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The inter-generational effects of genocide

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

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

Published On: April 15, 2015 | Tags: ,,
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