Growing Up With the Holocaust as a Writer

04/16/2015 08:43 am ET | Updated Jun 16, 2015

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, but when you grow up with Holocaust survivor parents it's always with you. My father, who survived Bergen-Belsen, was silent about what happened to him until his 80s, when I first interviewed him for my memoir about what it was like for me to grow up in the shadow of the Holocaust, My Germany.

My mother talked about her experiences more openly, but mostly in fragments. Even when I was a teenager, I was too stunned by the horrendous things she told me about her life in the Vilno Ghetto and in various concentration camps. I couldn't ask the right questions that would have rounded out her stories and helped me know her better as a person. Research later on gave me facts and dates that her death in 1999 took with her.

No close friend of mine growing up was a child of survivors, so I felt like I lived in a different universe, one with no relatives, one filled with trauma and silence. So it's not surprising that my very first published short story, in Redbook, was about the son of Holocaust survivors. That came out in 1978, well before any of the better known Second Generation writers were touching the subject. I explored it in many short stories through the 1980s, having found an audience in Jewish newspapers and magazines, and the theme wove its way through my first book of stories and more books to follow.

This difficult legacy made me want to rewrite my favorite writer Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth as Rosedale in Love because of her stereotyped, anti-Semitic portrait of banker Simon Rosedale, and it's currently got me researching a book about the expulsion of England's Jews in 1290. This was the first time any European country had banished its entire Jewish population, and it followed years of restrictions, privation and persecution.

Early on in my writing career, I decided that whatever else I wrote, sharing what I knew and had learned about survivors' families and the Holocaust was my bit of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and it's taken many shapes. I've spoken about my family and my work across the country and in Europe hundreds of times; most recently I've been teaching Jewish-American Literature as a guest at Michigan State University.

As a youth I thought being the son of survivors was a burden, but I gratefully came to see it as a gift because it not only gave me a mission, it was the first subject that animated my writing. It's what helped me find my voice.


Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books including the survivor family novel The Germany Money which The Washington Post compared to Kafka, Philip Roth, and John le Carré.