While pregnant with her first child, something came over Claire Mikowski. She woke up one day and knew she would name her baby Ari.
This was not subject to debate: Ari would be the name, and that was that, though she had no idea why she felt so strongly about it.
A short time later, Mikowski informed her father, Isaac, of her decision. The old man grew quiet. Then he told her:
He once had a son named Ari. A beautiful boy, back in Poland, before the war. Ari, along with his young sister and mother, died at the hands of the Nazis.
Another family extinguished, with Isaac the sole survivor.
The revelation hit Mikowski like a thunderbolt. Though she had known that her parents endured the Holocaust, this was one more mystery recovered from their tragic past.
On Yom HaShoah, which this year falls on Tuesday, April 25, Jews take a day to remember those lost in the Holocaust.
Yet Mikowski, like many other children of survivors, lives with the legacy of the Shoah on a daily basis.
“My household wasn’t very joyous,” says the San Franciscan. “As a child I knew something very bad had happened and I dared not ask what it was.”
As the number of survivors dwindles with each passing year, second-generation members like Mikowski work to preserve their parents’ legacy — the legacy epitomized by the legend “Never forget!” It’s a mission they take personally.
“Ever since I was a kid, I knew about it,” says Barbara Mortkowitz of Belmont. Her Polish father lost his entire family in the camps, though he managed to cross into Russia to fight with the Soviet Army. Her mother’s family perished as well, though her mother was saved by a Catholic family. The couple met in Warsaw after the war, making their way to Germany, where Mortkowitz was born in 1946.
When she was 5, the family immigrated to San Jose. “When we got here, nobody talked about [the Holocaust],” Mortkowitz recalls. “They just wanted to move on with their lives. On the surface they functioned very well. But it was traumatic that nobody could help them emotionally.”
Her late father remained an observant Jew — the family belonged to San Jose’s Congregation Sinai — but her mother eschewed religion. Overall, says Mortkowitz, “I grew up with this message that it was hard to be Jewish.”
She went on to earn a degree in sociology, and later switched careers to interior design. But it took years to work through the burden of her parents’ suffering.
“I went to a conference several years ago for children of survivors,” she recalls. “I started reading about the Holocaust and I joined Gen to Gen.”
She was referring to Generation to Generation, a Bay Area support group for adult children of survivors. “Initially I was excited to meet others,” she says, “but then you have a tendency to spend too much time on a daily basis. For a year I must have spent four to five hours a day communicating with people.”
Today she volunteers for the Bay Area Holocaust Oral History Project, which preserves eyewitness accounts and maintains an archive for education and research. She also hopes to join the Holocaust Center of Northern California’s speakers bureau, which is adding more second-generation members to its roster.
“It’s tremendous to have them part of the speakers bureau,” says Rachel Isquith, the center’s community relations director. “The [survivors] are getting older.”
With the number of survivors shrinking every year — the youngest member of the speakers bureau is 66 — more second-generation members are stepping up.
“If we don’t continue it, who will?” wonders Miriam Gimpel Mazliach, the daughter of survivors and a member of Generation to Generation. She lives in Fremont with her son and husband, Abe Mazliach, who is also a child of death-camp survivors.
Miriam’s father was from Galicia, her mother from Poland. He served in the Russian underground during the war while she was deported to Auschwitz. Most members of both families perished. The two young survivors met after the war in a German displaced persons camp, married and moved to Israel, then Montreal, where Miriam was born. The family later relocated to San Francisco.
“They always talked about it, but didn’t want to give too many details,” she remembers. “I was proud they survived. I wrote papers about it in school. I met a lot of survivors and their kids, and when I was growing up we would get together.”
Miriam’s father died in 1970 at age 58. Her mother is still living in San Francisco. Miriam’s husband, Abe, however, who was born in a German DP camp and as a child lived in Chicago, had a tougher time growing up.
“They had horrible experiences,” he says of his parents. “They didn’t want to talk about it. My father died emotionally in the camps. My mother struggled with her stuff, and she screamed a lot. As a child I was depressed. It was a very unsettled household.”
He was left to cope with a lot of anger. As a young man he traveled the world — “to find myself,” he says. He eventually earned a master’s in computer science and relocated to California. But the anger remained. Then, one day a friend gave him a newspaper article about the children of survivors.
“It opened my eyes,” he says. “I started therapy, started seeking help, started asking more questions of my parents. It was amazing that my parents survived.”
In recent years, Abe Mazliach, 59, has done some public speaking at schools, and with his wife joined Generation to Generation. His father died three years ago at age 91; his mother is living in Chicago.
Mazliach says he still feels anger about what happened to his parents and what they in turn did to him.
But not all children of survivors are burdened with their parents’ emotional desolation.
Steven Sloan, 45, is a San Francisco physician and president of the Holocaust Center. His late father was a prisoner in Auschwitz, having lost all in his family but a sister and brother. Yet, says Sloan, his father made a determined effort to put his sorrows behind him.
Mendel Shlomovitz, his dad, grew up in a Transylvanian shtetl, in what is now Ukraine. In 1944, at age 14, he and his family were deported to the Siget ghetto and later to Auschwitz. He survived that camp and a subsequent death march, and was liberated from Buchenwald in 1945.
He was miraculously reunited with his sister in an Italian refugee camp. Together they made contact with an uncle in Cleveland who sponsored their immigration in 1947.
“When he came, he started over,” says Sloan. “He was absorbed into a large, loving family, with a dozen aunts and uncles, and 50 first cousins. They welcomed him with open arms and taught him how to be an American teenager. He went to night school, learned to drive a car and how to romance women.”
Shlomovitz changed his name to Marty Sloan, and took a job at his cousin’s Buick dealership. There he stayed for 45 years.
“Most of his family was murdered in Auschwitz,” says the younger Sloan, “but he had somehow transcended his experience. He was a fun-loving, charming ‘people person,’ always with a big cigar in his mouth. He had an amazing ability to meet strangers and make them feel good.”
That prevailing joy carried over to his three sons. Yet even with their relatively benign childhood, Sloan recognizes the impact his father’s wartime experience had on the family.
“We were different from other American Jewish kids,” he recalls. “We were more protective of our parents and in touch with their suffering. But my father’s experience was something that strengthened me as a source of pride. We are an essential link in the chain of Jewish continuity.”
Sloan says his father did not go into details about his death-camp experiences until the mid-1990s, after seeing the movie “Schindler’s List.” Marty Sloan died at age 71 in November 2001, not long after dancing at the weddings of two of his three sons.
“He died with a smile on his face,” says Sloan. “They say at the death of a tzaddik [a righteous person], the angel of death gives a kiss on the cheek in the middle of the night.”
In addition to his busy medical practice, Sloan devotes much energy to the local Jewish community. He has served as president of the Holocaust Center for four years, and earlier this year traveled to Poland with 23 Bay Area Jewish teens as part of Shalhevet, a program sponsored by the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education and the Holocaust Center.
At Auschwitz, he walked the very grounds where his father was held prisoner and his relatives died.
It was not easy. “My initial emotion was rage and disbelief,” he says. “But as a child of a survivor, it’s important to make sure future generations know about Yiddishkeit, that we honor the memory of our ancestors and that we teach the lessons of tolerance to make the world a safer and saner place.”
Sloan, too, became involved with Generation to Generation, finding the fellowship healing. “I feel a bond with other children of survivors,” he says. “Most have had a very difficult time. Many survivors were unable to nurture and love their children, and that limited their children’s growth and development.”
Though that would be overstating Claire Mikowski’s experience, she does acknowledge feeling that something was missing in her childhood.
Her father had been a Warsaw furrier, but after the Nazi invasion he escaped to the Russian border. His wife and children were unable to escape.
He spent most of the war years in a Siberian labor camp.
“He said the only difference between what he went through and a concentration camp was that there was no crematorium,” says Mikowski. “When he came out he weighed 70 pounds and was so malnourished he’d lost his vision.”
He met his future second wife in Belarus, after the war.
She was from Minsk, and with the Nazi approach she’d fled eastward all the way to Uzbekistan. “Her mother said, ‘Run! Save your life,'” says Mikowski.
Her parents had spent time in a German DP camp, where Mikowski’s older sister was born. The family immigrated to America in 1949, settling in Pittsburgh, Pa., where Mikowski was born.
She remembers her family having one foot in the Old Country and another in the new. “They had such thick accents,” she says. “My mom sewed my clothes from patterns cut out of paper bags. I had an immigrant experience. But they devoted their lives to us. We were their only hope.”
She also remembers her father never forgiving God for allowing the Holocaust to happen. “He would eat kielbasa on a roll on Pesach in front of us,” she says. “I can’t blame him.”
Still, Mikowski had a thorough Jewish education, and her mother ran an observant household.
Not until age 16 did Mikowski, now 54, learn anything about her parents’ wartime experience, and then it was only by overhearing a conversation. “My knees started to shake,” she remembers. “It shut my mother up until I was 30.”
Mikowski eventually moved to San Francisco with her then-fiancé. She landed a job at KPIX assisting a producer — who was also a child of survivors. That led to discovering Generation to Generation, which Mikowski belonged to for years.
She delved deeper into Holocaust-related activities, becoming an interviewer for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, and still later developing the Shalhevet program, the trip to Poland and Israel for Bay Area teens. She is also principal of Peninsula Havurah High.
“I grew up with this tough legacy,” she says. “It took me years to work through the psychological impact and make peace. The crowning glory was I could sit with my parents and discuss it on an adult level.'”
Though she takes seriously her obligations as the child of survivors, she has concerns for the future. “I worry about how the Holocaust will be remembered,” she says, “who will remember the people who died, who will say Kaddish for them, who will memorialize them.”
The Holocaust Center’s Isquith is confident the children of survivors will be there when the last survivor dies. “There’s something powerful about having an actual person in front of you telling their family member’s stories,” she says. “But I don’t look at the second generation and see a special responsibility, per se. It’s up to all of humanity to honor these people who suffered, and to remember.”
For the second generation, the drive to bear witness remains strong.
“Being a child of a survivor is a unique legacy and experience,” says Sloan. “With that there is a responsibility to make sure the 6 million didn’t die in vain and that the splendor of their European Jewish heritage isn’t forgotten.”
Adds Abe Mazliach: “Human nature is such that we would rather forget and not think about things that are uncomfortable. But vigilance is important.
“If you don’t remind people, they will ignore it or in some cases deny that these things had happened. They won’t believe mankind could be so cruel.”