(CNN) — This January 27 marks the 77th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
We present a selection of testimonies from children of survivors.
“Eighty-seven people from (my) family died: my grandparents, all my aunts and uncles”
Tomas Lefkovits, son of Elizabeth Ungar Lefkovits
Growing up in Venezuela, Tomas Lefkovits dreamed of capturing and torturing Nazis. He was just seven years old when he started stalking a man he had noticed at his community pool in Maracaibo because he was sure he was a Nazi. After Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Holocaust who was later hanged in Israel, was captured in Argentina, Tomas devoured every article he could find on the case.
Although Tomas, 65, says that his childhood was happy and that his house was full of love and laughter, he also speaks of the deep sadness that hung in the air, especially during the Jewish holidays, when the absence of all the relatives you never knew: your grandparents, your uncles, aunts and cousins. He also couldn’t understand why his mother would wail and choke in pain during the synagogue services.
He and his sisters knew not to ask questions about her time in Auschwitz. His father, who also survived forced labor in Hungary, let him know from a young age. “She has suffered enough,” he told them. “Leave her alone”.
The first time Tomas heard his mother say something about his experiences, he was 30 years old, married with three children. He and his family were temporarily living with his parents in Maracaibo. His mother was in another of the rooms of the house and began to record her memories. Tomas couldn’t understand the words he spoke, only the anguished cries he knew years ago.
Since then she has spoken about her story frequently and in public. He has only attended one of his lectures: the one in January 2014, at the Breman Museum in Atlanta, United States. His children sat in the front row and he sat in the back. Although she knows that talking is a catharsis for her, her memories only cause her anguish. He left the museum exhausted.
It’s not that she doesn’t know or care about everything she’s been through; you just don’t need to relive the depths of your pain. He has never discussed this with a therapist; afraid of what he might discover. He has to swallow back tears just thinking about the suffering she endured.
She keeps all her memories in a drawer in her son’s home office. He flips through a long transcript of every word his mother recorded in Maracaibo and runs his fingers over a long row of tapes he says he will never listen to.
“I’m not a masochist,” he says.
Tomas accepts the beauty and philosophy of Judaism, but cannot believe in God. He has participated in discussion groups for children of survivors and has chaired some Holocaust Remembrance Day events.
When people say that the Jewish people are the “chosen one”, he scoffs.
“Choosed for what? Because so far I haven’t seen any benefit,” he says. “Anyone who wants to convert to Judaism is crazy. They are fools.”
But he is firm about his identity. “If they told me: ‘convert or die,’ I would say: ‘then kill me,'” he replies.
“As long as my mind is working and I can speak, I will tell this story”
Klara Firestone, daughter of Renee Firestone
Being named after a deceased relative is common in Jewish families. It is a way of “regaining the neshama, the soul of someone who is gone,” explains Klara Firestone.
But for her and many of the children of the survivors, the tradition carries an additional burden. They were named after those people the Nazis killed, which in his case was his mother’s sister, who was shot to death after the Auschwitz doctors experimented on her.
“We replaced all those family members in a very real way,” says Klara, 67. “We had to be successful across the board on behalf of those who died.”
She was the only child of two survivors who married in Czechoslovakia shortly after the war. His mother survived Auschwitz; his father survived a forced labor camp in Hungary and a period in the Mauthausen concentration camp. The family moved to the United States when Klara was one year old. She grew up in Los Angeles, in a community of survivors.
Families got together frequently, and it was inevitable that when people gathered around tables laden with food, someone would say, “Remember when all we wanted was a piece of potato or a slice of bread?”
Through these moments, she began to realize what her parents had lived through. They didn’t elaborate, more concerned that she was a “nice, normal American girl.”
However, some aspects of his upbringing were anything but normal. Neither Klara nor many of the survivors’ children she knew had a babysitter. He says his parents didn’t want to let them out of their sight. At every moment they stressed the importance of learning. Her parents signed her up for “every lesson known to man,” she says.
“You will get an education,” they said. “It’s the one thing they can’t take away from you.”
When I was 12 years old, they released the movie Ana Frank’s diary. Her mother took her to see her. At some point, Klara understood everything: she suddenly understood what she had absorbed by osmosis throughout her childhood. When the movie ended, she and her mother talked. He doesn’t remember the details of the talk, but he does remember that he had a lot of questions.
Klara became a therapist and works with survivors and their children.
She founded a support group for the children of survivors and, along with her mother, serves on the board of trustees of the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum. He also helped create a worldwide network of children and grandchildren of survivors, in which he still participates.
He says that a disproportionate number of children of survivors work as therapists, counselors, psychiatrists and psychologists. It seemed the natural consequence.
“Our parents were traumatized, so we were raised in the face of that trauma,” he says. The way they “internalized that trauma affected the way they raised their own children.”
Some were determined not to pass on the horrors of the past to their children, so they kept things from them. Others were so tormented that they couldn’t keep the details to themselves, shocking their children.
“It seems completely ridiculous to say that I played the cello in Auschwitz”
Maya Jacobs-Wallfisch, daughter of Anita Lasker-Wallfisch
Life has never been easy for Maya Jacobs-Wallfisch. He says that he showed the first signs of problems at the age of two; that she later became addicted to drugs, that she was saved in rehab, and that, after several attempts, she decided that marriage was not for her.
However, the 56-year-old psychoanalyst has an explanation. She believes she “absorbed much of the unconscious trauma” floating around her family, which “contained all the feelings, the mess and the horror” that no one in her house dared to speak of.
“We were never really told what happened in a coherent or organized way,” he says.
I knew she was Jewish, but I didn’t know what that meant. The family lived in West London, in a poor area that was mainly Irish and black, and “fiercely secular”. They celebrated Christmas. She believes her parents thought it was dangerous and unwise to identify with Jews.
She says she felt like she didn’t fit in anywhere and was raised “without any tenderness”.
Once, when he was about 11 or 12 years old, he came across some pictures of dead bodies and people who looked like the walking dead. He thinks that among those people he saw his mother. But when he found them he was looking for cigarettes; he knew he shouldn’t have been nosing around and locked the disturbing images in his tormented mind.
Around the same time, a neighborhood girl asked why her mother had a phone number on her arm. His mother simply told him that she would explain when he grew up. Maya learned the story before everyone else, when she and her brother received advance copies of their mother’s memoir, which was published in 1996.
In her profession, Maya trains other professionals to understand what she calls transgenerational trauma and helps patients understand how this kind of trauma affects them.
She knows that she must forgive, that her mother did not choose her experiences or her scars. She doesn’t doubt for a moment that her mother loves her.
Her mother’s world revolved around survival, blocking out feelings in order to live. “Everything else,” says Maya, “was at best a luxury and at worst incomprehensible.”
She says her mother did not have the love, warmth and support to give, the emotional sustenance that Maya craved. Of course it wasn’t on purpose.
It was a “consequence and a total absence of knowledge,” says Maya. “He had to give up things in his life so he wouldn’t freak out. But that also meant he wasn’t able to give me things that were essential.”
“That’s not possible… burning people is crazy”
Alex Kor, son of Eva Mozes Kor
Alex Kor grew up between two worlds.
He and his younger sister were the only Jews in their elementary school in Terra Haute, Indiana, USA. He was in sixth grade when two boys cornered him in the locker room, whipped him with a towel and harassed him with the phrase “Jewish boy.” Shortly thereafter, his family found swastikas drawn on his house in soap, along with the phrase “go home, you dirty Jew.” Although it seemed like her father was just putting up with it, the incident nearly drove her mother insane.
In Israel, where the family spent summers with relatives, Alex only knew other Jews; all the adults had survived the Holocaust, just like their parents.
For Alex, 53, the Auschwitz tattoo on his mother’s arm was not unusual. In fact, he thought it was weird not to see him, so just once did he ask the mother of a childhood friend, in Indiana, why she no he had numbers on his arm.
From a very young age, perhaps five years old, he was taught that bad things had happened in the world, but that he did not have to worry. He felt protected and loved, even though he didn’t have many relatives close to him, like his friends. The US Army veteran who freed his father from Magdeburg, a Buchenwald dependent camp, lived around the corner. He was the reason the Kors came to Terre Haute and he and his wife were the grandparents Alex would not have had.
While living in Denver in his mid-thirties, Alex stumbled upon a reunion of children of survivors. He thought it was a social opportunity, but was horrified when almost everyone present said they had attempted suicide. Certainly, most of the attendees were 20 years older than him. They were children of survivors who had lost spouses, children they had raised before the war. Alex’s parents didn’t know that particular pain. Alex certainly did not identify with these children.
For him, being the son of survivors had been a positive legacy to accept. He belongs to a second generation. He has traveled with his mother to Auschwitz “about 11 or 12 times,” he says. “I already lost count.”
What her parents experienced has given her strength and perseverance. It has been “an added bonus”, a tool that you keep in your pocket.
It came in handy when he was 26: he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. At first he thought he would die. “My mom said, ‘No, no. Your father is a survivor. I am a survivor. You will be a survivor.’
This story was originally published in 2015