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Children of the Holocaust

This generation did not live through it, but they carry its burden just the same. They feel that their days on earth have to count in extraordinary ways—that they live not so much for themselves as for their parents, who survived the ultimate evil.



I felt it coiled up inside of me, so bottled up that sometimes it caused aches and pains in my legs. I let it out in running and talking, in pounding on the piano, in making things, in school. But there was so much of it. At times, my life seemed to be not my own. Hundreds of people lived through me, lives that had been cut short in the war. My two grandmothers whose names were mine, lived though me. My parents were living through me. They saw in my life the years they had lost in the war and the years they had lost in emigrating to America. My life was not just another life, I thought often when I was a child, it was an assignation. "Every one of you is a miracle." my mother would say about children of the people she had known in camp. "None of you was supposed to have been born."

--Helen Epstein, Children of the Holocaust

When Helen Epstein's book was published in 1979, it touched a sensitive nerve. The world has long been aware of the psychological scars manifested by so many who lived through the Nazi Holocaust, who witnessed the destruction of the foundation stones of civilization: basic trust in human worth, basic confidence, basic hope. A whole subgroup of psychiatrists was mobilized to treat the physical and psychological characteristics of what has come to be known as "survivor syndrome." However, until Epstein's book came out, little attention was paid to the special situation of the children of survivors.

Epstein, a New York journalist, wrote about the "iron box buried so deep inside me that I was never sure what it was." She grew up with the knowledge that something had occurred in her parents' past that was so terrible they couldn't talk about it. She knew that she, unlike her playmates, had no grandparents, no uncles or aunts, that they had been executed--not for something they did but for who they were. She began to search for other children like herself and found them all over the United States. Their stories are shot through with anguish, denial, and repressed hostility. Yet Epstein describes the gradual release of tension and growing sense of community among these children of survivors as they came to grips with who they were. In the wake of her book, scores--perhaps hundreds--of informal support groups for children of survivors have sprung up. In the few interviews that have been given, group members have readily attested to the healing found in shared recollections and insights. They have also revealed a special way of viewing the world.

I went looking for children of survivors in the Chicago area, which has a substantial population of Holocaust survivors. Their children are now grown men and women, many of them in their early 40s. I was curious about how they were handling the traumas passed on from generation to generation. What I discovered was not weakness but strength, not neurosis but a passion for justice marked by a grave concern for the future.

My first encounter with Carlos Rizowy was something like a collision with a runaway freight train. Rizowy is a cofounder of one of the oldest organizations of the sons and daughters of survivors of the Nazi death camps, and we met at the Holocaust Museum and Resource Center in Skokie, which is associated with such groups. At the time, the museum had an exhibit of photographs of the Warsaw ghetto before, during, and after World War II, and together we walked through it.

I wanted to talk about the survivors' children. Rizowy wanted to focus on the "perpetrators, the murderers, the people who killed our families." There was no turning him back. "I am worried," he said firmly in his strong Spanish accent. "What you see here can happen again--and will happen again unless people learn to take responsibility. This is an exhibit in a museum sponsored by Jews, visited by Jews. Jews do not need to be coming here. This place should be visited by the Poles and Germans who were responsible--or the ones who remained silent. I don't see any Polish fathers coming in here with their children and saying, 'Look what our people permitted. It must never happen again!'"

As Rizowy continued to press his point, we moved into another room of the museum and looked at the Book of Remembrance, a beautiful "paper cemetery," whose pages contain the names of more than 4,000 Holocaust victims--all friends or family members of Chicago-area residents. In an ill-advised effort to gain control of our conversation, I asked Rizowy how many of his own relatives had "perished."

"Perished?" he said. "Perished? What kind of a word is 'perish'? Vegetables perish. People perish in accidents or from natural causes. Perish is not the word here. It dehumanizes what happened. The media likes neat words like 'perish.' Please call it what it is--murder!"

Children of survivors like Rizowy seem to share a powerful conviction that their days on this earth have to count in extraordinary ways, that they live not so much for themselves as for those numberless others who were wiped out as much of the world stood and watched.

"I am always amazed at Carlos's inexhaustible energy," says Michael Kotzin, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Chicago, which taps Rizowy's skills for many of its projects. "He merges so many backgrounds and has so many interests, it's hard to believe he's only one person."

"Carlos is always passionate, yet very credible," says Sondra Gair, who interviews Rizowy as a leading expert on Middle East affairs every Friday on her midday program on WBEZ. "He always elicits a lot of reaction. People either love him, or they want to kill him."

With his accent, full head of dark hair, and flashing eyes, Rizowy could pass as a handsome Latin American aristocrat. He was born in 1949 in Uruguay. His parents, Polish Jews, were liberated by the Allied forces at Auschwitz, later married, and then moved to South America because nothing remained for them in the old country. His mother was the sole survivor on her side of the family; his father had only two siblings left.

Rizowy, his older brother, and his younger sister spent their early years in the hinterlands of Uruguay, in a one-horse town called Serandi Grande, where there was no plumbing or electricity. His father worked as a peddler. The family later moved to Montevideo; young Rizowy had never seen a multistory residence and couldn't believe that houses could have bathrooms inside.

"My parents did not discuss their experiences in the death camp," he says. "They could see no educational value in explaining atrocities--but much in exposing the perpetrators who did these things." His mother was his major "ideological mentor." She often talked about the principles on which Nazism was based: racial superiority, world conquest. "She told us we should never ever support an idea because it's popular, only because it's right. We must support the right thing even if we are only a tiny minority." In fact his mother effectively communicated to her children that they should be especially skeptical of any idea that is extremely popular and arouses widespread support.

The youngster took the lessons to heart. At the age of 13 he and some of his friends formed an association of children of Holocaust witnesses. "We even rented a room, got newspapers and leaflets about the Holocaust, and circulated them," he says. "I wanted people to acknowledge their crimes or at least to explain why they remained quiet and said nothing when the war was going on." The campaign fell on deaf ears. His Uruguayan neighbors may have admired his precocity, but they had no time for soul-searching: the war was dead and best left buried.

Meanwhile, Rizowy was seeing connections. He saw the statues in Uruguay erected in memory of the native populations wiped out by l7th-and 18th-century European colonists. He became fascinated by the ease with which nice people can inflict pain or glorify murder.

He was especially protective of his parents--concerned that they had suffered so much, lost their youth, never had time to grieve, and now lacked the language to communicate with their neighbors in their adopted home. "I admired them greatly. I knew them personally only from a son's point of view, but I realized they were survivors. In spite of everything, they had remained human beings." Rizowy's mother died in 1972, while only in her mid-40s; his father still lives in Uruguay.

In 1967, at the age of 18, Rizowy moved to Israel to study at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He lived on a kibbutz and earned a degree in political science. At the suggestion of his teachers, he came to the University of Chicago in 1972 and has been here ever since. In keeping with his earlier preoccupations, Rizowy concentrated his study on the use of force and violence in political affairs; his PhD thesis at the U. of C. analyzed the various methods by which citizens of Uruguay dissented from unpopular government policies, even in the face of threats and reprisals. "I found that people have 17,000 or more ways to withdraw support if they want to. Everything from refusing to vote to armed resistance. I was convinced that the old excuse about always having to follow orders just doesn't hold water. When people cooperate with criminals, they choose to do so." Still, he restlessly pondered why Germans, Poles, and other European Christians complied so easily with Nazi demands, why there were so few examples of refusal, so many instances of eager collaboration.

In 1982, after obtaining his doctorate, Rizowy began teaching political science at Roosevelt University. In 1983 he was appointed chairman of the political-science department and obtained a law degree at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He soon became a visible, articulate figure in the local academic world. "Children of survivors are overachievers," he declares. "Down deep we're trying to fulfill the dreams of our family members who were murdered."

He oversaw an expansion of the political-science department, cofounded a program on international studies, formed a political-science student association, and brought in a host of speakers, ranging from fascists to anarchists, from free-market advocates to doctrinaire Marxists. An outspoken advocate for more Hispanic teachers, he became something of a burr under the saddle of the Roosevelt administration. Last year he left the university in the wake of a bitter, complicated dispute that, according to the Roosevelt student newspaper, the Torch, erupted when school officials overruled a committee that had unanimously supported Rizowy's bid for tenure. The conflict was finally settled in an out-of-court agreement, whose terms both sides have agreed not to discuss publicly.

He has since joined a downtown law firm, where his speciality is corporate law and real estate transactions. But he remains compulsively active as a speaker and commentator, and is involved in the Association of Latin American Jews, the American Jewish Congress, the Chicago Action for Soviet Jewry, and the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. He is married and has a six-year-old son.

In the mid- 1970s Rizowy, along with Esther Fink, Morris Applebaum, and a few other Chicago-area Jews, launched the Association of Children of Holocaust Survivors. The occasion that brought them together, he recalls, was a discussion of the plight of the Vietnamese boat people, refugees regarded by most of the world with total indifference. "People need to be educated to open their doors," he says. The long-range goal was mutual support. The original association has grown to about 200 members, and several other similar organizations have since sprung up in the Chicago area.

Rizowy says for him Judaism has always been more a matter of national identity and "peoplehood" than adherence to a body of doctrines. But his studies and experience have led him to develop some theories about the roots of the Holocaust based on the very different way Jews and Christians view their religious responsibilities (see sidebar). He preaches acceptance, not tolerance, of other views. "Tolerance means you will live at peace with someone whose ideas you don't accept until you have the opportunity to transform him to your way of thinking. Acceptance means you take people as they are. You don't judge."

As a child of survivors, he views the world with a wary eye. "I don't know for certain if anti-Semitism is operative in today's Christianity," he says, though he's concerned about any religion that connects the coming of God's kingdom with famine, pestilence, bloodshed, and the "conversion" of the Jews. "But I do know history, and I can't afford to make a mistake. It is very painful for me to teach my son, who is by nature a very non-aggressive person, to be always aware. Yet I must do it as a father."

Rizowy doesn't own a car and avoids driving if at all possible. His reasons are consistent with his aversion to aggression. "Traffic brings out the worst in people. Here are hundreds of other human beings, each in a different world, each a functioning individual with his own plans and his own agenda. Do I have the right to run over him, push him out of the way because of my business pressures? Who says my business is more important than his?"

Ironically, Rizowy is probably best known as a regular apologist on Sondra Gair's radio program for the policies of Israel, a nation much criticized for pushing others out of its way. "Since its creation, Israel has exercised power with a higher level of morality than any other country, including the United States," he asserts proudly. He adds that Israel has fought five defensive wars against Arab neighbors determined to swallow it up, and that the Palestinian Liberation Organization, despite some rhetorical mellowing, is still sworn on the record to annihilate Israel.

Although Israel is responsible for regular terrorist attacks on civilians, he says, the government responds with "the minimum amount of force." In his judgment, establishing curfews, putting down demonstrations, and destroying the homes of some Palestinians is preferable to wholesale retaliatory killing. He says the terrorists Israel faces are especially insidious because they're not attempting to kill any particular leader, as, for example, the communist Red Brigades were; and they're not trying to achieve a change in the political regime, as, for example, the Irish Republican Army and the Puerto Rican FALN are. They are committed to "the elimination of the people--every Israeli is the enemy." He calls the United States "a very coercive democracy" and as proof sifts through a list that begins with the earliest battles between colonists and Indians and runs through to the recent invasion of Panama.

"All violence is unacceptable," he says. "I try to understand it though. Compared to warfare--conventional or nuclear--it's the cheapest and safest way to express outrage and dissent." Perhaps, he suggests, it also serves as a safety valve for the desperately aggressive elements of society who might otherwise initiate a full-scale bloodbath. "I look forward to a time when somehow we are able to resolve conflicts with each side maintaining its identity and self-respect. When we reach that, I believe it will be the messianic age."

Miriam Schiller, a calm, personable school principal, was an adult before she learned that her father, Sam Pinkus, had a wife and two children who were killed in the Holocaust. He survived because he was on a work detail when his wife and children, aged four and seven, were sent to their deaths at Treblinka. "He never talked about that part of his life," she says. "I knew many relatives had died, but I didn't know he had a family of his own. Whenever he'd speak about the war, he would fall back on black humor, tell something funny and grim that happened to him or is friend Fischel in the concentration camp. That's the only way he handled it."

In 1945 her father was herded onto a train bound for Dachau and his own extermination, when Allied planes attacked and immobilized the train. Invading Allied soldiers freed him and his companions. Pinkus, who weighed 56 pounds at the time of his liberation, searched in vain for his relatives. He had been one of 11 siblings, five of whom were married and had children of their own. All, he gradually learned, had been wiped out.

Schiller's mother Tola was freed from Auschwitz only to discover that she and one sister were the sole survivors of her eight siblings, her parents, and her grandparents. The two returned to their Warsaw neighborhood and found no one and nothing they could recognize. Sam and Tola met, were married, and moved to the United States in 1949, one year after Miriam was born.

Her mother was more candid with her and her younger brother about the horrors she had endured, and Schiller believes this enabled her to accept the manifest differences between herself and other children as she grew up on Chicago's north side. She was a "greener," a newcomer in America whose kin had been swept off the face of the earth and burned like so many autumn leaves. She knew that from the time she was tiny.

She felt overwhelmed by a need to protect her parents. "I always wanted to make life worthwhile for them. I wasn't a carefree kid at all. I was concerned not to cause them any grief. My folks never had to set a curfew; we never argued about allowances or privileges. I had been named after my grandmother, and they called me 'Mama-le'--'little Mama.' I was proud of that." That preoccupation with protection has extended into adulthood. "When I was going into labor I would never call my mother, because she would worry. I'd only tell her when the baby was born and everything was alright." [Schiller and her husband have four children.]

When Miriam Schiller was 13, the family moved from a predominantly gentile area in Uptown to a solidly Jewish community in Albany Park. She thought it would be wonderful to be amid other Jewish children, but recalls her first year there as "the most devastating of my life."

"I was too mature, too responsible," she says and laughs. "I was good at cleaning, doing chores. I didn't fit in with other kids, and I felt rejected." Among those others were children of Holocaust survivors, but there was no sharing at that point, no acknowledgment of their common bond.

In their own youth Schiller's parents had been Orthodox Jews. However, in their struggle to earn a living--running a neighborhood laundry that was open seven days a week--they had drifted away from strict observance. Besides, when questions of religious belief would arise, her father would discard his shield of ironic humor and ask sadly, "Where was God? Where was God?"

Miriam Schiller went to college, taught in a public school in Des Plaines, married, and began raising a family. Her husband is not a child of survivors, so their life and interests moved in new directions; they saw no need to let the past cloud the future. But one day 11 years ago Schiller's oldest child, Rifka, then 3, spotted the concentration-camp numbers tattooed on her grandmother's arm and inquired in all innocence, "When I grow up, grandma, will I have numbers like that on my arm?"

The child's remark hit Schiller like a brick. "It came to me that I was creating a black box inside myself--the sort of thing Helen Epstein talked about in her book. I was trying to bury what should never be buried." So she began talking to her little ones, these grandchildren of survivors, about who they were and where their roots lay. She and her family also moved toward more traditional religious observance.

She heard of the Children of Holocaust Survivors group meeting in Skokie and joined, attending weekly introductory sessions for six months. At first she feared rejection from other members because, she says, "I thought there was no one on earth who had suffered like my parents." But people listened and understood. And she listened and understood. "There were so many stories like mine and my parents'. I learned to trust."

Above all, she says, she learned to accept the duty of preserving the legacy. She is now principal of Akiba-Schechter, a Hebrew elementary school with an enrollment of 100 that is housed in a Hyde Park synagogue. "Here I'm passing on a heritage," she says proudly. "It's a labor of love. Children need a sense of their identity. So many today drift away without knowing who they are." In addition, she has put together programs on the Holocaust, speaks about the experiences of survivors' children, and organizes Jewish cultural events, including appearances by a klezmer band.

In the Holocaust Museum are inscribed the names of more than 100 of Schiller's ancestors and relatives. She knows their stories only from the memory of her parents, who are now both up in years and living in Rogers Park. These ancestors were so violently, suddenly uprooted, she says, that they deserve special treatment. New roots must be planted and carefully nurtured. It's the least, she thinks, she can do for them.

There can be little doubt as to Henry Jelen's ethnic and religious identity. With his dark beard and ever-present yarmulke--which he wears even on the job as an architectural engineer--he is clearly a Jew and proud of it. He was not always so demonstrative. Growing up on the near north side of Chicago, he was cautioned by his parents about unnecessary self-identification. "Don't wear the yarmulke," his father said. "No need to tell everyone who you are." His mother worked for many years as a maid at Saint Mary of Nazareth Hospital, a Catholic institution run by Polish nuns, and Jelen says no one there ever suspected she was a Jew.

Within the family his parents were clear about the source of their secretiveness. Both were Polish Jews who had barely survived World War II. His father was in France in 1939, when the border to his own country was sealed off by the Germans. In a valiant effort to get back home, he made his way to Russia, only to be seized as a foreign Jew and transported to a work camp in Siberia.

During Hanukkah that same year, his mother left her home near Warsaw with her aged father. The pogroms were beginning, and the family believed he would be safer in Russia. But they were caught and dispatched in a cattle car to the same Siberian work camp.

Jelen's parents didn't talk much about those days. They said only that they were ill fed and shod, clothed in rags, and near starvation as they cut down trees in temperatures that hit 32 degrees below. After their release near the end of the war, they were married. Henry was born in Siberia in 1945.

Neither parent returned to their homeland. They heard through contacts that there was nothing to go back to. Most painful of all was the report that the family of Jelen's mother--her own mother, brothers, and sisters--had been hidden by some Christians for several years, only to be turned over to the Nazis near the war's end, in exchange for some salt. "My mother did not want to stand on the same soil where these things happened," says Jelen. So they went to Paris, where his father worked as a translator for a time. In 1955 they moved to Chicago's near north side.

"My parents kept kosher, but they weren't really religious," says Jelen. "We were what you'd call three-day-a-year Jews. We participated only on the big holy days. Our Jewishness was cultural. And besides, my father had always been something of a freethinker."

Even as a child, he says, any separation, even for a short time, was painful for his family. "Whenever I went anywhere, even to a meeting in the evening, I had to call and keep them informed. It was ludicrous really. But I knew they had pain, and I did not want to hurt them." Jelen thought often about that Hanukkah celebration in 1939 when his mother had bid farewell to her own family and never saw any of them alive again. "I understood how they felt," he says very gently. "Each good-bye could be the last one."

In school he was a bright student, an achiever who graduated from Lane Tech and earned a master's degree in architectural engineering at the University of Illinois. "It wasn't that my parents talked a lot about succeeding," he says. "It was just understood that I had to succeed for the sake of the others." The message was sometimes communicated in subtle ways, as when his mother talked about how smart her own brother was, what great promise he had shown. Jelen took such recollections as a mandate to make something of himself.

"There's something about many survivors," he says. "Yes, they are angry about what happened, but they are people who chose life over death. Their whole emphasis was moving forward, bringing in new life. Isn't it amazing that someone who lost a spouse and all their children would start all over again raising a new family? I wasn't taught hatred of Germans or Poles. I was taught respect for others--though I admit whenever I meet a German or Pole of my parents' age I wonder: where were you when the war was on?"

At the University of Illinois Jelen became intrigued with Jewish history and theology. Most Jewish fraternities turned him off, however, because their thrust was toward American traditions and enculturation. He wanted to go further back. At school he met other children of survivors, and he describes his relationships with them as "a breath of fresh air." Like him, they had experienced the pressure to succeed, the parental protectiveness, and their own compulsion to spare the family any hurt or disappointment. "I knew I wasn't unique or neurotic," he says. It was after this that he started to take religion seriously.

After graduation Jelen married a woman who was also a child of survivors; they had two children, now 19 and 16, both of whom are devout, practicing Jews. He later divorced and is now remarried--again to a child of survivors. They have a daughter who's going on three, and Jelen is teaching her Yiddish. "Is it a good or bad thing that children of survivors seek others out?" he wonders. "I don't know--I only know it happens."

A significant landmark in Jelen's life occurred in 1979 when the American Nazi delegation from Marquette Park, amid a flood of publicity, attempted an anti-Semitic march in Evanston. "I was uncertain how to react," he says. "I thought, do I give the Nazis a forum to speak and maybe knock the shit out of them? Or do I close my windows and hope they'll go away?" He chose the latter course and immediately felt guilty about his inaction. "I still feel guilty," he says very earnestly. "Maybe that's why I'm so involved."

For Jelen, involvement means strict adherence to law and tradition, with a tendency toward Orthodox Judaism. "I don't know the ways of God," he says. "He must have wider reason than we know for the things that happen--he must have some things up his sleeve. I do know that if I don't remember my history, then I'm helping the Nazis kill the Jewish people who live through me. I know if I don't follow Jewish customs, then I'll follow society's whims, and we will all forget."

The Nazis' aborted march sparked the creation of Skokie's Holocaust Museum. Jelen has been especially active in the children-of-survivor groups associated with the museum, and his artwork appears in the museum's Book of Remembrance. As vice president of the Association of Children of Holocaust Survivors, Jelen has seen some change in the priorities of members. Originally, they met for social reasons, for commonality, for kinship. "As soon as one person would talk, a dozen heads would nod in recognition," he says. "We all had similar experiences growing up." Now the emphasis is more on education--on telling the public it could happen again.

Could it happen again--in the latter days of the 20th century, in the United States of America? Not given to rash judgment, Henry Jelen pauses. "You must remember," he says, "the genocide against the Indians, the race riots against blacks, the treatment of Japanese Americans in World War II. We can't say what will happen. I believe my reason for being on earth is to keep the family identity, to raise my children as good Jews, and let the world know that hatred is unnecessary."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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