Joel Freid did not live through the Holocaust, but he lives with it every day.
So, too, does Kay Ackman, a neighbor of Freid's in Silver Spring.
Freid and Ackman, both in their early 30s, lead the daily lives of a free-lance photographer and a suburban mother. But they live with something more, a special legacy passed on by their parents, Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.
"When people give an inheritance, it is usually something like the old linen and the old silver," said Ackman. "Our families don't have those things, so they gave us something different. They gave us their memories."
The memories are haunting ones -- of grandparents, aunts and uncles murdered in Hitler's death camps. Of entire Jewish communities wiped out in Poland, Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Of a desperate struggle to endure and escape.
With those memories, they feel a responsibility to tell the brutal story of the Nazi slaughter of six million Jews in Europe during World War II.
Last summer, Freid was one of several hundred young Jews who went to an international gathering of Holocaust survivors in Israel to accept a symbolic legacy handed down from the survivors to the next generation.
Now back in Washington, Freid, along with Ackman and other children of survivors, is organizing the Holocaust Information Network to keep the story alive by educating Jews and non-Jews about the Holocaust.
"The young Jewish population is the transmitter of the legacy. It is their responsibility to make sure the next generation knows what happened and doesn't falter in the face of another attempt," said Marc Masurovsky, one of the network's founders.
One of the organization's first projects is a five-week adult education seminar planned for next March at Frederick Community College on the significance of the Holocaust. Other plans call for starting a clearinghouse on Holocaust research, publishing a directory of Holocaust-related groups and the "active and nonviolent resistance of anti-Semitism and neo-fascism," according to Masurovsky, a 25-year-old Washingtonian who, while not the child of survivors, lost relatives in concentration camps.
The response Masurovsky said he often gets when discussing the Holocaust is: Why dwell on it? "People say you're exaggerating, you're paranoid, it's morbid, why rehash history, it can't happen here."
Others say they get similar reactions, to which Freid has this reply:
"To dwell on it would be to go to a Holocaust film festival and see nothing but ashes, bones and cremated bodies coming out of the ovens. That's the macabre. That's dwelling on it.
"But we're dealing with it, to understand that it happened and to realize it could happen again."
Although he was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany just after the war, Joel Freid said, "it took me the better part of 35 years before I was comfortable about asking" his parents to describe their experiences. The bearded photographer admits with some embarrassment that it was a 1978 television mini-series on the Holocaust that heightened his interest in the subject.
When he was a child growing up in New York "it was never discussed" in his presence, Freid said. "The only way I heard my parents talk about it was behind closed doors. My parents would talk about the Holocaust with friends, but when I walked into the room, the conversation would stop. I knew it was a secret that I wasn't privileged to.
"Every so often my mother would say something about the number on her arm," Freid said, referring to the blue number tattooed on her arm in a concentration camp. "But it was all bits and pieces."
A few years ago, Freid plugged in his tape recorder and sat down with his parents to hear their story.
"My mother yelled from the kitchen, 'Don't start,' but my father said, 'He's old enough to know.' " Finally he learned how his father escaped from a labor camp and ran for three years from farmhouse to farmhouse in Poland. How his mother was saved from a roundup for the gas chambers by hiding in the snow. That his father's first wife and two children were killed by the Nazis, and that his mother was one of five children, only three of whom survived.
Other children of survivors say their parents' pasts were shrouded in mystery. Many were too nervous to ask, afraid of opening old wounds.
"The experience wasn't talked about, it was just implied, it was just assumed," said Lily Blankstein, a petite, fair-haired Potomac woman born in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp 34 years ago.
"I never was able to articulate what I felt, but there was a tension, an aura. I could never put my finger on it. I felt like an oddity and I never knew why," Blankstein said, slowly drawing circles on a piece of paper, trying to focus her memories.
One experience she shared with other children of survivors -- although she did not know it at the time -- was a sense of being overprotected as a child.
"Every time I went and crossed the street my mother treated it as more than it would have been normally," Blankstein recalled.
There also was the tremendous pressure to succeed, whether to make up for the relatives who died or to spare her parents any more pain.
"I never knew why I felt that way," she said. "But I knew if I didn't succeed, it was going to be a hole in their lives."
Only in the past few years has Blankstein come to terms with the traumas of growing up as the child of survivors, she said.
"We're coming of age," said Kay Ackman. "When people reach the age of 30 and begin to have their own children, they begin to look at life in a different way. When you think about children and new generations, you think about what your parents passed on to you and what you want to pass on to your children."
Growing up in America in the 1950s and 1960s, they wondered if there were others like them, others who lived in homes that held the aura of tragedy. Were there others whose family trees had been obliterated? Was there an "invisible, silent family," as one author put it, possessed by a history they had never lived?
In the Washington area, the children in this "silent family," now in their 20s and 30s, began finding each other about two years ago, when a University of Maryland professor placed a newspaper advertisement seeking other children of survivors.
They formed an organization called The Generation After, a group of about 80 people from the metropolitan area whose parents either survived concentration and labor camps or fled Europe just before the war. The group meets on the first Tuesday night of each month at the Wheaton Public Library.
"A lot of people came out of the closet at the first meeting," said one Maryland woman in the original group.
Here were other people who understood the sense of obligation to their parents, who could relate to idiosyncrasies like keeping your passport up-to-date or searching for exits in a crowded room, fearful habits they picked up from their parents. Here they could share their anxieties and guilt, as well as pride in the resilient spirit of their parents.
"For the first time I met people who had the same kind of feelings I had. I felt a common tie that I could never have imagined to exist," Ackman said.
Besides serving as an emotional support group, members of the organization also started an oral history project to record their parents' experiences before and after the war. The Holocaust Information Network is also an offshoot of the group.
Whether with other members of The Generation After or in private conversations with their families, the recent openness about the Holocaust among children of survivors has been cathartic for both children and parents, according to several survivors.
"For a long time I didn't discuss it; we didn't express our feelings to our children," said Lily Blankstein's mother, Paula Dash, of Bethesda. "Maybe people thought it would scare the children, make them nervous, give them nightmares."
When Blankstein started assembling the puzzle of her parents' lives, however, it gave her mother the chance to deal with a long-buried topic.
"I think it's better when people talk about it now. Let it get in the open," Dash said. Even more, she said, "they should tell generation after generation that this happened in the 20th century."
The need to tell the story is even more urgent, survivors and their children say, in the face of revisionists who claim the Nazi genocide was a myth.
"There is a movement of people," Ackman said, "who are rewriting history, saying the Holocaust never occurred, while our parents are walking around, the numbers still on their arms, the pain still in their hearts, the tears still not cried out.
"If anything," Ackman said of the generation determined to keep the truth alive, "we sit here to teach the world a lesson.