Above, Sally Lefton-Wolfe holds up her book, The Survivor's Legacy, in which she tells the stories of several children of Holocaust survivors. She was inspired to write the book when she realized that the way her survivor parents lived and related to their children was not the way it was in all homes. As a child, she believed her home life was normal; it was not until she was older that she realized it was not. Thus, she decided to explore and chronicle some of these experiences in her book.
Here is Sally's story:
My parents were both from Czechoslovakia. My mother was in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, which I learned later in life. I am not sure about my father since my parents never really spoke about their experiences. When they did, I had a mental block and could not remember what they told me.
I did not realize my parents were Holocaust survivors until I was a teenager. What I did realize was that there was something different in my family. Subconsciously, I knew my parents had endured some type of trauma. Little things I picked up from private conversations led me to conclude that my parents had not had the type of childhood that other parents had had and that something bad had happened. I just did not know what it was.
I grew up in the Fairfax area of Los Angeles, Many of my close friends were second generation but I did not know that until later. I was jealous of my friends whose parents were American. They went on vacations, had discussions about their day's experiences, and my friends were able to talk to them about their feelings. This was something I could not do and I did not understand why.
I was always afraid to show my feelings to my parents. Whether my feelings were happiness or sadness, I would not reveal them, for different reasons. If I was sad -- for example, if I broke up with a boyfriend or had a fight with a friend -- I would not share that and burden them so I kept all my feelings inside. I felt that because of whatever trauma they had had, they did not need to know that I was sad.
On the other hand, I would not show happy feelings either -- out of guilt. I did not want my parents to know that I was having fun since they had not gotten to experience fun as teenagers. I kept my feelings inside and never shared with them. I carried this into young adulthood. It took a lot of work to start to show my feelings.
All my parents' friends were survivors. My parents never spoke of it but it was like a secret they shared with their friends. With these friends, everything was about the families, about holding on tight, not letting go. After high school, my non-survivor friends were able to go away to college or move to another state. I moved to New York when I was 20 -- I just needed to get away. My father kept calling me and asking when my "fling" was over, begging me to come home. The guilt did in fact bring me back to California.
I both wanted and did not want to hear their stories. I wanted to hear about their experiences but when they would finally tell me something, my mind would not let it register. I had a mental block regarding their stories and could not repeat any of it. In the 1980s, my father took me to Israel with him to the first Holocaust reunion. I tried so hard to focus on the stories he told me then, but I could not.
A turning point for my mother came when my son was in middle school. He asked her to speak to his school about her experiences. She would not say no to her grandson. It was the best thing she could have done. It opened the floodgates. All the children sent her thank you cards, which she kept and showed to people constantly. She then started speaking at schools and temples. It was wonderful!
While this helped her finally open up, it could not erase her severe anxiety and screaming nightmares. As a teenager, I was embarrassed when I had friends sleep over. I never asked my mother about the numbers on her arm. I was embarrassed by that as well. I now feel bad that I never questioned my mother about her anxiety, often brought on by hearing sirens or seeing a German Shepard.
Late in her life, my mother suffered from dementia. She lost her short-term memory but kept her long-term memory. So every day, she re-lived her most horrible day -- the day she, at age 14, was on a bus with her mother and sister heading to the gas chambers. Her mother, obviously aware of their destination, pushed her and her sister off the bus. My mother remembered yelling, "Mommy, why don't you love us?" She and her sister then asked someone where their mother was going. That person pointed to smoke coming out of a chimney and said, "That's your mother." She re-lived this story daily, and then would have an anxiety attack.
After my father died, my mother could not sleep alone. My brother, with his wife and children, moved in with her. His children slept with her. When they were little, they enjoyed that. When they got older, however, they wanted their privacy but my mother still wanted -- needed -- them to sleep with her. My brother often had to bring her to an emergency room when she suffered severe anxiety attacks.
In my book, The Survivor's Legacy, I interview other second generation people, and it was quite a learning experience. One friend from my youth whose parents were survivors suffered such severe food anxiety from her parents constantly pushing food on her that her throat would close up, and she became anorexic. This made me realize that trauma can take many forms.
Some of the people I interviewed suffered physical trauma, which was a surprise to hear. My experiences were more emotional as I was not able to show emotions, but some parents were so traumatized that they took it out physically on their children. A good friend of mine from high school told me that for years her father beat her and her mother. Her mother was not allowed to learn English or to drive. Another person told me that her father had a long-term affair. When the daughter found out and confronted him, he said he was entitled to have an affair because of what he had been through.
These interviews led me to conclude that my own situation was not that bad! I grew up with loving parents and was not exposed to abuse or severe anger. I count my blessings!
As an adult looking back, I see things differently. Even though my parents could not express themselves, and therefore I grew up unable to express myself, I know that my parents loved me and raised me in a loving home. I see the life my parents made for us where family was everything. How could they have gone through such a horrendous experience? I am proud of the people my parents became after the hardships they endured. My father worked very hard with only a third-grade education. He was a butcher. Whenever he made a few dollars, he would buy property, becoming a well-respected businessman. He worked six days a week, 10-hour days.
Because of my issue with hiding feelings, I have worked hard to show my emotions and I am proud of myself for overcoming what I consider an emotional void. When my first husband passed away at 58, it was so hard for me to show my sadness to my children, who were 10 and 16 at the time. But I knew that for them to be emotionally healthy, they needed to see that it was okay for their mother to cry. I have worked hard on that. My children know they can show me any emotion, good or bad. I did not feel that way with my parents. Therefore, I go out of my way to be an emotionally open parent. I am very open with my children about my feelings and emotions.
I now feel proud of being a 2G. I wish I had asked my mother questions about the things that triggered her anxiety attacks and nightmares, however. I do feel different from non-2Gs and I feel a definite bond with other 2Gs. Although I have overcome a lot, my sister, the first-born, suffers -- whether from inherited trauma or PTSD, I cannot say. She has severe agoraphobia and has not gone out of her house for 30 years. Her youngest daughter has a lot of anger towards her. She feels she never had a mother who attended her events. The traumas just seem to go on and on.
Regarding the world's perception of the Holocaust, I have some first-hand experience that is quite depressing. I advertise my book in Facebook ads. I cannot begin to tell you the horrible messages I get. One man called me a "Jewish cunt" and said he was going to destroy my people. Others have said that the Jews destroyed the world, the Holocaust never happened, and I am a liar. When I received a personal threat, I reported it to the JDL and the FBI. When I next checked this person's Facebook page, he was, fortunately, gone.
Despite these frightening experiences, I take pleasure in the fact that my children are able to express themselves and do not hide their feelings from me. And my younger son has a thirst for all the stories he can get about his Bubbe and Zaidi.
Pictured above, Sally's parents at their wedding