Israeli author shares experiences as a second-generation Holocaust survivor

Mikaela Cannizzo

Surviving the Holocaust put strains on parents’ relationships with their children, an Israeli author and playwright said at a lecture Wednesday night.

As a second-generation Holocaust survivor, author Nava Semel said she grew up with the struggle of embracing a culture that emphasized positively building a single identity from a variety of refugees while facing uneasy interactions with family members who had experienced trauma from the Holocaust.

“We were created as a barrier between them and their memory,” Semel said. “They saw us and they thought they could forget.”

Born to Holocaust survivors in Tel Aviv, Semel said she was afraid to ask her parents about their experiences. She said the belief that mutual harm would result from sharing horrific memories closed the discussion of the Holocaust throughout her childhood.

Marissa Finkelman, education and Jewish studies junior, said she identified with Semel’s talk because she is a third-generation holocaust survivor.

“I thought it was interesting hearing her reference the situation I have experienced with my family,” Finkelman said. “It is a conversation that comes up often, but not often enough.”

Laura Evans, administrative assistant for the Institute for Israeli Studies, said the Holocaust has ripple effects that are still felt today.  

“It’s much broader than just an Israeli issue and affects many Americans as well,” Evans said.

Semel said, in the 1980s, the birth of third-generation survivors opened the dialogue of the Holocaust for the first time. Unlike the transition period second-generation survivors experienced, the third generation was more ingrained in the Israeli identity and could freely discuss the Holocaust with their grandparents, according to Semel.

“They saw their children at about the same age they were when the Holocaust happened,” Semel said. “They saw healthy, normal kids and knew they achieved their first goal of normalcy.”

Semel said this normalcy resulted from survivors’ ability to function in society and move on with their lives.

“I salute the survivors for healing and rehabilitating themselves,” Semel said. “There is no explanation for such a rare phenomenon of people pushing themselves on track for a normal existence.”

Despite silence on the Holocaust, Semel said her parents’ lack of smiles and their middle-of-the-night screams left her with deep psychological damage that influenced her writing.

“There were always those black holes,” Semel said. “The only way for me to confront my fears is to write about them.”