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Healing a Wounded Covenant

July 12, 2012 | by Bayla Sheva Brenner

Children of Holocaust survivors reclaim their heritage.

Children born in the post-Holocaust era of the 1940s, 50s and 60s grew up knowing their parents had gone through hell on earth. The ghosts of murdered grandparents, aunts, uncles and siblings loomed large in their homes by their very absence. Sounds like an atmosphere ripe for major crises in faith. Yet, from many of the survivors who either lacked the strength to believe in a benevolent God or to observe His Torah came offspring who have picked up the discarded baton and enthusiastically embraced observant Judaism. I am one of those who chose to reclaim my heritage and have always wondered if there were more like me. These are the stories of survivors’ sons and daughters whose struggle with faith led to consequential life choices.

Children of Holocaust survivors inevitably absorb the emotional repercussions of their parents’ trauma.

The “2Gs,” (the generation after the Holocaust) as many of us refer to ourselves, span a two-decade age range. Some of us were born in war-torn Europe, some smack dab in Middle America, but we all share basic commonalities that helped shaped our sensibilities about what it means to be in a world that could suddenly and brutally fall apart. We felt different, because our parents were different.

Born in the Bronx, New York, and raised in the Rego Park section of Queens, Allen Kolber remembers himself as a nervous and fearful child. “I was obsessed with the Holocaust,” he says. “By the time I was eight, I had amassed a whole collection of Holocaust material. I was trying to understand my father’s experience.”

Allen Kolber’s father at age nineteen, when World War II began. The photo was most likely taken by the Judenrat for ID purposes.Allen Kolber’s father at age nineteen, when World War II began. The photo was most likely taken by the Judenrat for ID purposes.

His father had grown up in Sanz, Poland, and was 19 when the war began. On Yom Kippur 1939, the Germans dragged the Jews out of the shul across the street from his home and brazenly cut off their beards. “My father decided then and there that he was leaving,” says Kolber. “He told his parents they should do the same, but they resisted. He convinced a brother and sister to join him and together they traveled to Soviet-controlled Lemberg.” The Soviets then shipped them to a labor camp in Siberia. “My father went through the war with a pouch around his neck that contained five photos of his family. Except for the brother and sister [with whom he had fled], his parents, two brothers with their families and another sister were murdered.”

Although his parents were raised in Torah-observant homes, Kolber, 46, was not. “Judaism [in our home] was defined by the Holocaust,” he says. “My Jewish identity was the European Holocaust identity. It wasn’t about a relationship with God or learning Torah.”

If there was any indication of his father being religious before the war, he “lost it completely afterwards.”

“He wasn’t anti-religious,” says Kuber. “[In fact,] he spoke about [his life in the shtetl] with fondness. He remembers going to cheder as a five-year-old, but doesn’t [seem to] know any of the Jewish practices. [Yet], in the photograph I have of his parents, his mother is wearing a sheitel and his father is wearing a koppel [kippah].”

At the age of 16, Kolber’s mother fled with her family from Berlin to France, to Spain, then to Portugal, and finally to the United States in 1942. Unlike her husband, she maintained an affinity for frumkeit. “They struck a compromise,” says Kolber. “We had a kosher home and Friday night dinners. On Shabbos, my mother, sister and I would go to a Conservative shul and then we were free to do whatever we wanted. She did, however, raise me with the sense that it would be good for me to become religious when I got older.”

Children of Holocaust survivors inevitably absorb the emotional repercussions of their parents’ trauma; its effects are usually played out as they enter young adulthood and begin to make their way in the world. Kolber describes his father as always having difficulty venturing beyond his own four walls. “He had this thing about suitcases. He couldn’t bring himself to pack a suitcase; he didn’t go on vacation or sleep away from the house.” Similarly, Kolber found that he also had difficulty navigating life. “It took me six years to graduate college,” he says. “I started out pre-med and got kicked out of [college]. I was depressed; I just sat in my room all day and smoked.”

Many survivors internalized the crushing deprivation foisted upon them; this, too, was passed on to their children. “I would ask my father, ‘What are you eating over the sink for? Sit down at the table and eat on a plate,’” says Kolber. “And he would answer: ‘You think I had a plate in Siberia? You think I need a plate? I ate for five years without a plate.’ I felt I didn’t deserve to be happy, to be fulfilled and complete.”

Kolber managed to graduate from Stony Brook University in Long Island, New York. He decided to go to law school, and to look into Judaism. Throughout his three years of study, he attended Torah classes in Manhattan during the school year and learned at Ohr Somayach, a yeshivah in Israel, each summer. He also started going to shul.

After graduating from law school, Kolber went to Israel for a year of Torah study and returned to the United States with a kippah, tzitzis and a desire to get serious about Judaism. He quickly set up a schedule of intensive Torah learning with Rabbi Dovid Schwartz, associate director of the Jewish Heritage Center in Queens.

Many 2Gs feel a tremendous sense of purpose.

Also a son of survivors, Rabbi Schwartz, 50, has mentored a number of 2Gs who became ba’alei teshuvah. “The overwhelming sense that I get from learning with 2Gs is that their parents were generally silent about their experiences,” says Rabbi Schwartz. “Once they conducted their own Holocaust research and realized the enormity of the murder rate and how miniscule the chance of survival was, they felt a sense of mission, as if to say: ‘If my parents survived and they were incapable of regaining their connection to Judaism, I’ll be darned if I’m not going to.’ It brings them to a tremendous sense of purpose.”

Allen Kolber and his son, Shmuel.Allen Kolber and his son, Shmuel.

Today, Kolber, an attorney, lives in Monsey, New York, with his wife, Liora, and their four children, each of whom is named after members of his father’s martyred family. His mother recently died; she had taken ill soon after the birth of Kolber’s first child and had been incapable of fully enjoying the gratifying nachas of grandparenthood. “I was wondering if she can see everything now,” says Kolber. “I have boys with peyos and tzitzis, and a girl who wears a long dress. She would be so happy with that.”

The Soul-Saving Power of Giving

Like Kolber, Sherry Dimarsky, of Chicago, also received the message of “you don’t have to actually practice Judaism, but value it.” I interviewed her a year prior to her passing at the age of forty-six. Dimarsky’s parents were both from Chassidic families in Poland, and had clearly taught her “that the Torah is emes [truth], but we don’t have the koach [strength] to do it all.” During her early years growing up in Cleveland, Dimarsky’s family attended an Orthodox shul on Shabbos and yom tov. “When we didn’t go to shul, we stayed home and watched cartoons,” said Dimarsky. “We kept yom tov one hundred percent, but didn’t keep Shabbos [fully]. Friday night we had Shabbos dinner. It didn’t matter how old you were, or if you were in high school and running around with the sports team. No discussion; Friday night was Shabbos dinner. That’s how it was.”

Her father, one of seven children, was raised as a Gerrer chassid. In 1939, his family was thrown out of their home and sent to camps. Her father and his brother, Itchie, were sent to a number of work camps. It was during this time that Dimarsky’s father witnessed a scene that would haunt him for life. In the process of trying to help another Jew avoid certain death, Itchie himself was killed by the Polish murderer’s bullet. “My father said that at that point, he didn’t care if he lived or died anymore,” said Dimarsky. Later, while assigned to the gruesome job of sorting through the possessions the Nazis had stolen from thousands of Jews (earmarked for their wives in Germany), he recognized his mother’s winter coat. “My father understood at that moment that she was dead,” said Dimarsky. “He remembers walking back to the barracks, and he laid himself down. He was told that he stayed that way for seven days without moving. Then he got up and continued life.”

“My parents are shockingly optimistic human beings.”

“My parents are shockingly optimistic human beings,” said Dimarsky. “They were in a position to save other people’s lives as well as their own during the war.” Dimarsky was convinced it’s what kept them sane. “If you asked my father what were some of the happiest moments of his life, he’ll describe the day immediately after the war, when everything was destroyed—how the Jews lived truly to help each other. Because he had two pairs of pants he considered himself a rich man. He said: ‘I met a Jew who had none, and I gave him one.’ That’s how my parents lived.”

During the Russian exodus of the 1970s, Dimarsky’s mother readily housed Jewish refugees in their Cleveland home; she clothed them, fed them and found them jobs. Dimarsky remembers her mother informing her on many an evening: “Sherry, go stay by the neighbors next door; there are Russians in your bed.”

Dimarsky’s mother had been raised in a Chassidic home in Lancut, a small town in southeastern Poland, which prior to the war had a thriving Jewish community, constituting one-third of the city population. Her mother and sister, with the help of another sister’s husband, survived the war by bribing Gentiles to hide them. Their first “hosts” turned them in. Her mother’s sister and brother-in-law, along with their newborn baby and two-year-old child, were murdered by the Nazis; Dimarsky’s mother, her other sister and the murdered sister’s three-year-old child miraculously survived. Dimarsky’s mother raised the child in a Polish barn. “[For the remainder of the war], he couldn’t stand up or speak during the day,” said Dimarsky. “He is married now, has two children and became a very high ranking officer in the American military.”

Nathan and Betty Berliner (Dimarsky’s parents) after the war.Nathan and Betty Berliner
(Dimarsky’s parents) after the war.

Dimarsky’s parents met shortly before the end of the war and married soon afterwards. After losing most of their families, they suffered the death of their first child. In 1950, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) helped them immigrate to the US.

Despite their adversity, according to Dimarsky, her parent’s home was one in which God was a palpable and loving entity. “I talked to God before I could speak,” she said. “I never asked the question of why God does bad things to people. I always knew the world was a really hard place; nobody promised me it wouldn’t be.”

Though Dimarsky and her siblings attended public school, they also went to an after-school Talmud Torah several times a week. While Dimarsky may not have learned the nuances of halachah, she was imbued with emunah (faith) and bitachon (trust) in God. In spite of their catastrophic losses, Dimarsky’s parents transmitted to their children a profound and abiding love of being Jewish.

“My father had a [ritual],” she said. “He would wake up early in the morning, do his exercises and daven. Years back, he didn’t daven with a minyan every day, because he had to be at work. [I’d watch him as] he sat quietly and he would sit and wait. Then he’d get up and put on tefillin and daven. In my twenties, I thought to ask him what he was doing when he sat there. He told me: ‘I took Hakadosh Baruch Hu [the Holy One, blessed be He] to a beis din [a Jewish court of law].’ I asked him who won. He said: ‘Sometimes He wins and sometimes I win.’ I asked what happens then. He said: ‘It was time to daven Shacharis.’”

Nevertheless, by the time Dimarsky entered Northwestern Law School, she was more involved in feminism than in Judaism. At one point, she participated in organizing an international conference on “women and the law.”

“I was the only Jew who knew anything about Judaism,” she said. “So I handled all the Jewish programming. In the process, I found myself confronting anti-Semitism among the other Jews [on the project].” Her moment of truth had arrived. “We were working on a conference and it had to be accessible to everyone with a disability, as well as to those who are bilingual. Yet, they scheduled sessions on Shabbos. I objected, and they said: ‘But you don’t care.’” Surprising herself, she responded: “Of course I do.”

Eventually, Dimarsky discovered that feminism left her cold and disillusioned. “After the war, my parents had nobody left,” said Dimarsky. “[So,] they built themselves a community of friends that are closer than family….I was looking for this idealized community. It was critical to me.” She began searching intensely. “I knew that [a Torah-based life] was the alternative, but I wasn’t ready for it yet. I didn’t know how to get from point A to point B. I didn’t have the knowledge.”

Meanwhile, Dimarsky’s best friend began taking a class in Chicago catered to college students interested in Jewish learning. This inspired the friend to move to continue learning. While visiting her friend, Dimarsky decided to take some classes herself. “I flew,” she said. “In a matter of months I was really solid.”

Sherry and Rabbi Eliezer Dimarsky. Like her survivor parents, Sherry, who contracted a fatal disease in her forties, refused to let hardship adversely affect her faith. Photo courtesy of Rabbi DimarskySherry and Rabbi Eliezer Dimarsky. Like her survivor parents, Sherry, who contracted a fatal disease in her forties, refused to let hardship adversely affect her faith. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Dimarsky

Dimarsky was soon introduced to her husband, Eliezer, a Russian-born semichah student at the Telshe Yeshiva who had been involved in the religious underground in Kiev. They married in 1990, settled in Chicago and began building an observant home. As is the custom, Dimarsky named her four sons after family members who had perished. Soon after giving birth to her third child, the message she had learned in her early years, that the world was a “hard place,” became very real. She contracted sarcoidosis, a disease which causes extreme scarring of the lungs. “It wasn’t clear that I was going to make it,” she said. “I never asked [God] why this was happening to me,” she said. “That kind of crisis of faith is not mine. [Instead], I asked: ‘What am I supposed to do with this?’ My crisis of faith has always been questioning if I am good enough. The whole world had to go to war for me to be born. Have I justified my life?” She put herself on the list to receive a lung transplant. (Click here to read an article about Sherry.)

”My crisis of faith has always been questioning if I am good enough. Have I justified my life?”

Very much her parents’ daughter, Dimarsky refused to let hardship hamper her relationship with God or her yen to give and to inspire. “The thing about growing up as a child of survivors is that loss is normal,” she said. “We pray that we can grow from it and not let it destroy us.”

Despite her disease, Dimarsky remained an integral part of the Heritage Russian Jewish Congregation of Chicago, the outreach organization for Russian Jews that she and her husband had established in 1998. Since its inception, the organization has brought 2,000 Russian Jews back to their spiritual roots. The Dimarskys also founded a Hebrew school for Russian-immigrant children.

The family maintained their open-door policy, installing a large oxygen tank in a central location in their home, enabling Dimarsky to move about. While hooked up to a long tube, she continued to host scores of Shabbos, yom tov and weekday guests.

After receiving a life-saving lung transplant in August 2004, Dimarsky was blessed with an additional few years. Soon, however, the lung began rejecting her body, and on January 7, 2008, her lungs finally gave out.

Based on her vigorous commitment to Torah life and her constant demonstrations of love for other Jews, she needn’t worry; her life was more than justified. Undoubtedly, Dimarsky would attribute her spiritual accomplishments to her original teachers, her parents—whom she called “walking masters of chesed.”

“We were raised with [the concept] that we are here [to] give,” said Dimarsky. “I knew that it was only [through] Torah that one could become fully actualized. It was inevitable that this was where I was going.”

Born on the heels of our parents’ agonizing trauma, a horror spurred solely by the fact that they were Jews, many of us 2Gs needed to dip into the very essence of what the Nazis found so objectionable – Judaism.

Allen Kolber speaks for all the sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors who reclaimed their Jewish faith and heritage from the ashes. “On Tisha B’Av, I heard a rav state that it is a Jew’s obligation to ‘mourn with the rest’ of Klal Yisrael [the Jewish people]. We, who saw the destruction of the Temple close up, couldn’t help but mourn. What we needed was to find the joy in Judaism—so that we could rejoice with the rest.”

A longer version of this article first appeared in the OU’s Jewish Action magazine, Summer, 2008.

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