Survivors' kin: What obligation?

Robert Aigner was 17 years old when his parents first told him about the cattle cars that took his father to Auschwitz and the Jewish ghetto that imprisoned his mother in Budapest.

Since then, Mr. Aigner, a real estate manager, has written a novella with his sister about their parents' experience during the Holocaust, invited his mother and father to speak to his employees, and traveled to Poland to collect soil samples from the sites of former concentration camps for the new Holocaust Memorial in Portland, Ore.

Aigner is not convinced that any of his actions can change the course of the future. "In the global sense of not having [the Holocaust] happen again, I'm not sure we can control that," he says.

But the motivation for his Holocaust-related activities is crystal clear: "Telling their story is a great way to honor my parents' strength and character, and that is of great importance to me."

The passing of time has triggered an international effort to preserve the stories and the lessons of the Jewish genocide before it is too late. But for the children of survivors - many of whom are now in their 40s and 50s - the question of how the Holocaust will be remembered is complicated.

There is no standard response. Their parents left these children a legacy that seems to transcend the personal. How to treat it is an issue that many of this second generation are still sorting through.

For some, deep engagement in Holocaust or human rights outreach seems the best way to honor their parents and bring meaning to what they suffered.

Yet others, including some raised by mothers and fathers who were largely silent on the subject of the Holocaust, don't feel the same desire to speak out on the subject.

But does the second generation have a moral responsibility to tell their parents' stories?

Some feel a powerful impulsion to do so. Yet there are others who claim the right to separate themselves from the dark stories and images of the past.

Still others aren't sure how to react and struggle to know how to balance individual needs and public interest.

For Elaine Coughlin, president of the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center (OHRC), there's no question that family history confers social obligation.

"The second generation has a responsibility to carry on and preserve their parents' stories," says Ms. Coughlin, whose organization communicates the lessons of the Holocaust to the public. "Education and awareness are critical to make sure this kind of event never happens again."

Her father was a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, but never spoke of his experiences while she was growing up.

It wasn't until 1978, when he spoke at the high school where she worked as an English teacher, that Coughlin heard about the horrors he suffered.

Now she wishes she had encouraged him to speak more often. "While he was alive, there was an unwritten tone not to bring it up," says Coughlin. "Now I wish I had. I do this in memory of my father."

An eye to the future

Website developer Karen Katz, whose mother escaped Nazi Germany when she was 10, also says her family background shaped her sense of moral obligation. But she channels that sense of obligation through supporting the ACLU and other civil liberties groups.

"My mother felt that people who made an industry of getting memorials weren't serving the cause," she says, pointing to more recent atrocities - such as the genocide in Rwanda - that cry out for attention.

For Ms. Katz, the best way to honor her family members is to fight for the causes that mattered most to them. "When I read about the Patriot Act, I go nuts," she adds. "My grandfather [who died in the concentration camps] was a medaled German World War I veteran - there's patriotism."

Not all sons and daughters are committed to public outreach. "The sons and daughters of survivors are as heterogeneous as the survivors," says Menachem Rosensaft, founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors.

For some Holocaust survivors, ensuring that their children led more normal lives than their own was a paramount concern.

As children, Audrey Dobson and her sisters Ruth Hipes and Helena Fagan Becker heard their mother scream during nightmares. They also knew that she lived with a fear of being identified as Jewish. But Miriam Greenstein Motola, a survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, didn't tell her daughters the full story until the 1980s, when a neo-Nazi movement took hold in Oregon.

"My mother buried her past," says Ms. Dobson, a technician for Qwest. "She wanted us to have the normal childhood she didn't have. And we did."

Today, neither Dobson nor Ms. Hipes is involved in Holocaust education.

"It's just not a huge issue in my life," says Hipes. The sisters do attend Holocaust ceremonies with Ms. Motola. "But for me, the events are about offering support to my mom," says Hipes.

Personal exploration

For some children of survivors, dealing with the Holocaust requires looking within rather than without.

Ms. Becker, sister of Dobson and Hipes and a former high school English teacher, has written a book and poems about her mother's experience.

"I've always examined my life in terms of its impact," she says, describing a recurring dream about her mother hiding in an attic in the Jewish ghetto in the Polish city of Lodz.

"But I'm not on the bandwagon," Becker emphasizes. "It's not so much global human behavior that interests me. It's more of a personal exploration."

Aigner says he, too, felt the need to look within and explored the topic with a therapist when he was younger.

But a more recent attempt to connect with a group of second-generation Holocaust survivors lasted only a month, he says. "People were still moping in a victim space, something I found really depressing. We are who we are because of what our parents went through. I see that as positive, strong."

For many of the second generation, however, as they note the passing of their parents' generation, the question of how they will handle their legacy becomes more imperative.

"I think about it more now," says Dobson. "That maybe it's our turn to carry the torch."

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