Jewish Lesbian Daughters of Holocaust Survivors8
It is my understanding that Shoah is the term used specifically for Jewish experiences of Holocaust; as such, I will try to use it here when that is being referred to, and use "the Holocaust" as a slightly more inclusive or general term.
I am neither Jewish, nor a lesbian, nor a family member of a Shoah survivor. I have experiences which are in some ways similar to those, but I can only try to speak here as an ally. If you think I have something wrong, feel free to /msg me.
Jewish Lesbian Daughters of Holocaust Survivors is one of many groups dealing with the experience of having parents who survived the Shoah (q.v.). It was founded in 1986 and grew to have an international membership.
Its primary activity is an annual weekend-long retreat. Each retreat features various workshops and discussion groups which focus on different issues specific to being the child of a Shoah survivor.
The group also focuses on networking: providing a community space in which people can share their experiences and learn more about how their parents' experiences have affected them.
In a 1997 article for the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California, JLDHS members spoke about some of the experiences that brought them to the group.
The different aspects of the group's title all combine in different ways to affect its members. For example, there is something specific and particular about being a Jewish lesbian. There is the always interesting intersection of religion and sexuality, and the ways that family can fit into that. There is the experience, in many countries, of being both a religious and sexual minority. And since "lesbian" implies "female," there is often also the struggle to find value in being female and queer, female and Jewish, female at all, and in discovering the feminist aspects of those cultures. And much more; there are many books and articles about it in the queer community.
So there are many things to talk about if you are a Jewish lesbian whose parents survived the Shoah. People talk about watching their parents age; a common enough experience. But then, there's also the fear brought on by seeing this generation die, and knowing that soon there won't be anyone living who remembers any part of the Holocaust. And there is the personal side of that: knowing that there is a lot your parents have not told you about their experiences, and knowing that time is running out. And many people were raised never even knowing that they were Jewish, to protect them, and face losing even more of their family's history - history which they've often only recently discovered is there to lose.
Many members of JLDHS talk about issues of deprivation and scarcity as well. One woman shared how their gatherings had helped her partner understand her:
"She used to think I was just crazy, off the wall about some things," says Keren, citing in particular her own fear that people around her will die and the fact that she never throws food away. "Then when she heard other people say the same things, she saw it was part of a pattern, that I wasn't the only one who had these issues."7
Sadly, child abuse can also figure into this pattern. Some Holocaust survivors have repeated the abuse they experienced, out of identification with their abusers or internalization of those experiences. Others have simply been so affected by their experiences in the Holocaust that they suffer for the rest of their lives, and sometimes cannot provide nurturing or emotional safety for their children. Many survivors have post-traumatic stress disorder, which carries with it a much higher incidence of alcoholism and all forms of abuse.6 Eliserh notes that "From my own family experience and that of families I know, the WWII generation of Jewish men seems to have an incredibly high proportion of severe mental illness, even amongst those who aren't Shoah survivors."
Then there are issues that are more specifically lesbian. Another member, Hina Pendle, commented on the difficulty of coming out to her parents: "Holocaust survivors have an investment in holding onto the old ways. Homosexuality does not fit into their picture." The fact of being a Shoah survivor can add an extra twist to the usual parental fears and biases. Some parents feel that they've survived all this and created a family only to have it destroyed by their children: Keren's father's "goal in life was to have a Jewish family and continue the Jewish people. In his mind, a lesbian can't do that."7
Some of the people who oppose groups like this perceive the children of Holocaust survivors as trying to claim abuse they did not experience. In reality, these generations provide a unique insight into the effects of the Holocaust.
Eva Hoffman has written many books on the Holocaust, including one about the second generation entitled "After Such Knowledge." In an interview on beliefnet.com, she said,
"I think the second generation's perspective is different from the broader culture's perspective. We were much closer to it, so the human realities of those events are more evident. The tendency to view the Holocaust as sacred is not as strong.... I think the responsibility is to understand what happened, incorporate it into our understanding of the world, not violate the realities of what happened, not diminish its extent, and take what lessons from it that (sic) we can."4
For example, Pendle has spoken elsewhere about the reparations offered to Holocaust survivors, and the difficulties facing queer survivors urged to claim them. For many queer survivors, the Holocaust never quite ended. A tremendous number of them went home and continued to live in fear and secrecy, hiding who they were, often committing suicide. Pendle has described the reparations as a "double-edged sword," because in order to claim them, queer survivors have to overcome decades of compounded fear and oppression:
"Except for a few changes in names and places, the mentality that created the Holocaust is very much alive today. It makes me frightened for people who reveal themselves today. These people are at least in their eighties and I think a lot of people are experiencing terror right now."3
Without groups like the JLDHS, this insight might never have been achieved, and the people who give out such reparations might not have thought to come up with alternative ways of distributing them.
The group's most cherished benefit may be the opportunity for people to see the things they have in common that they would not otherwise have connected with their families. For example, a disproportionate number of members took jobs in "the helping professions," like teaching, therapy, business consulting, and social work. Pendle commented that their generation was "out healing the pain of the world. That's our world's work."7
Despite this group's quiet profile - it does not lobby for any political issues, it only meets annually, and it does not even have a web page - it is often featured in arguments about "victimology" and multi-generational survivor issues.
On the surface, this is primarily because of its name. Many people seem to find it surprisingly specific; someone even sent one of their retreat announcements to "Aaron's Jokes," commenting on the Pythonesque feel of the group's name.2
But why is there any controversy at all? I don't see any huge political lobbies or education campaigns spearheaded by the community of people related to Holocaust survivors. Two of the main articles I found bemoaning their existence listed only one other such group, Children of the Holocaust Anonymous, which I've never heard of in my time in 12-step programs, which does not have a website either, and which definitely would not have a public presence. Yet, in my searches online, I found nearly as many articles damning these groups as praising them.
Some see the existence of such second- and third-generation groups as an attempt to capitalize on the suffering caused by the Holocaust. They seem to be projecting their fears onto these groups, oblivious to their true activities. Others take JLDHS on as an example of the identity politics they oppose, and complain that acknowledging our diversity leads to an increasingly exclusionary society.
But the angriest people seem to be those who buy into the idea of "victimology." They attack almost anyone they think is claiming "victimhood." The argument will be familiar to most people in the queer community: it is the idea that anyone who claims an identity that differs from the norm wants "special rights."
Many people, it would seem, can't stand to hear that there is a group of Jewish, Lesbian, DAUGHTERS of Shoah Survivors out there. Even the fact that they come together and name themselves as a group is perceived to be a shockingly presumptuous grab for something more than they deserve. People complain, frothingly, about how non-Jewish survivors now want to be included in things like monuments. Damn their eyes!
To others, this reaction seems ridiculous: whether or not we know what it is, there is clearly something specific to being Jewish and lesbian and growing up with people who survived the Shoah which brings these people together. What's the big deal?
Of course, I have my theories. The more I study abuse and its effects on different communities, the more of these reactions I see. Since the Holocaust was a large-scale form of ritual abuse, it comes in for a share of this too.
One thing I have noticed is that, the more abuse and trauma and pain we are willing to recognize in the world, the clearer it becomes that the majority of people carry a lot of trauma around with them. There is even a book called We Are All in Shock by Stephanie Mines, Ph.D, which analyzes exactly what kinds of experiences cause trauma and how different systems in the body go into different forms of shock based on that. (And, fortunately, what we can do about it.)
The reactions of those angered by "the victim mindset" strike me as complex jealousy. Deep down, I think, people are jealous and angry because here is yet another group acknowledging their particular hardships and getting support for them. I think that there are a great many people who have experienced abuse, trauma, discrimination, et cetera, who cannot even acknowledge that they are in pain or that what happened to them is wrong. And some people end up resenting, tremendously, the sight of another person getting the support and validation which they are denying themselves. I've done this myself; it's a very complicated reaction. For me, it's very much like "How dare they?!" How dare they treat themselves nicely, how dare they say what happened to them is abuse, how dare they get acceptance for that identity that I don't dare claim. How dare they say that there's something wrong or different about what happened to them, when nobody will say that for me?
Hopefully, we'll keep growing toward the kind of world that includes Jewish Lesbian Daughters of Holocaust Survivors naming their experiences and learning where they come from and how to deal with them, and someday everyone will have the self-awareness and support they need.
Resources and References:
1. List of Children of Holocaust Groups: http://www.geocities.com/athens/delphi/7279/
2. Aaron's Jokes: http://www.aarons-jokes.com/joke-678.shtml
3. Observations on reparations: http://www.baywindows.com/news/2001/09/27/NationalNews/
4. Eva Hoffman on the role of children of Holocaust survivors: http://www.beliefnet.com/story/144/story_14428_1.html
5. Personal stories of those touched by the Holocaust: http://www.dosinc.org.au/stories4.html
6. Hand-Me-Down Hurt: PTSD Across the Generations:
7. Lesbian Daughters of Shoah Survivors Will Meet Here: http://www.jewishsf.com/content/2-0-/module/displaystory/story_id/
8. Contact information for the Jewish Lesbian Daughters of Holocaust Survivors:
P.O. Box 8773, Madison, WI 53708-8773
Catherine Odette, (608) 256-8883, V/TTY