Epstein, Helen

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Nationality: American (originally Czechoslovakian: immigrated to the United States, 1948; U.S. citizenship, 1954). Born: Prague, 27 November 1947. Education: Hunter College High School, New York; Hebrew University, Jerusalem, B.A. in musicology 1970; Columbia University, master's degree in journalism 1971. Family: Married Patrick Mehr in 1983; two sons. Career: Freelance cultural journalist in New York City for publications, including New York Magazine, ARTNews, Esquire, and the New York Times; professor of journalism, 1974-86, and director of undergraduate program, 1979-86, New York University; faculty member, Prague Summer Seminars, Charles University, and affiliate, Hadassah International Research Institute on Jewish Women, Brandeis University; lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts and lectures on family history and the psychological effects of war-related trauma. Represented the United States, Centenary Conference of Nobel Peace Prize Writers, Norway, 2001. Agent: Jim Brown, 25 West 43rd St., New York, NY 10012, U.S.A.



Where She Came From: A Daughter's Search for Her Mother's History. 1997.


Children of the Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors. 1979.

The Companies She Keeps: Tina Packer Builds a Theater. 1985.

Music Talks: Conversations with Musicians (profiles of classical musicians). 1987.

Joe Papp: An American Life (biography). 1994.

Translator, with Franci Epstein, Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague, 1941-1968, by Heda M. Kovály. 1986.


Critical Studies:

"For the Holocaust 'Second Generation,' an Artistic Quest" by Dinitia Smith, in New York Times (Late New York Edition ), 23 December 1997, p. E1; "Traumatic Memory and American Jewish Writers: One Generation after the Holocaust" by Janet Burstein, in Yiddish, 11(3-4), 1999; pp. 188-97; "Letters from Helen Epstein and Arnold Birenbaum," in The New York Review of Books, 46 (15), 1999, p. 50.

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Helen Epstein is the author of two highly significant second generation works. Her book Children of the Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors (1979) made a singular contribution in raising public consciousness about the existence of a group, international in composition, with a distinct angle of vision concerning the Shoah. This book illuminates many second generation issues, including the transmission of trauma, the fact that the most important event in the lives of children of survivors occurred before they were born, and how the second generation works through its awesome legacy. Nearly 20 years passed before the appearance of Where She Came From: A Daughter's Search for Her Mother's History (1997). Epstein notes that the first book "is about rupture. The second, about connection." Moreover, she and her mother translated Czechoslovakian writer Heda Kovály's prizewinning memoir Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968 (1986). Each of these books has been translated into several languages.

Born in Prague in 1947, Epstein, who was brought to America as a young child, is the eldest of three children and the only daughter of Kurt and Frances (Franzi). Her parents survived Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen. Kurt was a member of Czechoslovakia's Olympic water polo team. Franzi was a dressmaker fluent in several languages.

The multilingual Epstein is a professional journalist who began her writing career by describing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia while still a student at Hebrew University. In addition to her works on the Holocaust, she has written other books, including The Companies She Keeps (1985), Music Talks (1987), and Joe Papp: An American Life (1994). She is the first woman to have received tenure in New York University's Department of Journalism. Epstein also worked as a freelance cultural reporter for the Sunday New York Times, where her 1979 article on children of survivors was published, after the author persuaded the editors that there was in fact a second generation phenomenon. Her book Children of the Holocaust has been termed a "turning point in the evolution of children of survivors as a communal, emotional, and political entity."

Epstein articulates what many in the second generation feel but have not yet publicly expressed. For example, referring to her Holocaust legacy, she writes of an "iron box" that lay buried deep inside her. This box contained "slippery, combustible things more secret than sex and more dangerous than any shadow or ghost." Words were inadequate to describe its contents. Furthermore, Epstein writes powerfully about the lack of extended family among daughters and sons of survivors, noting that her family tree "had been burnt to a stump." Children of the Holocaust is, on one level, the author's attempt to discover her nonbiological family—other children of survivors who have their own version of her iron box. She correctly surmises that there is "an invisible, silent family scattered about the world." Consequently Epstein set out to interview second generation members in Australia, Canada, Israel, and the United States.

Epstein brings great psychological insight, historical research, and personal experience to bear in writing Children of the Holocaust. She identifies the presence of Holocaust imagery in the lives of the second generation. For example, she writes of imagining the Seventh Avenue local subway being transformed into a "train of cattle cars on its way to Poland." Acknowledging the incredible strength and support of her family, especially Franzi's resourcefulness, the author also writes of the ambiguity of Jewish identity among the community of secular refugees in which she was raised. For instance, while the Holocaust "had become the touchstone of [the survivors'] identities as Jews and … a touchstone for their children as well, it provided no structure, no clue to a way of life."

Epstein skillfully and with great passion describes the dilemma of many in the second generation. She writes of feeling the necessity of suppressing feelings of anger toward her parents. Moreover, the author identifies a common phenomenon among her peers. At times, she notes, "my life seemed to be not my own. Hundreds of people lived through me, lives that had been cut short in the war." Consequently her murdered grandmothers, for whom she is named, lived through her. This is both a blessing and a burden, as it is an enormous encumbrance on the second generation, in effect robbing many of the "carelessness of childhood." Thus, for the second generation the issue is not failing to remember that this generation is the "answer" to the Holocaust in the eyes of their parents. But the second generation has its own mission. "We need," writes Epstein, "to learn how to translate our consciousness of evil, our skepticism, our sense of outrage into constructive action."

The author has lived in Massachusetts with her husband and their two children. She has been a member of the Prague Summer Seminars at Charles University and has lectured throughout America and abroad on the second generation, on long-term psychological effects of trauma, and on family history. In 2001 she represented the United States at the Centenary Conference of Nobel Peace Prize Writers in Norway.

—Alan L. Berger

See the essay on Where She Came From: A Daughter's Search for Her Mother's History.