Life & Culture

‘I feel haunted by my grandmother. I’ve always wanted to make sense of what happened in the Shoah’

As the daughter of Holocaust survivors, Sylvia Paskin has long struggled to come to terms with the traumas her parents faced. She tells Rosa Doherty why a project in which contemporary Germans learn about the Jews who once lived in their homes is helping her face the past


Comfort in stories: Sylvia Paskin with her cat Mitzi in her home in Stoke Newington, London

We never ask enough questions of our loved ones when they are alive and for a child of Holocaust survivors such as Sylvia Paskin, a lifetime of questions is never enough.

But one way she has been able to reconcile the grief and intergenerational trauma of her parents’ past is by taking part educational events with contemporary Germans.

On Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27, she will commemorate her family history in an unusual way. She is travelling to Berlin to honour a German woman Marie Rolshoven who has helped her overcome her grief about the slaughter and persecution of family members by the Nazis, in an imaginative programme which takes Jewish descendants of murdered Berliners to tell the stories of those killed in or close to their former homes.

Working with German counterparts has not always been easy for Paskin and, depending on the age of the Germans she has met over the years, the 79-year-old has not always been able to resist asking, “Where were you? What role did your fathers play?” in the context of what happened to her family.

“I can remember going on holiday as a child and my own mother getting really offended if there were Germans there. She would be upset and angry. And I suppose I have some of that.”

Given that her childhood was saturated with stories about the barbarities committed by the Germans her feelings are understandable.

“I suppose I can’t help it,” says Paskin, a retired TEFL teacher who runs a book club. “My son was talking to me the other day and he asked me, ‘Are we ever going to get you out of the 1930s?’

“I suppose it is in everything I do. I was so aware of it growing up and it is all still in my system,” she says.

It can be difficult for people who have not lived in the shadow of the Holocaust to understand how it can feel to be the child of survivors which is why stories such as hers matter to projects such as Denk Mal am Ort, co-

In Paskin’s case, she has taken part to tell the story of people such as her great aunt, who was taken from her apartment building in Berlin and sent to a concentration camp where she died.

The apartment was later destroyed by a bomb and is now a children’s playground, so she returns to tell her family’s story in a school across the street.

Over the years, she has attended many other presentations by Jewish descendants throughout the Berlin area.

Many victims of the Nazi regime dealt with their experiences by never talking about them, unable to articulate the horrors they faced. Others share theirs extensively.

Both approaches have had repercussions for the generations who came next. And in recent years there has been increasing focus on the intergenerational impact of trauma.

Paskin grew up with a father who never wanted to talk about his escape from Berlin or his own mother’s subsequent suicide in Britain, in 1943. Her mother never got over the fact she had left her own mother behind in 1930s Vienna.

“My mother came to Britain aged 28, but at 52 her mother was two years too old to be accepted on a resettlement scheme which was only open to people aged 50 and under. She talked all the time about the guilt she felt that she left her mother to die. Like other survivors and refugees from Nazi Europe who became parents, my mother really struggled.”

She shares the impact it had on her as a child to have a mother who was often overwhelmed by trauma. “On the one hand she was this charming, attractive Venetian woman who you could liken to a cup of Viennese coffee. On top you have this rich cream, but underneath it can be bitter and harsh, and my mother could be judgemental and critical.

“I know that mine is not a unique experience, and neither am I saying she was a bad mother, because she was not.”  But the trauma of being separated from her own mother meant she was perhaps hardened to other people’s suffering, even her own daughter’s.

“When I was upset she would say things to me like, ‘Well, at least you’re not in Auschwitz’ and when she served me food she would say ‘you won’t starve.’”

Paskin feels “the shadow of the Holocaust” and both her parents’ experiences have impacted her own ability to deal with challenging life events. “I am generally a very happy person but if something bad happens I can take a dive and find it difficult,” she says.

Her father’s history has affected her in different ways. Sent to the UK in 1933 at 19, his family stayed behind and were living in Berlin when the Nazis took over.

“My great-aunt was taken to a Juden house and eventually deported to Sobibor.” A Juden house was a place where Jews were taken befre they went to the ghetto.

Paskin’s father managed to reunite with his mother, Lily, in 1939 when she came to the UK as a refugee. But Lily’s escape story is tinged with sadness. She struggled to integrate into her new way of life and became depressed. She committed suicide in January 1943. “My father never spoke about her or her suicide,” Paskin says.

Details about Lily were teased out by Paskin from her mother and extensive research into the family’s history. It’s something Paskin admits she is “sort of obsessed with” due to the fact so much information was kept from her about her father’s experiences in the Holocaust.

She is currently developing a play about Lily’s story. “It turns out Lily met a German conman who promised he would help her get out of Berlin and they had a love affair.”

The conman, Josef Jakobs, later joined the Abwehr, the intelligence department of the German Army, and was sent to the UK to spy for the Nazis.

He was apprehended soon after parachuting into the UK and records show he was the last man to be executed at the Tower of London.

Paskin explains: “He was arrested by the British Home Guard with a piece of paper in his pocket with Lily’s name and address in it. She was even questioned by MI5.”

There are so many parts of Lily’s story that remain a mystery to Paskin and questions that will forever go unanswered because her father did not want to discuss what happened to them.

“I had every opportunity to ask my father more about her but, like so many people, I didn’t. I don’t know that he would have told me much, but I wish I had tried,” she says.

Like many children of survivors the missing pieces of her family history hang over her and she says they are part of the reason she is a dedicated researcher.

“I’ve found a lot of my grandmother’s story through research. I have always wanted to make sense of what happened. And when I can’t do that I feel frustrated.”

Despite never knowing her grandmother she has a strong sense that “something about her has travelled through to me. It is haunting”, she says.

Due to Lily’s suicide her father also suffered periods of depression resulting in her parents going away and leaving her in the care of friends for two weeks at a time.

“You wouldn’t do that now but that is what happened in those days,” Paskin reflects. “I was a only child and I didn’t understand why I was being left alone.”

Her own children, Layo and Zoë Paskin who founded the Israel-inspired restaurants The Palomar and The Barbary, are less impacted by the family history although she recognises “they will have at times experienced a mother with depression. I love to think I am a loving Jewish grandmother to their children, but for my children life goes on. They are busy and they don’t have the same desire to make sense of things the same way I do.”

Working with Germans who are keen to tell the stories of Jews has helped her to reconcile some of her grief.

“I don’t like the word healing but meeting people who have stories like mine, through this initiative, and hearing them told them makes is comforting

“It has helped me to know that there are people like Marie who want to tell the stories of you and your family.

“It has meant I’ve been able to leave some of that antipathy behind.”

As part of her research into her play about Lily she met the granddaughter of the spy who had a love affair with her grandmother. “She once wrote to me and said, ‘You don’t think everyone was a Nazi do you?’ And I wrote back to her and said well enough of them were to go along with the murder of six million Jews.”
In Germany this weekend

Two days later, Rolshoven who co-founded a German initiative called Denk Mal am Ort (which roughly translates as “think about this place”), will receive an Obermayer Award in a ceremony hosted by the City of Berlin and the city’s Parliament.

The awards, which are organised by Widen the Circle, are given to Germans such as Rolshoven, who work to keep alive the memory of Jewish communities and individuals decimated by the Nazis.

The Denk Mal am Ort project encourages Germans to research the lives of Jews who once lived in their homes, such as Paskin’s family, and then share what they have learned.

One weekend a year, these homes are opened, and the public is invited to hear the stories of their former Jewish residents, often told by their descendants, such as Paskin. She will tell the story of her aunt in a school that is opposite the site of her aunt’s former home.

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