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What's it like to be the child of a survivor?

Menachem Rosensaft
Image caption Menachem Rosensaft as a baby with his parents in a "displaced person" camp after the war

Menachem Rosensaft, the son of two Holocaust survivors, remembers hearing upbeat stories about Bergen-Belsen as a young child.

That might seem impossible.

But these were not tales from the Nazi concentration camp.

Instead they were stories of life at a very different Bergen-Belsen: the displaced persons camp of the same name, which was set up immediately after the Second World War at a former German army base a short distance from the concentration camp.

It became a safe home for thousands of Holocaust survivors, including Mr Rosensaft's parents, between 1945 and 1950. Mr Rosensaft was born in the camp in 1948.

Taking control

In an interview with the BBC during a visit to London to make a speech to the Holocaust Educational Trust charity, the New York-based law professor said this approach had helped him to cope with learning about his parents' experiences.

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Image caption Menachem Rosensaft in London with a survivor who had been helped by his mother

"When I grew up, what I knew of Belsen was that Belsen," said Mr Rosensaft, who has been appointed to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council by US President Barack Obama.

"There were stories of adventures, political encounters, jokes…That Belsen was a very positive one.

"It was a story of friendship, of people helping each other."

As he got older, he came to learn of the horrors that had preceded those years. "By the time I knew that, I knew the end of the story," he said.

"Mass murder and gas chambers were not the end of the story.

"The next chapter was one in which the men and women who had been victims of persecution became the protagonists and effectively took control over their own lives."

He believes this knowledge "made finding out what had happened before, more bearable".

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Image caption What is the long-term legacy of Rwanda's massacres 20 years ago?

Mr Rosensaft belongs to a group sometimes referred to as the "second generation" of survivors: those born after the Holocaust who did not experience the horrors, but grew up in the wake of them.

Around the world, charities are stepping up their work with members of younger "second generations", many just reaching adulthood, whose parents survived more recent genocides.


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One of these is Remembering Srebrenica, a UK-based charity set up to raise awareness of atrocities carried out during the 1992-95 Bosnian War, including the genocide that took place in the town of Srebrenica in 1995.

'Like archaeologists digging for fragments'

Many survivors' children know relatively little about their parents' experience, said Anousheh Haghdadi, a consultant at the charity.

"I spoke to a girl whose parents [survived] Prijedor [where mass killings took place during the Bosnian War],"she said.

"She was in her early twenties, and she said, 'my parents don't talk to me [about the war] at all. Everything I know I've learned online.' Twenty-odd years is a long time to not know."

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Image caption This summer saw commemorations of the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica

As a result of knowing little, Ms Haghdadi said, some survivors' children described themselves as being "like archaeologists, digging for fragments and piecing them together."

This could create "a sense of uncertainty about belonging," she said.

"By coming together, they seem to make their peace with that more," she added. "Sharing [their experiences] seems to help them to support each other."

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Image caption A sign erected at Belsen a few weeks after its liberation in 1945

Ms Haghdadi, who has carried out research on reconciliation in Northern Ireland after the Troubles, said the struggle to tell future generations what had happened was a "common theme".

"[In Northern Ireland] they have this rich storytelling tradition, but amongst it there are all these stories that don't get told," she said.

"It creates these weird spaces in families where people know bad things happened to their parents, but they don't exactly know what it was."

Sharing memories

In Rwanda, the charity Survivors' Fund has set up a programme to help women talk to their children - now young adults - about their experiences during the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

This is especially difficult, because the women involved in the programme gave birth to those children as a result of rape during the genocide.

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Image caption A prisoner at Belsen after the arrival of Allied soldiers in April 1945

"Increasingly we're supporting those who have been affected by the genocide indirectly, as children of survivors," said David Russell, the charity's UK coordinator.

Its work includes counselling and peer support to help mothers to talk to their children about the circumstances of their birth, and peer support groups for those children.

"We have increasing evidence that being open about one's personal history has had a positive impact on this group of children," he said.

While the experiences of so-called "second generation" survivors vary enormously, one thing many share is a desire to raise awareness of their parents' stories and to prevent future atrocities.

'We've absorbed their memories'

In Rwanda, Mr Russell said, "the children of the second generation are taking it upon themselves to do what they can to ensure it could never happen again."

Meanwhile, the children of Bosnian survivors that arrived in the UK as refugees during the 1990s are starting to contribute to discussions about Europe's refugee crisis and confront anti-immigration sentiment, Ms Haghdadi said.

Image copyright Justin Grainge
Image caption Menachem Rosensaft says the challenge is to warn the next generation against intolerance

"They're using their experience to say to people, we were refugees, and we're nothing like how you're describing refugees to be."

Mr Rosensaft said the most enduring legacy of his parents' experience, for him, was a desire to campaign against injustice.

"We [survivors' children] knew them better than anyone else… in many ways we have absorbed their memories, and now have to do something with those memories," he said.

"At the very least, we have to try to prevent similar atrocities."

He said this was particularly relevant now, because anti-immigration sentiment seemed to be on the rise in much of Europe. Survivors' children were uniquely well-placed to speak out about racism and intolerance, he said.

"When I hear slogans of 'Muslims out' in Germany I want to remind people that it wasn't all that long ago that the slogan was 'Jews out'.

"Hatred and bigotry have consequences, and indifference has consequences," he said.

"Survivors' children don't say that in the abstract. We know it from growing up with a parent."

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