Children of the Holocaust Survivors

On Yom Kippur, Neil participated in a panel discussion of children of Holocaust survivors.

I'm 42 years old, the youngest of 4 children. My Dad is 84 and my mom is 78. My wife Debbie and I, along with our 3 children are very fortunate that my parents live so close to us in their Menlo Park home. Their story and how they arrived here in the US is really quite an amazing journey, and I'll try to share a few highlights as well as offer some insight to how their experiences impacted my life. Although my mother's parents are Hungarian, my mom was born in Belgium in 1930. Her parents left Hungary in 1928 since Jewish student quotas prevented her father from attending the Hungarian University. My grandfather earned his engineering degree in Belgium where my mother was born. My mom and her parents were displaced to London where they spent the war, often sleeping in the subway stations to be sheltered from the bombings. After the war, they moved to Paraguay, and eventually to New York.

We never thought of my Mom as a Holocaust survivor. We just thought that she lived in London for the war. The reality is that her family was trying to stay one step ahead of Hitler to save their lives.

My Dad was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1924. In the early 1940s, he was taken from his home and made a slave laborer in Hungary. He was later moved to several concentration camps and survived, cattle cars, boats, and forced death marches eating grass from fields to survive. Although my father was liberated in 1945, his brother and sister were killed by the Nazis. He came to New York in 1946 where he lived with his Aunt, and made his living as a bus boy. With minimal financial support, he earned a marketing degree from Temple University.

My parents met in New York City and were married in 1954. Shortly after they were married, they undertook a new beginning; they moved to Boston so that my Dad could enroll as a freshman at MIT, at the age of 32. He graduated three years later, and shortly afterwords, my eldest sister was born.

Although I knew that my parents were Holocaust survivors, they never really spoke about their experiences other than during Seders. My Dad would talk about how he slept in a barn, and on one Passover, they managed to get a single piece of Matzo and held a Seder. Other than that, he never spoke about the Holocaust, and oddly enough, we never asked. A few years ago, I asked him why it is that he didn't discuss his experiences. His reply was that he thought that we were not interested since we never asked.

As a child growing up in Poughkeepsie, New York, everything seemed pretty normal to me. It was all I knew. In fact, I thought that I was pretty lucky to have my grandparents living in our home. My parents sounded like everyone else - to this day, I don't hear an accent when they speak. We lived a comfortable middle class life. Yet our home was very simple. We had no fancy "china" or expensive art. Everything we had, we could have easily walked away from at a moment's notice. My great grandparents were murdered by the Nazi's because they wouldn't leave their home with all their valuables. This clearly had an impact on where my parents saw value.

When we thought about value, we didn't think about possessions. We thought about education. We were taught from a very young age that you can have everything taken from you - your home, your possessions, and your money - that is, everything except your education. To that end, we knew that the best thing we could do for ourselves was to get a good education. My brother, eldest sister and I earned engineering degrees. My other sister earned a degree in marketing.

My parents were and are still today very active in the Jewish community. My Mom was the president of our synagogue, and my dad chaired the local Federation campaign. Our conservative synagogue was the center of our life.

Being a child of parents who survived the unthinkable doesn't define me - yet it may have influenced me more than I realize. It's not clear that the influence is a result of their Holocaust experience or their strong values that my parents installed up me.

So where does this leave me?

As a closing thought, what may have had the most profound influence on me has been how my parents have summarized all their life lessons into a very simple thought: while we can't always control what happens around & to us, we can control how we respond and react.

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