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We Were Parents Unto our Parents

Rav Simcha Bunim, head of the Aliyah Movement, speaking in Pultusk, Poland in 1928.

My father's years working in the unbelievable cold of Siberia affected his heart and was a major factor in his early death. My mother followed the love of her life last year. They had spent the war years together, glued to one another. Many other survivors who had lost their families married out of a need for human companionship. My parents married for love.

Our Holocaust generation is becoming merely a historical fact, as more and more Holocaust survivors pass on. And we, the Second Generation, are obligated to teach our children that there were once towns in Poland with names such as Cracow and Lublin, where the great masters of Torah learning and yeshivas flourished. We need to make them aware that Hungarian and German Jewry were the "Intelligentsia" of Jewry - its academic and professional presidium. 

The writer’s mother, Bobby Rose, aged 17, on the eve of World War II

We were in fact parents unto our parents; the roles reversed for lack of choice. Most of our parents, although they attended night school to learn the native language, had a lengthy road to writing a check or to calling a utility company. We were their road to understanding the "New World". The word "no" did not exist. If we were asked to jump, our response would be 'How high'?

Our newly found American friends were astounded that our mothers did not work. They were even more astounded that we did not have a cleaning woman and that the heavenly aroma coming from the kitchen was our mother's cooking. Before we knew it there were more children at our table than we were able to afford.

What they weren't jealous of was the manner in which most of us lived. Our family was the lucky one! We had a great uncle, a slum-lord who favored us with a bathroom in our tenement. Others only had communal bathrooms, which made life quite difficult. We also had a bathtub, used mainly for putting a live fish in before killing it for 'gefilte fish' for Shabbat.

Our tenement was "decorated" with myriads of fire escapes so that it would be easy to escape in case of a fire. The Shirtwaist Triangle fire had killed many women who had worked there and had had no way to escape. The tragedy took many young lives, as girls as young as 13 were working to help their families make ends meet.

Socially, we all knew each other intimately. Air conditioners were for the wealthy only. So in hot steaming summers, we would all sit on the stoop and share our daily adventures in the big city. Socially, we all knew each other intimately. Teenagers taught each other slang so that they would fit into the American teen crowd. Adults reviewed their English lessons with one another and discussed politics. If one needed a job, inevitably one of the neighbors would ask his boss and the problem was solved. If one needed a babysitter, there was always a volunteer. Paying the babysitter was unheard of. We were one big family, having gone through the gates of "Gehenom".

As children, we never felt a lack of anything material. Most of us had only one or two games, which we shared with one another. The rest of our free time was spent in the library, a dream come true! Who had ever seen so many books? And story time with Mrs Finegold the librarian, was magical. 

Family portrait: Esther (first on left), elder sister Fay and younger sister Carolyn, with Bobby Rose and Rav Simcha, taken shortly before Rav Simcha died

Our lingua franca was Yiddish. To this day when I speak Yiddish, my memories return to those days of communal life and simple happiness. We would sing Yiddish songs, someone would play the balalaika, another the violin, the strains of our voices reaching the heavens to those our parents had known and knew no more. Even our non-Jewish neighbors would come down and join us in our merriment.

And so the years flew by. Some of us succeeded financially and bought homes in neighborhoods such as Flatbush and Borough Park. However, we the Second Generation, unaware of the toll having Holocaust parents had taken upon us, rarely actuated their professional dreams. Many parents believed marriage and children were paramount, since our families had lost so many. If a woman dared to dream too high, she could be sure this dream would remain just that - a dream.

There was the exception. The strong woman who did not let even their parents interfere with her dreams. This was a rarity. All my life, I wanted to be a physician, but, this did not please my parents, so out went my dream with the baby's bathwater. To this day, whenever I see a female physician, my heart goes pitter-patter. My parents believed that if I climbed too high I would never marry as men would be intimidated.

The irony of it all is that I am now a single mother, as are many Second Generation children. There is a vague gloom over us, perhaps due to those of us who were told Holocaust bedtime stories rather than stories like Snow White. We felt we had to be responsible and protective of our parents. Our parents were suffering from PTSD - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - unknown at the time; they had difficulty showing us love or hugging and kissing us.

We, the Second Generation, often developed the same symptoms. We were stressed and highly strung, with a touch of psychological trauma. Studies have shown this to have been passed on to the Second Generation. Surprisingly, it is only recently that medical studies have detected problems in communication and interaction in Third Generation children. Their anxiety ranges from hunger to survival to disease - all contracted from their Second Generation parents.

We were, and some of us still are, parents unto our parents; a lost generation whose main concern was happiness for a previous lost generation. 

Shlomo graduating from Officer's training

Footnote: Our lives together have been joyous, full of love and caring, plagued with questions as to why Hashem did not choose to give us a father, but nevertheless miraculous, and full of intrinsic worth. I remember my younger son Nadav wrapping himself in a full roll of toilet paper and coming out in public telling us all he was a mummy. And Shlomo, my older son, choking Nadav and telling me that "he likes it". I'm so very sorry boys that Zaydie Shlomo died before you were born. He would have been so proud of his two "einiklech" and so sorry that Bubby Rose was beginning her illness and had no compassion for her lovely boys. All you have is me and Fay (my older sister). We are a prime example of a decimated Holocaust family. However, we are also a prime example of courage, spirit and "AM YISROEL CHAI'. 

 

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Sunday, 05 December 2021

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