A Lack of Love: Parenthood During the Holocaust in Literature

Updated on March 20, 2018
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Dalia Ofer, in her essay titled “Parenthood in the Shadow of the Holocaust,” points out that “…many young children were critical of their parents as their emotional supporters. They complained that their parents did not understand their needs and ignored their emotional stress…[they often] testified to the lack of love and care” (Michlic 3). Ofer is referring to parent-child relationships pre-Holocaust, but this lack of emotional support and the disconnect between parents and children is prevalent throughout Holocaust literature as well. In Rue Ordener, Rue Labat, Sarah Kofman writes about her relationship with her mother in great depth; as a young girl she was extremely attached to her mother. Once the two are forced into hiding, Kofman begins to care less and less about her mother due to her new attachment to her caretaker, Meme. Anne Frank, in her personal diary, frequently laments that her mother does not understand her feelings and way of thinking. As the Frank family goes into hiding, the relationship between the two only declines. In Still Alive, Ruth Kluger reflects on her experiences with her mother in the concentration camps and in post-Holocaust America. Her mother is bold, paranoid, and extremely opinionated. Ruth’s mother’s character, combined with the actions that the two are forced to take due to the Holocaust, ultimately cause their relationship to worsen. Using excerpts from Kofman, Frank, and Kluger, I will demonstrate that Ofer’s claim not only reflects pre-Holocaust parent-child relationships, but also describes parent-child relationships during and post-Holocaust.

Sarah Kofman’s relationship with her mother deteriorates as the war progresses. In her early childhood, Kofman is extremely attached to her mother. She writes of a childhood memory: “The real danger: separation from my mother. [Once] I lost sight of her for a few moments in the garden of the Sacré-Coeur… and I started to wail,” (27). Kofman tells many similar stories at the beginning of the memoir, demonstrating her deep-seated attachment to her mother.

The Holocaust soon begins to directly affect Sarah and her family. Her father is taken away by the local police, and other than a few letters, Kofman never hears from him again. Shortly after this, Kofman’s mother decides that the family needs to go into hiding. She finds different locations for each child: living together inconspicuously would be almost impossible. Sarah describes her experience in the first hiding place she and her sister were sent to: “[at school] I could just manage to stand being separated from my mother. Otherwise I spent my time crying and refused to eat, especially pork… This refusal… must have also served, without me being completely aware of it, as a means of returning to my mother…” (Kofman 24). Her refusal to eat pork clearly identifies Kofman as a Jew, thus endangering both herself and her sister. She soon returns to live with her mother again.

As the roundups of Jews become more frequent, Sarah’s mother decides to hide her once more. Yet again, she is unable to stay because she continuously endangers herself in order to return to her mother. After six different attempts at hiding Sarah and one close call with the Gestapo, her mother gives up and the two stay together thereafter. They rent an apartment and occasionally hop from house to house, until “…the ‘lady’ [on the Rue Labat] agreed to keep [them] ‘ until [they] could find a solution,’” (Kofman 35). The “lady” asks Sarah to call her Mémé, and initially Kofman “stayed with [her] mother,” (Kofman 39) in her mother’s room within Mémé’s apartment, spending the days finding ways to entertain herself.

However, Mémé soon becomes more involved in Sarah’s life. She writes, “Mémé declared that the food of my childhood was unhealthy… I must change my diet. From then on it was she who would take care of me,” (Kofman 40). Mémé begins to Christianize Sarah, from the non-Kosher food she eats to her appearance to even her name: “…[Mémé] christened me Suzanne because that was the saint’s name closest to hers… on the calendar,” (Kofman 39). Kofman is showered in new clothing, red meat, music, and education. Sarah’s mother is appalled, yet unable to do anything: Mémé is saving their lives by sheltering them. Kofman remembers: “My mother found this state of affairs harder and harder to tolerate… but of course [she] could say nothing,” (Kofman 40). As Mémé influences Sarah more and more, Sarah begins to experience the detachment from her mother that Ofer describes in her paper. The actions that Kofman and her family had to take to protect themselves causes the parent-child relationship to begin to fracture.

Furthermore, as Jennifer Marlow states in her essay “Life in Hiding,” “…rescue brought increased intimacy to the relationship between caregiver and charge,” (Michlic 116). Mémé provides what Sarah’s mother could not, in terms of emotional support as well as material goods. The difference in emotional support is clearly shown in the scene in which Sarah gets her tonsils removed. Mémé calmly reassures Sarah that everything is absolutely fine, while her mother is “loud” and “anxious” in the hospital (Kofman 43). Mémé’s reaction comforts Sarah, while her mother’s reaction only bothers her and makes her more nervous. Bit by bit, Sarah feels that she is “detaching [herself]” from her mother and “becoming more and more attached to the other woman,” (Kofman 44). Sarah and her mother stay at the Rue Labat with Mémé for the rest of the war. By the time that she and her mother are able to live freely, Kofman sees Mémé as “the woman [she] now loved more than [her] own mother,” (Kofman 59). She had “completely forgotten her [mother]” and was “simply happy,” (Kofman 56).

Mémé’s caretaking during such a dangerous and painful time makes her seem like a hero, furthering Sarah’s strong connection and attachment to her. However, when the war is over, Kofman’s mother decides that they now must leave the Rue Labat, despite Mémé’s willingness to continue to care for Sarah. When Kofman’s mother tries to tear her away from Mémé, Kofman finds it “intolerable” (Kofman 59), and the mother-daughter relationship reaches a new low. Her mother beats her with a strap when she spends too much time with Mémé and eventually goes to court in order to end contact between the two. Sarah testifies against her own mother and shows “…the court [her] thighs covered in bruises,” (Kofman 60). Her mother is unable to understand Sarah’s emotional connection to Mémé, and this destroys what is left of the emotional connection between Sarah and her mother. The relationship that the two had during Sarah’s childhood has completely dissolved due to the actions that Kofman’s family had to take to survive the Holocaust, and Sarah and her mother never become close again.

Anne Frank’s relationship with her mother evolves throughout her diary. Prior to the Annex, Anne and her mother were on good terms: Anne notes that the two gossip about boys and her mother is “full of praise” for a boy Anne is talking with (Frank 28). Both of Anne’s parents aren’t too strict about grades and are satisfied “…as long as [she’s] healthy and happy,” (Frank 29). The two seem to have a fairly typical relationship without much conflict.

The Frank family soon has to relocate and go into hiding because Anne’s sister, Margot, receives a call-up notice. Initially, Anne and her mother continue their pre-Holocaust relationship. Anne describes how, at one point, her Mother is the only one in the family who “understood [her] anxiety” when the Franks were listening to the radio and Anne was afraid that they would be heard (Frank 40). Her father, whom she usually adores, did not understand her worries.

Just a day later, Anne describes how she is already experiencing a shift in her relationship with her mother: “…every day I feel myself drifting further away from Mother and Margot,” (Frank 42). Within the coming months, their relationship gets worse and worse. The two constantly get into arguments, and Anne feels as though she is “a stranger to her [mother]; [her mother] doesn’t even know what [Anne thinks] about the most ordinary things,” (Frank 57). Anne describes the exact emotional disconnect that Ofer writes about in “Parenthood in the Shadow of the Holocaust.” She feels as though her mother does not understand her needs or emotions. Confined to the Secret Annex with four non-family members puts Anne and her mother in very close quarters, and Anne has only her diary to confide in.

Although Anne and her mother experience patches of cooperation, Anne still writes that the two of them are “never close,” (Frank 80). Throughout the second half of the diary, Anne and her mother seem to experience fewer conflicts. Nevertheless, they still argue quite regularly. Anne’s most biting remarks come in the middle of the diary, after she and her family have been living in the Secret Annex for just over a year:

“I’m the opposite of Mother, so of course we clash. I don’t mean to judge her; I don’t have that right. I’m simply looking at her as a mother. She’s not a mother to me – I have to mother myself. I’ve cut myself adrift from them…I have no choice, because I can picture what a mother and a wife should be and can’t seem to find anything of the sort in the woman I’m supposed to call ‘Mother’” (Frank 174).

A significant portion of Anne’s diary entries were cut out in the original publication of her diary. Her father “omitted a number of unflattering passages about his wife and the other residents of the Secret Annex” (Frank vi) out of respect for the dead. However, Anne’s comments were not unusual in the slightest: according to Federica Clementi in “Holocaust Mothers and Daughters,” many daughters in Holocaust literature “resist the temptation to paint an elegiac portrait of their mothers… rather, they are severely critical of them, highlighting conflict more than heroism, resentment rather than trust,” (13). Furthermore, this was Anne’s personal diary. Although she did intend to one day “publish a book based on her diary,” (Frank v) she did not expect anyone to read it yet and thus “wrote without reserve” (Frank vi).

Later in the diary, Anne does eventually mention some conflict between her and her mother pre-Annex. However, the issues were very typical mother-daughter arguments. Had the Holocaust not forced them into this hiding spot, their relationship would not have crumbled the way it did. The situation in the Secret Annex inflamed and magnified the conflicts between the two, thus causing Anne to feel extremely disconnected from her mother during this period of time.

From early childhood, Ruth Kluger’s relationship with her mother was complicated. Before the Holocaust began to directly affect Ruth and her mother, the two lived together in Vienna. Kluger already had conflicting feelings about her mother Alma, who was showy, opinionated, and an extremely unique character. Their pre-Holocaust relationship can be accurately described by Ruth’s comment: “…she had alternately kissed and slapped me when I was a child,” (Kluger 181). One moment Kluger’s mother would be loving and affectionate; seconds later she would criticize or hurt Ruth, leaving young Ruth confused and distraught. Nevertheless, the memoir demonstrates how Kluger often admired her mother in her childhood. She remembers her mother’s expression whilst sewing clothes, writing, “I watched her disdainful expression, which I admired and tried to imitate when it was directed against our enemies, but which drove me to despair when she belittled my friends or the things I thought beautiful,” (Kluger 48). At this point in her childhood, Ruth still looked up to her mother and cared enough about her opinion that Alma’s negative remarks hurt Ruth deeply. She writes, “When I embraced my mother too vigorously at the end of a lonely day, she would assure me that I had just then almost strangled her,” (Kluger 54). Ruth shows affection for her mother in her childhood, despite her mother responding negatively.

In 1942, at age eleven, Kluger and her mother are forced to move to Theresienstadt. This is the first time that Kluger is separated from her mother. When they enter the ghetto, Ruth lives in a building just for children. The girls living there are mean to her, and when her mother visits, “… [Kluger] ran after her and desperately begged her to take [her] along,” (Kluger 74). Her mother refuses and leaves Kluger. Soon, Ruth begins to bond with the girls and becomes part of their group, commenting: “At bottom I wasn’t too unhappy to escape from my mother’s contradictory demands, and it soon dawned on me that it might be easier to live with other kids,” (Kluger 74). This is Ruth’s first realization that her mother may be affecting her life negatively.

At age twelve, Kluger and her mother are transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Soon after arriving, a selection takes place. Ruth initially does not make it through the selection, and she and her mother argue about whether or not she should go back through and lie about her age. Ruth remembers the two fighting: “‘You are a coward,’ [her mother] said half desperately, half contemptuously, and added ‘I wasn’t ever a coward,’” (Kluger 104). Alma is willing to do whatever it takes to keep her and Ruth together, yet she does this in a way that hurts and angers Ruth. Their relationship at this point is clearly complicated; Ruth writes: “I repeat: my mother and I were very unfair to each other,” (Kluger 105). In retrospect, Ruth seems to realize that Alma’s pushiness at this crucial moment helped save her life.

Ruth, her mother, and her adopted sister Susi escape when the camp is evacuated. Her mother decides to obtain false papers for the three of them through a pastor. Kluger believes that her mother “…wanted to compete” with Susi, who had recently had a successful interaction with the town mayor (Kluger 141). She calls her mother “petty, in the manner of a spoiled girl” (Kluger 141). Even when her mother succeeds in obtaining the papers, all Kluger comments is that her mother likely embellished the story, because “…she always lied, often just for the fun of it,” (Kluger 142). Although Kluger knows that her mother’s heroic actions likely save their lives, she is still highly critical of her mother and her actions.

In 1947, Ruth and her mother emigrate to New York City. This is when their relationship truly begins to worsen. Kluger’s mother finds a low-income blue-collar job and the two are forced to live in poverty, causing a “never-ending headache” (Kluger 173) which creates tension and stress in their lives. Kluger herself has entered the realm of adulthood, and she begins to want freedom from her mother. Furthermore, Kluger initially has no friends at college, cannot speak English fluently yet, and lives with just her mother, making her mother her sole companion. Ruth recalls: “…she would now shower me with exaggerated compliments and without transition criticize my appearance… Both instances of motherly love seemed to me uncalled-for and embarrassing,” (Kluger 180). Her mother is constantly there, always giving Ruth her opinions and critiques. Ruth eventually goes to a psychologist and explains to him how she feels about her mother: “…the constant friction, how I couldn’t ever satisfy my mother, how she wouldn’t leave me alone and criticized my every movement… And she always misunderstood me…I was losing any desire to talk to her, because what I said simply didn’t get through to her,” (Kluger 187-188). Although Kluger’s relationship with her mother had always been bumpy, Kluger now begins to actively and consistently dislike her mother.

Ruth eventually makes friends at the University of Vermont. She says, “it was like climbing into a lifeboat,” (Kluger 191). Her new friends welcome Ruth and “let [her] be as [she] was,” (Kluger 194), which strongly contrasts Kluger’s mother. These new friends allow Kluger to finally separate from her mother and experience independence as an adult. The final straw for Ruth is when her mother scrutinizes her friends: “She wants to spoil the new friendships that I am proud of. For no reason, just for the hell of it. I start screaming, I hate her. Another remnant of trust is gone,” (Kluger 197). After graduating, Ruth never returns to live with her mother. She compares herself to Shylock’s Jessica from Merchant of Venice, “abandoning an unloved parent,” (Kluger 201).

The lowest point in Ruth’s relationship with her mother occurs after Ruth has had her first child. Her mother attempts to kill herself on the way to visit Ruth and her newborn child, an attempt that Kluger believes was “…probably meant to fail,” (Kluger 200). Kluger writes: “…I can’t get rid of the thought that I am the cause, I and my baby…her child was taking her place, the daughter becoming the mother… this switch took the meaning out of her life,” (Kluger 200). Kluger has finally found independence and freedom from her mother. She no longer depends on her financially, and she now has a family of her own. Alma, despite her constant criticisms, always wanted Ruth to stay with her. Now the two are truly separate.

Sarah Kofman, Anne Frank, and Ruth Kluger all experience a deterioration in their relationships with their mothers due to the actions that their families had to take to survive the Holocaust. Kofman and her mother were forced into hiding together, and as Kofman became more and more attached to Mémé, the relationship between her and her mother began to crack. Post-Holocaust, Kofman’s mother sealed the break between the two by both physically and verbally abusing Sarah. Anne Frank was also forced into hiding with her family, and the close quarters and lack of outside contact drove her and her mother to daily arguments which caused Anne to feel a great disconnect from her mother during their time in the Secret Annex. Ruth Kluger’s experiences forced her to realize her mother’s flaws and shortcomings, and their situation in New York drove Kluger to ultimately seek freedom from her mother. The Holocaust broke families apart in many ways. Those who were lucky enough to not be physically separated often still experienced emotional tension in interpersonal and familial relationships. As shown by Rue Ordener, Rue Labat, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Still Alive, parent-child relationships often worsened or even disintegrated completely due to the Holocaust.


Works Cited

Clementi, Federica K. Holocaust Mothers and Daughters: Family, History and Trauma. Brandeis University Press, 2013.

Frank, Anne, et al. Anne Frank: the Diary of a Young Girl. Anchor Books, 1996.

Kluger, Ruth. Still Alive: a Holocaust Girlhood Remembered. Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2001.

Kofman, Sarah. Rue Ordener, Rue Labat. University of Nebraska Press, 1996.

Michlic, Joanna B. Jewish Families in Europe: 1939-Present. Brandeis University Press, 2017.

Questions & Answers


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      • mollystroud profile imageAUTHOR

        Molly Stroud 

        8 months ago from Boston

        Thank you! I agree - her diary is amazing both as Holocaust literature and as a work of art.

      • Coffeequeeen profile image

        Louise Powles 

        8 months ago from Norfolk, England

        That was so interesting to read. I've read Anne Frank's diary. It was very moving to read.


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