more than a million people worldwide who are children of Holocaust survivors. Thousands of people have approached Fisher to take part in the class action. Many live in Israel but others live in various European countries, in North and South America, Australia and South Africa. The lawsuit is not asking for financial compensation from the German government but is requesting that they pay therapists who can treat the damaged descendants of Holocaust survivors. It is the first action of its kind and it is hoped that if it succeeds it can be used as a template for many other children whose parents have survived traumatic events around the world.

"It is time to bring out the scream of the second generation who carry in their souls the scars and to acknowledge the fact that they too are Holocaust victims," says Fisher.

Various problems have been identified in the second generation ranging from depression to guilt, low self-esteem and the burden of trying to compensate their parents. Often their parents perceived the outside world as dangerous and their fears and anxieties dominated the household when the children were growing up. Papers filed to the court refer to a "deformed" relationship between the plaintiffs and their parents.

Specific problems identified in children include eating disorders, fear of dogs, persistent melancholy and self-imposed seclusion. One of the claimants was repeatedly chastised by her mother for looking Semitic and was told to keep on washing her hands and face in the hope of making her skin look lighter. Another is scared to get on a bus because it reminds her of the trains that her parents and other Jews were sent to concentration camps in.

Psychiatrist Professor Shmuel Fennig, an expert witness in the case, says that trans-generational transfer of trauma is a recognised condition and not one which is unique to Holocaust survivors.

"Not all of the second generation are damaged, but those who are have problems separating from their parents. Sometimes, the children feel like candles in memoriam to their parents. Therapy can help to give them the courage they need to separate psychologically."

Esti Eliraz, 58, is also part of the class action. Both her parents survived Auschwitz and fled to Israel, where she was born. She was a very thin child and her parents, terrified of ever starving again, hoarded bread in the freezer and fed her obsessively until she became very fat. Her parents are both dead now. "The main focuses of my childhood were my parents making sure there was enough food and simply existing."

She says that her father in particular found it very hard to show love and emotion towards her and her brother. "He taught us never to cry in front of others but always to smile so that no one would understand or see our true feelings. He never hugged me or kissed me or tucked me up in bed. I was a successful opera singer but he never came to hear me in a concert.

"He never talked about the war but each year on Holocaust Memorial Day he used to scream and yell and cry far into the night."

She hopes that if the class action is successful she will be able to embark on a course of therapy which she cannot afford to pay for herself. "I have no self-confidence and go to sleep feeling I'm not worthwhile. I hope that with therapy I can change."

While Noy says that children of Holocaust survivors like her have suffered greatly, she also believes that her generation is well placed to help other children around the world whose parents survived terrible things.

"What happened in the Holocaust is unfathomable but so many atrocities are happening right now. The second generation should be there to help refugees all over the world. That should be our contribution."