By Cindy Mindell
WESTPORT – Researchers working with Holocaust survivors over the last 20 years know that the trauma of wartime experiences impacts upon second- and even third-generation family members.
Children of Holocaust survivors know this first-hand.
“I think we second-generation survivors are all looking for something in our own identity, looking for who we are, in a very profound way,” says Jackie Sussman, a Weston resident and psychotherapist whose parents survived the Holocaust in Poland. “That’s because we’ve always lived with Jews and non-Jews who are not survivors and they are a different breed. You feel that you’re different, you feel this otherness inside; there’s a certain pain about your history that you carry but that hasn’t been verbalized, named, or talked about.”
Sussman is one of three organizers of a new second-generation Holocaust survivor group based in Westport. More precisely, the three created a venue for a communal conversation already percolating for a long time.
For fellow organizer Ann Cohn, the impetus to meet other children of survivors was triggered by her mother’s death four years ago. “I started to get this feeling that I needed to do something for the survivors,” says the Wilton resident. “They’re all dying – even the children of survivors are getting older now – and soon there isn’t going to be anybody left to tell the stories. These are stories that we have to keep telling.”
Earlier this year, Cohn met Agnes Vertes of Holocaust Child Survivors of Connecticut, who was presenting a documentary film at The Conservative Synagogue in Westport (TCS). “I just went up to her and said, “I want to work beside you,’” Cohn recalls. “Agnes said, ‘Someone has answered my prayers!’”
Vertes told Cohn that she had been trying to start a second-generation survivors’ group. She soon put her in touch with Westport resident Marcy Bratman, synagogue administrator of TCS and the child of a survivor, who had been approached by Sussman about a second-generation initiative.
Bratman had seen ebbing participation at the annual Westport-Weston-Wilton-Norwalk community Yom HaShoah commemoration over the past few years. In 2011, when TCS hosted the event, organizers invited second-generation survivors to be part of the program. “We couldn’t believe how many children of survivors in our community,” she says.
The three women met to discuss ideas and decided to reach out to community-members suggested by Vertes.
“We had the feeling that nobody would want to meet and deal with painful issues and issues of identity,” Cohn says. “But with almost every call, we would get into hour-long conversations of such depth and intimacy. It was like meeting old friends. Even if our experiences were different, we all felt that our parents were very special in certain ways, because they lived through what they lived through.”
On July 18, 22 people from much of Fairfield County braved a summer storm to participate in the first meeting, held at The Conservative Synagogue.
Each expressed a personal wish: to help survivors, to look inside, to learn Yiddish or Jewish arts. Nearly everyone spoke, and many recognized their own experiences in others’ stories. They kept talking, even after the meeting and then in the parking lot when the building was locked for the night.
“I was shocked to find out personally how much I was a product of my parents’ experiences,” says Sussman, who uses image psychology in her practice and recently began working with Holocaust imagery. “Children of survivors are inextricably bound to and impacted by those experiences in so many ways. Our parents’ stories live on in our minds and we live those stories and have points of view on them. Whether our parents spoke about it enough or too much, we live and breathe those images inside us. Now we’re exploring how we can take the experience and do something about it to help humanity. That’s the gift.”
The group will hold its next meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 22 at 7 p.m. at The Conservative Synagogue, 30 Hillspoint Road, Westport. For more information, contact Ann Cohn: (203) 762-0058 or Jackie Sussman: (203) 544-8409.