Helen Epstein on the Holocaust and intergenerational trauma  

By Benita Siemiatycki

Building upon previous programs offered for descendants of survivors, the Centre for Holocaust Education and Scholarship (CHES) is proud to welcome writer Helen Epstein. On November 14, as part of Holocaust Education Month, she will deliver a presentation entitled, “The Shadow of the Holocaust on the Lives of Descendants of Survivors – Is it Possible to Move Beyond Its Grip?”

As there are declining numbers of survivors to share their stories, we are slowly transitioning from the age of witness to the age of memory.

Epstein is the author, co-author, translator or editor of 10 books of narrative non-fiction and was the first tenured female journalism professor at New York University (1981). As a journalist, she has published many articles in prominent publications.

Epstein first explored the world of children of survivors more than 40 years ago when she travelled throughout Israel, Europe and the United States searching for young people like herself. What did these children of survivors have in common? Could she relate to their experiences growing up? This inter-continental research resulted in her book, Children of the Holocaust (1979). “I set out to find a group of people who, like me, were possessed by a history they had never lived,” she says.

Children of the Holocaust became the seminal piece of research and analysis that started the conversation about generational trauma and how survivors’ experiences came to be transmitted to their children. “The transmission of trauma is part of a larger question: the inter-generational transmission of culture and history,” Epstein says. “Each person deals with it in their own way, and there are many variations.”

Following the death of her mother in 1989, Epstein started to research her family’s pre-Holocaust history. That resulted in Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother’s History (1997). The late Elie Wiesel praised the book: “Helen Epstein’s literary pilgrimage to her past will move and enrich our quest for memory and understanding.” Earlier this year, Epstein published a memoir of her late mother, Franci Rabinek Epstein, called Franci’s War.

Asked if hard work or luck was most important in researching her mother’s history in the Czech Republic, Epstein says, “I was lucky to have a very special set of variables in my life that allowed me to explore this topic early on. In no particular order: I had two parents who had returned to their country and pre-war lives after 1945; they were not estranged from their history; they re-integrated into the Czech society of Prague which they loved and fled only because of the Communist takeover in 1948.”

Her presentation will shine a light on her family history and intergenerational trauma. For children of Holocaust survivors, understanding the transmission of trauma from their heroic parents can perhaps answer questions which have dogged them their entire lives.

While her presentation is aimed at second and third generations of Holocaust survivors, it will be of interest to all. We are currently discovering gruesome facts about Canada’s role in the cultural decimation of First Nations and the subsequent impact on their descendants. Around the world, genocides continue to take place. Antisemitic incidents in Canada continue to rise, and Jewish students in public schools are facing so much bullying that many are switching to schools with higher Jewish populations.

The evening will open with a short presentation by Chaim Katz, a PhD student at the University of Toronto and a grandson of survivors. He has been involved in many aspects of student life on campus and shared his story and message at the Emergency Summit on Antisemitism. This advocacy has led Katz to roles in Jewish student life and to collaborating with various Jewish groups on and off campus. He knows what antisemitism can lead to if ignored. Katz will share his personal story and impressions of Jewish students and antisemitism on university campuses today.

For information and registration: Click here!

Benita Siemiatycki is a member of the Centre for Holocaust Education and Scholarship committee which organized the Helen Epstein event. Her parents are survivors of the Holocaust from Poland, and they arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax in 1948 as refugees. They settled in Montreal where they raised four children. Ottawa has been home to Benita Siemiatycki since 1982.

Holocaust Education Month
virtual event

 Helen Epstein on “The Shadow of the Holocaust on the Lives of Descendants of Survivors – Is it possible to move beyond its grip?”

Introduction by Chaim Katz, PhD student and child of survivors, on “Antisemitism in universities, a hidden social pandemic.”

November 14, 2021 7 p.m. online

Centre for Holocaust Education and Scholarship

For more information and to register: Click here!

Tim’s Top Taters is a satisfying snack for adults or kids, and it’s simpler to make than French fries. That’s the potato – humble, simple and unbeatable.

Tim O’Connor was born and raised in the Glebe and is head chef at Flora Hall Brewing.

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