We Learned Not to Ask: Second-Generation Holocaust Story

Dr. David Wahl

Tonight and tomorrow we observe Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel.

A few weeks ago I listened to a moving podcast, The Suitcase by the Door, via American Public Media. APM interviewed Dr. David Wahl, a child of Holocaust survivors. Wahl’s parents had some unusual habits, like requiring everyone in the family to own a single pair of well-kept shoes, and keeping a packed suitcase by the door. Only as an adult did he realize that other survivors had similar eccentricities. The ones who had to endure forced marches knew they were more likely to survive if they took good care of their shoes and feet. The packed suitcase was self-explanatory.

Wahl recalled how, as a child, he asked his parents questions about their families. Their emotional reactions deterred him and his sister from pressing too hard.  This is probably why some children of survivors got the often false impression that their parents didn’t want to talk about the Holocaust. (My mother always claimed that my father didn’t want to talk about it, but after her death he claimed that my mother was the one who hadn’t wanted to hear.)

Only when Wahl’s aunt showed herself willing to answer questions from his future wife about the war, did Wahl realize his mistake. And as time passed, his parents felt the urgency of sharing their story with later generations. The pain. while still there, seemed to lessen.

Wahl’s mother was saved through the Kindertraansport, which brought Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Europe to safety in England (or to perceived safety in Belgium or Holland). His grandmother wrote letters to her young daughter until she was murdered by the Nazis. The letters survived, and tell of a mother’s love for her children and how she protected her younger son from the anxiety she was feeling. Wahl only read these letters as an adult.

Residents of Wahl’s mother’s town in Germany also tried to make sense of their history. A group of Germans realized that they had been told a sanitized version of the events, and set out to learn more. They invited the only four survivors, out of 100 Jews who had lived there before the war, to return for the opening of an exhibit on the subject.

Wahl’s uncle, who lives in Israel, was dismayed to learn of a street named after the headmaster of his former school. The headmaster had encouraged students to harass and degrade Jewish students. After Wahl’s family left, the organizers of the exhibit worked to get the name of the street changed.

A pastor, who was 9 or 10 during the war, told Wahl that only after his visit did the pastor understand something. As a child, whenever he traveled with his family abroad, the foreigners looked at his German family as if they were monsters. (Why it took him a  lifetime to understand this I’m not sure.)

Wahl said that the most painful part for him was the need for absolution on the part of some of the town’s residents. But he did not feel that it was his place to grant forgiveness to their grandparents for what they had done to his grandmother so many years ago.

More Holocaust posts:

Sepharad (book review)

Story of Treblinka Extermination Camp

My Father’s Family’s Story

Ukrainians and the Holocaust

The Lost (book review)

 

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Comments

  1. My wife’s mother was on the Kindertraansport. However my view of WWII has been different from most people in Israel because my Dad spent the war over [not in] Nazi Germany bombing the living daylights out of them.He was captain in the USAF..This has meant for me a very different perspective on the war. It means that in Israel i did not appreciate disparaging me because of being an American

  2. “the organizers of the exhibit worked to get the name of the street changed”

    a nice gesture on their part, although if this were to be implemented as policy ein la-davar sof. they’d be changing lots of street signs in europe.

  3. The challenge is that anti-semites, anti -israel give the impresion of holding the moral ground, being compassionate and good people to non-jews. The headmaster could have been like that.

  4. Harold Y. says:

    Wahl recalled how, as a child, he asked his parents questions about their families. Their emotional reactions deterred him and his sister from pressing too hard.

    This is too hard. I can just imagine how they felt. I wonder if we could do something to help them. Is there a way?

    Thanks for sharing!

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