Voice/Vision Holocaust Survivor Oral History Archive

Barbara Schechter Cohen - May 1, 2002

Experience as Child of Survivors

There's a number of stories in books about children of survivors um, in which the children relate what it was like, not only being over-protected but made to feel guilty for having done the wrong thing. How could you do it to me and things like that. Did you experience that, do you think?


After all I went through for you.

Absolutely. In fact, um, my mother made it sort of clear, like, that she saved my life. Um, she didn't say it in so many words, but that I should do for her too. Now it's payback time. I got that message.

They must have been remarkably astute to know that it was not smart to stay together during the war, that it was time to get out, get false papers...

My dad was very uh, bright and very brave um. But then I think to myself, well, if it wasn't for me being born maybe they wouldn't be so brave. Maybe they'd go to the ghetto and not be alive.

So in a sense, you saved, you saved their lives.

Uh, in a, in a sense.

In a sense yeah. That's probably true. Um, and yet you think they were scarred by the experience.

Very much so.

So--and what did they pass on? I mean, how did that affect the rest of your life, apart from your marriage? Did it--do you think about it all the time? Were you having fantasies about it? Were you, um...

Well, it affected my uh, certainly my relationship with my husband. Um...

When you were a teenager were you frightened because of the expectations that come from Holocaust survivors? I mean, if you did the wrong thing, you'd be...


a terrible disappointment to them?

Yeah, I felt uh, this terrible guilt that if I didn't do the wrong thing I was um, going to fall off the pedestal. And my parents um, I wouldn't say they were happily married. Uh, they--my mother was um, emotionally scarred from the war and um, she was actually, I would say jealous of my father's family that they survived. And that always puzzled me that here's a family that have gone through the war that can't stay together. 'Cause she was always angry at his sisters for whatever reason. Whether...

For living.

For living. And uh, she'd always have arguments with him about um, the sisters, the sisters. And she put a deep wedge um, for me too. Because uh, here's family that uh, I didn't know until uh, the last--I've gotten real close to my aunt in the last ten years. But I could have had family years before.

And cousins as well? Were there--there must have been cousins.

And, and cousins. And, and my mother wasn't well. She was suicidal for most of her life. [crys] [long pause] So that affected me a lot.

Did she seek help? Did she seek help?

Um, no. And then um, my um, brother was born and he was eight years younger than I was. And um, he, he was uh, emotionally ill and we didn't. I--because there was this age difference I didn't pick it up. Um, when I got married I moved uh, to Chicago a year after we were married and um, his illness became full blown when he went to college and he was schizophrenic and suicidal too. And uh, he succeeded when he was uh, twenty-five.

He committed suicide?


Was he your only sibling?

Yeah. Mm-hm. Yeah.

You think that's connected to your mother?

I think so.

It was ultimately connected to the war probably. She was very depressed obviously. Would you say clinically depressed?

Clinically depressed.

And she never took anything for it or never s...saw anyone.

Uh, only when um, my dad died. He died in '89 and uh, she--it sort of triggered again a whole host of emotions, um. Though interestingly enough, after he died she never made a suicide attempt again.

She attempted suicide.

When he was alive. As--I think--a weapon. But when she was alone um, she had other problems but uh, she didn't you know, attempt suicide after that. She was...

When was the first time she attempted suicide? How old were you?

Um, oh, there were so many times, um.

But were you... I don't remember in Brooklyn. I remember it happening in uh, Detroit. So I was...

You would be ten or eleven.

I think, I think was a, a teenager. 'Cause I moved here when I was eleven.

That must have been awful.

Yeah, it was. And a...actually my, my dad um, I don't think it was fair of him at the time but I, I wasn't um, sophisticated enough, I'd use the word, that he would um, confuse me. He'd talk against her and then he would say uh, if I did anything wrong go apologize to her because she's right, she's always right. But he, he used me as a sounding board for the problems in their marriage and I got sucked into this sympathetic ear. You know, so I, I had a clouded vision of my mother, you know.

Through his eyes.

Through his eyes. And I don't think that was fair. And I--if I would have been more sophisticated, I would have said you know, that's not fair. This is my mother. And I, I did say that after I got married because he was still calling me and complaining about her and I was having trouble with my own husband and I couldn't take anymore. And I, I felt so guilty about telling my own father I can't handle listening to this anymore. I've got my own problems. The guilt of not listening to him. That's why I listened for all those years.

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