Memories of growing up in a Holocaust Survivor family—
why aren’t they the same as my brother’s/sister’s?

A panel discussion with Dr. George Halasz, Dr. Paul Valent
and a collection of siblings.

This eagerly awaited meeting was finally held on Sunday May 25 and was enthusiastically attended by over 80 people. An attendance that surprised the committee; we obviously had struck a chord with many of our members, members of the Child Survivors Group and Holocaust survivors and several people attending our meetings for the first time. We even attracted a visitor from San Diego who had found us on the net!

Several siblings who are members of our group volunteered to start the discussion. Firstly Anna Blay and Frances Sondheim talked about their family, and particularly the impact of Thomas Keneally’s book Schindler’s Ark and Stephen Speilberg’s subsequent film Schindler’s List. The film and book featured Anna and Frances’ parents Leo and Hela Rosner, who were Schindler Juden. What was interesting in this family was that the parents hadn’t really spoken much about their experiences until the publicity and “fame” of the film and the book turned them into reluctant celebrities. No only were the sisters learning about their parents’ stories, but at the same time, they were dealing with the recognition and publicity their parents were receiving.

Leah Justin and Leon Orbach, who are (non-identical) twins, spoke next. Leah and Leon bravely shared traumatic stories with us, which took a lot of courage. Leah described that as a child, when coming into a house for the first time, she always looked for a hiding place. She has no idea where this came from as her parents never talked about hiding. They described their father as having an enormous capacity to give, a generous man.

As children, they always went to the Warsaw Ghetto Commemorations as a family. The awareness of the Holocaust was there from a young age. This is interesting, as Leah is now heavily involved in the convening of this annual community event. The need for remembrance and continuity to the futures generations is very strong.

Leah and Leon understood that there was no extended family. Their parents didn’t talk about this, but they just knew. Other refugees here became their uncles and aunts.

The discussion was then opened to the audience, facilitated by Paul and George. Often siblings have opposite reactions and opposite memories of their shared childhood. Where is the truth? What is real? What is memory? Is there only one truth? These questions are very difficult to answer. An example is the Brett sisters, Lily and Doris. Both have written about their Holocaust Survivor family, very different accounts. Their reaction is normal, but had never been spoken about before. Siblings will have different memories as they see things differently; they had different childhoods, even though it was in the same family.

A Child Survivor in the audience spoke, saying that instead of being closer after all the trauma they experienced, they were in conflict. These siblings may have experienced separation and often very different survival stories.

The discussion continued with members of the audience talking about their own experiences including relationships with siblings, which were sometimes strained.

An important point to discuss was rivalling siblings and fighting and how much was normal sibling behaviour and how much can be attributed to the Holocaust. Issues such as favouritism, love and hostility within the family.

An excellent evening and feedback to the committee showed that the evening was very worthwhile. Thank you to the panel who spoke and all those who participated and shared in the discussion.

by Dr. George Halasz (May 2003)

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