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Children of the Holocaust Look Back

December 30, 1987|GARY LIBMAN | Times Staff Writer

They demonstrated at the Bergen-Belsen death camp in West Germany against President Reagan's visit there.

They protested outside the United Nations, and their leader met with the Panamanian ambassador in Washington, in an effort to persuade Panama to withdraw its offer of asylum to accused Nazi war criminal Karl Linnas.

They have gone to Poland to see what can be done to preserve the former sites of concentration camps now in disrepair, and they have denounced the "anti-Arab philosophy" of radical American Rabbi Meir Kahane in Israel.

All in all, it's the kind of activism that might be expected from survivors of the Holocaust during World War II.

Children of Survivors

But these demonstrators were not survivors; they were the children of survivors. And for the first time, say the children and experts who gather at a four-day UCLA conference ending today, they have begun to go beyond just talking about their feelings and their parents and are becoming increasingly active in politics and education about the Holocaust.

"People come here generally," said Aaron Hass, a UCLA professor who teaches a course on the psychology of the Holocaust, because they have "some social need to affiliate or some psychological need to get some great insight into why they feel the way they do about themselves."

Hass said he grew up, for example, with angry parents who survived death camps and imparted a great mistrust of people. His mother could get hysterical walking past a leashed German shepherd, he said, and his father could swear at the mention of anything German.

After a child of survivors gets some insight into that background, Hass said, "you will get some more hard-core people who will stay on because of some sense of responsibility. . . . For many it is a rather undefined goal typified by a slogan 'never to forget.' It is intimately connected to one's sense of responsibility toward one's parents or relatives who were murdered during the Holocaust."

This responsibility to parents is often felt as a need to insure that another Holocaust doesn't occur or to make the world a better place, said Patricia Lutwack, a Miami psychologist who has worked with and tested several hundred children of survivors.

"It's a way of saying that their parent's suffering has meaning," she said. "They can't change what happened no matter how much they loved their parents, but this is something they can do."

Much of the increased activism can be credited to the fact that the children were organized years ago into groups that emphasized socializing and support more than politics.

In Los Angeles, for example, about 1,000 children of survivors are members of a group called Second Generation. More than 50 other Second Generation chapters are organized nationwide under the umbrella International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, headquartered in New York.

Turning Toward Activism

Hess, 39, said a turn toward activism has become easier among the children now that many are in their 30s and 40s and have established their own families and careers.

"When I entered my 30s, I was in a stage of getting more serious about life," he said. "I was somewhat more introspective and wanting to do meaningful things.

"It (my involvement) had more to do with personal development than with the second generation. . . . I don't think it's coincidental that I decided to teach this course at the same time I decided to get married and start a family."

Lee Kagan, a 38-year-old Reseda physician, is perhaps typical of the generation.

Kagan recalls banging the steering wheel in frustration in 1985 when he heard on his car radio that President Reagan planned to visit the site of the Bergen-Belsen death camp. The visit had been hastily arranged in an effort to quell criticism over Reagan's stop at a military cemetery in Bitburg, West Germany, where some Nazi SS troops were buried among the war dead.

Kagan believed that use of the death camp for such "transient political needs" was a "desecration" of the site. His mother, Esther Kagan of Sherman Oaks, had been liberated from Bergen-Belsen at the close of World War II, and his father, Harry, had been freed after confinement in a Lithuanian ghetto and an Estonian labor camp.

Kagan said he had talked often to his parents about their experiences in the death camps and had read to inform himself about the Holocaust, but that he had never become active in Holocaust memorial causes.

March to Graves

But after Reagan left Bergen-Belsen in May, 1985, Kagan joined 50 demonstrators, most of them children of survivors, and marched to the mounds of mass graves containing more than 50,000 victims at the camp. Each of the marchers carried a rose.

"I was sobbing on the way in," Kagan said. "It was the first time I have been back to visit the place where my parents had suffered and the horror and enormity overwhelmed me."

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