Growing up in Cleveland in the early 1950s, at an age when most boys reel off sports statistics and the rosters of their favorite baseball teams, Ron Mlotek could recite the names of Nazi war criminals and the precise location of every Nazi concentration camp.
Today, at 33, Mlotek says he is still "obsessed" with the Holocaust.
"It was the inevitable result of growing up in a family which had been the victims of the Nazis," said the dark-haired foreign service officer, whose parents fled Germany just before World War II. "My parents had been involved in one of the major cataclysms of the modern world, an event whose magnitude is unequaled by anything that happened in this millennium."
For Mlotek, who now lives in Arlington, this obsession led him to The Generation After, a local organization of young Jewish adults whose parents survived the Holocaust.
Originally formed as an emotional support group, The Generation After also has inherited a special legacy from its members' parents: the responsibility to tell the world of the Nazi slaughter of 6 million Jews in Europe during World War II.
"The young Jewish population is the transmitter of this 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, a founder of the Holocaust Information Network, an offshoot of The Generation After. The network will attempt to educate Jews and non-Jews about the Holocaust.
One of its first projects is a five-week adult education seminar on the significance of the Holocaust planned for March at Frederick Community College in Frederick, Md.
Other plans call for starting a clearinghouse on Holocaust research, publishing a directory of Holocaust-related groups and pursuing the "active and nonviolent resistance of anti-Semitism and neofascism," according to Masurovsky, a 25-year-old Washingtonian who, though 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. Mlotek has this reply:
"The Holocaust, in its totality, was the most monstrous evil that we know about in the history of the world.
"I do not think we could be accused of dwelling excessively on these events if our parents and ourselves and our children were to devote the rest of our lives to examining it because evil is still such an omnipresent reality in the world.
"The day that widespread evil disappears from the world, I will lead the chorus of people saying, 'Enough already on the Holocaust.'"
Until then for those who want to bury the past, Mlotek warns (paraphrasing the words of philosopher George Santayana) that "those who forget history are condemned to repeat it."
For as long as he can remember, Mlotek said, he was haunted by his parents' memories. The memories are harrowing ones -- of a mother, brothers and sisters murdered in Hitler's death camps. Of entire Jewish communities wiped out in Germany, Poland and elsewhere in Europe. Of persecution and a desperate struggle to endure and escape.
For other children of survivors, though, it was an epic in history they did not want to face.
"My mother came out of Auschwitz, and she talked about it all the time when I was growing up," said Harry Rutman of Annandale, who was born in a displaced persons camp in Austria 35 years ago.
"It wasn't things I wanted to hear, so I blocked it out," Rutman said. "There was a lot of pain and it was also very scary. It was a view of the world a child really doesn't want."
Other children of survivors say their parents' pasts were shrouded in mystery. Many were afraid of scraping open old wounds.
"I never knew anything about my parents' background," said Susie Schwarz, 26, of Arlington. "As a child I just knew that my parents spoke with an accent, that they came here after the war and when there were programs on TV about the war, they didn't want me to watch."
Only last summer, when Schwarz went with her parents to an international gathering of Holocaust survivors in Israel, did her parents begin to open up to her. For the first time, she heard what happened to her mother in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, about her father's escape from Poland and his life in a labor camp during the war.
As she began to assemble the puzzle of her parents' lives, Schwarz said, she also started to grapple with the traumas of growing up as the child of survivors.
One experience Schwarz and Rutman shared with other children of survivors -- although neither knew it at the time -- was a sense of being overprotected as children.
"For my mother, a scratch on my knee was a big tragedy," Rutman said. "She lost her whole family, and I was the first thing she had to start making up the loss with. She couldn't bear the idea of anything happening to me."
For both Rutman and Schwarz, the desire in the past few years to examine their parents' history was tied to an introspective period in their lives and a search for identity.
For others, though, it was the birth of their own children that led them to deal with the effects of the Holocaust on their lives.
"We're coming of age," said Kay Ackman of Silver Spring, whose parents left Germany shortly before the war. "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."
As they grew 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 The Generation After, now a group of about 80 area residents 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, Md., public library.
"A lot of people came out of the closet at the first meeting," said one woman in the original group.
Here were other people who understood the sense of obligation to their parents, who could relate to idiosyncracies like keeping their passports up-to-date and searching for exits in a crowded room, fearful habits they picked up from their parents. Here they could share their anxieties and guilt and their pride in their parents' resilient spirit.
"I felt I had a certain kinship with the group. The way we look at the world is similar," Rutman said.
Vivian Prunier, a member of the group from Arlington, said it is the "terrible drive to reconstruct your past, the compulsion to find family," that pulls her to The Generation After meetings.
Yet the meetings can be painful, Prunier said: "Here I am adjusting to being a nice typical housewife in Northern Virginia, and I'm going to have to remember a whole lot of things that aren't so pleasant."
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. "I'm hoping the oral history will give me the narve to ask them more about their lives," Schwarz said.
Prunier said the focus of the group is shifting away from personal problems toward efforts to educate the community about the Holocaust.
"This whole idea of bearing witness, never forgetting, never letting it happen again -- it's something I imbibed with the oxygen in my parents' house," Prunier said. "It didn't matter if I lived through it. It happened to us as a people."
The need to tell the story is especially urgent, several children of survivors said, in the face of revisionists who claim the Nazi genocide was a myth.
"There is a movement of people," Kay 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."