How trauma suffered by Holocaust survivors has affected the next generation

A lot is known about the horrors experienced by Holocaust survivors. Now their children are sharing how the trauma their parents went through has affected their own lives.

Children of survivors talk about the impact their parents' experiences have had on their own lives

Inherited trauma: Growing up the child of a Holocaust survivor

2 months ago
Duration 8:58
A lot is known about the horrors experienced by Holocaust survivors. Now their children are sharing how the trauma their parents went through affected their own lives.

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

The trauma of Holocaust survivors has been widely studied and documented, but the impact their experiences have had on their children hasn't received as much attention.

In recent years, as more people have started talking and writing about it, organizations have sprung up to help secondary victims share their stories.

The world marks Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan 27. Several children of Holocaust survivors spoke to CBC News about the impact their parents' experiences have had on their own lives.

Marilyn Sinclair

Marilyn Sinclair's father, Ernie Weiss, was a Holocaust survivor whose nightmares left him screaming in his sleep every night.

"You never actually get used to that, being awoken by somebody shouting," Sinclair said. 

"I would always ask my father, 'What is it? What did you dream about last night? What was your nightmare?' And he'd always say, 'Oh, I don't ever remember my dreams. I'm sorry I woke you.'"

It was only many years later that Sinclair's father told her his nightmares were set in Auschwitz when he was a prisoner there during the Second World War. He described how he was forced to watch Jews being pushed into a pit to be murdered. The revelation scarred Sinclair, who said she herself has nightmares of being apprehended by Nazis.

"When I was younger and it was hard to make sense out of all of it, I would dream that I was in the camps," she said.

A woman with glasses, a striped scarf and puffy blue coat smiles at the camera while standing in front of houses on a residential street.
Marilyn Sinclair stands in front of her childhood home in Toronto. Children of Holocaust survivors are affected by their parents' experiences, she said, and can 'absorb those memories as if you lived through the trauma.' (Ousama Farag/CBC)

Sinclair said although her father tried not to burden her with the horrors of his past, she was aware of his deep sadness at having lost most of his family. She even took some of it on herself.

"What happens when you're a child of somebody who has experienced such tremendous trauma is that those memories become yours," she said.

"So children of Holocaust survivors actually live with memories of events that never happened to them, which is really unusual because other people ask, you know, 'Do you have your parents' memories?' And, no, but you do absorb those memories as if you lived through the trauma."

Sinclair credits her childhood as being a huge part of why she's devoted much of her life to Holocaust education.

She is heavily involved with Toronto's Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre. Sinclair also founded Liberation 75 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, which has evolved into ongoing educational initiatives. And she is collaborating on Ontario's new Grade 6 curriculum around teaching about the Holocaust.

"I probably think about the Holocaust, in one way or another, every single day," she said. "So, I have just made it my goal to try and teach as many people as possible about the Holocaust, particularly students."

Sinclair also said that growing up she tried hard to do her part to be happy around her father, to never complain about anything, and to try to always be grateful. The pressure of that as a child, though, was heavy.

"We protected our parents. It was a very, in some ways, unusual situation. Most children don't protect their parents," she said. "We knew, even if they didn't tell us the stories, we knew something terrible had happened to them and we wanted to protect them."

Arla Litwin

Arla Litwin grew up knowing that her father survived something horrific, and felt that she had to be good and not cause him additional trouble. Although her father embraced life and didn't share his trauma with Litwin or her sisters, she said he had nightmares and she knew a darkness existed in his past.

"It breaks my heart to know what he went through and I never want to break his heart," Litwin said. "I never want to do something that's going to be hurtful to him. That's hard as a daughter because, you know, we're both very strong people and we definitely butt heads."

Once Litwin's father, Nate Leipciger, started sharing his story publicly and published his memoir The Weight of Freedom, Litwin said she realized the cloud over her father's life stemmed from horrific things he survived in the concentration camps, including sexual abuse and extreme starvation. His sorrow is something she carries with her.

A woman with long hair dressed in a dark blouse looks at the camera with a solemn expression on her face.
Arla Litwin's father, Nate Leipciger, survived Auschwitz and was eventually liberated from the Dachau concentration camp. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

Litwin said because her mother wasn't a Holocaust survivor, her childhood wasn't entirely marred by sadness, but the stories of her father's experiences had an impact on her in different ways.

"It's really important to me to have a stocked pantry, to have a stocked house, to always have lots of food available," she said. "And, when certain world events happen or when there's antisemitism, I go to a dark place really fast. So, where other people are going, 'Oh, this isn't so great,' I'm like, 'Oh my God, like, maybe we need to leave.'"

Although Litwin said most people around her would likely be surprised at her anxiety related to having enough food and feeling safe in Canada, the overwhelming impact of having a father who is a Holocaust survivor and educator is a feeling of immense pride. It also inspired her to devote much of her own time to Holocaust education and awareness.

"I'm really proud of him, really proud of his strength, his strength of character and his courage in such a difficult time in, you know, picking himself up and creating a life. And not just not just existing, but living and enjoying life," she said.

Marsha Lederman

Marsha Lederman published a book last year called Kiss The Red Stairs: The Holocaust Once Removed, about her experience growing up the daughter of Gitla and Jacob Lederman. Her mother was liberated from a death march by U.S. soldiers and her father survived by passing for a Catholic and being sheltered on a German farm. 

She said the trauma her parents experienced was definitely passed down to her.

"Since I was a child, I've had nightmares that I'm being chased. I'm going to be caught. I'm either explicitly being chased by Nazis or by some sort of unknown malevolent force, and I know I'm going to be caught and it's going to be horrible," she said. 

"I had those dreams as a child, and I still have those dreams. And what I've discovered in doing the research for this book was that a lot of children of survivors have these dreams, these nightmares, and they're awful."

A woman in a dark dress stands with her arm around her adolescent son, who is dressed for his Bar Mitzvah.
Marsha Lederman, left, and her son Jacob are shown here on the occasion of his Bar Mitzvah. She said her father's experiences created a deep sadness within her and a need to speak out about antisemitism. (Submitted by Marsha Lederman)

Lederman started thinking about writing about her experiences when she came across a study that looked at intergenerational trauma among Holocaust survivors. She said so much of it rang true to her. 

Like other children of survivors she grew up with, she said she's been burdened by more than just the nightmares she heard her father have every night. She also carried a deep sadness within her and a need to speak out about Holocaust awareness and antisemitism. She now knows that the subtleties of her childhood affected her in so many ways.

"We knew that food was very precious in our house. We knew that there was a lot of loss in their lives, and as a result, an absence in ours," she said. "We had no grandparents, we only had one aunt, and all these people had been killed in a terrible way, so that's going to create some sort of sadness in the house."

The cover of a book, with a black-and-white image of the left side of a woman's face looking out from behind the title, 'Kiss The Red Stairs: The Holocaust, Once Removed.'
Marsha Lederman published a memoir about her experience growing up as a child of a Holocaust survivor in May 2022, titled Kiss The Red Stairs: The Holocaust, Once Removed. (Marsha Lederman/Penguin Random House Canada)

Lederman spends a lot of time these days participating in panel discussions around intergenerational trauma. This week she took part in a conversation around shared trauma in Victoria, alongside members of the Indigenous community. She said sharing her own experience is increasingly important to her.

"I'm not supposed to be here. I'm a miracle. I was not supposed to be born, according to the Nazi ideology and the Nazi practice of genocide," she said. "And I was born, and I can write, and I will not remain silent."

Willie Handler

Willie Handler didn't know much more about his parents' experiences during the war, except that they were both survivors and were both extremely scarred by life.

"It was a very tense household and my father had a lot of issues with anger," he said. "And so it was a difficult upbringing."

A man with round glasses and a greying stubbly beard looks away to one side with a pensive expression on his face.
Willie Handler is the son of two Holocaust survivors, but said he didn't know much about their experiences until he started researching his family history in recent years. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

Handler's father was remote as a parent. He was 40 when he arrived in Canada, having lost his first wife and two children in the war. He was so traumatized he only remembered having one child and blocked out the fact that he'd had two children die, something Handler only found out in recent years through research into his family history.

"That was a memory that was just buried," he said. 

Handler believes one of his father's assigned tasks at a concentration camp made the trauma of remembering his own child too difficult to bear. "He was putting bodies into the crematorium, and that included babies, it's shocking and it's tragic."

Handler said that his own childhood was affected by the experiences of his parents and the tension in his house, but also by the loneliness. Having lost most of his extended family in the war, Handler recalls milestones and holidays being very quiet. In his own life, he thinks the trauma he's absorbed also caused him to be more insular as well.

A man with glasses and a blue collared shirt stands in a living room and holds a small black and white photo.
Handler holds a photo of himself as a child with his family. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

"One of my weaknesses was I didn't like to take a lot of credit for things, and I'm positive that is passed down from my dad. In the camps, one of the things that you didn't want to do was draw attention to yourself, you wanted to just blend in with the masses because being selected usually had negative implications," he explained.

To compensate for his quiet childhood, Handler tries to make his own grandsons a big priority, saying he wants to give them the happy memories with family life more jovial now. He is very involved as a grandparent — something he was denied.

Dori Ekstein

Dori Ekstein's parents, David and Mina Rawa, each survived the horrors of the Holocaust. Her mother was hidden by gentiles along with her own parents, but her father was a prisoner of Auschwitz for more than two years.

Unlike many other survivors, they spoke openly to Ekstein about their experiences as she was growing up.

A younger woman with long dark hair hugs an older woman with short brown hair as both look at the camera and smile.
Dori Ekstein's mother, Mina Rawa, left, was hidden along with her parents on a farm in Poland for two-and-a-half years. (Submitted by Dori Ekstein)

"My dad's entire family was murdered, he was the only survivor of maybe 70 or 80 people," Ekstein said. 

"He experienced a lot of trauma, witnessed beatings and hangings constantly. I had a lot of sadness for what he went through growing up. It broke my heart."

Hearing her parents' stories told over time armed Ekstein with the education she said she needed to eventually do her own advocacy in Holocaust education.

Along with Sinclair, she founded Dialogue for Descendants, an organization that caters exclusively to children of survivors through support groups, lectures and other events. Its members are able to meet with people who've had the same experiences as them, and Ekstein said it's the common language of grief that they share and it makes the group comforting.

"We all know each others' childhoods in some way or another," she said.

A woman with long brown hair hugs her father, who is wearing a sunhat and smiling.
Ekstein's father, David Rawa, was a prisoner of the Auschwitz concentration camp for more than two years. (Submitted by Dori Ekstein)

The group also allows Ekstein to see how her parents' trauma impacted her in ways she never fully understood. Her father's phobia around dogs, for example, stemming from seeing German shepherds used as killing agents in the concentration camp, was passed down to Ekstein and she was extremely fearful of dogs as well.

And her parents' overprotectiveness translated into her battling extreme anxiety any time her own children are travelling on a highway. Ekstein said she believes the psychological impacts are inevitable.

"My dad had a zest for life, he was always happy for me," said Ekstein. "But of course he wasn't always happy, he had nightmares and anxiety and that trauma, there's no escaping it on some level."


Perlita Stroh

Producer, The National

Perlita Stroh is a producer with The National at CBC News. She works on news and current affairs stories and is based in Toronto.

With files from Ioanna Roumeliotis