By: Candice Leigh Helfand, Staff Writer


At Monroe forum, children of Holocaust survivors share their experiences of growing up

When she was still young, Toby Kansagor learned about the life her parents had before she was born, that they both had other spouses and other children. She also learned that most of them were dead, killed in the Holocaust.

“At first, my mother brought me up thinking that my sister was actually going to show up sometime, and she really did seem to want me to believe that. And as an only child, I wanted to believe it, too. I really, really wanted to have a sibling like other people had. About 12 to 15 years ago, I actually found out that my sister had been murdered in front of my mother.”

Ms. Kansagor, a social studies supervisor for kindergarten through 12th grade and REACH supervisor for the Hillsborough School District, is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. On Tuesday, she and several other children of survivors shared their stories at the Monroe Township Public Library.

In all, four children of survivors including Ms. Kansagor, now adults, gathered to talk to a group of about 60 people, many of whom were survivors, and many others who were children of survivors.

The atrocities suffered by those forced into the camps are still remembered today by many all over the world, but are especially emblazoned in the memories and thoughts of the children of Holocaust survivors.

The guests spoke about what it was like growing up as part of the “second generation” as they termed it.

The consensus was that their lives, their memories and their perceptions of people and the world around them, as a result of the ordeals their parents and extended family suffered, would be forever different from the experiences of any other children.

Shirley Wachtel, a professor in the Department of English at Middlesex County College, and author of the book, “My Mother’s Shoes” — a book about her mother’s story of Holocaust survival — was the first to speak.

“I’m used to speaking more about my parents’ ordeal, and not so much about my own experience,” she said, a sentiment shared by many other second generation members on the panel and in the audience.

Dr. Wachtel continued by reading the introduction and conclusion of a dissertation she wrote during her time at Drew University. It talked about how the search for knowledge on her mother’s experience in the Holocaust turned into “a journey of self-discovery,” as she put it.

“One of the most intriguing aspects of my epiphany, and I don’t think this is too strong of a word, was that the feeling of alienation, of being inherently different from others since my birth, was in fact shared by other children of Holocaust survivors,” Dr. Wachtel said. “I couldn’t remember a time when I was unaware of my parents’ experience as Holocaust survivors.”

Dr. Wachtel also talked about her revelations after finding other second generation children.

“My discoveries that my feelings were not unique only led to more questions,” Dr. Wachtel said. “Many of us felt an aura of fear or looming disaster, even in our happiest moments.”

Other panelists agreed.

“I can remember little things growing up that were probably different from other people,” said Ms. Kansagor. “When we were walking in the street, if we saw a policeman, we crossed the street; we went to the other side because my parents would not trust anyone in uniform.”

Ms. Kansagor said she was always pushed to excel in school, and to engage herself in political discussions and protests.

“But at the same time, I never had a bicycle,” she said, exemplifying the conflicting push for success and political involvement with the overprotective environment of growing up as the child of survivors.

Milton Erdfarb, a Highland Park resident, and the lone male voice of the panel, went next.

“I’m sitting here next to my sisters, basically, and I have to say that so much of what they said, I didn’t even think to write down, but I can tell we’ve all shared the same experience,” he said.

Finally, Marianne M. Meyer, the director of educational outreach for the Second Generation Holocaust education fund, and a founder of the Adopt a Survivor program, finished out the panel’s presentation.

Her experience differed from those of the other panels, however.

She said generalization can be dangerous, and that people must be careful to avoid it, including in this situation.

“I can tell you from the outset that, while a lot of what we’ve heard today is very much like my experience, there are very significant differences in my feelings about my parents, and how I was raised,” Ms. Meyer said.

She said she was given the simple freedom of riding a bicycle miles away from her home to play with her friends, and even took a bus trip to New York by herself when she was young. These seemingly simple actions were foreign to the other panelists.

She also discussed her success, gregarious nature and popularity, which act in direct contention with her reluctance to trust, and her sense of difference from others.

But overall, for better or for worse, Ms. Meyer acknowledged that her upbringing has had a profound effect on who she is today.

“It has been both an honor, and a burden, to be the child of Holocaust survivors,” she said.

Panel members said that discussion and education about the Holocaust is important to keep history from repeating itself.

Mr. Erdfarb said the fear is very real, and even tangible, with current situations such as that in Darfur, and with acts of terrorism seen daily all over the world, as well as the insistence of some that the Holocaust never happened.

“It makes it even more important to educate others about what happened during the Holocaust, and what it was,” Mr. Erdfarb said during a question-and-answer period.

Ultimately, the shared experience, mixed with their religion, has brought these people together under an umbrella of unwavering faith and solidarity — an umbrella that can be tied to their religion in the upcoming holiday of Sukkot.

“I will sit in my Sukkah, probably wearing a jacket or sweater, because it may be a little cold and a little wet, and reflect upon the realization that, on a large scale, we are as temporary as the Sukkah,” said Mr. Edfarb. “We will never know what tomorrow will bring; I will reaffirm my faith that I can only rely on God to find everything that I have.”