Family & Education

The legacy of loss: Life as a second generation refugee

Rabbi Jonathan Romain reflects on a remarkable meeting of people whose parents were refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe


One of the nursery rhymes I was brought up on as a child and which I remembered sufficiently well to repeat to my young children when I became a father went like this: Hanschen klein, ging alein/ In die weite Welt hinein/ Stock und Hut steht ihm gut/Alle ist wohlgemuth/Aber Mutter weinet sehr/ Hat nun kein Hanschen mehr/ Dar b’zint, dis das Kind/Eile hind geschwhind.

Although I born and bred in England, it never occurred to me how odd it was to be sung a German song, or 30 years later to hand it on; it was simply natural and part of who I was.

This was one of many anecdotes that arose from a meeting I called at Maidenhead Synagogue for all those who were what we call “the Second Generation”.

They are children of refugees, primarily from Nazi Europe who came here in the 1930s to escape the storm clouds that were gathering.Those refugees were the First Generation, and their children, who were born here, are now adults, often parents, and many are now grandparents.

So why the need for them to meet now? They never faced persecution, or were forced to leave their homeland. They never got separated from their relatives as different members of the family went wherever they could get a visa.

One reason is simply because they have a shared history. As we went round the room giving a brief summary of our parents’ backgrounds, there were frequent gasps of astonishment as people realised their family had come from the same small town in Germany or village in Austria.

There was even more astonishment when it emerged that the parents of two people present (when those parents had been eight or nine years old) had been on the same Kindertransport train back in 1938.

There were also similar experiences in the way they were brought up: such as never having cake at home, but kuchen, or not being familiar with things that those with English parents are, such as only discovering Winnie the Pooh when they were adults, because their German parents instead told stories about Max and Moritz or Struwwelpeter.

But the Second Generation also found they shared negative experiences, such as being seen as different at school because their parents spoke with a foreign accent something much less common when they were growing up than it is nowadays.

Sometimes their friends found it odd coming to a home where the food was unusual, the furniture looked strange, and they met grandparents who were given the odd title of Oma and Opa.

This applied not just to Christian friends, but to Jewish ones from English families, who often found something about the new arrivals that felt not quite right.

But these were comparatively small problems and what weighed more heavily on many of the Second Generation was something much darker.

Some of their parents carried severe mental traumas, having witnessed family being beaten up in the streets. Some had been taken out of school to Jewish-only classes or had seen Jewish shops daubed or synagogues burnt down.

Although they largely got on with their lives as they grew up, those memories never left them, and were evident in the way they brought up their children.

Some were stiflingly over-protective; others repressed all emotions from being expressed, or instilled a sense of suspicion of others, sometimes deliberately, at other times unconsciously. Such upbringings often had a major psychological impact on their children and some have had counselling to try to find ways of living with those scars.

This was not true for everyone, and there were many of the Second Generation who had wonderfully secure and loving childhoods

Still, as we went round the room, distinct patterns emerged, such as being ingrained with the need to keep your passport up to date, in case you had to leave the country at short notice.

Another was always having some cash ideally gold coins tucked away for the same reason, portable assets you could take with you in a hurry, so at least you had something to get you started in your new location.

The greatest divide was that while some of their parents talked about their experiences in Germany openly, others never did so. Details were avoided, questions went unanswered, and some of the Second Generation grew up in a vacuum, not knowing who they were and where they fitted in.

They also tended to have much smaller families than their contemporaries as they grew up, with a lack of aunts and uncles, who were either scattered abroad in the desperate search for safety, or had simply not survived.

One of my earliest memories as a child was my mother showing me the family photograph album and various cousins that I did not recognise.

When I asked if I could meet them, she replied:“No, you never will,” and closed the book and said nothing more. It was only when I was older that I realised why.

Similarly, some of those at the meeting did not know what grandparents were intellectually they did, but emotionally it was a strange concept to them, as they never had any when growing up.

Now they are themselves grandparents, they suddenly realise what they missed and feel a 60 year old bereavement suddenly bearing down on them

For many there is also a supreme irony hanging over them which applies to me too it is horrible to have to admit, but unfortunately it is true, I owe my life to Hitler

Had it not been for his vicious antisemitism, my mother born in Leipzig would never have left the country as a child, never met my father in England, and I would never have been born. Do I say , “Thank you, Hitler”?

Despite their common features, it is clear that the Second Generation have made different decisions for their own lives. Some, for instance, have avoided going to Germany and have no desire to visit the country that kicked out their parents, others do return and are keen to explore family roots.

There is also the Brexit dilemma. Some see no reason not to apply for a German passport, regarding it as their heritage; others are horrified at the thought of becoming a citizen of a country that persecuted their family in living memory.

Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of the meeting is that many said would not have come ten years ago, but now they feel the need to do so.

This is partly because that First Generation is fast disappearing and it means that there is no one left to keep the memory alive, unless they the Second Generation step forward. They are getting older and have started to reflect on the factors that have shaped them, as well as asking questions about the legacy they are leaving.

Another factor is the rise of antisemitism in parts of Europe which has brought back conversations that had long seemed irrelevant, but now seem all too familiar and frightening.

Still, amid the issues that the Second Generation face, they are also very conscious that they are the lucky ones, for unlike 6,000,000 others, their parents did get out and they themselves were born in freedom in England.


Jonathan Romain is the rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue

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