Healing a Wounded Covenant – Children of Holocaust Survivors Reclaim their Heritage

By Bayla Sheva Brenner

Children born in the post-Holocaust era of the 1940s, 50s and 60s grew up knowing their parents had gone through hell on earth. The ghosts of murdered grandparents, aunts, uncles and siblings loomed large in their homes by their very absence. Sounds like an atmosphere ripe for major crises in faith. Yet, from many of the survivors who either lacked the strength to believe in a benevolent God or to observe His Torah came offspring who have picked up the discarded baton and enthusiastically embraced observant Judaism. I am one of those who chose to reclaim my heritage and have always wondered if there were more like me. These are the stories of survivors’ sons and daughters whose struggle with faith led to consequential life choices.

The “2Gs,” (the generation after the Holocaust) as many of us refer to ourselves, span a two-decade age range. Some of us were born in war-torn Europe, some smack dab in Middle America, but we all share basic commonalities that helped shaped our sensibilities about what it means to be in a world that could suddenly and brutally fall apart. We felt different, because our parents were different.

Born in the Bronx, New York, and raised in the Rego Park section of Queens, Allen Kolber remembers himself as a nervous and fearful child. “I was obsessed with the Holocaust,” he says. “By the time I was eight, I had amassed a whole collection of Holocaust material. I was trying to understand my father’s experience.”

His father had grown up in Sanz, Poland, and was nineteen when the war began. On Yom Kippur 1939, the Germans dragged the Jews out of the shul across the street from his home and brazenly cut off their beards. “My father decided then and there that he was leaving,” says Kolber. “He told his parents they should do the same, but they resisted. He convinced a brother and sister to join him and together they traveled to Soviet-controlled Lemberg.” The Soviets then shipped them to a labor camp in Siberia. “My father went through the war with a pouch around his neck that contained five photos of his family. Except for the brother and sister [with whom he had fled], his parents, two brothers with their families and another sister were murdered.”

Although his parents were raised in Torah-observant homes, Kolber, forty-six, was not. “Judaism [in our home] was defined by the Holocaust,” he says. “My Jewish identity was the European Holocaust identity. It wasn’t about a relationship with God or learning Torah.”
If there was any indication of his father being religious before the war, he “lost it completely afterwards.”

“He wasn’t anti-religious,” says Kolber. “[In fact,] he spoke about [his life in the shtetl] with fondness. He remembers going to cheder as a five-year-old, but doesn’t [seem to] know any of the Jewish practices. [Yet], in the photograph I have of his parents, his mother is wearing a sheitel and his father is wearing a koppel [kippah].”

At the age of sixteen, Kolber’s mother fled with her family from Berlin to France, to Spain, then to Portugal, and finally to the United States in 1942. Unlike her husband, she maintained an affinity for frumkeit. “They struck a compromise,” says Kolber. “We had a kosher home and Friday night dinners. On Shabbos, my mother, sister and I would go to a Conservative shul and then we were free to do whatever we wanted. She did, however, raise me with the sense that it would be good for me to become religious when I got older.”

Children of Holocaust survivors inevitably absorb the emotional repercussions of their parents’ trauma; its effects are usually played out as they enter young adulthood and begin to make their way in the world. Kolber describes his father as always having difficulty venturing beyond his own four walls. “He had this thing about suitcases. He couldn’t bring himself to pack a suitcase; he didn’t go on vacation or sleep away from the house.” Similarly, Kolber found that he also had difficulty navigating life. “It took me six years to graduate college,” he says. “I started out pre-med and got kicked out of [college]. I was depressed; I just sat in my room all day and smoked.”

Many survivors internalized the crushing deprivation foisted upon them; this, too, was passed on to their children. “I would ask my father, ‘What are you eating over the sink for? Sit down at the table and eat on a plate,’” says Kolber. “And he would answer: ‘You think I had a plate in Siberia? You think I need a plate? I ate for five years without a plate.’ I felt I didn’t deserve to be happy, to be fulfilled and complete.”

Kolber managed to graduate from Stony Brook University in Long Island, New York. He decided to go to law school, and to look into frumkeit. Throughout his three years of study, he attended Torah classes in Manhattan during the school year and learned at the Ohr Somayach, a yeshivah in Israel, each summer. He also started going to shul.

After graduating from law school, Kolber went to Israel for a year of Torah study and returned to the United States with a kippah, tzitzis and a desire to get serious about Yiddishkeit. He quickly set up a schedule of intensive Torah learning with Rabbi Dovid Schwartz, associate director of the Jewish Heritage Center in Queens.

Also a son of survivors, Rabbi Schwartz, fifty, has mentored a number of 2Gs who became ba’alei teshuvah. “The overwhelming sense that I get from learning with 2Gs is that their parents were generally silent about their experiences,” says Rabbi Schwartz. “Once they conducted their own Holocaust research and realized the enormity of the murder rate and how miniscule the chance of survival was, they felt a sense of mission, as if to say: ‘If my parents survived and they were incapable of regaining their frumkeit, I’ll be darned if I’m not going to.’ It brings them to a tremendous sense of purpose.”

Today, Kolber, an attorney, lives in Monsey, New York, with his wife, Liora, and their four children, each of whom is named after members of his father’s martyred family. His mother recently died; she had taken ill soon after the birth of Kolber’s first child and had been incapable of fully enjoying the gratifying nachas of grandparenthood. “I was wondering if she can see everything now,” says Kolber. “I have boys with peyos and tzitzis, and a girl who wears a long dress. She would be so happy with that.”

The Soul-Saving Power of Giving
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Tisha B’Av, the Holocaust and The Power of Speech

In our Shul, we try to include some programming on the Holocaust on Tisha B’Av. This year in addition to the CCHF videos, we had a survivor tell his story, and we showed a number of videos about the Holocaust. Although the turnout for the CCHF videos and the survivor’s story were very good, the Holocaust videos did not draw big audiences. I think the low video turnout is because many people, who’s parents were not survivors, want to move past the Holocaust and it’s extremely painful images.

I think there are two important messages of the Holocaust. The first one is from the Haggadah:

“And it is this [covenant] that has stood for our Forefathers and us. For not just one enemy has stood against us to wipe us out. But in every generation there have been those who have stood against us to wipe us out, and the Holy One Blessed Be He saves us from their hands.”

We need to remember this and realize that until the coming of Moshiach, we always have to be pray and do our hishtadlus to try to mitigate the effects of those who wish to do us harm.

The second message gives us insight on why it makes sense to remember the Holocaust on Tisha B’Av itself. Rabbi Noson Weisz points out that

“God never retaliates hastily against public sins committed by the Jewish people. Before He initiates concrete corrective measures He sends us messages of ‘tochacha.’ The destruction only arrives if we fail to react to the words of ‘tochacha’ and make no move to institute changes in our lives to mend the spiritual flaws that caused us to sin.

Sin alone never brings on destruction. God is just; it is He who made us mortal and fallible and gave us free will. If He were to destroy us for the sins we commit, the destruction could be laid at His own doorstep.”

In the days of the Moshe through the destruction of the Second Beis HaMikdashes, the tochacha was through prophecy, and much of the Tisha B’Av liturgy is focused on our shunning their words. In our post prophecy the tochacha comes through harmful events, like the Holocaust, making the exact improvements needed difficult to discern, but the often quote Talmud in Yoma (9b) gives us some general direction: “Why was the Second Temple destroyed? Because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred of one Jew for another.”.

This year the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundations videos, titled the “Last Tisha B’Av”, focused on working on the sin of Loshon Hara. In his “practical steps” presentation, Charlie Harary pointed out that this is only the third time in 16+ years that this was the topic, although most of us would have initially thought otherwise.

As part of his presentation, Charlie informed us of a new internet project called PowerOfSpeech.org. It gives us social media tools to help us work on our speech collectively.

Please take a look at Power of Speech, so we can make some personal efforts towards making this the Last Tisha B’Av.

Jewish Survival – The Paths of our Great Grandparents

By Rabbi Meir Goldberg

While in the Janowska Road Concentration Camp, Nazi SS officers forced the Bluzhever Rebbe and fellow prisoners on a death march. The Rebbe walked with a maskil (free thinker) whom he befriended, a man who did not believe in G-d. As they approached several huge ditches, the prisoners were ordered to jump across, an almost impossible feat. If they landed in the ditch, they would be summarily shot.

“Well Spira,” said the maskil to the Rebbe, “It looks like we’ve reached our end.” “Just hold onto my coat and we’ll jump across together” replied the Rebbe. They closed their eyes and jumped. They opened their eyes alive on the other side. Shocked, the maskil turned to the Rebbe and asked, “Rebbe, we’re alive, we’re alive because of you! There must be a G-d! How did you do it Rebbe?” The Rebbe replied, “I had zchus avos (ancestral merit). I held on to the bekeshe of my father and his father and all of my ancestors. But tell me,” asked the Rebbe to the maskil, “how did you reach the other side?” The maskil answered, “I was holding on to you!”

I related this story to my students during an inspiring Shabbos in Krakow, Poland, while on a tour of old Polish towns and concentration camps. We had been singing and speaking words of chizuk for hours on that cold January Friday night and nobody wanted to go to sleep. We thought we came to Krakow and would inspire the town. Yet it was 600 years of kedushah from some of the most notable names in the Jewish world whose bekeshe we were hanging on to.

When living in the large frum population centers, we sometimes have the tendency to think that there are so many frum Jews, who view life and our surroundings much the same as we do. Yet we all realize that Torah Jews are but a minute fraction of the world population. What are the odds that out of the close to 7 billion people in the world, we are one of the 14 million of Hashem’s chosen people? And out of those 14 million, what are the odds that we would be one of the 1 million Jews who observe his Torah? How did each of us get here? Why are we frum, while so many of our estranged brothers and sisters are not?

The answer is that each one of us has a great grandfather and a great grandmother who made a conscious decision at some point in their lives, that living as a Torah Jew was the most important thing in their lives and they would pass it on to their children. And whether they lived in Frankfurt or Warsaw, Pressburg or Casablanca, Vilna, Allepo or Munkacz, they swam against the tide of assimilation that surrounded them on all sides. They chose to remain shomrei Shabbos, though they were in the minority. Many had to make these decisions after they came to these prosperous shores, while faced with the pressures of providing for their family, while some have made this decision on their own, after growing up in already secular households. This is why each one of us is here today, keeping Shabbos, going to a shiur, living as a Jew should, and passing these ideals on to our children.

The monotony of life has a way of breaking us down. Words, actions, life choices, often seem to be trivial. We subconsciously convey these messages to our next generation. They take note of our deeds and foibles, what we look at and whom we praise. Everything we do matters and will leave an impression on the next generation. The decisions we make now, however small they seem, echo in eternity.

A friend of mine is well known in the Kiruv world for his incredible success in inspiring hundreds of Jews to Teshuva. I often wonder what it is that makes him so successful. While he does speak beautifully and has a certain dynamism that creates an aura of life and vitality around him, he isn’t much different than many others who have not nearly made quite such an impact on Klal Yisroel. It was when he told me his grandfathers story that it all made sense.

His grandfather grew up in Germany and instead of spending his years in Yeshiva, he fled the Nazi’s. By war’s end this man was half dead, barely surviving the camps; 70% of his stomach needed to be removed. He was nursed back to health by his wife, my friend’s grandmother, who was determined to make a new life for both of them.

The couple moved to America and this German survivor, who knew not much more than how to daven, set out to find employment. During his first year here, he had 39 W2 forms, as he got fired almost weekly from his job as a tailor, because he refused to work on Shabbos. This simple man, educated in almost nothing other than the horrors of life, would not budge when it came to shmiras Shabbos. He finally found steady work which allowed him to keep Shabbos and he raised his family as Torah Jews.

When I heard this story, I understood the secret to my friend’s kiruv success.

Poland, the land inhabited by so many of our ancestors whose Torah life we cling to, is a land of paradoxes. It has a certain old world charm in its rolling, green pastures and quaint European small towns. Yet its big cities look something like the Bronx, with its throwback communist buildings and infrastructure. It is a land so rich in history, with nearly a millennium of a rich and varied panorama of Jewish life. Yet its soil is so saturated in Jewish blood that the ground nearly cries out wherever one goes. Is this land one of kedushah due to the presence of so many great Rabbinic luminaries and millions of Jews who died al Kiddush Hashem or is it a land of tumah because of the hate, murder, death camps and crematoria?

This is what brought 46 secular college students and their frum kiruv staff to the ultimate paradox. As we marched out of Auschwitz-Birkenau we walked along the old train tracks on which millions of Jews were brought in to death or misery. Yet unlike those Jews of 70 years past, we marched out singing Yaakov Shweckey and Yonatan Raizel’s classic, V’hi Sheamda. We gathered underneath the archway entering the camp, this archway of death, singing the words, “V’hakadosh Baruch Hu matzilainu miyadam.” 70 years ago they tried to annihilate us, yet here were 46 college students seeking life. Not merely in the materialistic sense, but more so, yearning for something real; for a fresh, spiritual vitality.

We sang together for a half hour and when we finished singing, we looked up at another paradox. During the Polish winter it is almost always cloudy, dreary and overcast. Yet on this evening a full moon shone. This same moon to which the broken inmates looked to in eager anticipation during Kiddush levana, one of the only Mitzvos they could perform; the moon of which they knew that although it may be small now, it will someday become full and complete again, just like themselves and the Jewish people. Now, 70 years later, it shone on us in all of its wholeness, on a group of 46 students looking to become spiritually whole once again, who were treading down the path of life of our great grandparents.

Rabbi Meir Goldberg is the Director of the MEOR Rutgers Jewish Xperience. He can be reached at mgoldberg@meor.org

Thanks to the Lakewood Scoop for permission to republish this tribute to Jewish survival.

The Difficulties of Making Sense of the Holocaust

These past few weeks, I’ve been working my way through Daniel Mendelsohn’s “The Lost—A Search for Six of the Six million.” It’s a long book, 518 densely packed pages, but it’s fascinating, as it reveals the holocaust in great and chilling detail and yet, at the same time, this book, a masterpiece in its own way is fundamentally wrongheaded.

In this unique memoir, Mendelsohn, turns the tragedy of European Jewry up close and personal, narrowing the focus from six million to six, the six victims who happened to be members of the authors own family.

Mendelsohn sets out to gather up as much knowledge as he can about his now extinct tribe of relations, the proud Jaegers of Bolechow, Poland. He seeks out all traces of them from the details of their physical appearance—swarthy, tall, blue eyed, to their work life–butchers, their hobbies, card playing and embroidery, their friendships and love affairs and of course the circumstances of their demise

Though he is intellectually honest enough to admit that “the living can never truly know the dead” Mendelsohn, devotes five years to this project starting online at Jewish genealogy websites and then traveling four continents and interviewing dozens of people who may have encountered these lost Jaegers. Slowly , painstakingly, a portrait emerges of six good but ultimately ordinary human beings who had the terrible luck, as Mendelsohn sees it, to have lived and died in the worst of times.

Sadly, there is one major gap in his inquiry and that is religion, spirituality, what his relatives would undoubtedly have called Yiddishkeit. As a secular American Jew Mendelsohn just can’t fathom that in a shtel like Bolechow, ran according to the timeless rhythms of the Jewish calender and that even a wealthy, dapper, beardless fellow like his Uncle Shmiel wasn’t just a prosperous butcher, a macher, he was first and foremost a Yid.

Reading between the lines, I’d bet the Jaegers were by the war years, not Haredi anymore but somewhere on the cusp between traditional and orthodox. Shmiel dealt in kosher meat and he and his family had Jewish names– Shmiel and Esther, Rochel , Rochel , Leah Frydka (Frieda) and Bronia (Breindel).

Sadly, Mendelsohn’s inability to apprehend this facet of his relatives lives reduces the book’s poignancy. At one point, Mendelsohn imagines his late uncle’s as he walked from the cattle cars into the gas chambers at Belzec. What might he have been thinking? Nothing special it seems., at least according to Mendelsohn. Although it is widely known that many holocaust martyrs died with reciting the Shema or the Ani Ma’amin the possibility of those final moments being devoted to prayer is never considered.

It is this lack of understanding that makes it impossible for Mendelsshon to interpret the holocaust . Unlike his assimilated brother, a believing Jew can see the holocaust as part of a bigger picture and anti Semitism not as a freak occurance, but also part of the plan . Every Seder night we declare it, as an object of faith that that in , “every generation, our enemies stand upon us to destroy us but the Holy One Blessed Be He saves us from their hands”.

Of course Mendelssohn never gets this. Ironically it is he and his intermarried siblings who join him on his journeys who are far more lost than the “lost” Jaegers who are now holy martyrs in Gan Eden.

Originally Published on 8/14/2008