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The Half-Life of Sexual Abuse in a Holocaust-Survivor Family

Helen Epstein completes her clear-eyed, fearless, taboo-breaking autobiographical trilogy

Irena Klepfisz
June 27, 2018
Illustration: Joanna Neborsky
Illustration: Joanna Neborsky
Illustration: Joanna Neborsky
Illustration: Joanna Neborsky

Helen Epstein began her career as a journalist with the publication of an article in the Jerusalem Post describing Soviet tanks rolling into Prague. It was 1968 and she was 20 years old. Since then she has become well known and greatly respected not only as a journalist but as a biographer, editor, and Czech translator with a wide range of interests: music and theater, psychoanalysis, and Czech history and culture. Among her writings are also three works that form a unique autobiographical trilogy: Children of the Holocaust: Conversations With Sons and Daughters of Survivors (1979); Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for her Mother’s History (1999); and the recently published The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma(2018). This trilogy is unusual not only because nearly 40 years separate the first and last volumes—with the second positioned midway at the 20-year mark—but also because the works differ so greatly in style, structure, and content. Though they reveal a progression if read in sequence, Epstein provides enough background and context in each that they can be read and fully appreciated individually.

The first, Children of the Holocaust, was based on Epstein’s interviews with young adults whose parents came from diverse Jewish backgrounds and survived the Holocaust in different ways. These were placed alongside numerous chapters describing and analyzing Epstein’s own experiences as a child of assimilated Czech-Jewish survivors. By contrast, Where She Came From is a carefully researched matrilineal history of her Czech-Jewish foremothers. At least half the book is devoted to her mother’s early life and survival. Epstein’s narrative is strictly linear and she relies heavily on historical documents (she includes an eight-page bibliography of English, German, and Czech sources), her mother’s writings and stories, and personal encounters with Czech researchers. Epstein herself is barely present since that volume ends with her birth. Half-Lives, the most recent work, is structured according to Epstein’s feelings and discoveries, linear in time but associative and unpredictable in content. It is introspective and deeply personal in a way hard to have imagined having read either of the previous two works. Yet, as vastly different as these three works are, they form a progression in Epstein’s primary, but often-unstated purpose: to come to terms with her relationship with her mother.

Focusing on her mother was not the ostensible aim of the first work. In Children of the Holocaust, Epstein wanted to prove to herself that she was not an anomaly, wanted to see if others lived with a similar silence, alienation, a sense of difference she felt in carrying the invisible “black box” of her parents’ experiences. Her comparisons were specific, with almost half the book devoted to Epstein’s own family interactions, her parents’ history, and her attempts at establishing her independence and a professional career as a writer. The interviews of other children of survivors quickly revealed common issues: the parents’ overprotectiveness, the pressure always to be happy, the trivializing of children’s pains and frustrations, the sense that nothing in the present could be tragic, the “blank check” that excused all parental behaviors.

It should be remembered that in 1979 when Children of the Holocaust first appeared, attributing anything seemingly negative to the dead or to the survivors was considered sacrilegious. Children of the Holocaust was groundbreaking because it defied an oppressive communal silence. Epstein openly discussed abuse and violence, dysfunctional family relationships. Her book was a breath of reality, a gift to children of survivors who had been unfairly burdened by silence and idealization of that generation, which suffered such horrors.

This early work also represented Epstein’s first step in examining her relationship with her mother within the framework of her family. As a child of survivors, Epstein naturally missed significant family members. Among her parents’ many Czech survivor friends was an honored and respected couple, Milena Herben and her husband, Ivan, whom the young Helen lovingly “adopted” as her grandparents:

I knew that they were not real grandparents … that they were Christians not Jews. But that did not seem to matter. They were the right age, they had no grandchildren of their own and, most of all, they understood my parents; they had come from the same place. They were the people we met most frequently in the country, a gray-haired, sedentary couple who spoke almost no English. …

Ivan Herben had been editor in chief of Ceské Slovo, the largest newspaper in Prague, before he came to the United States. He had been against the Nazis from the start … and it was an honor to us that his wife consented to be my nurse [nanny]. Ivan had been among the first Czechs to be arrested by the Gestapo in 1939. He had spent six years in concentration camp and had been badly beaten in Dachau. Milena had remained alone in Prague during the war and although she had been closely watched and harassed by the Germans, had managed to hide a Jewish baby.

This kind of respect, awe, and love was also evident in Epstein’s description of her parents, Franci and Kurt Epstein, even though she acknowledged the physical and verbal abuse that she and her brothers received from both:

What my mother and father had lived through was more compelling to me than anything I had ever read or learned in school, inexhaustibly rich, a mine of stories and choices between good and evil, life and death. … The Jewish heroes we learned about [in Sunday school] … biblical figures, Zionist figures, American labor leaders, all lost their stature when put beside my parents and their friends. My mother and father were real heroes, living ones, whom I could see and touch. My father had a reputation among the society of former concentration camp inmates as one of the incorruptible men in Terezin, a prisoner who never stole from or denounced a fellow inmate, although as one of the eight quartermasters, he could have easily done both. My mother had outsmarted death. She was clever, more adroit than the Greek heroes whose exploits we called myth in English class.

Most of those interviewed expressed similar feelings that papered over their parents’ contradictory behavior. Children of the Holocaust ends with Epstein attending a meeting of children of survivors (soon to be known as the Second Generation) with whom she shared her sense of alienation and immense relief in finding each other. The narrative seemed to have come to an end.


Yet Epstein was not done. Twenty years later in 1999, just a couple of years after her mother’s death, Epstein published Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for her Mother’s History. Why she turned to the subject of her mother is not clear. In her introduction she wrote:

But for a long time, long after adolescence should have ruptured the bond between us … [I still] shared her loves, her disappointments, and her memories. She was the engine behind my energy, my defender when I needed one, my solace. When the break finally came, it was brutal. We came apart in a great explosion that required years to repair.

Our new relation was only a decade old and still not without its strains and conflicting desires, expressed and mute.

The reader who expected an explanation for the “brutal” rupture did not get it. Instead, influenced by the women’s movement and determined to pierce through male-dominated Jewish-Czech history and records, Epstein conducted extensive research and contextualized the lives of three generations of women in her family. Almost half the book is reserved for her mother’s life and experiences during the war. Only 19 years old and newly married when the war began, Franci ultimately survived concentration camps, the loss of her husband and family, and later postwar depression and suicide attempts.

In many ways, the details surrounding Franci Epstein’s survival were rooted in the admiration expressed in Children of the Holocaust. But her daughter’s book is not hagiography. Epstein recounts the struggles of both her great-grandmother and grandmother with mental illness and suicide, and is cleareyed about her mother’s flaws. Nevertheless Where She Came From is a tribute to Franci Epstein, a remarkable woman who defied horrific circumstances and survived. The narrative ended as happily as such a narrative could. Helen is born, and her mother discovers remnants of her family still alive in Europe.

Looking back on that work almost 20 years later in the newly published The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma, Epstein confesses: “I had begun Where She Came From after my mother died … when I was 41. I had intended to examine our complicated and fraught relationship but found that I couldn’t. I chickened out.” Yet even here, she drops the subject without explanation and instead writes that, as in Children of the Holocaust, Half-Lives will explore “how the massive trauma of the Holocaust had affected survivors and their children.” It would differ, however, in its probing of the effects on the “intimate realms of sex and friendship—a theme that I had not been able to delve into my first book.”

To help her, because she does not totally trust her memory, Epstein enlists a childhood friend and former boyfriend, Robbie, who she hopes will fill in details about her adolescence and serve as “my archive, mirror and muse.” Robbie is a true friend and shrewd observer, who, after numerous exchanges through letters, meetings and phone conversations, announces to Epstein that her book is not really about her adolescence, sex, or him, but rather about her mother.

A frequently implied criticism of many abuse survivors who have waited years, even decades, to make their accusations comes in the form of a question: “Why did you wait so long?” Epstein’s The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma embodies the answer to that question and, thus, can serve as an explanation and instructive illustration of the reasons for such extended delays.

As Epstein traces the process of coming to terms with her own experience, she analyzes how sexual abuse is often unintelligible to young children who have no way of interpreting or articulating what was done to them. She also points to the psychological effects of such abuse—self-doubt, insecurity, timidity, fear, distrust—all of which work against abuse survivors remembering and revealing what they experienced. Though clearly a successful and respected writer, Epstein admits in Half-Lives to frequent insecurity and debilitating self-doubt, so much so that when she stumbles upon a sudden vague memory, it so unnerves her that she returns to psychoanalysis and proceeds to document the complicated seven-year process of trying to unravel the trigger. How she pieces together what happened to her, how she deals with what she learns, whom she tells and when, comprise the core of Half-Lives. We are witnesses to her progress and regressions, her arguments with her psychoanalyst, and the discovery of small shards of retrieved memory that make sense only after the whole has fallen into place.

Though never stating it explicitly, Epstein fights against the powerful feelings embodied in her two earlier works in order to allow herself better to understand her childhood. Robbie’s declaration that Epstein is motivated by her relationship with her mother comes in the context of Epstein informing him that Franci had had an extended affair with her nanny’s (Milena’s) husband—Ivan Herben—something she had learned years earlier from Franci herself; in other words, she knew this information about her mother before she started working on Where She Came From. But Epstein chose not to deal with this information about her mother’s affair, and instead ended Where She Came From with her own birth and the family’s arrival in the United States. Though it is not clear that the knowledge of this affair was responsible for the “brutal” break with Franci, it provides a different perspective on that work.

As she confronts the facts of her mother and Ivan’s affair, Epstein also discovers something else. Through a series of disturbing associations, many sessions with her psychoanalyst, and exchanges with Robbie and other friends, Epstein recovers long-lost memories of being sexually abused by Ivan, which she says started when she was about 3½ and continued probably until she was 15. Fighting self-doubt and insecurity about her grasp of the past, Half-Lives shows how difficult it is to achieve certainty when there are no corroborating witnesses to decades-old events. Epstein is finally reassured by one piece of persuasive physical evidence: a suggestive photo album that Ivan created for her mother that includes a few of the hundreds of Ivan’s photographs of Helen, who was 7 at the time.

Epstein had introduced Ivan and her parents in her earlier books:

[Ivan] had been against the Nazis from the start … and it was an honor to us that his wife consented to be my nurse [nanny]. Ivan had been among the first Czechs to be arrested by the Gestapo in 1939. He had spent six years in concentration camp and had been badly beaten in Dachau. —Children of the Holocaust

My mother and father were real heroes, living ones, whom I could see and touch … [her survival included] choices between good and evil. … She was clever, more adroit than the Greek heroes whose exploits we called myth in English class. —Children of the Holocaust

[My mother was] my defender when I needed one, my solace. —Where She Came From

In Half-Lives Epstein reveals her struggle to reconcile what she knew about the people of her childhood and their Holocaust experiences, the earliest people she trusted, her heroes, with what she now knows about their behavior after the war. It is hard to understand that heroic “grandfather” Ivan abused her sexually; that Franci, “my defender,” together with Ivan betrayed her family; that Franci, “my solace,” betrayed her by not putting a stop to Ivan, her lover’s abuse. (Epstein believes that Franci knew.) Specifically in regard to Franci, the reader struggles together with Epstein to attribute this behavior to the same woman who is described with such awe and love in Children of the Holocaust and who is memorialized in Where She Came From. Yet, Franci Epstein was clearly all of the above: a heroic woman who endured unbearable terror and death-in-life experiences and also an abusive mother and a silent witness to her lover’s abuse of her daughter. In the Epstein family, love and trauma became intertwined.

Epstein resists not only remembering, but also accepting. “Don’t exaggerate” or don’t make “mountains out of molehills” were her parents’ consistent admonitions. And she cites what many children of survivors have often repeated: “Nothing after the war was a big deal” compared to what their parents endured:

My molestation had been relatively minor in the larger scheme of things. … As a daughter of Holocaust survivors and refugees from Communism, I had been a fortunate child, living out the American dream. I could not and did not wish to view myself as a victim.

Hoping to come to a greater understanding, Epstein turns to Czech culture and attitudes toward sex. She recounts the story of Hanka, a Czech girlfriend who, when she was 12, was being sexually harassed by an older boy in the backseat of a car, and how the girl’s mother, who was sitting in front, thought it was a joke. Hanka confides to Helen that after that episode, she never trusted her mother again. Epstein also looks to the matter-of-fact Czech attitude toward sex and extramarital affairs, including her parents’ casual attitude toward nudity. She even repeats the Czech view of children as “pets”: “Parents rarely worried about what [children] saw or heard.” But, in the end, Epstein knows that there are no excuses. Her anger toward Ivan and her mother saturates her description of what the Czech community of her childhood accepted:

No one inside the refugee community thought Ivan’s habit of chasing me into corners, kissing me on the mouth of his whiskey-wet lips, or taking hundreds of photographs of me unusual. Those things were considered acceptable by the adults in my parents’ circle. There was no outsider to question their conventions or that my parents left me alone with my self-styled grandfather.

Epstein knows that not only her mother, but the whole community failed to protect her.

After she accepts the reality that she had been abused, Epstein still must make certain decisions: if to tell, whom to tell, when to tell. She finds revealing the abuse to others difficult, for from a young age, she and her mother had a tacit agreement that she would keep Franci’s secrets, specifically her explosions and suicide attempts. Toward the end of Half-Lives, Epstein reflects how she had once felt that “loving my mother included hiding parts of who she was, not remembering what I saw, not taking in what I had heard. I felt proud to be chosen to take care of her.” Robbie is the first one she is able to tell; but she takes more time with her psychoanalyst not only because he reminds her of Ivan, but because discussing with him any details about her mother had always made Epstein feel “like a tattletale telling about her [Franci’s] failings.” She eventually tells him.


There are many challenging issues raised and analyzed in The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma: issues involving language and sex (particularly cursing), dissociation and “splitting,” issues of boundaries and privacy of those entangled in the narrative, recovered memory and memory’s inconstancy, and issues of the varied defensive postures that initially help but ultimately inhibit and distort an abuse survivor’s behaviors and relationships with others. But the book’s major contribution is its willingness to talk openly and place forefront a personal trauma of sexual abuse in its post-Holocaust context.

In 1982, three years after 29-year-old Helen Epstein published her first book, Children of the Holocaust, 70-year-old Kate Simon, an established travel writer, published Bronx Primitive, a memoir of her girlhood among Jewish immigrants in a Bronx neighborhood during the 1920s. Inspired by Second Wave feminism, Bronx Primitive became a sensation because of Simon’s documentation of the unrelenting sexual abuse and harassment of young girls in this Jewish community, a kind of exposure that had been excluded from the traditional Jewish immigrant narrative and that American Jews were not accustomed to hearing discussed in public. What Simon’s memoir made clear is that the ongoing abuse was a result of two unstated community commandments: “Thou shall not tell” and “Thou shall be silent.”

Five decades later, Helen Epstein was given the same commandments, now directed at herself and other children of Holocaust survivors, but she has defied them. Beginning with Children of the Holocaust and ending with The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma, Helen Epstein has consistently rejected sanitizing Jewish history—including women’s history—or using the Holocaust as a pretext for hiding dysfunctional relations among survivors. She has refused to keep secrets that she knew needed to be told and she has avoided idealization, nostalgia, and hagiography. As a result, her work provides us with a reality about our past and present lives as Jews—and especially as Jewish women—that is more realistic, more credible and more honest. It is one that encourages present and future Jewish generations to challenge any impositions of silence evoked for the sake of “protecting” the community’s reputation. Following the template the justice-seeking writer and activist Grace Paley has provided, here are the new commandments: It is the responsibility of the abuser not to be an abuser. And when he or she fails, it is the responsibility of the witness to witness and speak openly. And when both the abuser and the witness fail, it is the responsibility of the community always to protect the victims and not its own image. Helen Epstein’s writings have made clear the lifelong consequences when these commandments are not heeded.


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Irena Klepfisz is a child survivor who grew up in a community of survivors. For the past 22 years, she has taught Jewish women’s studies at Barnard College.