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The inter-generational effects of genocide

Photo of Helen Epstein giving the 23rd Annual Morton Lecture.

Noted author Helen Epstein delivered the 2015 Robert Salomon Morton Memorial Lecture on how having parents who survived the Holocaust has shaped who she has become.

Author and aca­d­emic Helen Epstein dis­cussed the inter-​​generational effects of geno­cide on Monday evening at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, deliv­ering the 23rd Annual Robert Salomon Morton Memo­rial Lec­ture to stu­dents, fac­ulty, and staff in the Raytheon Amphitheater.

The daughter of Holo­caust sur­vivors, Epstein explained that her family’s past had shaped her future, molding her art and her friend­ships, her fashion sense and her teaching style, her par­enting skills and her belief in social justice.

Over the past 50 years, I have become more aware of how per­va­sive my Holo­caust her­itage is, and I struggle to find a bal­ance between living in the present and being pre­oc­cu­pied by the past,” Epstein said. “There is no ques­tion that I became the kind of writer I am because of my family’s past.”

Her talk on the inter-​​generational trans­mis­sion of trauma served as the cen­ter­piece of Northeastern’s Holo­caust Aware­ness Week, which is pre­sented by the Human­i­ties Center and the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties in part­ner­ship with the Holo­caust Aware­ness Com­mittee. Titled “The Impact of the Holo­caust on the Next Gen­er­a­tion,” the edu­ca­tional series of events aims to explore the Holocaust’s legacy in the 21st century.

Epstein has made a living out of exam­ining the topic through her writing, pen­ning the ground-​​breaking non­fic­tion book Chil­dren of the Holo­caust: Con­ver­sa­tions with Sons and Daugh­ters of Sur­vivors and the memoir Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother’s His­tory.

Both of her par­ents grew up in the Czech Republic and were the sole mem­bers of their fam­i­lies to sur­vive the Nazi occu­pa­tion: The woman who would become her mother was lib­er­ated by the British at the Bergen-​​Belsen con­cen­tra­tion camp in Northern Ger­many, while the man who would become her father was lib­er­ated by the Rus­sians at a work camp in Poland.

My par­ents had no work and no place to live,” Epstein said, “but the war had not changed their attach­ment to the Czech Republic.”

Both remained in Prague in the imme­diate after­math of the war, meeting in 1946 and then bringing Epstein into the world in 1947. But the Com­mu­nist coup forced the family to flee, and the trio moved to New York City’s Czech com­mu­nity in 1948. Epstein’s mother became the family’s bread­winner, designing dresses for the well-​​to-​​do, while her father, a two-​​time Olympic swimmer, even­tu­ally became a fabric cutter in the city’s gar­ment district.

Epstein was in awe of her par­ents, won­der­struck by their improb­able story of sur­vival. She clung to them and to their tra­di­tions, rather unlike her Amer­ican coun­ter­parts who yearned to dis­tance them­selves from their filial oblig­a­tions. As a teen, Epstein devel­oped a liking for her par­ents’ favorite cen­tral Euro­pean lit­er­a­ture; hit the slopes in def­er­ence to their unre­quited love of skiing; and dressed in her mother’s hand­made clothing, which, she said, had made it dif­fi­cult for her to develop her own sar­to­rial sense later in life.

In many ways, sur­vivor fam­i­lies are dif­ferent from the Amer­ican model,” she explained. “In the United States, it is about sep­a­rating from par­ents and staking out your iden­tity among your peer group. Among sur­vivors, sep­a­ra­tion was equated to painful loss and death.”

Her par­ents, she said, instilled in her a keen sense of morality. Her mother, she noted, went out of her way to employ African-​​American women in her dress­making busi­ness, while her father rarely let a racial slur go uncon­tested. Their sense of right and wrong influ­enced whom she did—and whom she did not—bring into her inner circle. “It was impor­tant to me that my friends be eth­ical, respon­sible, loyal, and fair,” she said. “I had enor­mous tol­er­ance for sad, wounded, or eccen­tric people, and little interest in friv­o­lous ones.”

Years later, she became some­thing of a con­fi­dant for the trau­ma­tized and bereaved. As the first tenured female pro­fessor in New York University’s Depart­ment of Jour­nalism, she lis­tened with sen­si­tivity to the mar­gin­al­ized stu­dents that approached her with their prob­lems. “I believe that my back­ground as a daughter of sur­vivors infused my teaching with a sen­si­tivity to stu­dents strug­gling with all kinds of trauma,” she said.

In the Q&A, one attendee asked her to explain whether Holo­caust sur­vivors have a respon­si­bility to share their sto­ries with their family. Epstein replied in the affir­ma­tive, but noted that sur­vivors should be careful not to over-​​share, espe­cially with children.

My mother over-​​shared and I knew a lot of this stuff when I was 3, which was too soon,” she said. “But as a parent, I would not lie nor keep secrets from my children.”

-By Jason Kornwitz

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