The family secret and isolation
The child is conscious of the fact that it is part of a family in which some important event has taken place which is not discussed. That event relates to wartime experiences such as internment, time spent in refugees ‘camps, escape, torture, confiscation of goods, exclusion by relatives and acquaintances, etc.
That child has then to face a life of unanswered questions, a life of tension, in fact a life of double isolation: the child is then conscious of the fact that the other members of the family share a secret, which even he or she is not allowed to share. At the same time it is aware that this is a secret which no one in the outside world must come to know.
Conflicting loyalties towards the parents, confusion
The child goes through conflicting emotions towards his or her parents. The war has changed them and they themselves have to wrestle with immense problems. Children sense these changes without being able to fully comprehend and feel very much left out of things.
If others have informed the child (external factor) of what the Nazis were responsible for, that child becomes desperate to know whether or not its own parents were aware of what was happening, or whether they even took a part in it, whether they really are the evil people everyone says they are, etc.
The lack of a (basic) sense of security and protection
When the war ended many children were unable to return to their own homes; many properties had been confiscated by the authorities. If the child could return home – after some time – many familiar things had often been removed (toys, the child’s own bed). The effect this had on the child was that he or she had (partly) been deprived of the security of the parental home and his or her own things. In many of our discussions we see a feeling of complete disorientation, a feeling of being cut off, that one has too small a basis, has had a bad start in life.
A sense of guilt; substitution?
Emotional ambivalence towards the parents leads to a sense of guilt. The child starts to feel that he is responsible for the disharmony in the family: maybe he should be more amiable, more obedient. Suppressed emotions sometimes erupt in aggressive behavior, again leading to feelings of guilt. There is also a sense of guilt towards other war victims: the child feels that in some way or another he or she has something to do, indirectly (via the parents), with the distress and miseries his fellow-man is going through. If that feeling of guilt for acts of war is denied or trivialized by the parents there is all the more reason for the child to take upon itself that guilt as a substitute. This feeling of guilt can be an enormous burden, being experienced as his or her own responsibility, especially during events connected with the 4th of May (commemoration day of the war), in history lessons at school, when reading books, watching films about the war, etc. Even if deep down inside the child knows that he cannot possibly be responsible, it is still a deeply emotional experience.
Shame and the awareness that the world is a perilous place
Drs.T.L.W.van Ravesteijn writes in an Icodo-brochure :
‘You know then what Auschwitz is, not what it was. You are ashamed and sense the sinisterness of the world. Your friends have no feeling of shame. For them the world is a trusted place because they have no knowledge of Amersfoort, Vught, Westerbork,Bergen-Belsen, Ravensbrück, Auschwitz, the Indonesian camps and all those other places of death. You are alone with a secret you not only fail to understand yourself, but one which you must never share with anyone else. Neither confession nor penitence offers solace. Typical of the second generation is that they are aware that concentration camps are the work of man. That man is capable of wounding his fellow-man inescapably and beyond repair. They are ashamed of this knowledge and that makes the world a sinister place for them…’