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A New Year’s Reminder: Your Parents Would Have Wanted You To Be Happy

2018 is about to depart, and I want to wish my friends and colleagues a very happy and healthy 2019! A new year is always an occasion to pause and re-evaluate, as well as to orient ourselves towards the things we want to do in the coming years, the traits we want to continue to improve or get better under control, and the hope that we will be healthy and happy and bring happiness to those around us. I want to add my two cents here and remind the ‘second generation’ individuals among us of something that I have found very helpful in striving towards the fostering of our resilience and relationships.

Children of Holocaust survivors are children who grew up with parents who lost their world, and decided to live on and rebuild a new one. The profound courage and strength manifested in this decision cannot be over-emphasized. At the same time, these parents, including even those who had managed to flee to safety before the Holocaust but lost parents and siblings whom they left behind, were people who were inevitably marked by the very real and horrendous impact of hatred, betrayal, and the irreversibility of loss. For them, love and loss were poignantly interconnected, and this experience, as well as the deep rupture of basic trust in human beings and in the non-Jewish world in particular, has colored their ways of being in the world.

In addition, Holocaust survivor parents were immigrants, who wanted more than anything to provide their new families and their children born after the catastrophe with a good life, and the opportunities they have been robbed of. The wanted their children to be healthy, happy ‘Sabras’, Americans, or citizens of the other countries to which they had immigrated, they wanted them to be free of the burden of persecution. However, these immigrant parents did not know how to be “American” or “Sabra”. The inevitable struggle between the immigrant generation and the first generation of non-immigrant children often led to conflicts in the family. The potency of the presence of parental trauma and the degree of persistent post-traumatic residues differed among families of survivors. However, the recognition of the parents’ suffering was an implicit, sometime explicit, over-arching theme in the life of most children of survivors. This meant that, when children felt their parents were disappointed, worried or upset by their behavior or by their choices, this perception was associated with a very negative feeling about the self. Causing parents who had suffered so much in the past any additional pain was felt to be a terrible infraction, a sign of ‘badness’. Yet growing up involves developmentally appropriate needs that could cause a trauma-survivor parent undue anxiety. When parents did not want a child to go away on a class trip, going away felt like a cruel and selfish act. When parents were anxiously awaiting by the window for an adolescent returning late from a party, staying out late and enjoying oneself at the party became also a selfish pleasure, which comes at the cost of parental pain. These experiences have been distilled in many children of survivors into a general sense of distrust of their own happiness, a reticence to follow their own desires, and feelings of guilt when doing so, especially when someone we care about wants us to do something else.

One of the most important things to remember and to focus on is to remember that the main goal and wish of the survivor parents, oftentimes their reason for going on living, was that their children be healthy and happy. We must remember that this is what the parents would have wanted more than anything. If their own terrible losses had colored their view and made them overly protective and worried about their children’s safety, if their post-traumatic symptoms and anxieties interfered with how they were able to support their children’s ambitions, it was not their intention nor their fault. It is now up to the children, who have become adults, to free themselves of the undue guilt they might still carry with them for having ‘hurt’ survivor parents or disappointed them, or for not having done ‘enough’ as good children to fulfill their filial obligations.

As a child growing up in Israel in the 60’s, I was not yet aware of the avoidance and silencing that characterized the attitudes towards survivors of the Holocaust in the early years. What I experienced was the salubrious influences for the second generation, of the idealization of becoming the “new Jew”, in contrast to the Jewish history of persecution. It was relatively easy in the young State of Israel to feel that what the parents were worried about, what they felt was the way to do things, was “the way it was there, in the Diaspora, in Europe. Here things are different!”

It was a way of dismissing the past, and it had its downsides, but it helped children of survivors focus on their right to invent for themselves the ways in which they felt they will be able to become the healthy, rooted, happy people their parents would have wanted them to be, even if the parents themselves could not model the way to get there. It is a lesson well worth keeping, for all children of survivors wherever we are: we must try to put the post-traumatic influences that influenced some of the survivor parents’ behavior “in brackets”, and highlight and focus on their resilience, on their life-force, and on what they would have wished for us, our happiness and well-being.

The way we feel about ourselves and about challenges we face, the way we respond to things we cannot change, is very much determined by our beliefs. The children of survivors are parents and grandparents now. For the next year and the years to follow, intentionally focus on your ability and personal responsibility to find your own way to happiness, and give yourselves and others the permission to do so.

Happy 2019!

               Irit Felsen


  1. Olga Francesca Fisher says

    I wish you and your Family a Happy and Healrhy New Year!

    • Irit,thank you for your most important work with holocaust survivors and their families .so many people are blessed to have you in their lives.yours ,tali kadmon-stren ,manager of reuth-eshel ,israel

  2. Francine Glasser says

    Much needed encouragement thank you

  3. This is so important to hear and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for saying it. Wishing you and yours a healthy, happy and peaceful New Year.
    Suzanne Vick

  4. Susan Kleiner says

    Happy and Healthy New Year. Very well said! Susan

  5. ruthie Hoffman says

    This is the story of my life,so well said..Thank you.
    Happy New Year to you and yours.


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