“They had no childhood. They had to be adults as children and this takes a toll.”
With these words, Maureen Wertheim summarizes the problems she faced as the child of two Holocaust survivors. Even as a child, Maureen felt that she was the adult and had to be the one to take care of everyone else.
The photos above depict Maureen's mother at three stages of her life
This role came full circle in recent years. With her aged mother suffering from dementia, Maureen took her mother into her home and cared for her for seven years, until her death in January. Not only did Maureen feel that this was her duty, she also wanted to somehow make up for her mother’s difficult life.
Inherited trauma is real to Maureen, and she states that “not dealing with it continues the problems.” She believes her background has made her a born caregiver and an independent person. Yet her childhood memories and resentments haunt her.
It all began in Washington Heights, the New York neighborhood popularized by Lin-Manuel Miranda in the Broadway show In The Heights. Maureen’s parents, both from Germany, settled there and it is where Maureen and her brother were born and raised. In the postwar period, Washington Heights was an enclave for German Jews. Most of her parents’ friends were from Germany, as were the members of their synagogue. The rabbi gave the sermon in German and Maureen remembers thinking then that the harshness of the language was how the Nazis spoke and how they scared people into submission.
Her parents’ wartime experiences differed. Although both families owned successful businesses in Germany, her father’s had family in Switzerland so he was sent there.
Her mother’s experience was far more traumatic as she was what became known as a Hidden Child. The danger began when her mother’s grandfather was sent to a concentration camp. After Kristallnacht, her mother’s father clearly saw the writing on the wall. He got out of Germany, to Cuba and then the United States, where he tried everything he could to get the rest of his family out. It was a long and difficult ordeal, and Maureen is familiar with all the details of his frustrating mission.
Maureen’s mother, who was seven years old, did not make it onto the Kindertransport with her brother. She was put on a train to France instead, where she initially lived in various Children’s Homes, which were run by OSE. (This organization, which went underground in France during the war to save children, eventually rescued over 5,000 children.) When that was no longer safe, the couple leading the group of children managed to arrange to be sheltered by a French farmer, who let the boys live in one of his barns and the girls in another. They attended classes, boys and girls separately, and “gym” involved walking in the woods.
After one girls’ gym-walk in the woods, the girls returned to find all the boys and the farmer gone. They had been discovered; they had to leave. The Underground came to their rescue and led them toward the border with Switzerland. Maureen vividly recalls her mother’s recounting of that frightening experience. The Underground leader led the girls through the woods at night and showed them that they were following a body of water which was the border with Switzerland. He told them that he could only take them so far and they would have to continue on their own. When they reach a point where the water is shallow, he instructed, they should then cross through it into Switzerland.
After he left them, the girls continued. As they approached the spot where the water was clearly shallow, her mother spotted the tip of a bayonet hovering over the water. Terrified, Maureen’s mother was certain she was about to die. As it turned out, the bayonet was being wielded by a Swiss border guard, who was lifting the barbed wire hidden in the water so that the girls could get across!
The children were immediately placed in a Swiss Deportation Camp. Maureen’s mother was then able to contact a distant relative in Switzerland, with whom she lived for a few years before being able to immigrate to the United States. There, at 14, she was finally reunited with her family, whom she had not seen in seven years. They did not recognize her and she did not recognize them.
Hearing of her mother’s experience, young Maureen developed a fear that this could happen here, at any time, and she had to be ready. She also worried that she would not be strong enough to survive if she had to go through something like that. Her family, she felt, never acknowledged these fears and simply told her that she was too sensitive.
The stories had a profound effect on young Maureen. She never remembers not knowing that her parents and other relatives were survivors. Her great-grandmother had survived a concentration camp and was, as Maureen puts it, “a shell of a person.” Maureen always knew not to ask for things that others had. She had nightmares in which she was chased by goose-stepping soldiers. Her neighborhood was full of people with numbers on their arms, and the answers to Maureen’s questions about the numbers frightened her more, thus compounding her trauma.
In her neighborhood lived other ethnic groups – Irish, Italian, Black, Puerto Rican – but she and her family remained ensconced in the German Jewish community. Her father, walking the streets, recognized a familiar name on a butcher shop – the name belonged to a customer of his father’s in Germany. He was given employment there and quickly became a butcher at this kosher German shop, thus sealing them further into that community. However, at some point, refugees from other countries began arriving. The German Jews looked down upon the Russian Jews when they arrived, believing they, as Germans, were more cultured. In turn, the Russian Jews looked down on the Polish Jews. Maureen always found this bewildering, as they had all been victimized by the same enemy. To this day, Maureen cannot tolerate prejudicial remarks about any group.
Her parents apparently processed their trauma in different ways, and Maureen was keenly aware of these differences. Since her mother was a Hidden Child, Maureen believes she felt guilt, not only for surviving but for avoiding internment in a concentration camp. Stories of Hidden Children were not given the same attention then in talks about the Holocaust as were stories involving concentration camps. Therefore, her mother minimized her own ordeal, often stating that others had it worse. She also seemed unable to provide adequate positive nurturing to her children.
Her father, on the other hand, used any reference to the Holocaust experience to emphasize that one needs to be independent, not attract unwanted attention, and be prepared for a crisis. Unfortunately, her father was filled with anger and had a terrible temper. In Germany, he was slated to become owner of the successful family business. His family lived in a multi-level house and had status. Maureen saw his anger as his inability to accept what had happened to him. Maureen’s brother, as a child, provoked their father and thus became a target of his father’s disappointment and rage, while Maureen became the one who could calm him down and de-escalate a violent situation. She understood the roots of her father’s temper.
At some point, the family re-located to Rockland County, and it was there that Maureen noticed a change in her mother. During the 80s, Maureen’s mother attended a Hidden Child convention. Working with this group of Hidden Children, she documented her story. Maureen saw her mother begin to acknowledge her past and become more interested in sharing her story.
Both Maureen and her brother could not wait to escape their family. Her brother moved to Israel, where he still lives, and Maureen attended an out-of-town college. The trauma of her Holocaust legacy, however, could not be escaped. She always felt angry that her parents had not left Germany earlier and bristled at depictions of Jews being lined up and marched to their deaths.
As Maureen examines her trauma, she aims to explore the elements of her upbringing that have spawned it. She sees the characteristics associated with Germans as a culprit. Germans are often stereotyped as being meticulous record-keepers and obsessive about cleanliness and organization in the home. The stereotype includes a rigid way of thinking, a belief that there is one right way to do things. There is no gray; everything is black and white. They are formal, dressing well for even casual events. In addition, they believe in their superiority. Maureen believes the German Jews absorbed this mentality, and she feels her parents were a prime example of that. Maureen believes that this attitude contributes to anti-Semitism to this day.
When Charlottesville happened, it revived much of Maureen’s trauma. She felt so unsafe and endangered that she toyed with the idea of leaving the United States. Since she was caring for her mother at the time, she could not do that, but her worries regarding anti-Semitism in the U.S. were stirred up. Her situation gave her a sense of what it was like for those Jews who had not left Germany when it was still possible to leave.
Always fearing that another Holocaust could occur, Maureen raised her children to be aware of their Jewish heritage. “If people are ever again rounded up based on their religion,” she explains, she wants her children to understand “what they are dying for.”
Maureen has put together a PowerPoint presentation about her mother’s Hidden Child experiences and has spoken at schools and other places about it. Her mother’s story became part of a traveling exhibit. Her children have seen the exhibit and are proud of their grandmother.
As far as the rigidity with which she was raised, Maureen is now questioning how this attitude contributed to the dysfunction of her family. Since her mother’s passing, Maureen is taking this time to re-assess her upbringing. The “there is one way to do things” attitude, she believes, prevented children from using critical thinking and valuing research. Despite Maureen’s need to come to terms with her childhood, she understands that both her parents had to find a way to deal with their trauma.
“Getting help was not an option my father would allow,” she states, recalling how he echoed the thinking of the time. Fortunately, that belief is no longer accepted, so there is hope today for remaining survivors as well as struggling 2Gs, 3Gs, and others.