All photographs by Scott Suchman
When he was seven, Jeffrey Zell’s mother put him on a public bus for the 20-minute ride from their house to a neighboring town where she’d heard the schools were better. It worked until town authorities discovered he wasn’t a resident.
Zell’s mother and father were Holocaust survivors who believed he had to learn to take care of himself.
At age ten, Jeanne Katz wanted to go to Girl Scout camp with her troop. Her parents, both survivors, refused to let her. “Every morning when I went to school, they reminded me not to smile at anyone,” she says. “You couldn’t trust anybody.”
April 21 is Holocaust Remembrance Day. Some Washingtonians will visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum. But for area residents whose parents were both survivors, almost every day is a remembrance day.
Having a parent who experienced the Holocaust makes you a member of the so-called Second Generation. Most parents of the Second Generation were teens when the Nazis began persecuting Jews. Most survived because they were strong enough to work as slave labor or attempt dangerous escapes. The Nazis took away years that might have been spent in school. Most survivors came to America with no degrees or skills.
Members of the Second Generation with only one survivor parent were more likely to be integrated into the mainstream of America. On one side of the family were uncles, aunts, and grandparents eager to embrace them. The nightmares of one parent could be balanced by the dreams of the other. But children of two survivors often grew up in enclaves of refugees. While their parents struggled—with demons, a new language, a new culture—they struggled as well.
Two survivor parents didn’t always agree on what their children needed to know about their experiences. Jeff Zell’s father was a proud supporter of DC’s Holocaust museum; his mother refuses to set foot in it.
Children of survivors are adults now, better able to understand what their parents endured. But they also realize how much it means for those who fought so hard to survive to have children and grandchildren: They represent the ultimate victory.
Jeanne Katz Olson
“The Elephant in the Room”
Jeanne Olson lives in Potomac, 3,000 miles from the world her parents created for her in Los Angeles. Her husband, Charles, is a professor at the University of Maryland and a consultant on energy issues. He’s a non-Jew.
It might look as though Jeanne Olson has left her past behind. The opposite is true. She met Charlie shortly after her father died. If her mother hadn’t agreed to move east with her, she says, she wouldn’t have married him. In the end, her mother stayed in LA—she couldn’t leave her familiar surroundings.
Olson’s parents, Irene and Josef Katz, were born in Germany. Irene, an only child, was 16 when she and her mother were arrested and told they were being “relocated.” Irene was soon separated from her mother and never saw her again. She spent time in Latvia’s Riga ghetto and in labor camps including Kaiserwald. In Riga, she saw a young man who was being held in detention for some offense against his Nazi captors. She managed to sneak a bit of food to him.
Irene Katz was liberated in Poland by the Russian army in 1945 and made her way to Berlin, a gathering place for Jews looking for loved ones.
Josef Katz, born in Lübeck, Germany, had a chance to escape before Jews were rounded up. A couple of his siblings got out. The one sister who stayed had married a non-Jew and survived, working in a pillow factory. But Josef, the youngest, refused to leave his mother behind.
At 23, Josef Katz was deported to internment camps in Latvia. He would later write a memoir, One Who Came Back, about his survival in Riga, Kaiserwald, and smaller labor camps as well as on a death march in Germany. He was liberated in 1945 and made his way to a hospital in Berlin that had become a haven for homeless Jews. The girl who had snuck bread to him was there.
“She comes toward me with outstretched arms,” he wrote. “We are both overjoyed. A miracle has happened.”
They married a year later and got on one of the first ships bringing survivors to America. They settled in New York City, but Josef felt confined. He thought about moving to Alaska. When Irene balked, they moved to Los Angeles. Jeanne was born there in 1952.
Josef swept floors to earn money. Slowly he and Irene learned English and started a ladies’-accessories business. Like many refugee couples, they both worked in the business. Josef’s sister who had survived the war married to a German moved to LA after her husband died. She took care of Jeanne while the girl’s parents worked.
Jeanne was born into a German-speaking household. When she was seven or eight, her father announced he wasn’t going to speak his native language. But his sister spoke only German to Jeanne—one of many paradoxes in her childhood.
Jeanne’s parents were suspicious of strangers but moved to an LA neighborhood where there were few Jews. Jeanne had to turn down an acceptance to Stanford and go to UCLA so she could live at home. “If it were up to my parents,” she says, “I’d still be there.”
At the same time, her parents—particularly her father—were restless. “They would decide at 4 am that we were all going to Las Vegas,” Olson recalls. “Or at 2 or 3, they would wake me up to go out for an ice-cream sundae.”