Reconnecting a Ruptured Past
Tom Willett | University of York
Nowhere more so than when writing about the Holocaust do historians cast aside their scholarly detachment, writing about the event not from a position of analytical distance but from a deeply personal place. This shall be no different. The experiences of my family are tightly woven into the study from which this article is based, and like so many others, their experiences form much of the reason I am writing now.
With this position of closeness, though, comes a certain guilt. It is a difficult and almost shameful thing to express, but I have sometimes worried that the reason I am choosing to probe and examine the aftereffects of the Holocaust is because it makes me feel special. As Eva Hoffman notes, the 20th century has seen a great pendulum swing – where victimisation and oppression have begun to be seen as a more noble and morally credible location for one’s identity than power and privilege. As Hoffman puts it, Holocaust survivors have become ‘Brahmins of the trauma elite’. There is a danger, which I felt acutely when conducting and writing this study, that identification with and understanding of the victim can imperceptibly turn into, as Hoffman describes it, the exploitation and violation of the one thing that ought never to be thus used: the pain and death of others.
When I have considered this worry more carefully, however, my initial feelings of guilt seem to be a symptom of the rupture in the normal trajectory of memory that the Holocaust represents. Marianne Hirsch elucidates this concept in her influential 2008 work, The Generation of Postmemory. Hirsch details how a break in transmission resulting from traumatic historical events necessitates forms of remembrance that reconnect and reembody an intergenerational memorial fabric that has been severed by catastrophe. The powerful urge to explore my family’s experiences during and before the Holocaust is not just a search for an interesting ‘origin story’, as I have sometimes thought, but a result of the paradoxical inaccessibility of that portion of my family history. I simultaneously know the most and the least about it. This urge to explore and understand was a more pressing concern for the generation before me, the ‘second generation’. This is the generation on which my study focused.
The project centred around twelve interviews (all of which were conducted by me, over Zoom, over the course of 2021), through which I attempted to understand the varied ways in which the ‘generation after’ has dealt with the frightening and confusing shadows of the horrific experiences their parents endured. During preliminary discussions, the influence of ‘external stimuli’ emerged as an interesting entry point into the second-generation experience. Before I had even raised the point with them, interviewees often mentioned books, films and commemorative events as central in allowing the blurry realities of their family’s pre-war lives to come into focus. As many have established, our understanding of ourselves always takes place in a context of broader understandings and in dialectic with them. Maurice Halbwachs, a pioneer of what we often refer to as ‘memory studies’, wrote about the ‘mechanics of recall’ and their ‘dependency on outside groups[or stimulus]’ in the 1920s. He recounts one story that, although very much a product of its time, is particularly suggestive of our theme. A displaced Inuit girl in the eighteenth century had to be shown images of her original surroundings (seals, boats, huts) in order to recall her homeland. For a generation whose connection to the past is not mediated by recall but by imaginative investment, projection, and creation in the face of inaccessibility, a situation Marianne Hirsch termed ‘Postmemory’, images and descriptions of their family’s pre-war environment are crucial in allowing not for direct recollection, but for a powerful reconnection.
During childhood, there was often a particular instance where the Shoah, in the words of one of the interviewees, ‘smacked me in the face’. These moments of ‘awakening’, where the trauma of their parents’ past lives began to pass from the unconscious into the conscious, from the mythic to the concrete, were often triggered by external stimuli. Whether beamed into the home via the Television or encountered at school, these moments force a reckoning, where the stark realities of death and difference are first confronted. One interviewee described an experience in front of the television,
‘We got a TV when I was about 9 or 10. One time I was watching the TV with them, and there must have been a newsreel about the war, and it showed Belsen… My father immediately got up and said we don’t want to watch that, and turned it off. I can remember that feeling of horror, of course, and also feeling guilty because I thought actually, I did want to watch it, I wanted to know what was going on, and I also felt I couldn’t ask’.
Those who are born after calamity sense its most inward meaning first and have to work their way ‘outwards towards the facts’. What we are witnessing here is that initial urge to push outwards. This urge is conflicted and paradoxical and is often too painful and awkward to pursue within the home, often being shut down like the television is. Instead, members of the second generation often found ways of exploring their family history at ‘one remove’ by reading books, watching films, and getting involved in second-generation community groups which have existed in a major way since the 1990s (to name but a few paths). One interviewee who completed a PhD focused on previously unstudied Jewish communities in France told me,
‘It was a community that had completely disappeared… I never really put two things together, but… It was a way of learning about Judaism and Jewish life in another era, in another country, that wasn’t ‘dangerous’; it wasn’t to do with my own family story… So, in that way, I was, at one remove, satisfying a need to find out what it was like to be Jewish.'
Another interviewee told me that,
“Reading ‘Children of the Holocaust (Epstein 1979)’ was a bit of an eye-opener for me. I had never really realised it was a thing, a recognised thing, that children whose parents had survived the Holocaust would be affected. I mean, it sounds ridiculous. Obviously they would be, but… My experience is probably quite different to if I had grown up in a Jewish family…
I didn’t know anyone else whose parent had survived the Holocaust, reading ‘that’ I thought, wow, there’s so many other people out there who’ve had really similar experiences….”
As mentioned here, members of the second generation are all removed, to varying degrees, from their ancestral home, culture, and religion. Of the twelve people I interviewed, some had two Jewish parents and grew up in immigrant communities, some had one Jewish parent and grew up distanced from that side of their family. Some heard stories of their parent’s life back in mainland Europe, and some did not.
This ‘journey outwards towards the facts’ then was not only about mourning and closure but about reconnecting with a culture, religion, and part of the world that had been shrouded by the massive trauma of genocide. For many, like my mother, mainland Europe and Jewish culture seemed a long way from a Catholic upbringing in London. The past, however, inevitably flows alongside and seeps into the present, and as members of the ‘second generation’ grew up, they would confront a past that, although alien in many ways, was also deeply familiar. It was part of them, part of knowing themselves and of coming to terms with an often conflicted identity.
In reconnecting with their roots, almost all interviewees told me about physical ‘journeys home’. For one, these journeys consisted of ‘finding the Jewish quarter and getting a coffee there’, but for many others, trips back to Europe involved visiting their family’s pre-war homes, taking part in commemorative activities, and laying stones at their lost relative’s graves. As one participant eloquently put it,
‘It gives them life for their name to be said, it gives life for my grandmother to have a stone on her grave, it gives life for her to be on a family tree… for me to remember her’.
To borrow the language of Helen Epstein, these journeys allowed members of the second generation to manoeuvre, understand, and leverage open the ‘iron box’, ‘part tomb part bomb’, buried inside of them.
“The relatives there spoke incredibly openly, which was kind of weird to me because there’s this unwritten rule that you didn’t talk about it. They talked a huge amount about my grandfather and my great grandfather, they painted a picture of these people as real people because they’d never been real people, they’d always been like cardboard cut-outs….’
In most cases, this process of reflection, decoding and historical contextualisation led to an understanding of the Holocaust as a broader concern, a concern made more pressing by the passing of the generations. Many described involving themselves in social and political activism, and our conversations inevitably touched on the ‘far-right’ tendencies that seem to be infecting our political ecosystem. About half of the interviewees had taken things a step further and had created ‘external stimuli’ of their own in the form of books, songs, plays and petitions. We must consider here the linkage between the second generation’s desire to express themselves publicly and the increasing demand for Holocaust testimony within society more generally; within schools, museums, and on ‘Holocaust Memorial Day’ especially. As Halbwachs notes, ‘we appeal to our memory only in order to answer questions which others have asked us, or that we suppose they could have asked us.’ For the children of Holocaust survivors, questions about their entanglements with historical atrocity are never far away.
Although a diverse group in many ways, most of the contributors were drawn from the ‘active’ English speaking quarters of a much larger second-generation population… many of them, however, were not contacted via networks but through more random means ‘parents of friends etc.’ so about half of my interviewees were not particularly preoccupied by the Shoah.
Returning to Hoffman once more, she mentions Freud’s essay, ‘Mourning and Melancholia’. In this work, Freud suggests that in order to complete the natural process of mourning, to grieve and then move on, you must know what you have lost. This is the condition in which the second generation, and to a lesser extent, the third, find themselves. The descendants of the Shoah crave to understand what they have lost. External stimuli are key in this process, transforming shards of information and glimpses at another world into a past that can be remembered, learnt from, and mourned for.
Epstein, Helen. Children of the Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors. New York: Penguin Books, 1988 – originally published 1979, G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Halbwachs, Maurice, On Collective Memory. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1992.Originally published 1952, Presses Universitaires de Frane, Paris
Hirsh, Marianne. “The Generation of Postmemory.” Poetics Today 29, no.1 (2008): 103-128. https://doi.org/10.1215/03335372-2007-019.
Hoffman, Eva. After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Legacy of the Holocaust. London: Secker and Warburg, 2004.
Tom Willett is working towards his MA in public history at the University of York. The place of the past in our everyday lives is very broad but central interest. At present, Tom is looking at the town of Lewes, East Sussex, and its striking Bonfire Night tradition.