Something happens when people survive a horrible trauma such as the Holocaust. Instead of shouting about it from the rooftops, they go silent, leaving their stories to be told by the second and third generations.
Pastor Jobst Bittner, founding visionary of the March of Remembrance, is an authority on this Veil of Silence and the detriment it can cause to people who bury the past in an effort not to relive it. Fortunately, Rozalie Jerome, State Director for the March of Remembrance in Texas and founder of the Holocaust Remembrance Association, heard him speak and caught the vision to tell the story of her parents’ Holocaust survival and their ensuing lives, so affected by their experience.
“My family never spoke about the Holocaust,” Jerome began. “Imagine your father never telling you the story of how his father, two brothers and sister were betrayed by their neighbors and all taken in one day by train to Auschwitz to be murdered. It’s a phenomenon with survivors and even Nazi descendants – the Veil of Silence. Aside from survivor guilt, I think it’s also this mindset of ‘We made it to our new country and we want the past to be the past. We want to get on with our lives.’”
So Jerome tells the story for them, something she has only been able to do after a long journey that took her to hear Bittner speak and to see the gravestones and markers her own father had quietly purchased to remember everyone in his extended family. Beginning with the names on those tombstones, Jerome was able to piece together her parents’ story.
“My father was very successful in Budapest where the Nazi’s didn’t come until the end of the War. In 1938, after Krystalnacht and seeing many Jewish refugees pouring into Hungary from Poland and Germany, he became a Catholic and changed his name from Chaim to Henrik. He hoped that would save him, but Hitler was after race, not religion. At that time, Hitler knew he was losing and his time was short, and his number one goal was to systematically kill as many Jews as he could so he could propagate his new world with a “Pure” Aryan race. He had the help of the Arrow Cross (Hungarian fascists ) and they were able to go after small villages, easily taking all the Jews. My grandfather Edene; his two sons Sandor and Bela; Margit, his daughter; his son-in-law Miklos; and their 6-year-old child Pal were mercilessly taken from Sopron to Auschwitz -Birkenau Extermination Camp.”
Two-thirds of the Jews in Europe were murdered before it was all done. In May 1944 the deportation of Hungary’s Jews to Auschwitz began. By July 1944, in just eight weeks, some 424,000 Jews were deported. By the end of the Holocaust, 565,000 Hungarian Jews had been murdered. There were so many arriving that the Nazi’s had to build a third train ramp for Birkenau extermination camp to murder them all with more efficiency.
“My mother ‘didn’t look Jewish’ because she had blond hair and blue eyes, and she was able to hide in plain sight in a Budapest safe house disguised as a hospital. My father was quite well-to-do, had a PhD in textile engineering, and owned a movie production company, art gallery, and textile and tobacco factories, so he knew a lot of people. He had Christian friends who put feet to their faith and hid him,” said Jerome.
Jerome’s parents were separated approximately six months when the Soviet Union became the “savior” for Hungary; unfortunately, the Republic of Hungary which was occupied by Fascist Germany was now occupied by Communist USSR. Jerome’s father got to run his former businesses that were taken from him by the Nazis but could no longer make a profit. The Hungarian Revolution began and Jerome’s mother pushed to escape to the U.S. So with three young children and Jerome’s mother pregnant with Jerome, the family left their previously privileged life for the unknown.
“Imagine what it would have been like for them,” Jerome mused. “My mother only spoke Hungarian, and they came here with their entire family gone, no country to call their own, leaving everything they owned behind. We Americans can’t even fathom what it would be like to have to make a quick decision about what to take. They left businesses, money in the bank, and their possessions behind.”
The stress of the war, hiding and escape proved too much for Jerome’s mother, who could no longer care for the children. Jerome’s dad was scrambling to start fresh, and doing that with young children and a new baby was too much. He made the decision to place all three children in an orphanage; they were later fostered in separate families into adulthood. Jerome’s father, who was multilingual and well-educated, secured a job at the United Nations, but due to constant travel, he could only visit his children. And never, not once, did he talk about the Holocaust to them.
Jerome explained, “There are different definitions of Holocaust survivors. There are survivors by escape, survivors by hiding, and survivors of a camp. They rarely share their stories. I compare it to a plane that relies on much of its fuel to take off. Survivors need to ration their energy and mental focus so they can build a safe and successful future.”
But that’s what makes it all the more important for second generations to tell the stories many first generations cannot.
“Breaking the Veil of Silence is extremely healing,” said Jerome. “It’s cathartic. Being a descendant of Holocaust survivors is in my DNA and it helps me to understand myself. In the Bible it tells us to guard against vain imaginations and instead focus on the truth. The truth will set you free.
“I talk because the burden has fallen on me to make sure something like this never happens again. Rabbi Dan Gordon of Temple Beth Torah has said he has buried many survivors who never told anyone. Our survivors are dying off and the charge is being passed to the second and third gens to continue the story.”
Jerome will continue to tell the story, most recently through the construction of the Holocaust Garden of Hope in Kingwood. She hopes to give a voice not only to her family but to other victims including the 1.5 million children murdered in the Holocaust.