Child of survivors reveals silence of scarred parents

When Israeli writer Nava Semel was growing up, her family seders were small, a silent testament to family members killed in the Shoah.

"I always felt that the number of dead people around the table was greater than the living people," said Semel, 44, speaking recently at the University of San Francisco.

Semel, whose mother survived Auschwitz, spoke to a crowd of 50 about her experience growing up a child of a survivor. Her talk, "Second Generation — Children of Holocaust Survivors in Israel," was part of the USF Swig Judaic lecture series.

"Auschwitz was like a keyword for every evil, but I never spoke with [my mother] about it," she said, adding that silence around the Shoah was not unusual at the time.

"The Holocaust was not a subject in the houses of Holocaust survivors. Parents were so scarred they weren't able to recall it for their children. I see my generation as having parents with amputated parts."

She said there was a "silent agreement" in houses marked by the Shoah.

"You won't ask and I won't tell. Parents felt their most important mission was to protect their children."

Semel has written a number of books highlighting the experience of Israelis living in the shadow of the Shoah. She also spoke last week on "Teaching the Holocaust to Children" at Congregation Beth Israel-Judea. The event was a panel discussion hosted by Brandeis Hillel Day School. Her talk addressed the issue of "How Shall We Remember?"

"In the Bible, remembering is a mitzvah," said Semel in an interview. "My concern is that the memory won't dry out. It won't be a page in history."

In a new story included in her collection, "Head of Class," Semel writes about Celine's park, a location in Ramat Gan where her children used to play. The park is named for a 6-year-old girl killed in the Shoah.

"Because it was a public park named after a little girl, they started to visualize her. In a way, she's part of them. Something of her is alive. Memory has a mysterious way of relieving the dead."

At the USF talk, she discussed her experience growing up in the shadow of the Shoah

"Although we weren't told about our parents' private Holocaust, we sensed it," she said. "It was a presence in the house."

Although as an Israeli child she was factually grounded in Shoah history, she described a tremendous gap in her knowledge.

"We knew every historical fact about the Holocaust, but we lacked something, the emotional knowledge of the Holocaust. Historical books, lectures have their niche, but the live story has a different impact."

Israelis, she said, gave the message that they should be different from the Jews of the Shoah, who went "like sheep to the slaughter.

"Unintentionally, there was a negative stigma on survivors. It took us another two decades to understand that physical heroism is not the only heroic act."

In the early '80s Semel finally asked her mother about her Shoah experience.

"It was one of the crucial moment of my life," she said. "It was a strange moment because I felt like I was betraying her. I was removing her fragile shield. My knees were shaking. She smiled and said, 'Oh, at last somebody came to ask.' She was relieved."

As Passover approaches this year, Semel is once again thinking "small." But in a different way.

Her seder table is so full, in fact, that she's considering buying a larger one to make room for more. A great-nephew is due to be born on Erev Pesach — he'll be the first member of the family's fourth generation.