Twice removed, but horrors not forgotten

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When Shelley and Andrea Mainzer were toddlers, their grandmother took them to San Francisco's Holocaust memorial.

A leisurely stroll through Lincoln Park it wasn't, once they caught a glimpse of the sculpture's rough, stark white corpses and the lone figure standing inside a barbed-wire fence.

Few grandparents would take small children to such a graphic display. But to Rachela Gelbart, a 75-year-old Birkenau survivor, no age was too young "to enlighten the grandchildren about it. It was very important that they know where they came from."

Gelbart, whose late husband was also a survivor, is currently undergoing radiation treatment for cancer.

"Survivors are going," the San Francisco woman said. "Little by little, people are forgetting."

The worry of so many aging survivors is not so much that the second generation — their children — will fail to convey the lessons of the Holocaust, but that the third generation is too far removed to relate to the darkest period in Jewish history.

"I was there when they tore my parents away from me," Gelbart said. The grandchildren "can't comprehend what it was really like."

Much is known about children of survivors; the number of discussion and therapy groups attuned to their problems are increasing. But so far, much less has been written about the effect of the Holocaust on grandchildren.

"The impact on the third generation is so variable," said Marta Fuchs Winik, a daughter of survivors and an Albany family therapist who specializes in working with survivor families.

But Winik perceives at least one common thread spanning the generations. "Among children of survivors who are my friends, we're all therapists, lawyers and teachers. And a lot of us do a lot of social action and community work," Winik said.

"We want our children to be altruistic. The second generation has felt strongly about that. We want our children to feel strongly about it, too."

Rachela's daughter Ruth Gelbart certainly has concerns about how her parents' legacy will be retained by her own daughters, Shelley and Andrea.

"My children are more distant from it," the 48-year-old Menlo Park resident acknowledges.

"It worries me what will happen with their children. It's important that they don't get into that sense of security that it won't happen again."

Andrea, now an 18-year-old Foothill College freshman, said that repeatedly hearing her grandmother's story has created a profound impact. She never forgets that Rachela was in line for the gas chamber when she got pulled out for work.

Still, Andrea insists she has learned much more about life from the way her grandmother has lived since the Holocaust

"Her friendliness and openness to everything has made me realize that you shouldn't judge people by how they look or what their race or religion is," she said.

Not all grandparents are as quick to share their memories as Gelbart.

Berkeley sculptor Helen Breger, who survived the war by escaping to Trinidad from Vienna, doesn't talk to her grandchildren much about her wartime experiences.

"It isn't just information. It's suffering and it's a burden," Breger said.

However, Breger's daughter Michelle Shelfer has not shied away from talking about the Holocaust to her two children, Lochlan and Raechel.

Raechel, who is 12, has been intrigued by the Holocaust for some time. She and her mother have read several Holocaust-related books together, which has led to nightmares for Raechel.

"I wake up in the middle of the night really freaked out," said Raechel, who lives in Woodacre. "The dreams are about Nazis trying to get me."

As grandchildren of survivors age, though, many of them are able to achieve some perspective about the lives of their grandparents.

Deborah and Leah Simon-Weisberg, for example, know the Holocaust infuses every action of their stepgrandfather, Roman Greenbaum.

The 77-year-old Los Angeles resident, who spent all of the war in concentration camps including Auschwitz, is obsessed with survival.

"Every part of his body is muscle," said Deborah, a 24-year-old medical assistant at Oakland's La Clinica de la Raza who plans to become a physician.

He hoards "enough food to live on for the next 10 years and there's always a closet full of toilet paper," said Leah, a 27-year-old who works in the San Francisco office of Sen. Barbara Boxer and plans to become a lawyer.

Their stepgrandfather "has this thing that he's going to be the last Holocaust survivor alive," Leah added. "They can keep dying if they want, but he's not going to die. I know he's been telling himself this for 60 years."

Their biological grandfather, who fought in the Jewish underground, died when their father was 19.

Their grandmother, Bernice Greenbaum, also lived through the war. A native of Poland, she survived the Holocaust by going into hiding. She wrote her memoirs several years ago and gave copies to her grandchildren.

"My grandmother is a very strong figure for all of us," Deborah said. "She went through this horrible experience…She came away from it with the feeling that you need to be just, which is such a great response to the Holocaust. She's so open-minded and forgiving. She talks about how you can't hate German people now."

The family's intense history has cropped up at many turns in the lives of the two sisters.

While Leah's junior-high classmates were turning in essays on "horseback riding and their favorite whatever," for example, she was writing about Treblinka.

Leah who has blue eyes and wispy blond hair — unlike her olive-skinned, dark-eyed sister — was given the message "that it was good that I didn't look Jewish.

"I think it's totally internalized racism, but the members of my grandmother's family that survived were the ones who could pass."

Born a few years after the end of the war, their Jewish father seemed to need some distance from his Jewish roots when the sisters were young. Ironically, it was their Quaker mother who maintained the Jewish traditions in the family.

"She considered us Jewish," Leah said. "It was important to my mother to always light Shabbat candles because my grandparents are survivors. She didn't want us to only know we were Jewish in an anti-Semitic context."

Like Leah and Deborah's mother, Cynthia Brody has walked a fine line in transmitting identity.

Brody, a San Rafael therapist, was adamant that her two children learn the story of her survivor parents, Ernest and Hermina Moskowitz.

But "I tried not to traumatize them. I didn't tell them graphic stuff at a young age."

Nonetheless, Brody's daughter Julie readily recalls her mother's reaction while running a seemingly innocuous errand one day.

"She used to design dresses. Around the time of my bat mitzvah, we went to the city to pick out fabric," said Julie, a 28-year-old therapist who is in the midst of a two-year Harvard postdoctoral fellowship.

"She saw some people carrying garment bags and she had the association that they were body bags…Her trauma was coming through to me and it stuck with me."

One of the biggest regrets for many Holocaust survivors and their grandchildren is a sense that they are running out of time.

Gelbart's granddaughter Shelley wishes she could accompany her grandmother to Poland so she could hear the stories in the places where they actually occurred.

"I've read books on the Holocaust, but I want to see the camps," the 16-year-old said. "If I could see the camps, I could imagine what happened. I could understand exactly what she went through. If she showed me, I think it would be more meaningful."

Gelbart, who took her daughters back to Poland years ago, laments her current state of health.

"I'm trying to keep up. But I'm not well," she said.

"It's too late to take a trip like that."