An Artistic Quest.
For the Holocaust 'Second Generation'
In 1990, Deb Filler, a Toronto-based standup comedian, went to Europe for what she called "a whirlwind tour of Eastern European death camps" with her father, Saul, who had been a prisoner at Auschwitz. When she returned home, Ms. Filler wrote a comic monologue about growing up as the child of a Holocaust survivor and her father's experiences in the camps. The piece, "Punch Me in the Stomach," was performed at the New York Theatre Workshop in 1992 and later made into a documentary film.
Jokes about Auschwitz? "I thought the number on his arm was his phone number," Ms. Filler says in her monologue. When her father was crammed into a single bunk with eight other prisoners, "someone would yell, 'Turn!' " she recalls his telling her. " 'We all had to turn at the same time, and we laughed. What else could you do? We laughed the whole first night at Auschwitz."
Ms. Filler is one of a group of children of Holocaust survivors who have turned to theatre, to writing, to art, in an effort to sort through the experience of growing up in families with memories too terrible to speak of. This fall there were two new books, "Where She Came From: A Daughter's Search for Her Mother's History," by Helen Epstein, and "Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews," by Eva Hoffman, each of them a recreation of prewar shtetl life.
Before them came the work of the cartoonist Art Spiegelman, author of "Maus"; the fiction writers Carl Friedman in the Netherlands and Nava Semel in Israel, and the writers Leve Raphael, Thane Rosenbaum and Melvin Bukiet in the United States. Then there are filmmakers, Chantal Akerman and Aviva Kempner, and the artist Christian Boltanski, with his altarlike installations on memory. In the 1980's, the Israeli rock stars Shlomo Artzi, Yehuda Polliker and Yackov Gilad, all children of survivors, incorporated the Holocaust into their music.
There has been a stream of memoirs by the second generation among them Julie Salamon's "Net of Dreams." In 1996, Daniel Goldhagen's "Hitler's Willing Executioners" was, in effect, an examination of the anti-Semitic culture that brought about the destruction of the extended family of his father, Erich, in Romania.
"This cohort is exploding," said Mr. Bukiet, author of "Stories of an Imaginary Childhood," a re-creation of his parents' world in Poland. "Here we are, with the most important seminal event of our lives occurring before we were born," he said. "We know of it, but we haven't experienced it. But yet we can't avoid it."
There is an estimated total of 250,000 children of Holocaust survivors in the United States. "We call ourselves the 2 G's," said Ms. Epstein, referring to the second generation. "The one common element is enormous physical and psychic disruption in our family history because of great catastrophe."
In "Children of Job," perhaps the first comprehensive study of second generation writing, published this year, Alan L. Berger, a professor of Holocaust and Judaic studies at Florida Atlantic University, calls the writing of survivors' children an attempt to cope with "the presence of absence," the absence of an inheritance, of a past.
Along with the tremendous guilt about the suffering of their parents comes a "strange jealousy" of their parents, Mr. Berger writes, because the children of survivors can never know an experience as immense and as important as the Holocaust. A novel, a painting or a theatre piece, Mr. Berger said, becomes "a mimetic repetition" of parental experience.
"We children feel we have no voice," Ms. Filler, the comedian, said in an interview. "Because what we have experienced is in no way as significant as what our parents did. How do you beat Auschwitz? How do you beat that story?"
Helen Epstein, 50, grew up in the Czech JmigrJ community of Manhattan. In her first book, "Children of the Holocaust," she describes her mother, Franci, as superbly competent, a dressmaker to wealthy women like Ivana Trump. But she suffered from sudden episodes of depression, when she locked herself in the bathroom for hours at a time.
"She would often say that she had lost her laugh in the war," Ms. Epstein said in an interview. Ms. Epstein's father, Kurt, who had been on the Czech Olympic water polo team, flew into sudden rages when his children didn't each their dinner.
On the wall above her mother's sewing table was a photograph of her maternal grandmother, Pepi, whom Ms. Epstein had never known. The eyes in the photo seemed to follow her. "I would say, 'Where's my grandma?' " Ms. Epstein said. "My mother would say, 'She was killed by the Nazis.' I would say, 'Was she bad?' She would say, 'No.' It was an enigmatic paradigm. The basic situation was complex and insoluble. I think my grandmother came to embody everybody I had lost."
In doing research for "Where She Came From" (Little, Brown), Ms. Epstein travelled to Czech cities and villages in search of anyone who might have known her family. She scoured archives. She was aided by several non-Jews, among them an amateur historian obsessed with tracing the history of the vanished Jews of the region around Jihlava and Brtnice, about 150 miles north of Prague, her relatives' original home.
Ms. Epstein's great-grandmother Therese was born in Brtnice. "Who would not wish to belong to the people among whom she lived, in a place as lovely as Brtnice?" Ms. Epstein writes. The Jews, she says, were caught in the complex web of relations between local Czechs and ethnic Germans; they were despised by necessary, with their business skills, to the landed gentry. Many Jews had become secularized, even changing their names to German-sounding ones.
Ms. Epstein's relatives were tavern keepers, a common occupation there for Jews. She traces the story of her great-grandmother Therese, who fell in love with a Christian but was forced by her parents to give him up, and, after marrying, eventually committed suicide. The family moved to Prague, where her grandmother worked as a seamstress and founded a couture salon.
Above all, though, Ms. Epstein learned that her mother had once been a normal, pretty, laughing young woman. "My mother was a party girl," Ms. Epstein said. "She had tons of boyfriends. My mother danced the tango. That was a revelation. My mother was a bimbo. That was liberating."
But her mother's youth ended with the Nazi occupation. Ms. Epstein's grandparents were murdered in a trench near Riga. Eventually, close to death from typhus, Ms. Epstein's mother was liberated from Bergen-Belsen. In 1946, she married Kurt Epstein, also a camp survivor. The family moved to the United States in 1948, just before the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia.
"For me, writing the book was creating a reality," Ms. Epstein said at her home in Cambridge, Mass., where she lives with her husband, Patrick Mehr, whose parents, Romanian Jews, were hidden during the war. The couple have two children.
"I was creating for myself a great-grandma and a grandma," Ms. Epstein said of her book, "and the mother I would have had without the Holocaust. It was the most wonderful writing experience I ever had."
"Shtetl," Eva Hoffman's account of the life of Jews in prewar Poland, is a more ambivalent work. In an earlier book, "Lost in Translation," Ms. Hoffman, 50, a former editor at The New York Times Book Review, wrote about moving to Canada in 1959 when her parents fled Polish anti-Semitism. "Shtetl" (Houghton Mifflin) is about Bransk, in eastern Poland, a village that was once 50 percent Jewish and is about 85 miles from Zatosce, her parents' home before the war. They were among the few survivors of their families."
"As I grew up, my mother talked about it, and my father didn't," Ms. Hoffman said. "They had a willingness to live, to throw themselves into life, to be happy. There was a sense that death was the ground from which everything sprang. Poland figured in the Jewish postwar imagination as the inferno. But from my father and mother's history, I knew this was a great oversimplification."
Ms. Hoffman, 50, lives in London, where she has studied to be a psycho-analyst. In writing about Bransk, she was guided by a local man who was researching the vanished Jews of the town. Ms. Hoffman explores Jewish-Christian history in Poland.
The Polish shtetl, Ms. Hoffman argues, was less anti-Semitic during the Middle Ages and Renaissance than other parts of Europe, and Jews were often allies of the Poles against invaders. But from the Cossack rampages in the 17th century and various partitioning of Poland, groups clung to their identities in "an ethos of separateness," she says. "Jews played an inordinately important role in the peasants' mythological universe," Ms. Hoffman writes.
During the Industrial Revolution, she writes, Jews flourished because of their mercantile background and became modernized and secular. Polish peasants languished, and Polish nationalism flourished. When the Nazi occupation came, the invaders were as brutal to Poles as they were to almost any other European group.
At the heart of Ms. Hoffman's quest was a need to explore why some Poles participated in the slaughter of Jews and why others helped them at great risk. She came up with no answers, she writes, only an ambiguous picture, a picture with shifting images that arise out of a history of conflict and intimacy.
In the end, Ms. Hoffman said about the Poles who helped save Jews, "that needs to be acknowledged, and it needs to be honoured."