By Bayla Sheva Brenner
Children born in the post-Holocaust era of the 1940s, 50s and 60s grew up knowing their parents had gone through hell on earth. The ghosts of murdered grandparents, aunts, uncles and siblings loomed large in their homes by their very absence. Sounds like an atmosphere ripe for major crises in faith. Yet, from many of the survivors who either lacked the strength to believe in a benevolent God or to observe His Torah came offspring who have picked up the discarded baton and enthusiastically embraced observant Judaism. I am one of those who chose to reclaim my heritage and have always wondered if there were more like me. These are the stories of survivors’ sons and daughters whose struggle with faith led to consequential life choices.
The “2Gs,” (the generation after the Holocaust) as many of us refer to ourselves, span a two-decade age range. Some of us were born in war-torn Europe, some smack dab in Middle America, but we all share basic commonalities that helped shaped our sensibilities about what it means to be in a world that could suddenly and brutally fall apart. We felt different, because our parents were different.
Born in the Bronx, New York, and raised in the Rego Park section of Queens, Allen Kolber remembers himself as a nervous and fearful child. “I was obsessed with the Holocaust,” he says. “By the time I was eight, I had amassed a whole collection of Holocaust material. I was trying to understand my father’s experience.”
His father had grown up in Sanz, Poland, and was nineteen when the war began. On Yom Kippur 1939, the Germans dragged the Jews out of the shul across the street from his home and brazenly cut off their beards. “My father decided then and there that he was leaving,” says Kolber. “He told his parents they should do the same, but they resisted. He convinced a brother and sister to join him and together they traveled to Soviet-controlled Lemberg.” The Soviets then shipped them to a labor camp in Siberia. “My father went through the war with a pouch around his neck that contained five photos of his family. Except for the brother and sister [with whom he had fled], his parents, two brothers with their families and another sister were murdered.”
Although his parents were raised in Torah-observant homes, Kolber, forty-six, was not. “Judaism [in our home] was defined by the Holocaust,” he says. “My Jewish identity was the European Holocaust identity. It wasn’t about a relationship with God or learning Torah.”
If there was any indication of his father being religious before the war, he “lost it completely afterwards.”
“He wasn’t anti-religious,” says Kolber. “[In fact,] he spoke about [his life in the shtetl] with fondness. He remembers going to cheder as a five-year-old, but doesn’t [seem to] know any of the Jewish practices. [Yet], in the photograph I have of his parents, his mother is wearing a sheitel and his father is wearing a koppel [kippah].”
At the age of sixteen, Kolber’s mother fled with her family from Berlin to France, to Spain, then to Portugal, and finally to the United States in 1942. Unlike her husband, she maintained an affinity for frumkeit. “They struck a compromise,” says Kolber. “We had a kosher home and Friday night dinners. On Shabbos, my mother, sister and I would go to a Conservative shul and then we were free to do whatever we wanted. She did, however, raise me with the sense that it would be good for me to become religious when I got older.”
Children of Holocaust survivors inevitably absorb the emotional repercussions of their parents’ trauma; its effects are usually played out as they enter young adulthood and begin to make their way in the world. Kolber describes his father as always having difficulty venturing beyond his own four walls. “He had this thing about suitcases. He couldn’t bring himself to pack a suitcase; he didn’t go on vacation or sleep away from the house.” Similarly, Kolber found that he also had difficulty navigating life. “It took me six years to graduate college,” he says. “I started out pre-med and got kicked out of [college]. I was depressed; I just sat in my room all day and smoked.”
Many survivors internalized the crushing deprivation foisted upon them; this, too, was passed on to their children. “I would ask my father, ‘What are you eating over the sink for? Sit down at the table and eat on a plate,’” says Kolber. “And he would answer: ‘You think I had a plate in Siberia? You think I need a plate? I ate for five years without a plate.’ I felt I didn’t deserve to be happy, to be fulfilled and complete.”
Kolber managed to graduate from Stony Brook University in Long Island, New York. He decided to go to law school, and to look into frumkeit. Throughout his three years of study, he attended Torah classes in Manhattan during the school year and learned at the Ohr Somayach, a yeshivah in Israel, each summer. He also started going to shul.
After graduating from law school, Kolber went to Israel for a year of Torah study and returned to the United States with a kippah, tzitzis and a desire to get serious about Yiddishkeit. He quickly set up a schedule of intensive Torah learning with Rabbi Dovid Schwartz, associate director of the Jewish Heritage Center in Queens.
Also a son of survivors, Rabbi Schwartz, fifty, has mentored a number of 2Gs who became ba’alei teshuvah. “The overwhelming sense that I get from learning with 2Gs is that their parents were generally silent about their experiences,” says Rabbi Schwartz. “Once they conducted their own Holocaust research and realized the enormity of the murder rate and how miniscule the chance of survival was, they felt a sense of mission, as if to say: ‘If my parents survived and they were incapable of regaining their frumkeit, I’ll be darned if I’m not going to.’ It brings them to a tremendous sense of purpose.”
Today, Kolber, an attorney, lives in Monsey, New York, with his wife, Liora, and their four children, each of whom is named after members of his father’s martyred family. His mother recently died; she had taken ill soon after the birth of Kolber’s first child and had been incapable of fully enjoying the gratifying nachas of grandparenthood. “I was wondering if she can see everything now,” says Kolber. “I have boys with peyos and tzitzis, and a girl who wears a long dress. She would be so happy with that.”
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