It's not commercial, they told her. A book about children born to death-camp survivors? Uh uh. Two agents, 10 publishers and innumerable editors shook their heads.
"If there was something to it, somebody would have written about it," they told Helen Epstein. "Elie Wiesel would have written about it."
After seven years of this, Epstein more or less quit trying. She concentrated on her job as an assistant professor of journalism at New York University.
Then in 1977 the New York publishing world spotted a Stanford University press release about children of Holocaust victims. Someone remembered Helen Epstein: Hadn't she tried to sell them this story? Editors started digging through their back files on freelancers . . .
Helen Epstein is the daughter of two death-camp survivors. Even when she was 2, she knew her mother had a number on her arm. Other mothers didn't have that.
She knew her parents guarded her far more vigilantly than other children's parents, and long after she and her two brothers grew to be tall, strapping athletic teen-agers, they ere clucked over and curfewed and band-aided to distraction.
"I felt like a great golden egg," she writes in her newly published book, "Children of the Holocaust."
It was as though she was expected to make up with her perfect, shining life for all the lost lives of her relatives who disappeared in the camps.
"I was Little Miss Health and Happiness," she said on a visit here this week. "Anytime I wasn't laughing or running around - even if I was just sitting quietly - there would be great concern. And if I skinned my knee or fell down, being a tomboy, my father would go into a rage. Because to him, any bruise, any wound could mean death."
She was 7 before she realized it had something to do with her being Jewish. She was an adult before she discovered that she was not alone, that there were other young people who had the same guilt over not feeling forever happy, the same unexpressed resentment of parents who could not be treated like regular parents.
She found to her astonishment and delight that she had a peer group.
"I figure there are half a million of us in the world. That was how many survived the camps, and nearly all who married, married other survivors, and most of them wanted children badly."
There must be a quarter-million children of survivors in North America, she speculated.
"People have been denying that there is such a group for so long," She said, "but now there are awareness-groups in several cities: Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Toronto, Boston and New York. They're run by the various Jewish organizations."
Not only were most psychiatrists slow to understand that being a child of death-camp survivors produced special and difficult problems, but many survivors themselves didn't want to think about it.
"They wanted to put it behind them. The war ended in '45, they would say, and they wanted to forget it."
Smothering, overprotective parents was only part of the pattern. There was also the constant retelling of the terrible stories of camp, the xenophobic distrust of outsiders, especially Gentiles (one girl reacted by failing every subject in school except one - German), the warring resentments by both parent and child over the contrast in their fates.
In her book, Epstein describes how several different children dealt with these pressures. Some rejected their Jewishness. (Frank Collin, the Nazi leader involved in the Skokie march, is the son of death-camp survivors.) Some fought back by moving to Israel. Many have found great comfort in meeting their peers and simply talking about their experiences.
Epstein also has one of those amazing recovery stories to tell: A few years ago her mother, reading a review of a new novel, noticed that the characters sounded exactly like her own family. She contacted the author in Austria - and unearthed a whole branch of her family who had assumed her dead in Auschwitz.
"There are a lot of those stories," Epstein said. "There are also a lot that haven't happened yet. People are still looking. There are agencies set up, and people write every day looking for relatives. Time is getting short. . ." CAPTION: Picture 1, Helen Epstein; by Douglas Chevalier - The Washington Post; Picture 2, Helen Epstein; by Douglas Chevalier