Until two summers ago, Jeanette Binstock knew very little about what really happened to her family in Poland during World War II. The 31-year-old Gaithersburg woman, a daughter of immigrant parents, said she enjoyed an innocent childhood in New York, knowing only bits and pieces of the story.

Then in 1980, when her mother died after spending the last 20 years of her life in a New York mental hospital, Binstock and her two brothers gathered at the family home in Queens to sit shiva, the traditional seven-day Jewish period of mourning.

It was then, in detail, that her father began to recount the family's European horror.

He told how the Nazis came in 1939 and herded the Jews into ghettos and cattle cars. He told how Binstock's mother had suffered a bullet wound in the back trying to escape, how a Nazi soldier had tried to rape her, and how the trauma led to a later emotional collapse.

He described how each of her mother's relatives was murdered in the war, by gas and guns, and how nearly everyone in his own family was machine-gunned to death one afternoon in a forest outside the town of Drogobych.

"It was the first time my father really talked to us about the war. By the time he finished I had this intense feeling for relatives I'd never seen," Binstock recalled. "I was overwhelmed by the courage of my mother. She was someone I had never really known."

This week Binstock, a budget analyst for the U.S. Department of Education, is taking time to participate in seminars sponsored by the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. She is joined by 4,000 others who have come from around the country and share with her a desire to remember the legacy of European forebears they never had a chance to know.

They are the second generation: American children of Jewish Holocaust survivors.

They met at the Washington Convention Center yesterday to attend often-emotional workshops and discussions organized by second-generation members. The topics included "Creative Responses to the Holocaust" and "Integration of Survivor Children into Society." At times the discussions, attended by overflow crowds, turned into passionate political arguments between the children and their surviving parents.

At one point political scientist Jerzy Warman, a Polish-born child of survivors, pleaded for support of the Solidarity movement in Poland. He was drowned out by vehement protests from many elderly survivors of the Holocaust in Poland who condemned Polish Gentiles for aiding the Nazis during World War II and charged that anti-Semitism there continues to this day.

At another point, in a discussion of Holocaust art, a young Jewish art historian, speaking of Nazi war atrocities, was interrupted by an elderly survivor in the back of the crowd. Attempting to correct her, the survivor shouted, "It was the Germans! The Germans! Not just the Nazis!" before leaving the room in anger.

The drama and moving personal accounts that unfolded at the convention center yesterday pointed to the complex and dynamic moral and political questions second-generation members are beginning to grapple with as they accept, in young adulthood, the legacy of their parents.

They include people like Binstock, who is now attemping to pass the legacy on to her own children, and Mark Tykocinski, an immunologist and genetic engineering researcher at the National Institutes of Health, who, aware of crude Nazi research in a similar field, each day confronts moral questions relating to his work.

As Yale University film professor Annette Insdorf, also a child of survivors, put it yesterday, "We simply don't have the luxury of forgetfulness."

There are about 250,000 children of survivors in North America. Most are in their thirties now, pursuing careers in many walks of life and raising families of their own.

They are as heterogenous a group as their parents. Some are devout followers of the faith, while others are less so and fully assimilated into the melting pot. Some are middle-class housewives, grocers and Vietnam veterans, while still others are highly successful in business, politics and science--forging an American Dream from a catastrophe only a generation ago.

They all share, however, the legacy of survival.

They were born after the war to parents who endured the barbarity of the Nazi regime, who hid out in basements and haystacks, joined partisan resistance fighters, and were among the few survivors of the concentration camps.

They were brought up in the security of American homes, knowing nonetheless that many of their relatives had been murdered only a few years before they were born.

And eventually, through word of mouth, old photographs and occasional signs such as tears at Yom Kippur, they learned of their parents' pre-World War European way of life and the atrocities that destroyed it.

As recently as 10 years ago, it would have been unlikely to hear topics raised such as those at the convention center yesterday, much less discussed. Only within the last few years, largely through the research work of a few psychotherapists and psychologists and a New York journalist named Helen Epstein, have children of survivors come to recognize themselves as a distinct social group.

"What binds them together is a need to have continuity with the past. It has to do with the process of mourning. They have a need to mourn their grandparents, aunts and uncles," said Eva Fogelman, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the City University of New York, who has done extensive counseling work with children of survivors and investigated how their lives have been shaped by their parents' experiences of persecution.

Reared in the United States, many children of survivors quickly assumed American cultural values, Fogelman said, without having much of a chance to integrate their ancestors' experiences into their own lives.

To some survivors there was a stigma attached in the Jewish community to being a survivor. "The implication was that they had done something wrong to live through it," Fogelman said.

Others settled in areas where there weren't many Jews. "In both cases," Fogelman went on, "there was, for some, a sense of being cut off from the past and feeling adrift."

In 1979 Epstein, a 35-year-old child of Czechoslovakian survivors, wrote a best-seller entitled "Children of the Holocaust--Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors." It was a poignant account of Epstein's travels around the United States, Canada and Israel in search of children of survivors who, like her, had struggled to find a way to come to terms with their parents' ordeal.

Among others, she found one man who fought in Vietnam to prove that he, like his parents, could survive terror and war, and a troubled young Jewish woman who had attended schools in South America with children of former Nazis and was reared as a Christian by her parents after they severed all ties to Judaism.

The book, coupled with accounts of revisionist history put forth by extremists who declared that the Holocaust was a "myth," triggered the formation of a number of political and social action groups made up of children of survivors.

Today there are hundreds of such groups around the country, including the 275-member, Washington-based Generation After, which meets monthly at the Jewish Community Center in Rockville for public discussions of the Holocaust.

"Our presence in Washington is more than just a symbolic act," said Menachem Z. Rosensaft, a New York lawyer and chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, a social action organization with 35 affiliated groups in North America and Israel.

"We are committed to commemorating the Holocaust and ensuring that it doesn't happen again--not only to Jews, but to anyone else. That's the legacy we must accept."

Epstein concurs. "It's important to emphasize the cross-cultural aspects," she said. "The Japanese at Hiroshima, black people facing racial injustice here, the experience of Cambodian immigrants--it's all about trauma and how one goes about facing losses and repairing injuries to self-esteem."

Accepting the legacy has come in various ways. In Washington the second generation includes Rep. Samuel Gejdenson (D-Conn.), whose Lithuanian parents immigrated to America in the late 1940s. Most of his parents' relatives, including his mother's first husband and child, perished in the war.

Reared on a dairy farm in Bozrah, Conn., Gejdenson said the Holocaust was discussed very little in his home, and when it was, his parents would speak in Yiddish in order not to frighten him with the accounts.

One of Gejdenson's earliest childhood memories is of a group of local children who gathered at a neighbor's home in Bozrah one day and asked a woman there where the Gejdensons had come from and why they spoke such a strange language.

The woman told the children that their new neighbors were "from the Old Testament." Gejdenson recalled that the children were awed to learn that a people 5,000 years old could possibly still be alive.

To Gejdenson, the legacy has come to mean political involvement. "When I was 13 or 14 there were some difficult emotional adjustments, knowing what went on over there. But once you deal with that frightening occurrence, you end up a stronger person."

The second generation also includes Tykocinski, the 31-year-old research scientist at NIH, who said he feels "much more hatred toward the perpetrators" of the Holocaust than his parents ever did.

"If Klaus Barbie were in my living room I could quite easily do something that my father couldn't," said Tykocinski, whose father survived Auschwitz and whose mother was liberated from Bergen-Belsen.

"Throughout everything, my father never lost his sense of humanity. He said he never had a desire to pick up a gun."

As a researcher in immunology and recombinant DNA technology, Tykocinski said he is "naturally sensitized" to moral questions relating to his work because he is a child of survivors.

"The Nazis performed research vaguely relating to what I'm doing now, though in a much more brutal way," he said. "I simply can't avoid contending with ethical and moral questions every day I live."

Another child of survivors, 31-year-old Arlington television producer Michael Kornblit, encountered anti-Semitism in his home town of Ponca City, Okla., where his Polish-born father and mother, who survived Auschwitz, settled after the war.

Bruised and bloodied after fights with other youths who taunted him, Kornblit always lied to his parents about how he suffered his wounds in order to protect them from a recurrence of memories of the war.

"They went through so much in Europe that the last thing they needed was to think it could happen here as well," he said.

To Kornblit, the legacy means working to preserve the past. Several years ago he compiled an oral history of the Holocaust experiences of his parents, who were childhood sweethearts before the war and survived separations, harrowing escapes from Nazi soldiers and periods in labor camps, to be reunited and married when the terror was over.

Kornblit's research eventually led him to Newcastle, England, where last year he found a surviving brother of his mother, who she thought had perished at Auschwitz. Last year the brother and sister were reunited here after a 40-year separation.

And the second generation includes Jeanette Binstock, who after listening to her father's story for the first time two summers ago, today feels infused by a new and more profound sense of identity. "Before, I wondered how and if I should tell my children about the war," she says. "Now that I really know what happened, it's a matter of necessity. I have to tell them. It's something you just can't let people forget."