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September 19, 2014 / 24 Elul, 5774
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Passing On One’s Holocaust Experiences

Respler-Yael

Dear Dr. Yael:

I love my father, a Holocaust survivor.

Throughout my childhood and during my married life, my father never spoke about his experiences during the war. I am now a grandmother, and he is, Baruch Hashem, a great-grandfather.

Suddenly, he decided to share his horrific war experiences with his 11-year-old great-grandson, our oldest grandchild. (Apparently, my father is only relaying his experiences to the 11-year-old, as he was 11 during the war.) This has led to our grandson having nightmares.

I asked my father to communicate his stories to my siblings and me and to his married grandchildren – but not to his young great-grandchildren. My father says that my grandson is mature enough to hear these stories since he lived through this Gihenom at the same age.

I do not understand my father. Throughout my life he hardly spoke about anything; suddenly he feels the need to tell my grandchild the gory details of the war years. In our opinion, our young grandson cannot handle these stories.

My father feels a close kesher with this child, who carries the name of his father (also a survivor). While I agree with my father that it is important for our children to know what happened to our people, I think this child is too sensitive at this stage in his life to deal with this. Do you have any advice for us?

A Fan  

Dear Fan:

While it is important to share what happened during the Holocaust with future generations, you are correct that your grandson may not yet be ready to hear about the atrocities. It sounds as if your father, through identifying with your grandson, is going through a healing process of sorts by rewriting the outcome of his trauma. In order for individuals to work through trauma, they must sometimes relive it in a controlled setting. Perhaps this is what your father is subconsciously doing, feeling it is more opportune to change that ending with your grandson but not with you or his married grandchildren. It appears, though, that this is not healthy for your grandson. This indeed places you in a difficult predicament.

Does your father tell your grandson his stories when you or someone else is around? If not, maybe you can monitor your grandson’s visits with your father, ensuring that someone else is always there. It is possible that your father is unable to stop telling these stories by his own accord, as he may feel a pressing need to do so. Therefore, it may not help to talk to him about this situation.

I suggest that one of your older children spend more time with your father, giving him a chance to confide more in him or her. Or, if you can handle the traumatic details, he can speak with you. While it is likely therapeutic for your father to speak with someone about what he went through, he should not be traumatizing – however inadvertently – your 11-year-old grandson.

Survivors often suppress the trauma they endured during the Holocaust, pushing those memories to the back of their minds. This permits distance from the terror and grief and allows them to move on and embrace their new lives. But this can be problematic later in life.  The many years they spent repressing the horrors removes the ability to emotionally process their feelings and then move past the horrors. This repression worked for many Holocaust survivors, but the past often catches up with them. When that happens, all survivors eventually need to talk about their past in order for them to mend psychologically. This may be where your father currently is.

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4 Responses to “Passing On One’s Holocaust Experiences”


  1. as a survivors son may i say that each and every one of them is a universe of its own
    full with pain memories and shadows that haunt them constantly
    my advise is whatever you do should be done with love and tenderness
    most effective is constantly to change the scenery local and people around him
    keeping him busy with the here now positive feedback may assist
    hope it helps yet true help comes from heaven…

  2. I often receive phone calls from survivors and their children asking for financial help to help pay for home care and nursing homes. The holocaust claims conference is not helping them and their is a lot of red tape to get any help. What are they waiting for.? Perhaps for the holocaust survivors to die out. Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg, child of holocaust survivors who died a long time ago. I fight for those still living , not for my parents.

  3. Cody Flecker says:

    The issue about the Holocaust must be told to all regardless of their age and circumstance. The young boy in question reads on Pesach the story of the drowning of the Egyptians at the Red Sea. This is horrific enough for a young person making them not want to swim in an ocean,lake, or even a swimming pool. All of a sudden, deep emotions are coming out concerning the Holocaust that need to be preserved, told, and re-told to all generations, lest we forget it and only read about this tragedy in books, or see it on film. If the young man is having nightmares, then he needs help in solving that mystery. One trouble that modern Jews have today is that they have forgotten, or never knew the real truth about the Holocaust. Had these Jews really knew what had happened to their fellow Jews, they wouldn't be as left wing and Obama supporters as they are right now.

  4. Marsha Roth says:

    I happen to agree with Cody Flecker's words. However, it may be a possible idea to talk to your father, tell him about the nightmares the 11 year old is experiencing and ask him if he would think about talking with you or someone very close to him to record his words and thoughts so that when his great grandson is old enough to truly understand his great grandfather's horrors, he can write about it and make sure the world never forgets. I have a great aunt survivor who never spoke of her time in the camps. Not to her children or grandchildren. She mentally distanced herself from the people she loved the most, most likely to protect them from the horrors and of course, to try to eliminate the horrors from her memory. Today, in her nineties, she is locked in her mind with Alzheimer's. Her son grew up with serious difficulties. Her daughter knows very very little about her mother and little she can tell her own adult married daughters. It's very sad for the family. They lost a beautiful vibrant young lady to Hitler's concentration camps in the 1940's. They lost so much of their mother due to the repression on the horrors & now, it's too late.
    I think you are very lucky to still have your father. I also have to say that my grandparents were the best teachers of Life I could have ever wanted.

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