Helen Epstein: Depicting second-generation trauma

Helen Epstein, author of Children of the Holocaust

In 1979, a young journalist named Helen Epstein published the groundbreaking book Children of the Holocaust, the first non-academic, non-medical account of what it meant, in modern parlance, to be a “2G” – a son or daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Welcomed as among the first popular looks at the transmission of inter-generational trauma, it also marked a pivotal moment for children of survivors, who finally felt someone was validating their own experiences.

Epstein, author, co-author or translator of 10 books of literary non-fiction, will appear at the daylong Dialogue for Descendants, the second annual symposium for children of Holocaust survivors and/or their partners, which will take place Nov. 5 at the Lebovic Jewish Community Campus, 9600 Bathurst St., in Vaughan. Also speaking will be Canadian documentary filmmaker Martin Himel, who will illustrate his talk with short clips from his most recent documentary, Secrets of Survival.

Did it take you a long time to find a publisher for Children of the Holocaust? For many years, the subject was not discussed or seemed taboo.

Yes! I began my research in 1967, when I was one of the mitnadvim (volunteers) who came to Israel because of the Six Day War and wound up studying there. I noticed that many of us were bi- or trilingual, bi- or tri-cultural. I thought of us as a peer group and began asking questions. In 1971, I wrote a novel I titled We Who Came After the War, but no publisher was interested and my Jewish agent suggested that I write about being a single woman in New York City. I didn’t. I wrote about my peer group for small Jewish magazines, such as Midstream (1970), Present Tense (1974) and the National Jewish Monthly (1976). I had, by then, begun freelancing for the Sunday New York Times and pitched my 2G (second generation) idea to my editors. They were skeptical. How did I know a “second generation” existed? Did they have an organization? A letterhead? Could experts vouch for their importance? Finally, in 1976, because Time magazine ran a news item on a study of 2Gs from an Israeli shrink at Stanford University, I got the assignment. In June of 1977, after two million readers of the New York Times Magazine saw “Heirs of the Holocaust” on the cover – many more than typically buy a book – the article was syndicated around the world, I was immediately offered a book contract.

Was there any unexpected reaction to the book? Anything that surprised you?

I was questioned by almost everyone I knew, received hundreds of long, intimate letters and was invited to speak at dozens of libraries, universities, synagogues and churches, including at a conference organized by the Armenian Archdiocese of New York. Some survivors were furious at me and said I was giving Adolf Hitler a posthumous victory by focusing on the after-effects of the war. Since I was a New York University journalism professor in 1977, anyone could walk into my office unannounced, and (they) did. Some told me I had changed their lives. One guy proposed marriage. Some said they could not relate to what I had written. Some were jealous, as though I were a sibling who had gotten more than my share of attention. Some were angry at me for, as they saw it, focusing on damage, not triumph, and on “airing dirty laundry in public.” I had trouble understanding them. I thought I had written about what we now call trauma and resilience. So by the time the book came out, nothing surprised me. It was an overwhelming experience that continues to be emotionally taxing.

Children of the Holocaust is nearly 40 years old. What has changed in the study of inter-generational transmission of trauma since its publication? We certainly have more to work with: Cambodia, Congo, Rwanda…

A lot has changed. Since 1971, the Holocaust has been taught at universities and in Europe, Israel and parts of Asia. There are Holocaust centres and departments of Holocaust studies, as there are all over North America. In parts of Europe, particularly Germany, there has been so much Holocaust education that there is a reaction to it. Until the African-American museum opened in Washington, D.C., the Holocaust museum was its number 1 attraction. During that time, trauma studies has developed as an independent field of study, covering many kinds of survivors or veterans of trauma. It is a truly international field of study now, with researchers and therapists on every continent.

The literary and artistic output from the second and third generation internationally has been substantial: Art Spiegelman, Eva Hoffman, Lev Raphael, Savyon Liebrecht, Thane Rosenbaum, Nava Semel, Anne Karpf, Joe Berger and Sonia Pilcer are some of the authors I know, but there are hundreds of visual artists, musicians, playwrights and filmmakers whom I don’t know.

Yet anti-Semitism, racism and genocide are still with us, not only in the Middle East, but in Boston, where I live. However, most people in the First World have some consciousness of the Shoah and what genocide means. There is a heightened sensitivity to refugees, obviously and especially, in Germany.


What are studies showing about the children of the so-called second generation? Is there a “third generation” field of study?

I don’t know. Studies have moved from psychology and sociology into neuroscience, biochemistry and epigenetics.

What do you feel when you see Nazis marching in the streets of America today, and a president who says their circle includes “some very fine people”?


What do you think when you hear critics say that Jews obsess about the Holocaust? Can the Holocaust ever be “overdone”?

Depends on the critic and the context, (whether) political, cultural, educational, national, local. I live in Massachusetts, where Facing History has developed an extraordinary school curriculum for public, private and parochial schools that teaches about the Holocaust in the context of world history as well as current events. I think it’s excellent. I think most Holocaust centres and university courses I’ve seen do a good job educating.

On the other hand, (Maus author) Art Spiegelman referred to “Holokitsch” at a Harvard lecture a couple of months ago, and others have called the field “Shoah business.” And we recognize what they mean. A college professor told me recently that her students don’t want to read any Jewish history that took place before the Holocaust – they’re obsessed with Holocaust stories. So yes, it can be overdone to the detriment of education about Jewish tradition, observance and all the history that transpired before and after the Shoah and elsewhere in the world.

Your next book is entitled The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma. Is there a link between love and trauma? That sounds alarming.

Trauma permeates every part of one’s life including relationships. My new book is the last of a trilogy that began with Children of the Holocaust and continued with Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother’s History, one of the first “genealogical quest” books written after the fall of communism allowed all of us Ashkenazim to go back to the places where Jews lived for centuries. The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma is a memoir that focuses on how the Holocaust affected my intimate life – emotionally, sexually, physically. Unlike my arts journalism and my other books, it’s extremely personal and subjective. I daresay it pushes the envelope and is, in its own way, as helpful as Children of the Holocaust was to some readers in 1979. I hope so. n

This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity