REVIVING A MOTHER'S STORY
“With shattered dreams, interrupted educations, no homes or family to which they might someday return, and a horrifying day-to-day existence, they could not make plans for their futures. They could only hope.”
This quote, from Irving Lubliner’s Foreword to a collection of essays and stories his mother left behind when she died and which he organized chronologically and published, reaches across generations to not only inform people of the horrors of concentration camps but to inspire them to make the most of the time they have with the elders in their families. Discovering these writings, Irving was shocked to see how beautifully his mother wrote, and to actually learn of what she experienced, which she never seemed able to discuss with him.
How could they keep going? Irving wondered, astounded to read of what his mother experienced. His answer: They could only hope.
Now speaking in schools everywhere, Irving, a retired math professor at the University of Southern Oregon, shares the stories of his mother’s ordeal with school classes of all grades.
Included in the book of writings is a speech Irving’s mother once gave at San Francisco State University about what it was like to arrive in Auschwitz (“You are suddenly in a different world,” “Why would anybody want to kill us?” “You can’t believe it – if you do, then you go insane.”). His talks culminate in his attempt to encourage the children in the audience to approach their parents and grandparents and ask them about their lives, their childhoods, their experiences. Carve out the time, he tells them. Ask the questions.
On occasion, he runs into students from these classes later who tell him that they did take his advice and now have closer relationships with their elders. His mother died before she had a chance to tell him anything in person.
Don’t let that happen to you, he cautions his audiences.
Below is Irving’s interview:
Tell us where your parents are from and where they spent the war years.
My mother was born in Pabianice, Poland. Her family was forced out of their home and into the Pabianice ghetto, later to the Lodz ghetto. My mother was sent to Auschwitz and then to a lesser-known concentration camp, Gross-Rosen.
My father was born in Slomniki and raised in Lodz, both in Poland. After spending time in the Lodz ghetto, my father was sent to Auschwitz and then to Bergen-Belsen.
1. Your childhood:
Do you remember when and how you first realized your parents were Holocaust survivors?
I don’t recall a specific moment of realization, but I think I began to get a sense of what had happened when I’d ask my parents questions such as “Why do you both have a number tattooed on your arm?” and “Why don’t I have any grandparents?” I think my parents explained that these were war-related occurrences, but there wasn’t much detail provided, and I sensed that asking questions like that caused them to dwell on painful aspects of their lives, so I tended not to ask.
Though we were not talking about the Holocaust at home, I had some awareness of the fact that my mother was talking and writing about her experiences. Plagued by nightmares and insomnia, she was often up very late at night, typing. When I’d have occasion to see what she was working on, I could see that she was writing her Holocaust-related stories (which I have shared with middle- and high-school students for many years and published as Only Hope: A Survivor’s Stories of the Holocaust in 2019). One of these was published in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1961, and, though I was just nine years old at the time, I was aware of the story’s publication and knew it was about her first day in Auschwitz. I also heard my mother speak of her annual appearances at San Francisco State University, speaking to classes studying the Holocaust.
How was your childhood affected by this knowledge?
I saw my parents lighting memorial candles for their lost loved ones each year, and I could tell that they were grieving lost family members. As mentioned earlier, I tended not to ask questions of them. There was one very anti-Semitic man who lived on our block, and my father was livid when he heard that this man had made rude religious-based comments to me (when I went into his yard to retrieve a ball). It stands out in my mind as one of the few times I had the sense that what had happened to my parents in Europe could happen to me here in the U.S. When my elementary school had its annual Christmas pageant, my parents had me sit in the office instead of attending. Given that I was left all alone (even the secretaries and administrators attended the pageant, so I was literally sitting there by myself), I had the sense that we, as Jews, were very different than the others in the school community, and I think I worried a bit about what that might mean over time. In general, though, I think my parents did an amazing job of seeing to it that I grew up without much fear that my experience would be like theirs.
Growing up, did you know other children or have friends whose parents were survivors?
Yes, my parents got together regularly with fellow survivors, and the kids generally played together outside or in another room while our parents played cards or talked. Prior to the pandemic, I was invited to a reunion of this group of second-generation survivors. We milled around and spoke with one another, but there was no attempt to organize a conversation where we could compare and contrast our experiences of what had taken place in our homes as we were growing up. Since another reunion was planned for the following year, I suggested to the organizer (and hostess) that we have such a discussion. She explained that she couldn’t do that because a significant number of attendees said they would not attend if there was any attempt to have such a discussion. She went on to tell me that some had parents with such intense anger about what they had endured during the Holocaust that it was constantly affecting their day-to-day interactions with everyone, including their own children. Not only did those parents have PTSD, but they passed it on to their children who, now, as adults, are unwilling to discuss their experiences.
If so, were you aware then that they were survivors? How did you know?
I was certainly aware that these families with whom we were gathering were also survivors, but I don’t recall how I knew that.
Did being a second generation (2G) make you feel different from other kids when growing up?
Yes, I felt different from other kids, but it never seemed all that problematic. I grew up in Oakland, California with blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and people practicing a variety of religions. My parents taught me to be accepting of the diversity I saw within the community, and, for the most part, I felt that people were accepting of us as first-generation Americans and Jews.
Did your parents openly discuss their experiences? Or did they deny, dismiss, or gloss over them?
I know of no situation in which my father openly discussed his experiences. He was quiet, devoting himself only to his job and family. I found out later from his brother that he had not always been that way and was quite extroverted in his youth in Poland. I believe he was shell-shocked and suffered from PTSD. The only time I saw his rage erupt was near the end of his life when he had Alzheimer's and enjoyed his stamp collection. From a bag of European stamps he was given, he once extracted a stamp with a picture of Hitler and a swastika on it. He held that stamp and spit on it. His grief and anger, hidden for so long, came out that way.
My mother, on the other hand, wanted to be part of the American scene, and was speaking publicly and writing about her life. I sensed that she was waiting until I was older and more mature to have a conversation with me about what she had experienced, but she passed away when I was 21, and we never did discuss the Holocaust, her eight siblings and parents (who all perished during the Holocaust), or her life as a child.
Did you want to hear their stories and memories?
Being a typical teenager, I distanced myself from my parents, so, even when I was old enough to have a meaningful conversation with my mother, I didn’t carve out the time to do so. Once she was diagnosed with terminal cancer (during my senior year at UC Berkeley), I felt like she was in so much pain that I didn’t want to dredge up even more by asking her to revisit her past. I’m guessing now that she would have wanted to speak with me about her experiences, and I regret not asking to discuss them.
2. Pros and Cons
Did your feelings about your parents and their experiences change as you got older?
Yes. Soon after my mother’s passing, my father was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, so I moved back into my childhood home to try to care for him. It became my job to go through my family’s belongings to decide what items would be kept and which would be sold or discarded. This was the first time I took a serious look at my mother’s writings, and what I discovered in them (and also in documents I found that related to my mother’s psychiatric care and efforts to get her reparations from the German government increased to help pay for that care) filled in many of the gaps in my knowledge. I gained tremendous respect for my parents once I learned about their perseverance during the Holocaust and was better able to explain what it took to survive, to emigrate and create a life in the U.S., and to give me a relatively normal, happy childhood.
Did you feel there were advantages to being a 2G? Were there strengths you gained?
My parents, especially my mother, were very attuned to the civil rights movement. Because of their experiences, they taught me to be welcoming to all, regardless of skin color, religious orientation, or other differences between people.
As a second-generation survivor with my mother’s writings to share, I serve as a bridge between the Holocaust and the generation of students now in middle school, high school, or college. They tend to think of the Holocaust as ancient history, but they get a reality check when they learn that it is my mother who survived the horrific events and wrote about them.
Do you feel that you have suffered being the child of survivors? Were you scarred in some way by being a 2G? Has your life been hampered by being a 2G?
I really cannot think of any way that I have suffered, and I don’t feel like I have been scarred by my family’s experiences. My life has not been hampered at all, and I realized my childhood dreams regarding my career. I just wish my parents would have lived to see that.
As an adult, how has being a child of survivors influenced or possibly defined you?
For many years, I shared my mother’s stories in school classrooms, and the response from students, teachers, and parents provided a clear sign that I should try to expand the audience for her writings. Publishing them in book form was a goal I set for myself about 25 years ago, but I felt that, as a child of survivors, I should contribute something to such a book. It wasn’t until I retired in 2014 that I, with the help of a writing coach, found my voice and wrote a foreword and afterword for the book. When I created Felabra Press — so named to honor my parents, Felicia (nicknamed Fela) and Abram – and published Only Hope, I had no idea how positively it would be received. Just this week, the number of copies in other people’s hands went over 1000, and it is now being used as a classroom resource by many teachers. I have given 35 presentations for Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) campuses nationwide, as well as for Rotary Clubs, libraries, schools, and book clubs. I never thought I would become a Holocaust educator, but that seems to be where I find myself today. In fact, I was recently asked to be one of two keynote speakers for a conference about the Holocaust.
Do you now feel different from non 2Gs?
Because my mother’s writings have made it possible for me to speak with younger learners, I feel that I have a unique opportunity, as well as a responsibility, to help them understand what took place during the Holocaust. It also gives me a chance to encourage young people to have conversations with their elders before it is too late, using myself as an example of what happens when one waits too long.
Irving presenting his talk at a middle school
3. The “inherited trauma” question
Do you think there is such a thing as “inherited trauma”? Do you see it as a form of PTSD?
Yes, I have no doubt that there is such a thing, and I do see it as a form of PTSD. That being said, I feel blessed not to be permanently scarred by my parents’ experiences. As a younger adult, I did have more fears than most, always concerned that something could go wrong, that I might one day lose everything as my parents had, that loved ones would abandon me (perhaps not by their choice but by circumstances out of their control), etc. It is something I’ve had to work on, and I know that those sorts of fears are much more drastic for other second-generation survivors.
Have you experienced a pivotal moment or realization in your life relating to your 2G status?
I think the most pivotal moment was in my early 20s, when I finally read my mother’s writings, as well as the documentation of the symptoms that caused her to require psychiatric care.
Earlier, when I was around eight or nine years old, another pivotal event was seeing my parents become engrossed with the Eichmann trial on television. This was an eye opener for me, revealing how dreadful things were. Seeing Eichmann in a cage in the courtroom, I could not help but assume he had done some really terrible things to be put in that cage.
Are you now concerned with the world’s perception of the Holocaust? Are you interested in Holocaust education? Have you worked for Holocaust causes? How do you feel about that?
I am very concerned with Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism, the unwillingness to give American children the real story of racial injustice in this country (slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, etc.). I was a mathematics educator for over 40 years, but I am now applying my talents as a teacher to inform students about the Holocaust and engage them in discussion about how themes in my mother’s stories relate to things going on in the world today, as well as in the students’ own lives.
(If you are a parent), How has your parenting been influenced by being a 2G?
I am not a parent, but I have two stepdaughters and two step-grandchildren. Three of the four have read my mother’s book, but my relationship with them has not been substantially affected by my being a 2G.
= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
It is available as a paperback on the website and at selected bookstores (including the one at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.). A Kindle version is available from Amazon. The website has links to various presentations, interviews, and articles about the book.
Irving keeping his middle school audience enraptured