Survivors children offer tales of hope at Sonoma State

Rhonda Findling's father fastened three locks on every window and door of her childhood home. He was a Holocaust survivor and attorney who never felt safe, even in America.

Elaine Leeder's father escaped to the United States just before the beginning of World War II. His older sister had given him money sent by relatives that was intended for her.

Blair Pleasant's father never shielded his experiences from his family.

And Julia Silverberg was unaware she was Jewish or that her parents were survivors until after her mother died 12 years ago.

These women are alive today because their parents survived the Holocaust. They shared their stories during the final session of Sonoma State University's 20th annual Holocaust lecture series and captivated the audience with a May 20 panel discussion on "Legacies of the Holocaust: A Second Generation."

"Our tales are not one of misery. Exactly the opposite," said Leeder, a sociologist, Holocaust scholar and dean of SSU's School of Social Sciences. "Our stories are tales of hope. We are alive, well and thriving."

They are thriving in large measure because of the lessons they gleaned by successfully navigating difficult emotional terrain. "By being a child of a Holocaust survivor, I learned the value of family," said Pleasant, whose father survived Auschwitz and rescued another inmate from the infamous death march. "Family will always take care of you." With almost his entire family gone, her father immediately joined a benevolent society in postwar Germany, made up primarily of survivors from his hometown of Lodz, Poland.

"They became my extended family," she said. "The adults fought like siblings, and they came to each other's weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs."

Findling, a counselor at Santa Rosa Junior College, agreed that "your family is everything. You do anything for them — no matter how you feel about them." But her familial picture was not always rosy. "I also grew up with a lot of fear. My father had a lot of rage. He reminded me of friends whose parents were alcoholics. Even though he didn't drink, he was unpredictable and would lose it."

Silverberg's traumatic upbringing nearly choked her amid a thicket of lies and secrets. "When we were younger my father told people he was Austrian or German, not Hungarian, which he was, and a member of the Luftwaffe," said Silverberg, a creative writing student at Mills College in Oakland. "And he was anti-Semitic. Because of all of this I was scared of water, the dark, food and swallowing. I had panic attacks and a bleeding ulcer at 15."

Leeder said that while hauntingly negative experiences, such as fear and paranoia, were not atypical for children of survivors, an ongoing study of Holocaust survivors and their descendants has revealed that survivors' emotional states before the war determined their postwar psychological health. People relatively well-adjusted before WWII remained so throughout their lives, as did their children, she said. But those with prior problems emerged scarred and wounded after the war and transferred an inability to cope to their progeny.

All four women remain committed to Jewish identity and education as a way to help anchor themselves and their families. "We're not very observant or religious," said Pleasant, a full-time mom whose mission is to educate her son and daughter and their friends about the Holocaust. "But passing the Torah from generation to generation at my son's bar mitzvah was very important. It meant that Jewish tradition is surviving and the Jewish people are still here."

The four women are also keenly aware of the need to tell their stories and highlight the isolation, guilt, sadness, distress and resolve they and so many others experienced.

"While we were recently watching my father's Shoah Foundation video," Pleasant said, "my teenage son said, 'You know, mom, this video is very important.' I knew then that my father's legacy was being handed down."

"The survivors are dying off," said Leeder. "Their children are going to tell their stories to their families, who will tell them to their families. We see ourselves as memorial candles, and our job is to educate people and make a difference in the world."

The panel visibly moved Perla Guevara, a senior sociology student. "I am Native American and the U.S. Marines bombed my mother's Mayan village in Central America in 1934 before she was 5. She came here, and I've never felt connected to anything.

"Listening to all of you is the first time I've felt welcome anywhere. Thank you."

Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a freelance writer.