The Holocaust was my parents' defining story

From a speech by the Holocaust writer Helen Epstein at the Remembering for the Future 2000 conference, in London

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I was born in Prague in 1947 to a man and a woman who were the only survivors of their families. Before the Holocaust, my parents were fairly typical 20th-century Czech Jews. They belonged to families. Those families had lived in what is now the Czech Republic for several centuries. My mother was a dress designer; my father was a water-polo player and swimming coach. He played for the national Czechoslovak team in many international competitions, including the Berlin Olympics of 1936.

I was born in Prague in 1947 to a man and a woman who were the only survivors of their families. Before the Holocaust, my parents were fairly typical 20th-century Czech Jews. They belonged to families. Those families had lived in what is now the Czech Republic for several centuries. My mother was a dress designer; my father was a water-polo player and swimming coach. He played for the national Czechoslovak team in many international competitions, including the Berlin Olympics of 1936.

Not long after those Olympic Games, the Czech lands became part of the Third Reich. My father, who had formerly reported to his military garrison of Terezin as a lieutenant in the Czechoslovak Army, was now deported to the concentration camp of Theresienstadt as a Jew. My mother's parents were deported to the East and shot in an open ditch outside the city of Riga. My father's parents and brothers were gassed at Auschwitz. My mother and father themselves passed through Auschwitz and were sent on to slave-labour camps. Each returned to Prague in 1945 alone.

The Holocaust changed my parents' lives forever. It became their defining story and it would become part of my own. Unlike survivors, who were born into a world that was whole and saw it torn apart, the second generation was born into a world in pieces.

My family fled to the United States after the Communist coup of 1948, and I grew up with no grandparents or aunts or uncles since all had been killed during the war. Almost all of the adults we knew were Central Europeans who had either been displaced or imprisoned, injured, thrown out of their professions. My godfather, a journalist, was one of the first Czechs to be arrested by the Nazis. Although he was not Jewish, he had spent six years in a concentration camp. My godmother hid a Jewish child during the war. From early childhood, I was surrounded by people who had grappled with practical questions of life and death and ethical conduct.

It was no wonder that when I wrote my first book, it was Children of the Holocaust. In it, I examined the psychological consequences of growing up in a family whose members have been murdered, and whose community has been eradicated. I described parents struggling to raise normal families, repressing their memories of a traumatic past or trying to reconcile that past with a challenging present.

Some survivors determined that their children would not be as vulnerable as they themselves had been. They took on new names, new identities and new religions, or chose to be entirely silent about their pasts: to transmit no history to their children.

The majority of survivors, however, remained identified as Jews. They struggled to integrate their war experience into their identity as human beings. Some were unable to maintain their religious belief. Others embraced it even more fervently. Some joined survivor organisations or socialised with other survivors. They talked to their children about their war experiences to varying degrees, conveying a complex mix of anger, suffering, fear, guilt, and pride. Many named their children after relatives who had been murdered by the Nazis. Many hoped that these children would somehow redeem the lives of those who had been murdered.

Their children also responded in a wide variety of ways, ranging from denying their Jewish identity on the one extreme to taking on their status as second-generation survivors as a kind of mission. Members of the second generation are represented everywhere on the political spectrum. It appears that a very large percentage of children of survivors went into the helping professions or into the public-service sector of such fields as psychology or law. The one generalisation I am prepared to make is that the second generation was marked as a group by their parents' experience.

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