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BOOK REVIEW : Tortured Legacy of Holocaust Survivors : IN THE SHADOW OF THE HOLOCAUST; The Second Generation by Aaron Hass Cornell University Press $19.95, 178 pages

November 07, 1990|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"He who has been tortured," Jean Amery observed, "remains tortured."

The epigraph, which appears at the outset of "In the Shadow of the Holocaust," is an eloquent summing up of the fate of the men and women who, by accident or miracle or act of heroism, managed to survive Auschwitz or Babi Yar or the Warsaw Ghetto. But what is the fate of the children of survivors, the young men and women who call themselves the "Second Generation?"

What we learn in Aaron Hass' "In the Shadow of the Holocaust" is that the survivors of the Holocaust were so deeply scarred by their ordeal that their own children, too, remain tortured--in more than a metaphorical sense.

Hass, a psychology professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills and a clinical staff member of the UCLA department of psychiatry, styles "In the Shadow of the Holocaust" as a psychological study of survivors and their children. But his most important credentials, I think, are more intimate: Hass is a child of survivors, a speaker of Yiddish, and an heir to the awful legacy of the Holocaust.

"Events that occurred 50 years ago, before my birth, follow me," Hass writes. "Growing up meant being constrained, often paralyzed, by hearing, 'How could you do this to me after all I have suffered?' " When asked where he was from by someone from the old country, the American-born Hass would respond that he was from his parents' hometown.

Hass the psychologist devotes much attention to the technical demands of designing a sound psychological study and reaching defensible conclusions about his subjects. But it is Hass the storyteller who penetrates the real mysteries of the tortured body and soul and allows us to understand the strange and terrible burdens the second generation has been forced to bear from earliest childhood.

"For survivors, their children were symbols of birth and restoration," he observes. "These parents may have harbored unconscious magical expections that their offspring would undo the destruction of the Holocaust and replace lost family members, provide meaning for their empty life, and vindicate their suffering."

Hass allows us to see that the horror of the Holocaust was transmitted to the second generation in strange and sometimes contradictory ways. Many children of survivors were overprotected by parents who knew that the world was a demonstrably cruel and dangerous place; the bogymen of their childhoods wore SS uniforms, too.

At the same time, parents sometimes nurtured children with a strange fury: "I remember having eggs rammed down my throat and vomiting them up, and then having more shoved down again," one woman recalls. Another remembers: "My brother once dropped a basket of eggs, and my father started chasing him with an ax."

As a result, Hass suggests, the legacy of the Holocaust for the children of survivors is two-edged: guilt and anger co-exist in their hearts. "The experience of being a child of survivors," Hass writes, "is reflected by three words uttered by almost every such person with whom I came into contact: fear, mistrust, cynicism."

At times, the most articulate and moving witness is Hass himself, at least when he discards the white coat of the social scientist and bares his own soul in confessional prose that is anguished but somehow lyrical. "The idea of God is not a comfort to me," he confesses, "but a taunt." And he invites us to ponder the impact on a 9-year-old boy of hearing a father recount his wartime exploits as a partisan in a darkened apartment on the solemn fast-day of Yom Kippur:

"We found out that a German officer would be at the farmhouse of a Pole who had betrayed Jews to him," his father would recite in Yiddish every year. "We tied them up and cut a small hole in each one's arm. For hours we put salt in the open wound. Then we shot both of them."

I was still reading "In the Shadow of the Holocaust" when The Times published an obituary of David McCalden, a benighted man who dedicated himself to arguing that the Holocaust never happened. It occurred to me that McCalden may be dead and gone, but the lies that he told are still being repeated. And I was reminded of the real burden of the Second Generation--a burden that Hass himself does not overlook.

"Most children of survivors were admonished 'to remember,' " he writes. "But what must the second generation not forget? Six million is not an impressive number. It is abstract and it numbs rather than sensitizes. One person's story has the potential for illumination."

Next: Nancy Mairs reviews "In Silence: Growing Up Hearing in a Deaf World" by Ruth Sidransky (St. Martin's Press).

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