The Next Generation: Ongoing Impact of the Holocaust on Descendants of Survivors
Yonit Hoffman always knew her father was a Holocaust survivor, but it wasn’t until she was an adult that the pieces of his story came together for her. Only a few Jews survived the Minsk Ghetto, Yonit said. Her father, Gershon Hoffman was one of them, and he survived six different concentration and work camps after that.
A freedom fighter for Israel, and someone with a deeply-rooted resilience, these experiences never the less took their toll. Gershon died at the relatively young age of 41 from a heart attack. Yonit was less than 3 years old.
In the summer of 2010, Yonit received a letter from the Red Cross tracing service, stating that someone who knew her father and was his friend during his time in the Southern German concentration camp of Flossenbürg was trying to get in touch with her.
I think it took them four or five years to actually find me,” Yonit said. The tracing request was made by the nephew of Anton Sailer, who had brought food to Gershon during his time at Flossenbürg.
Yonit met Anton and his family in the same house where they lived when he helped her father. She said it was a “powerful and conflicting” experience. Anton was just 10 years old when he befriended Gershon and would throw him bread or leave it in a small hollow post near the rail station where Gershon had to unload bodies and possessions from cattle cars coming into the train station.
These horrid experiences were a stark contrast to his life before the war, which started at Rappstraße 13 – a narrow, shady street in the Grindel quarter of Hamburg, Germany. There he lived with his father, mother and brother, Hans, Frieda and Walter. They owned a small store and had a good life, until 1941, when his entire family and many other Jewish residents were deported to the Minsk Ghetto in Belarus.
After the war, and a name change from Gerhardt to Gershon, he moved to Israel to help fight for independence and was a founding member of the Kibbutz Shoval in the desert oasis of Negev, Israel.
One particularly poignant story Yonit heard from Anton was what occurred during a very cold winter at Flossenbürg, she said.
“Apparently my father asked Anton one day, ‘Why aren’t you wearing a hat?’” Yonit recounted. “Then [Gershon] had thrown him a hat that he must have found on the rail cars. So my father gave Anton a hat, to keep warm.”
As a prisoner, Gershon most likely wouldn’t have been able to wear the hat and probably found numerous items on the rail cars, Yonit said.
Yonit and her family, including her daughter Ariella, have visited not only Flossenbürg, but also the former Hoffmann family home in Hamburg and the kibbutz in Negev.
“Being connected to the past and seeing what he lost, it makes it very real and tangible,” Yonit said. During their travels, Yonit was constantly trying to reconcile feelings of anger and confusion, and it was overwhelming to feel so many different emotions at once.
There are still missing pieces of Gershon’s story, Yonit said. However, Yonit and Ariella continue to explore their identities through continuing to practice their religion and are highly involved in Jewish community services.
Yonit, a clinical psychologist, works for Jewish Child and Family Services in Chicago helping to support Holocaust survivors in the area. Yonit specializes in working with trauma and abuse victims. She became more and more interested in the resilience of people who survive trauma. This lead to Yonit partnering with a linguist who was interested in studying the “language of loss,” and has made her identity as a child of a Holocaust survivor a centerpiece of her personal and professional life.
A family that lived next door to Gershon’s family home in Hamburg saved four photograph albums for him, and Yonit has them today. They provide a glimpse of what his life was like before the war.
Having those photo albums is having a sense of what his life was like,” Yonit said. “And I can show my kids, ‘Here is my father on a scooter like you like to do…here they are on vacation at the beach. It makes it very real and very tangible of how their lives were just sort of ripped away.”
Yonit feels that in many ways, Hamburg is like Evanston, Illinois, because of the university students, the young families, and yet, there is this tragic history in Hamburg.
“Both trips to Germany there was a constant sort of feeling of trying to integrate more than one feeling at the same time,” Yonit said. “Learning, being connected, meeting people who were so interested in us and telling these stories and healing.”
On the family’s most recent trip to Hamburg, the second mayor, Dorothee Stapelfeldt, that hosted a luncheon for the survivors and their families was the first to directly address the somewhat awkward nature of the visit, Yonit said.
“It was kind of the first time that someone leading the group said, ‘I know how hard it must be for you guys to be here,’” Yonit said. “These aren’t her exact words but it was something like, ‘It must be conflicting and strange and [it] takes a lot of energy and courage to be able to come, and yet we want you to know how welcome you are here and we understand.’ It was really very interesting and complicated.”
The memory of Gershon also lives on through his granddaughter, Ariella. Like Yonit, Ariella grew up always knowing that her grandfather was a Holocaust survivor, but the first time she felt emotionally connected to that part of her identity was not until she was in eighth grade.
That was when Ariella was able to visit her grandfather’s grave in Israel on a school visit.
They took a detour so that I could go to the cemetery and see his grave at the kibbutz,” Ariella said. “A friend of [my grandfather] got on the bus and took me to the cemetery. It was just a very quick experience, but it hit me really hard, and that’s the first time I remember having a really emotional experience connected to it.”
Being there in that moment helped explain and contextualize the strained but close relationship that Yonit and her mother had, as well as Ariella’s relationship with Yonit. All these relevant pieces of information came together. Ariella was just 14 years old, but seeing the place where her grandfather was buried had an important and profound impact on her.
“Seeing that he is there connects me with Israel in a very relevant way,” Ariella said. Her middle name is Galya, after her grandfather Gershon.
Even though Yonit and Ariella are further removed from the experiences of the Holocaust, they both grew up not buying or using German products, and Yonit’s mother will not visit Germany.
“I know intellectually that it is not the same people, and I know that not even all the [German] companies were involved,” Yonit said. “I still have reticence about buying German, but that’s a remnant of my upbringing.”
“To this day, there’s a very relevant kind of joke in Jewish culture that’s like, don’t buy German products,” Ariella said. “We would never buy a German car.”
Ariella thinks it is important how European countries deal with their roles in the Holocaust, but Germany is doing a much better job of dealing with it than other cities like Budapest or nations like France, which still have issues with anti-Semitism.
“I’m of the generation that says the people now are not the people then,” she said. “You can’t hold people accountable for something that their country did at one point in history.”
Ariella says she has a very “liberal identity,” which makes her more empathetic and understanding of social justice issues around the world.
The way I think of immigration and the South Side of Chicago and issues like that, they do feel more relevant because I can compare it to what happened to my own family,” Ariella said. “And it at least makes it feel more urgent, to try to work on those things, and to solve them.”
Ariella also says there is a sense of responsibility to carry on Jewish religion and culture, since so many people lost their lives during the Holocaust.
Ariella’s parents have never pushed her to do anything, but they have given her and her brother many opportunities to explore their Jewish identities and to make it a part of their lives. She hopes to continue this with her own family some day.
“My children will be very much in touch with their Jewish identity if I have a say in it,” Ariella said. “If they don’t do Jewish day school, they will be going to Jewish camp, they will be joining Jewish youth groups. They’ll be given as many options as I can give, and hopefully, they will take it on themselves.”
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