By Stacey Dresner
WEST HARTFORD – As a descendant of Holocaust survivors, Sharone Kornman says she used to think her parents’ experience didn’t affect her when she was growing up in Teaneck, New Jersey.
“I had a happy childhood,” she says. “If you had asked me when I was 25 I would have told you it didn’t have any impact on me at all. But my college essay was about being a child of survivors – so even then, when I was 17, it was something that I thought about. It wasn’t a central part of my life, but it was something I wrote about. It wasn’t something that I felt defined me, but I guess it did.”
Kornman and her mother have attended Holocaust survivor conferences in Boston, Warsaw, and Texas. Each time, she has bonded with other second-generation survivors who have attended with their parents.
“There is an instant connection, and a whole bunch of things we don’t even have to say to each other because we already understand,” she says.
That connection between members of the second generation of Holocaust survivors is just one of the goals of the upcoming Descendants of the Shoah: New England Holocaust Conference, which will be held on Sunday, Nov. 11, 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m., at the University of Hartford. The conference is sponsored by Voices of Hope, an organization founded by descendants of Holocaust survivors from across Connecticut to raise awareness about the Holocaust and to fight hate and intolerance.
“One of the things that Voices of Hope has been striving to do is have some bonding sessions with our descendants…They have a bond that none of us can relate to and it is very important for them to be able to discuss similar issues that they are experiencing,” says Kathy Fishman, director of operations and programming for Voices of Hope. “We have been bringing survivors into schools for the past eight years to tell their stories, but there will be a time when survivors are no longer around and we will need the second generation to be a voice.”
Kornman, a Voices of Hope board member, along with conference co-chairs Estelle Kafer and Eliane Sandler, who are also descendants of Holocaust survivors, have labored to create a conference that raises “consciousness about Holocaust history, personal experiences and the continuity of remembrance.”
The daylong conference will offer a variety of sessions led by authors, educators, and descendants of Holocaust survivors, structured into four one-hour sessions – two in the morning and two in the afternoon.
Sessions include a Second Generation Authors Panel with Caroline Heller and Hanna Marcus; “Who We Are and Why We Came,” “Life Before and After the Shoah,” with Prof. Avinoam Patt of the Greenberg Center and two films. More general topics include “A Bissel Yiddish,” and a workshop on how to research and document one’s family history.
During a kosher lunch, keynote speaker Professor Omer Bartov of Brown University will speak on “The Life and Death of My Mother’s Hometown: Anatomy of the Holocaust.”
Event co-chair Estelle Kafer agreed that the conference will give the descendants of survivors a chance to meet and network.
Kafer’s father, whose entire family was murdered in his native Lithuania, survived the war by using the trade his father had insisted he pursue – he was a tailor who worked under the Nazis and then later the Russians. Kafer didn’t know the extent of his experiences until college when she asked him to share his story with her.
“The gates opened and he started talking, and didn’t stop until he died five or six years ago at 95,” she recalls.
Last year Kafer, who is the director of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford, participated in Speak Up, a program that helps the second generation learn how to speak about their parents’ experiences through their own stories. “Doing that was so important to me…It made me realize how his being a survivor made such an impact on my young adult life.
“It is very important to me to be involved in raising awareness for the next generation and my children, who are third generation, about the Holocaust and survivor stories.”
Co-chair Eliane Sandler hopes the conference shines a light on “modern genocide and immigration in America.”
Sandler has her own immigration story. Born in France in 1947 to two survivors, Gisela and the late Severyn Adamski, Sandler arrived in the U.S. in 1956 at the age of nine. Her family settled in Queens, New York.
“I grew up right after the war in Europe and then we moved to Israel, so I have a kind of immigrant perspective and a second-generation perspective. My parents and I learned English together. We became very assimilated, wanting to be Americans,” Sandler explained. “It was hard to get here, but once we arrived here I felt it was a welcoming place.”
She worries about immigrants arriving in America today.
“I want the conference to bring an awareness of who we are as a people today and build awareness about the causes of other people,” she says. “My mother who is 90 and totally arthritic, goes to schools and talks about [her experience] because she feels it makes a difference for the future. It is not about our story; it is about prevention of future genocides, especially in today’s environment.”
Sandler’s daughter, Shiri, will be the closing speaker at the conference. Shiri is managing director of the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda, which deals with the descendants of the Rwandan genocide. She is former national director of the Auschwitz Jewish Center of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. “She is going to bring the third generation into the conversation and give us some information on genocide,” Eliane said.
The co-chairs believe the conference has relevance to all people, and not only to descendants of the Holocaust, which is why it is open to the general public as well.
“As children of survivors,” Kornman said, “it is our responsibility to make sure that what happened isn’t forgotten and to tell it in a very personal way.”
Descendants of the Shoah Conference, at the University of Hartford, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. For information: (860) 470-5591, ctvoicesofhope.org.
CAP: Co-chairs of the Descendants of the Shoah Conference are from left to right, Estelle Kafer, Eliane Sandler and Sharone Kornman.