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Thoughts on “Voices of the Descendants”

The third and final segment of our three-part program, “The Voices of Descendants of Holocaust Survivors in Writing” took place yesterday. I had the pleasure of conducting a conversation with Emanuel Rosen, the grandson of Dr. Hugo Mendel and his wife Lucie, and Noah Lederman, the grandson of Hadasa and Leon Lederman. Each man went on a long and arduous journey in search of clues about the history of their grandfathers. Each published a book, the culmination of the personal odyssey they have gone through over a period of ten years of interviews, research, and international traveling that they had undertaken.

There are many very talented ‘second generation’ writers among us, but not yet that many ‘third generation’. Noah’s grandparents both survived the Holocaust in Poland. Each of them, separately, endured atrocities in Nazi concentration camps and suffered immense losses of family, friends and community. They met shortly after the war, married, and had their first child while still in the DP camp in Bergen Belsen, which had previously been a concentration camp. The Ledermans emigrated to the USA, where Noah’s father, their second child, was born.

Noah’s grandfather had been one of the “sewer rats” in the Ghetto, risking his life getting in and out of the Ghetto through the sewer system to bring in food. He later participated in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. In the USA, Leon Lederman managed to become a successful businessman, a loving grandfather and a ‘superhero’ to his admiring grandson. Noah’s grandparents never spoke of their experiences during the Holocaust, and dodged his questions about it. Yet, as he said, the Holocaust was “in his face”, as a photograph of some three dozen family members gathered around a Jewish celebration, that hung on the wall at his grandparents home. But no one would explain who these people were, or what happened to them that they were all dead.

Emanuel’s grandfather, an established lawyer in the town of Hamm, Germany, was one of the few who saw the writing on the wall. When he was banned by the Nazis from practising as a lawyer, Dr. Hugo Mendel convinced his wife to take their very young daughter, auction their possessions, and leave for Palestine. The year was 1933. As a result, the Mendels did not go through the atrocities of the Holocaust in Europe. They however suffered multiple, life-altering losses. Uprooted refugees, they found themselves in a completely foreign climate, literally and metaphorically speaking. They lost their material belongings, the social and cultural context in which they were moored, and worst of all, they lost who they used to be. These losses turned out to be particularly devastating to Emanuel’s grandfather.

Even among survivors of the Holocaust in Europe, there is a “hierarchy of suffering”. Many whose lives were dramatically impacted by Nazi persecution, have nonetheless not identified themselves as “survivors”; for example, child survivors, who were often told they had been too young to know and suffer, as well as adolescents and adults who were not in the concentration camps but with partisans in the woods, those who fled to Russia, and other refugees who managed to leave Europe just before the worst of it came to be. My choice of these two different accounts by ‘third generation’ reflects the expansion of the larger narrative of the Holocaust to include those who were forced to flee their countries because of Nazi persecution.

Another very important addition to the narrative of the effects of the Holocaust has been highlighted by several of the stories presented by second and third generation authors in our series. Survivors who after the Holocaust developed psychiatric symptoms were viewed as suffering from ‘endogenous’ vulnerabilities, especially if they managed to function well for a number of years and then succumbed to their illness. Holocaust survivors who developed psychotic symptoms, such as the ones I interviewed in my research with the Yale University Trauma Study Group in 2005, were diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia, which was not regarded as a result of their traumatic experiences. We now recognize the reality of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other post-traumatic reactions with psychotic features. Those who developed depression, like Dr. Talila Kosh-Zohar’s mother, and those whose depression led them to take their lives, like Goran Rosenberg’s father and Emanuel Rosen’s grandfather, were not always recognized as casualties of the Holocaust. It depended greatly upon the mental health professional whom they met, and professionals were embedded in the convictions of their own professions, and in the attitudes of the larger society, as Professor Haim Dasberg wrote, who was himself a child survivor of the Holocaust. In some atrocious cases, as in the initial evaluation of Emanuel’s grandfather, the psychiatrists assigned to evaluate the eligibility of Holocaust survivors for compensation by the German government had been, just a short while earlier, Nazi party members or even active participants in the medicalization of murder. The horrifying re-traumatization that such ‘evaluations’ inflicted cannot be fathomed, yet it must have been quite widespread, given the research that shows that more than half of the German physicians were early joiners of the Nazi party, more than any other profession.

Both Emanuel Rosen and Noah Lederman expressed the ‘holes’ in their knowledge and in their understanding of the past that propelled them to undertake such an intense journey of research of the histories of their grandparents, which also turned into a valuable process of self-exploration. My friend and mentor, the late Dori Laub, wrote the seminal paper titled “Knowing and Not Knowing Massive Psychic Trauma” in which he described how trauma can be not fully known even to the survivors themselves, due to its overwhelming of the capacity to register, to process and later to retrieve extreme traumatic memories. Thane Rosenbaum wrote about the experience of the children of Holocaust survivors as “Second-Hand Smoke”, the internalization of explicit and implicit affects and fragments of stories that took place throughout daily life in and interactions with survivor parents. For the third generation, empirical research suggests that the toxicity of such intergenerational transmission has been replaced by the sense of being untethered to the past, by holes left by an unknown past, holes that are an omnipresent absence. This absence led Noah to seek the knowledge that his father said he tried to forget, and Emanuel to find the truth that his mother chose not to share with him. In the process, the descendants who write about their family’s past must grapple with many dilemmas, about privacy of those who are no longer here to give their consent to the story being told, about whose story it is, theirs or ours, and do we have a right to insert ourselves into the story, as it has impacted our lives?

Given the series of meetings we just had, and the products of the efforts of the writers, the answer seems quite a resounding “yes”.

         Irit Felsen


  1. Risa Katz says

    Hi Irit,
    Is it possible to view this program as I would have loved to see it but it was during work hours for me?

    • Irit Felsen, Ph.D. * says

      Hi Risa,

      Please find the links to the three segments of the program on my blog, they were posted today!

      Thank you so much for your interest in these programs, it is very meaningful to me.


  2. Karen Katz says

    Like so many of the second generation, I grew up without any information of the Holocaust experiences that my mother endured. The subject was completely taboo, yet still impacted my youth in a profound way. It was only after my mom passed away did I find letters and photos that shed some light on her past. And, I recently had the courage to watch her 1996 interview with the Shoah Foundation. I found out much more, and can only wish that I had watched it many years ago, while she was still alive.

    I admire the two authors for the journeys they each took to write their books. Thank you for such an interesting and inspiring presentation.

    • Irit Felsen, Ph.D. says

      Dear Karen,

      So many of us did not get the opportunity, or feel they did not take the opportunity, to get the information when it was still possible. Even those of us who did ask and did get some answers, will forever feel that there was so much we did not hear, because every moment of those hellish years had so much in it.

      My hope is, that by listening to the various experiences that are expressed by the various authors, as well as in gatherings of 2G’s, one can make sense and integrate better one’s own experiences, even in the absence of knowledge about your own family’s past. That is part of the reason and the value of the special events and gatherings of those who share this unique legacy.



  3. Jana Zimmer says

    Thank you. I was only able to see the second half. Is there a way to access a recording?

    • Irit Felsen, Ph.D. says

      Dear Jana,
      Thank you for your interest! The recordings to the three segments of the series of conversation “Voices of the children of Holocaust Survivors in Writing” have been posted on my blog. They will also be listed on the website of the Museum.
      Thank you,

  4. Isabel J Alcoff says

    So sorry I could not attend but truly appreciate your insightful summary . As we witness the aging and passing of our survivor generation, there are still so many questions that went unanswered and so many stories still untold. I don’t know of any other group of people who have so many scars from their parents and grandparents . I truly appreciate everything you do to expose and heal us. Looking forward to being together again in Washington, DC. Isabel Alcoff

    • Irit Felsen, Ph.D. says

      Dear Isabel,

      Thank you so much for your words! I am very much looking forward to being together again at the conference in DC.



  5. Thank you for your continued exploration of the after effects of the unspeakable and insufficiently recognized horrors of the Holocaust. What was a revelation to me was that the German psychiatrists evaluating survivors for reparations were formerly members of the Nazi regime. I realized that very often even today a psychiatrist is recommended to a “victim” based on a common cultural background. However, it is often a disservice to the injured party as the professional has his own biases. What a dilemma even for our modern, enlightened times. I’m certain that too is a topic you know how to address.

    • Irit Felsen, Ph.D. says

      Dear Lea,

      Yes, it is horrifying to realize that the process was so blind to these terrible facts…When I lived in Germany, where I worked for 4 years for the Israeli Government, I read a terrible long piece in “Die Zeit” that describe in great details, with full names, many high ranking Nazis who very shortly after the war became highly esteemed professionals and government officials in West Germany.

      The issues you raise are of course of relevance today, but this is perhaps not the place to get into that.

      Thank you again for your interest in my programs and work!


      • Indeed, this is not the forum for who addresses the issues of traumatized survivors. It is only to highlight how valued you are in making this a specialized area of your expertise. Thank you.

      • Irit Felsen, Ph.D. * says

        Thank you so much for such warm words, Lea!


  6. Karen Perna says

    Were these 3 talks recorded?

    • Irit Felsen, Ph.D. says

      Hello Karen,

      The three talks were recorded and the links posted on my blog, as well as on the Museum of Jewish Heritage webpage (under events, I believe).

      Thank you very much for your interest!


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