This podcast will explore the post war communication dynamics of the Freilich family, specifically the relationship between Dora and Elaine. This mother daughter pair highlights interesting points from the research about how an essentially positive parental relationship can mitigate the potential negative effects on the child of being exposed to parental pain at an early age. The Freilich family illustrates how, in the context of strong familial relationship, a child of of survivors has been able to metabolize her parents’ pain into a set of positive lessons and values, which then became the basis for her life’s work.
Elaine is the daughter of Dora and Bernard Freilich, both survivors of the Holocaust. She was born in Brooklyn in 1949. Elaine and her husband Jim, a convert to Judaism, as well as their son Joshua, are active in Holocaust activities. At the time of the interview, Elaine was a curriculum coordinator for English Language Arts for the Philadelphia school system and taught Holocaust material. In the following clip, Elaine talks about her commitment to educating about the Holocaust, and to breaking the culture of silence she has encountered in America.
ELAINE: I became involved in something called Pennsylvania Holocaust Education Task Force, which is a volunteer group of people, primarily teachers but not all teachers, who are interested in two things I guess. Assuring that the lessons of the Holocaust are taught in Pennsylvania schools, and training teachers and providing materials in order to make that happen. … So I-I’ve been doing that for quite a few years and from that, more thing spun out and that was being asked to speak about teaching about the Holocaust, which I’ve been doing for a number of years. I had also gone on a trip to Israel in 1988. Forty-five teachers from around the country, and that was about learning to teach the lessons of the Holocaust and Jewish resistance to the Holocaust, and then this past year I was asked to work for that group, to help lead the teachers on that group, and that now goes to Poland and to Israel, so that’s a wonderful opportunity. I did that last summer, and I will go again this summer….So I have lots of involvement. I sit on different Boards and I write for different publications and I speak to lots of people and I do a lot of stuff with teacher training, and that’s basically where I think the most important aspect is. Training teachers to incorporate the lessons in a conscientious way. Not just to do something that they think is going to cover this topic or-or somehow skirt the issue and get past it, because for some people it’s very uncomfortable.
ELAINE: I don’t think Americans were ready to talk about the Holocaust. …. There was no discussion about the Holocaust because that was not a pleasant time to talk about, and I know from my own parents, that when they came, nobody wanted to hear it. So Americans either were struggling with we didn’t do enough or let’s forget about that, now you’re in America, you’re safe, you have money, whatever. Everything’s okay. And they just did not want to know about that. Plus, some of this stuff is pretty awful…And even the particular things that ever were out, like the diary of Anne Frank, is not really about the Holocaust. It’s about a girl growing up. She happens to be stuck in this attic so the confines make her interactions with her mother, her sister, her father, etcetera, much tighter, because she has no place to go, but the play actually ends when the Nazis break in, and most kids never know what happened to her. They don’t know that she died in concentration camp, so unless a teacher makes an effort to explain that, how much of this book is really about the Holocaust? And you could read this book and just say, well, they were hiding from someone and not ever know the real circumstances, and I think that’s part of the problem. That you didn’t see the kinds of material that are available now, more…and it doesn’t-it’s not necessarily that it’s more graphic or gory, but that it’s more realistic in that it talks about what was happening—like Schindler’s List, for example.
INT: So you talk from direct experience knowing that there was a conspiracy of silence?
INT: In the United States.
INT: From some level inside the family, community or in the larger culture.
ELAINE: Yeah, and I’m not sure which came first, if the conspiracy started from the larger culture and went back to the family or the families said, let’s not talk about it. It’s probably a little bit of both. In my family we always talked, so I always knew everything, yet I knew that I grew up in a community of survivors, where there are other people who never said anything.
NARRATOR: Most survivors share this experience—society’s unwillingness to bear witness to their pain. While some bring this culture of silence into their families, while others are compelled to speak about the atrocities of war. Researchers have identified a number of motivations that survivors have for sharing their stories. Stories are a way to honor the past, fulfill obligations to relatives, and instill values in their children such as preparedness, gratitude for the advantages of the present.
The TTP interviews highlight how difficult it often was for survivors to know exactly how to share these important stories with their children. If the survivor is still in the throes of a post traumatic response, they are at risk of compulsively sharing with their children, and in graphic detail that may not be age appropriate for the child. However, the following excerpts will speak to how even if survivors were able stay age appropriate in the content of their stories, the pain of their trauma still made its way through. Many survivors struggled to have enough emotional distance from the material to be able to convey the message without conveying the intense emotions behind it. In Dora’s interview, she expressed in numerous ways how crucial she felt it was for survivors share their stories, and break the culture of silence.
DORA: I think it’s very good, important, that the children should go and see it and bring their own visions of it. Very important. As far as all the shows on television, everything, they can never bring the real truth what it was there, but there is more and more, you know, you see survivors talking and it’s important. It’s very, very important. I don’t think that everybody’s anti- Semitic. I think that a lot of people want to know what’s going on, and they are trying to know what’s going on. Of course we cannot change the world. We can only show them what it was, and see that it shouldn’t happen again. That’s-that’s what it is.
I’m so glad that they have these trips now of the March of the Living. This was one of the best things that they had to do, because I see the children that are going there knowing a little bit, and come out menschen, you know. They are like different people, and this is what makes me very happy.
DORA: Their impressions of what they saw. A lot of pictures. A lot of their poems. A lot of their…and I am very happy about it, because I see they are-they are strong, kinahara, they know what was going on. They are seeing it first-hand. They have their own way of expressing themselves, and this, I think, is wonderful. Wonderful. I would sponsor a child to go there and with that-and bring that knowledge back. I think the children come out of there like grown up people, and this is what I think that we keep, I mean, I saw a few of them in the synagogue too, but those three I will never forget. Never. So I think it’s doing something good and I think that’s what we need. We have to go on and teach the children to be good citizens, to be good people and that’s it. That’s what I feel.
NARRATOR: Dora also broke the silence by sharing her stories with her children. These were difficult conversations to navigate, because when Elaine was young, Dora was still very much coping with the effects of the war. In the following segment, Dora discusses the various effects of the war on her orientation to the world and the values she brought to her family.
DORA: Yes. Yes. I thought that they have to know, but now knowing anything how to deal with it, we ourselves made a resolution that we’re not going to tell them too much. We thought the children are growing up, you know, television and this and that, and we are not going to put over them a burden like this, so…You cannot overburden them, but you have to tell them the truth, but only at that time what they understand, not more than they understand at the age. And this is what we did. She knew, I wouldn’t say very much, but she knew a lot about…I would tell them little things. I would not-I did not feel that I had to tell them everything. I just told them as much as they could understand this year, when they were that year and that’s it.
INT: Do you mean about your background, the Holocaust?
DORA: About my background, yes. They felt themselves, you know, that there is something different in our family than in other families.
NARRATOR: Dora notes the importance of the content of the stories being age appropriate, and she was mindful of this in her sharing. However, despite Dora’s best intentions to share her war story with her children in a manageable, age appropriate way, Elaine does not remember her experience with her mother this way. This is because the trauma of the war is, by definition, a pain that could not be made manageable. Elaine’s narrative demonstrates how even with the best of intentions, the survivor often struggles to tell the story without also communicating enormous pain. Elaine talks about the effects that this sharing has had on her:
ELAINE: Well, my mother has a number on her arm, so I asked her when I was very young
what that was, and that began the whole thing. I couldn’t have been more than about three. And she was too close to it to be able to make up a story. She started telling me what had happened. I always listened when they were talking about it, even when I wasn’t supposed to be listening, because they were telling things that were probably too-too horrible for a child to hear, but for me it was very compelling. I couldn’t imagine that this had happened to my parents, although I could imagine that it had happened to them, so I knew very early on that bad things had happened, and that I did not have the “average household of the neighbor children.” I had the “average household” of the survivor families that we knew, but that was different of my friends.
INT: How were you able to handle all of this?
ELAINE: Probably I suppressed a lot of it.
INT: This overwhelming?
ELAINE: Yes. Yes. It’s horrible. Dealt with it on a story by story basis. Felt sorry for them, felt angry for what it had done to them and what it had done to me and didn’t talk about it for a long time. Never-never identified myself as, and I guess most of us didn’t identify ourselves as survivor’s children. There wasn’t a category then. It became a category later. But internalized a lot of the stories, and then tried to argue my parents out of thinking that they weren’t that different, like saying, it doesn’t matter. You’re in America now, kind of thing. And then realizing that obviously it did matter.
INT: A burden you carried…
ELAINE: But you can’t…even as close as we were to, you know, anybody who’s a child of survivors, we still are not there in the same way that they were, so you-you grow up in what seems like privileged surroundings in comparison to what happened to theme
INT: You sound like from a pretty early age you had the sense of growing up different?
ELAINE: Absolutely. Absolutely. I-I don’t know. I’m not saying I was any smarter than
anybody else, but, you know, sometimes you just have a sense about something, a sixth sense about things, and some people have it about sports or some people have it…I just had it about that. I knew. I knew that something-I’m not going to say it was not right, that something was different, and I could read the world and knew that the world outside my house was not the same as the world inside my house. And I knew that the world outside my house was a happier place than the world inside my house.
INT: So as you became older, did your parents give you more information, more details?
INT: Did they show emotions with this material? And if that happened, were you receptive or had a period where you weren’t receptive?
ELAINE: Yeah, there were times that I didn’t want to hear. There were times I didn’t want to hear. I got-you told me this story already, with that kind of exasperated… enough, I know this.
NARRATOR: Although Dora was careful about how she communicated traumatic material, her unspoken trauma still shone through in how she interacted with her family. From an early age, Elaine knew enough of what her parents had been through to know how much pain they had endured. She expresses a deep sense of obligation to her parents, which is common in children of survivors. Elaine knew who her mother needed her to be, and she worked very hard to be that person.
One way that Dora communicated her trauma to Elaine was by being overprotective and somewhat intrusive. This intrusiveness was a constant reminder to Elaine that her mother had been traumatized, and no longer saw the world as a safe place. In the following segments, Dora talks about the stress of Elaine leaving home for the first time.
DORA: I thought that-this is the way I-I thought of myself, why would she want to go away? I mean, she has everything that she needs, that she wants. …And I took it like a punishment. I was ashamed. I was afraid. I said, what are people going to talk about us? But later on, when I learned that everybody is doing it, that it’s the right thing to do, the children have to go, they have to taste the outside world. When my son was ready to go to college, I put no…so that’s what my daughter said, that she had to make the way and after this, I didn’t-he already, when he wanted to go to college, I said, no, I even tried to tell him that he should go away. So they both went away.
INT: So why do you think it was so hard for you to let her go?
DORA: I don’t know, because that was the only thing that I had that I could hold, that it was mine. That was mine.
I-my head used to spin. I used to see all kinds of different things. Even now, they learned already, they don’t tell me when they are flying; they don’t tell me when they are going. They come when they come. I would imagine all kinds of different things. So I remember when she went to her first birthday from the one that you go to the prom, and then she was going out with him, and he was a nice kid from the neighborhood, not far. And she told me, Mom, you know, and I’m running to the window looking if she’s there. And that was the same
stuff all over. And it was after twelve o’clock. My husband was sleeping already. He didn’t know if I’m there or not. And she was not home. And I was already thinking all kinds of things. And then suddenly at five of one or five after one she came. So she was going up the porch, I couldn’t control myself and just opened the door and I smacked her in front of the boy. Well, I couldn’t live this down for a very, very…I said, why didn’t you call? Here’s a dime or a nickel. Just…Mom, I’m not a baby and this and that…And, you know, you live through the same thing like every mother, you know. You worry about your children, but you cannot keep them chained to your chair, so you let them-so you let them do and then Elaine went to college and she went to Temple because we wouldn’t let her go away. I told you this. I thought it’s a shame to live out and whatever. So she made Temple in three years and she got a fellowship to go to University of Pennsylvania. And she made it in two years.
INT: Were you as protective as your son, or is it in different ways girls are treated-
DORA: I think I was more protective of Elaine. Yeah. I was more protective of Elaine. I don’t know why, but somehow I felt that the boys can take care on himself better, so I was more protective of her. And she felt it and she knew it. Up to this day, you know, it’s like I am more secure with him, and now that she’s doing all the things, you know, that she’s driving so much and she’s flying so much, I’m not very happy with it at all.
NARRATOR: In both Elaine and Dora’s interviews it is clear how important Dora’s children were to her. This was communicated both implicitly and explicitly to Elaine throughout her childhood, and she continues to struggle with both the gift and the burden of being the center of her mother’s world in many ways. Dora’s extreme closeness and protectiveness communicated her trauma. For Dora, her children also may have represented an opportunity to address her own loss of childhood, as Elaine describes:
ELAINE: One of the things that I-one of the perceptions that I had figured out over the years was that I represented, for my mother in particular, all of the adolescence that she had never had. And I need to go back and say that I did mention my mother was from a well to do family. They certainly had enough of everything. And my mother was a playful kind of carefree child. I don’t think the same is true for my father. My mother’s notions about growing up were romantic notions. You grow up and you meet somebody handsome and he marries you and ah, you know, and I think that the war, rather than take that away intensified that, and the longing for that was really there, so that when she came to America and she had a daughter and she watched television, and my mother’s introduction to America, she read True Confessions magazine and it was so romance-orientated, and these are the things that I remember being scattered around the house. And movie magazines and those sorts of things, so she really bought into this notion of what an American teenagers life was like, and of course this is at the time when-
ELAINE: Late fifties, early sixties was…the television shows were all oriented to the teens sort of coming into their own and what they looked like and the way they behaved was very, very clear on television and I was not like that at all and so I was trouble. Problematic.
INT: These were her hopes for you.
ELAINE: These were her hopes, which I-I didn’t understand at the time. I mean, I didn’t-I wasn’t able to say, oh, excuse me, you missed your whole adolescence, I’ll do it for you. You can’t do that for somebody else. You’re busy doing it for yourself, struggling with your own things.
ELAINE: Well, I think even among the children of survivors I was the more studious sort of…I wouldn’t say shy. I don’t think I was shy, but I was serious. I was going to be successful in school. I was going to make a success of myself in school and I was not comfortable competing in the girlfriend-boyfriend arena, so I kind of hung back from that, and I remember I wore
glasses as a little kid. I mean I’m blind (laughter) and my mother would be ripping my glasses off my face, saying that no boy would ever marry me. You know, I’m ten years old. I don’t thing
it’s an issue at ten, but everything was in preparation for marriage. That was the ultimate success. I-I’m not sure-
INT: Those are pretty traditional values.
ELAINE: Yes, yeah.
INT: Both from her family, the way she was raised, and then also a function of the fifties?
ELAINE: Oh, very much. Very much a function of the fifties. The look of the fifties, the
glamour girl look of the fifties, was the look that my mother wanted me to attain, and she wasn’t looking for alternatives. She was looking for that. I can’t fault her. I can laugh about it now. It was not funny then.
NARRATOR: The lives of Dora’s children became symbols of rebuilding and moving forward from trauma. As a result, Elaine struggled with tremendous pressure to be a “good kid” in very specific ways.
DORA: She was a good girl. But, you know, like every child is, they have their meshugasen, you know, but as a rule, they…now I hear, you know, here and there, that they knew that there is something different about us, about the parents, and they tried to be good children, be good in school, to satisfy us, that we should not have more anxiety and more, you know…they tried to be good, and they were good. They were good kids. I think a lot of their upbringing was to make us happy, not to make us ashamed and not to make us mad.
NARRATOR: Elaine internalized the expectation that she had to be the good kid, and was aware of how important this was to her parents. The trauma of her mother’s past experiences sent the message to Elaine that she had no excuse not to be a good kid, and that any hardship she experienced, compared to her mother’s pain, was nothing. This manifested in Elaine feeling like she was not allowed to express emotions.
ELAINE: Not allowed to be angry. You had nothing to be angry about. You have
everything you need and more…I have a very hard time expressing anger. a very hard time. I have to be pushed way over the edge and then I am inarticulate (laughter) and I’m punishing myself for being angry so I’m usually off in a corner somewhere torturing myself for allowing myself to get angry over whatever it is that has pushed me…it’s so complicated. Too many layers to even think about.
INT: So there was guilt about am I allowed to feel angry and expressive.
ELAINE: Am I allowed to feel anything except just sort of happy all the time, not happy all the time, just sort of the middle of the road. Coping. Coping all the time. I never thought much about this. This is interesting because my husband has said things to me about this, about my inability to express really anger and I just have said, well, I’m not angry. Hah! (Laughter) Not much, huh.
ELAINE: Oh, my mother watched her sister die in concentration camp. It was awful, and, um, I
think there’s all of this why did I live and she didn’t. That, to me, has to be the biggest thing.
What makes me more worthy that I’m here and she’s not, so there’s all of the guilt over that, and the, just the sorrow. I think the longing. I don’t think my mother and her sister were particularly close, but then the situation forces them to be close, so this is all you have, and to see your sister die is not good. I think the same is true when your parents are taken from you at a very young age. Your parents become idealized in your mind. They’ve never done any wrong. They never said a harsh word. You never were angry at them. What you remember is perfection and so my mother would say things to me like, would I ever talk to my mother the way you’re speaking to me? Well, probably, but you don’t remember that because, you know, that’s been cleansed from your mind. Also, my mother never went beyond being a fifteen-year-old with her mother, so-and those…from the time she was eleven until she was fifteen were very strange years because they were in the ghetto and-and hardship and all of that kind of stuff, so normal life was not really going on. I don’t think she had resolution of those sorts of adolescent issues that are crucial, so she never broke the tide. It was broken for her. She never had to struggle for independence of any kind. It was handed to her and taken away in the same moment. That kind of thing. It’s just-it’s so abnormal. It’s so unfortunate. I mean I used to feel tremendously guilty like I caused this or something. I remember screaming at one point, I am not Hitler. I did not kill them, thinking, how long am I going to pay for this kind of stuff and why. What do I have to do with this? You know, as you get older you sort of like figure it out and say, oh well, that’s why that’s happening. I understand. Now that’s terrible, that’s too bad. That kind of thing.
ELAINE: Because I was the older one, more was always expected of me, but also, I think, because I was a female, different things were expected. I was supposed to take care of my brother. I was responsible for my brother, you know. Being six and having a three-year-old tagging after you, I hardly would invest much responsibility, but that’s not the way my parents felt. I remember my father always saying to me, I’m speaking to you like you’re an adult. And I would be looking around, who is he talking to? He’s talking to me? I’m six. I’m seven. I’m not an adult. I don’t want to be an adult. And I remember thinking; I will never do that to my child. I will never invest this sort of responsibility or foist it on him, but yes, I had responsibilities. One of the things, obviously, was this what I’ve later come to term translating the world for my parents, and that means a lot of things. It’s not only translating in language, but translating the social customs of the world. I was the one responsible for that. I remember explaining to my mother that you had to have five things to wear to school so that you wore a different thing every day. You could repeat the next week, but you couldn’t repeat within the week. It sounds so petty, however it is not when you’re trying, you know, when you’re growing up. And my mother said she didn’t understand that because she would wash my dress and iron it for the next day. And I said, I can’t wear this the next day. I have to have something else. Now where did I learn this? I watched the other children, and I watched my teachers. My teachers were the ambassadors to this new world, which was not happening in my house. It was happening at school, so school was the melting pot, the transition place and I was coming home with information from school which I was translating for my parents… I-I became the mother. Even more than the mother. I became the superintendent. I don’t know exactly. I was the teacher. I was-I was teaching them how it was supposed to be in this family. This is how we have to do this. Sometimes it was so painful because I would go through a period of humiliation in order to learn the lesson. Sometimes it was much more passive than that. You could just watch something happen and say, okay, keep that. Record that for future needs or whatever. Other times it was happening to me and I-I would just say this will never happen again. I won’t allow this to happen. And I would…when I was really little I would come home and I would try to explain it to my parents and they were always offended. They felt that were doing their best. Later on I learned it was best not to explain it to them, just take care of it. To move the process along so that they felt that they were part of it, not knowing that-that their initial reaction would have been to do it this other way.
INT: So it sounds like you withheld the feeling of shame and embarrassment?
ELAINE: Yeah. Yes.
INT: And just conveyed to them this is how we do it.
ELAINE: Yes. We could not register shame at anything. That was not acceptable.
INT: Sounds like you communicated at an early age what that was like for you?
ELAINE: But then they would be angry and their frustration would be-what are we, not trying
our best? Are we trying to hurt you in some way? That would just be so…you could tell that that was so painful for them that you couldn’t do that to them. I couldn’t do that. So I would try to turn it around into something else. I mean I certainly had-I had teenage battles with my mother galore over what I was and was not going to do and what I was going to wear or not wear, my mother being on the side of wearing things which were more I’m going to use the term sexy or revealing or-in order to fit in with this sort of Barbie doll mode that she was into. And where I was going to go, what I was going to do. Those sorts of things, just a constant kind of education as to what was going on, where I fit in and where they fit in.
INT: Do you think that results in minimizing your own feelings, that in compared to problems or difficulties that you have or had at different periods of time because of your parents’ suffering?
INT: That is a common experience for children of survivors?
ELAINE: Yes. Yes. You’re not allowed to be unhappy or suffer, because in comparison, what are you suffering about? I remember being told this. What could you possibly have to be not happy about? You have everything in the world that you could want. Why-why are you crying? Is your mother or your father dead? The, you know, those sorts of things…so yes, you tend to minimize or completely mask your feelings about stuff. It definitely affects your life in other areas. Your ability to cope with things or to talk about your needs and wants in a relationship. How could you do that? You’re not supposed to have any needs and wants? So, you know, I-I found that to be very…of course, you don’t realize it until you’re old enough to have somebody point it out to you, that you are not capable of-of reacting or acting in this sphere. That there’s something wrong here.
INT: How else did they express feelings? Did you see sadness, anger, anxiety, worry?
ELAINE: Anxiety and worry are probably the biggest ones. Most definitely. Very nervous.
Both of them, very, very anxious. My mother, in fact, always thinking that the worst will occur. Whatever it is. You didn’t call, it’s because you’re dead. You’re late, it’s because you’re dead. That kind of thing.
NARRATOR: The discrepancy between Elaine and Dora’s stories highlights the enormity of the pain that survivors of trauma carry— it seeps into interactions and reorganizes their world. Even if a story is told in an age-appropriate way, with the intention of teaching a lesson or memorializing loved ones lost, other implicit messages, and expressions of pain, inevitably come with the story. However, the Freilich family had a number of protective factors that facilitated Elaine’s ability to tolerate and digest the material and make meaning out of her family experience. Throughout her interview, Elaine is able to express healthy disappointment with certain things about her family, but was also able to acknowledge and respect that her parents were doing their best.
DORA: The children are raised a certain, different way. Different way. Although I find a lot-a lot of children of, you know, not survivors, that are raised the same way, but I think our children are achievers because-because of us. Not that we pushed them so much, but it was their way of showing to us their gratitude of being-of doing well, and I think in the fifty years it proved, you know, that they were doing good. They are good children.
DORA: I think of…they knew that we are like the beginning of a generation. Later on, when they grew up, they all knew our past. We told them about their grandparents, we told them about their aunts and uncles and how they died. They were learning. They were reading books about it. That was where they learned. They were reading in school was Anne Frank’s story, and then the ones that were more interested read other things and they were really the first generation of children that grew out of us, so they-they had heard of our stories back home, and it was a different world. It was-it was a world of learning and goodness and…in the families, I mean in the family, as ??? for parents, for grandparents, all those things that we don’t have now anymore. And this, I think, what it starts at home. It’s a very big plus in a family.
DORA: Family was everything. This was our first thing that was ours, that belonged to us. Nothing else belonged to us… We tried our best for our kids. To assimilate. To fit in.
NARRATOR: The emotional content of her mother’s stories was coupled with enough of a lesson that it could be digested and used productively. Elaine describes her experience as a young child watching the Diary of Anne Frank. Despite the emotional content of the movie, this sparked Elaine’s interest in education Americans about the Holocaust, a cause that she has dedicated her life to.
ELAINE: I remember going to see the Diary of Anne Frank, the movie. I must have been about ten years old when it came out, and my father sent me to see it. He didn’t come with me. I don’t know why. And I was profoundly affected by that at the time, although in retrospect, it was really not anywhere near what my parents went through. It’s a holiday in comparison. Yet for me it was the first sort of public depiction of something that I didn’t know that other people knew about. Here’s a point. I thought my parents were telling me stories about their lives that were somehow not really connected to history. Now that sounds crazy, but I think this is a child’s way of putting it. I didn’t think that anybody else thought about this. I knew there was a World War II. I knew that America had fought in the war. I didn’t think that anybody really knew about what had happened to people like my parents. It was sort of like they were casualties of the war, but it wasn’t common knowledge because you want to know something? I think I thought if it was common knowledge, how could people have allowed that to happen? So that was one of my rationalizations. If people had known about this, they definitely would have gone over there and done something. This is just too horrible. So in the early stages I think I believed the Americans could not have known this, and I’m-I’m kind of coming to this realization right now, but it’s very interesting because it parallels some stuff that I’m doing with the way Jews in Europe reacted to the war. So the Americans could not have known this. Then when I started realizing that the Americans must have known this, that was not a happy time for me, because now I know that people can know about evil and not do anything about it. So how do you put all of that together? Well, if they knew about it and they didn’t do anything about it, why didn’t they do anything about it? It wasn’t important enough? It wasn’t happening to people who mattered? It wasn’t happening to enough people? It wasn’t happening to their people? All of those kinds of things. Well, if it wasn’t happening to their people or people that mattered, does that mean that I, as a human being, don’t matter in this culture of America because I’m a Jew. Does that mean that Jews are throwaway people, and I think I went through a lot of that kind of stuff too. So lots of different stages here of trying to figure out why people didn’t do more if they knew. That became a problem for me.
NARRATOR: One finding from the Transcending Trauma Project was that children were better able to digest Holocaust stories if the parents were sharing in order to teach a particular lesson, rather than merely sharing emotional content. In the case of the Freilich’s, these messages centered around the importance of education, hard work, speaking and educating about the war, and appreciating one’s circumstances. Despite receiving many messages about who her mother needed her to be, Elaine also received many constructive messages that she was able to use to make meaning and chose a direction in her life.
ELAINE: If you’re told that you’re supposed to have the perspective of an adult when you’re a child, well where does that leave you? You have nothing to grow into. My father would say to me when I was four; I want to tell you this. I want you to think like an adult. I don’t think so. You know, but-so if you’re expected to do that it’s all your life. Maybe you get a lot of practice being an adult very early on. Making decisions. I had a lot of practice making decisions.
ELAINE: Just, I think that they will tell you that I am very good at decision making and that that was-they’re proud of that, and the influence was only that I was-I had a lot of practice at making decisions, and in fact got consulted on things very early on. And a lot-I guess a lot of my decisions are about working through the red tape. What do we want? What do we want to have happen? How do we make that happen?
NARRATOR: Despite the frustration with her family of origin that Elaine describes, there is also a clear sense of empathy. She saw that her parents were doing the best that they could, and was appreciative of what they were able to do for her given their traumatic histories.
ELAINE: I think that-I think that they did as good a job as they could, given what happened. I don’t have anger against them for that kind of stuff. I mean it’s not their fault, and if you could take a test to qualify for being a parent, a lot of us would fail. Not only survivors. I
think that they had problems about closeness. I think that they had problems about unresolved issues with their own parents, that they couldn’t even admit to to this day. You know, I think that it’s remarkable that they were able to do what they did. I’m not sure I would have been able to do it. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. You kind of fall into something. You go ahead and have kids. Hopefully everything works out all right. They would probably tell you that the most important thing in the world for them was having us. That it was the most reassuring thing. So-but I do think that they didn’t have physical problems when we were younger. You know, now they have a couple of things but nothing really terrible, but they’ve had emotional things that were not crippling but hindering.
INT: We may have touched on this, this sense or awareness of being a child of survivors became much more meaningful later on as an adult.
INT: What was that conflict?
ELAINE: That was a process of being able to admit the differences and then finding out that there was a community of people who also had those differences and-so that was-that kind of coincided with America’s recognition of the Holocaust too, so that if you said, my parents are Holocaust survivors, people understood what you meant. So that, coupled with an ability to admit to myself that there were things in my personality that were formed by that, because when I was younger I was damned if it was going to get to me, and then when I was older I finally realized well, guess what, it did get to me. I might as well admit it and just go with it, because it’s here. Now, and it’s real easy to fall into that thing of well, okay, I’m this way because of them. Well, I’m not this way only because of them. I’m this way because of a conglomeration of events, some of which have to do with them.
NARRATOR: Elaine has taken the lessons she has learned in her family of origin and her balanced perspective on her own strengths and weaknesses to inform how she parents her own child.
ELAINE: I think I can express affection and anger without making him feel in jeopardy that one sits at the mercy of the other, that I can be angry but still care, whereas with my parents, when they were angry you always felt that they didn’t care anymore.
INT: Is that more conditional?
ELAINE: Yeah. And that, for me, was always scary. When the criticism was being heaped on you, you sort of got this sense, if you don’t shape up, we’re not going to love you anymore. And I don’t think I ever did that with my son. I hope I didn’t. Of course, he might testify differently.
INT: How about in terms of a philosophy or attitude about life that you may have transmitted to your son?
ELAINE: That the infinite is sort of housed inside of you and that the possibilities are there
within and without, that he can do whatever he wants to do. I think that-that people are good, not bad. And I-that there’s a place for him in the world.
INT: When you think about your parents, how do you think the impact of the Holocaust will be on the next generation?
ELAINE: I-I wouldn’t have been able to predict that a while ago. I guess I was never sure how much he was listening to what was going on, although you would have really had to have been totally deaf to have missed it. (Laughter) My parents have sat in this very kitchen and told stories and my father has made it a point to target Joshua as the designated listener that day, and Joshua has transcribed things that my mother has written and stuff like that, so I think that a lot of the stories belong to him too now. He, after the March of the Living, is a different person. His sense
of values about it are very sharpened, so I think that he carries within him the stories, but not the negative stuff around them, and that’s a real powerful possibility.
NARRATOR: The values of education and involvement and Holocaust activities have been a source of strength and motivation for Dora, Elaine, and Joshua. In literature, Elaine would be referred to as the memorial candle, the child in a family that carries the memories of the survivor parents as a repository for all that was loved and lost. This child assumes the responsibility to pass on the memories to others. Her son is now carrying on this legacy, and developing his own relationship with his family’s history.
ELAINE: It’s a mixed blessing. Everybody gets a legacy from their parents. My husband’s legacy is completely different than mine. Mine colors every day of my life. Inadvertently, I think, it became something that I-it became part of my job. I never-if you would have told me that twenty years ago I never would have believed that. I would have told you you were out of
your mind. It makes me deal with people differently. It makes me-my values are different about certain things. The way I confront people is different as a result of that, so it’s-I am-I’m not
happy that it happened to them. I’m not happy that it happened to me. I am blessed in a way that I can use those things, I think, in a positive way. That sounds a little corny. Maybe I want to temper that and just say that it would be good to think that I could-that I could use what I know of their lives for-for some good.