Our Parents’ Stories

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This very special section of the Cybrary
is devoted to

Our Parents and Their Stories.

From our Links section, visit the Ernest and Elizabeth Memorial Page created by their son, George Cassuto, a teacher of social studies at North Hagerstown High School.

Learn about Richard Kool’s mother, Hester Kool, A Parent and Survivor

One of the most important things we can do as children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors is to learn their stories and document them for our families, for future generations, and for the world. Children of survivor groups have come and gone through the years. They have often focused on the children, not the parents. Now is our parents’ and grandparents’ time.

When the survivors were in the concentration camps, they envisioned the time when they would be liberated. Many of them thought they would be treated as heroes, carried out of the camps on the shoulders of their liberators. But that is not what happened. Those who survived were often too sick and weak to celebrate. The young soldiers who liberated the camps were too shocked by what they experienced to be joyful in any way. When the survivors tried to talk about their experiences, the world did not want to hear. When they tried to return to the “normal” world, many found that they could not relate to the petty concerns of others who had not been in the camps. Survivors tended to marry other survivors and to socialize with other survivors. Since they weren’t encouraged to talk, many of the survivors tried to block out there memories, but they stayed locked up inside, often causing emotional and physical problems. Some of our parents told us of their experiences, but many, like my father, tended to shield their children from these haunting memories. Often, as chidren of survivors, we knew less about the Holocaust than others whose parents could be more open about what happened.

Now the world is ready to hear our parents’ stories, thanks largely to the efforts of Stephen Spielberg and the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Also, we want to know more about our parents’ experiences, but many of us do not know how to get them to talk. We feel awkward and don’t want to bring unnecessary pain to them. The letter below is typical of letters I have received about how to get our parents to talk.

From Mark Melnick:

I am a child of Holocaust survivors. My mother is Czech and was in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. My father is Polish and was on the run in the USSR during the war. They both lost most of their families. Perhaps you could have more in the Children of Survivors section about how to approach one’s parents for information and anecdotes. I learned very little from my parents until adulthood. I heard only snippets and vague statements about “the evil out there.” At around age 30, I began to ask specific factual questions and, lo and behold, I learned more in the next seven years than I had in my entire life before then. Perhaps others could share strategies on this issue. Thanks.

Dear Mark,

These are excellent ideas. Below is my answer to your request. I’m sure more children of survivors will send in their suggestions.

Getting our parents to talk and documenting their testimonies

Survivors tend to be in two groups: they either talk about their experiences all the time or they won’t talk about them at all, especially with their children. My father was one who could not talk to his children very easily about his experiences. Dad finally wrote his memoirs in the last years of his life, hence Abe’s Story: A HolocaustMemoir. I am so thankful that he did.

It is very typical that we don’t really learn our parents’ stories until we are adults. One reason is that we are more interested in their stories when we are adults. Another reason may be simply that we are adults. Often, all we have to do is ask. We are no longer children, and our parents may feel that we are more prepared to hear their stories. If you could convince your parents that it is important for you to learn their stories so that you could pass them on to your children and your children’s children, they may be more inclined to talk. They have a wealth of knowledge that needs to be shared. Once they realize how important it is to you, they will likely open up. If you give it your best effort and can’t get your parents to talk, maybe they would talk to someone else. Perhaps a compassionate and interested outsider could get them to open up. I have been successful in getting survivors to talk and documenting their testimonies when they have never talked about their experiences.

Whether you do it yourself or get someone else to help, make sure you record their testimonies. Set up a video camera and just let it run. If both of your parents are survivors, try to focus on one story at a time. It is difficult to move the camera back and forth, and it is even more difficult to have several voices recorded on top of each other in conversation. Use a good microphone and have a tape recorder running at the same time as a backup and for transcribing.

Once you get the testimonies on tape, label them immediately and transcribe them into a word processor as soon as you can. It is so easy to put the video and audio tapes on a shelf and forget about them. Then, years later, when you want to watch or listen to them, they may not be usable anymore or you may not be able to find them. Either transcribe the stories yourself or get someone else to do it. Whatever you do, get them entered. Then you can print them out and run copies for other members of your family. You could even put them into book form at your favorite copy center.

Speaking of books, many survivors have already written their stories, and their manuscripts are often sitting around on a shelf somewhere. Some may need to be translated from another language. All will need editing. With current desktop publishing technology, it is very easy to self-publish books in small or large quantities for much less money then you might expect. Maybe you could even get your parents’ stories published by a commercial publisher, but that isn’t as important as simply getting them recorded. If anyone would like some advice on publishing their parents’ stories, let me know. I can’t tell you how much it has meant to me to publishAbe’s Story.

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