Conference deals with the trauma passed to next generation

Tim Shufelt, National Post
Published: Monday, October 30, 2006

TORONTO – Growing up in Hungary following the Second World War, Eva Dojc said each Christmas her father would drag a tree into their courtyard apartment, making sure all the neighbours could see. It stood in a corner, undecorated, for a couple of weeks until her father dragged it back out again.

When the family escaped to Canada in the fall of 1956, nine-year-old Eva asked her father whether they would be getting a tree.

“No, we don’t need a tree,” her father said. “We’re Jewish.”

Ms. Dojc’s father, who was forced into a labour camp during the war, lost his parents and one of his sisters in the Holocaust. Her mother survived Auschwitz, but her mother’s parents, two brothers and two sisters were killed. After liberation, with the oppression and massacres fresh in their minds, her parents concealed their ethnicity and religion for fear of further persecution.

Ms. Dojc said she has adopted a similar instinct over time.

“The antenna is up,” said Ms. Dojc, one of the organizers of a conference yesterday in Toronto for adult children of Holocaust survivors. “When you’re vulnerable, why increase your vulnerability?”

Another organizer, Margie Levitt, also a child of Holocaust survivors, said she agrees.

Ms. Levitt said she was prompted to change her behaviour by an incident that took place 21 years ago this month aboard an Italian cruise ship. On Oct. 7, 1985, heavily armed Palestinian terrorists hijacked the Achille Lauro near Egypt. Leon Klinghoffer, a disabled Jewish retiree from New York, was shot and thrown overboard along with his wheelchair.

“Up until then I always wore a little mezuzah that was given to me when I was 12,” Ms. Levitt said. “I took it off that day and never put it back on.”

Paula David, a social worker at the Baycrest Wagman Centre, a long-term care facility in Toronto that houses one of the largest populations of Holocaust survivors in North America, said the those sentiments echo those of other survivor families.

“If you have intimately experienced oppression, ranging from personal insults to someone wanting to annihilate you, you are going to be cautious of how you present yourself,” Ms. David said. “You don’t have an automatic sense of trust, and many have experienced anti-Semitism to validate that feeling.”

Yesterday’s event featured speakers and workshops on dealing with trauma passed on from one generation to the next, and challenges in caring for ageing survivors.

On the latter, Ms. Dojc said there are certain triggers that should be avoided in the company of survivors, like references to “showers.” The sight of dogs can also conjure up painful memories for some.

One should also keep a close eye on possible health problems. In many of the camps in Europe, the sick were automatically killed. “So maybe they don’t tell you they’re sick until it’s too late,” Ms. Dojc said.

The conference held a panel discussion on returning to places in Europe where Jews were persecuted and massacred.

Ms. Levitt, for example, said in 2001 she returned to Poland, where her mother spent three years in a slave labour camp that produced munitions.

“In Krakow, I saw beautiful iron works, like the Star of David, and beautiful synagogues…. There was a square with restaurants serving Jewish food. It’s all Jewish. The only thing missing were the Jews,” she said, clutching a tissue. “It was haunting.”

Her father’s two brothers survived the Holocaust, but her mother lost her entire family, Ms. Levitt said, examining the framed pictures in her Forest Hill home. She picked up a framed black-and-white photo of a naked baby sleeping. “That was my mother’s nephew. He was six or seven when he was gassed.”

The conference, held every three years, provides a forum for survivor children to forge bonds, Ms. David said, adding that they share a sense of community that others might find difficult to understand.

“Most of them feel quite privileged and quite lucky to be in this world. The plan in 1945 was that this whole generation would not exist,” she said.

But Ms. Levitt is eager to dispel the stereotype that survivor children are emotionally damaged or dysfunctional.

After she was born, her father’s two younger brothers lived with her until she was six years old.

“So here I was an only child born after the war to four survivors. I was never spoiled materially, but with love and affection,” Ms. Levitt said. “I have always known what’s important in life,” she said.

Ms. Dojc said the literature on the subject, mostly case studies of people in therapy, can be misleading.

“The people that never go for help, they don’t write case studies about,” she said.

tshufelt@nationalpost.com