GENERATION TO GENERATION
Helen Locke, a resident of Arizona, is co-chair of the Jewish National Fund USA Women's Event of the Desert States. In addition, she is a member of the Education Committee of the Phoenix Holocaust Association.
Pictured above, Helen Locke, on the right, lights Shabbat candles with the ladies of her family -- her mother, daughters, granddaughters, sister, niece.
Both my parents are from Vienna, Austria, although they met and got married in the United States. My father left Vienna after Kristallnacht (November 1938) at the age of 23. Through the help and advice of a friend, he was able to reach the United States about 6 weeks after he left.
My mother left Vienna as a 14-year-old girl, with her parents and brother, in September of 1938, and after traveling through Germany, Luxembourg, France (always one step ahead of the Nazis) and Spain, she and her brother arrived in New York in September of 1941. It was a 3-year journey from when they originally left their home in Vienna until their ship docked in Brooklyn, New York.
I don’t remember when I actually found out my parents were Holocaust survivors; I feel like this was something I always knew, somehow. I was aware that my parents were European, and this set them apart from the parents of my friends who were American born. That did make me feel different. As a family, we primarily associated with extended family though – grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins of my parents – who were also survivors, so I did not feel different for the most part. My closest friend in elementary school (with whom I am still close to this day) was also the child of Holocaust survivors, and I wonder and even suspect that this may have had something to do with my feeling so comfortable with her and in her home.
In fact, when I visited Vienna with my husband and daughter in April of 2010, we hired a driver to take us to the homes where my parents had lived. If I closed my eyes in the car, I could hear all the uncles [“oncles”] and cousins talking (loudly!) with each other – this Austrian non- Jewish man sounded exactly like any one of my male relatives whom I heard growing up. And listening to him brought me back to my childhood when all the family gathered in someone’s home on the weekend or for a Jewish holiday.
My parents were always willing to talk about their own childhood and war experiences, although as a child myself I was never overly interested. It was only as I grew older and became a parent and a grandparent that I yearned for more details and specifics about how my mother and father felt about their experiences. In 2005, I became immersed in their history in the course of compiling their “Story” into a book format. I interviewed them and asked many questions during this process, and sometimes my mother did get a little annoyed, as if to say, what’s the purpose of this? In fact, for most of her adulthood, my mother did not even consider herself a “survivor” – there are so many others who suffered way more than me, she would say. During our annual Holocaust Day Commemoration in Phoenix, she wouldn’t walk in with the other survivors holding a candle; she felt she didn’t belong with them. However, about 5 years ago, she had a conversation with the President of the Phoenix Holocaust Association who told her that because her life was severely impacted by the Nazis coming to power and she had to uproot herself, she is definitely considered a “survivor”. (In fact, this is the working definition of a Holocaust Survivor established by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.) Today, Mom is more than willing to talk and share her experiences with others.
As I gained a better understanding of my mother’s experience and was able to get the “whole picture”, I did grow to appreciate more fully what she had gone through. When I became a parent, I would look at my daughters when they were 14 years old and try to imagine them having to leave their home and begin this harrowing escape through Europe. And then again when I became a grandmother, I would do the same thing when observing my 14-year-old granddaughters. It was so hard to imagine that these sheltered children could do what she had done all those years ago. But as Mom would always say, it’s amazing what you are capable of when you have no choice!
Now, as an adult, I do not feel significantly different from my friends and peers who are not 2G, nor do I feel that I have suffered from “inherited trauma” – although I definitely believe that it is a real phenomenon. Among these non-2G’s, however, I do feel proud of my parents and what they had to go through and what they achieved in their new life in America. And sometimes I feel that my friends look at me with some degree of admiration for my family’s background. My mother’s overly optimistic view on life has impacted my own perceptions of her experiences as well, focusing more on those individuals who helped her and her family along the way rather than those who forced them to leave and worse.
Somehow, though, the Holocaust is always in the back of my mind as I would wonder how I would have reacted if I had been in the situation my parents were - if I would have been able to survive such an ordeal. Seemingly innocuous situations would bring me back to the Holocaust. For example, when house hunting, I’d look at possible “hiding places” (e.g., a hidden closet); once my family was at a neighborhood aquatic center when a child got hurt and until the ambulance came, we were asked to stay in the area, where we were. Being separated from some family members upset me terribly, as it reminded me of families being separated during the Holocaust. The innocent train ride at our local Railroad Park always reminded me of the infamous trains to the concentration camps (although a non-2G friend of mine felt the same way.)
I am extremely concerned about the word’s perception of the Holocaust as being “fake” and am alarmed that there is such a lack of knowledge about it. My involvement with the Phoenix Holocaust Association is a gratifying experience as it strives to educate and spread awareness about all genocides to individuals within the greater Phoenix area. I am particularly proud of my granddaughter, who is in the process of writing a fictional account of my mother’s experience, and now she is the one who is constantly asking questions! From generation to generation…
Helen with her mother Esther, her daughter Sherri, and her twin granddaughters Chloe and Maya.
From generation to generation...