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Transmission of Trauma: Legacies of the Holocaust

Posted by: Julia Eichelberger | May 28, 2019 | No Comment |

Lucas Wilson wrote this post about research he did in Charleston this semester. He is a Ph.D. Candidate in Comparative Studies, Florida Atlantic University.

I spent a week in Charleston as a Charleston Research Fellow this past February. It was my second time as a fellow through the College of Charleston’s Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture. The first time I was in attendance in 2017, I explored archival holdings that pertained to the lived experiences of children of Holocaust survivors known as the “second generation.” The archive contained newspaper articles, op-ed write-ups, pamphlets, and other materials that detailed what it was like to grow up with survivors. I found much that spoke to how these members of the second-generation saw their parents, especially in relation to how they saw themselves; how they negotiated their parents’ pasts in their own lives; and how they lived with inherited traumas and embodied knowledges that stemmed from their parents’ experiences during the Holocaust. I was particularly interested in how these members of the second-generation spoke about and described their childhood domestic lives, how they inhabited homes that were marked by their parents’ Holocaust legacies. I wanted to know how sharing intimate space and time within the home assisted in the transmission of intergenerational traumatic knowledge. My first time as a fellow allowed me to wade through a rich body of ephemera and documentation that detailed these above-mentioned themes, facilitating an interdisciplinary approach to my work on second-generation Holocaust oral history and literature.

As a fellow this spring 2019, I was in Charleston not to go through the archives again. Instead, I came to help build an oral history archive. I was tasked with conducting eight oral histories with a number of second- and third-generation witnesses, six with women and two with men. Some of the narrators (the official name of those being interviewed) were siblings. Some were from Charleston. Some were from elsewhere. Two women were former school teachers. One woman was a physiotherapist. One man was an archivist and an award-winning historian. One man was a doctor. One woman used to own her own restaurant. One woman was a lawyer. And one woman was an artist.

Each individual I interviewed expressed a different understanding of how the Holocaust continues to impinge upon the present, be it in their own lives and/or the lives of other family members. As I was expecting, the narrators of these oral histories described a wide range of life experiences. My research demonstrates how members of the second generation (and the third generation, to be sure) are a vast, complex, and diverse group of individuals who share many characteristics but also are quite divergent in their relationship to the Holocaust. Some are seemingly unaffected by their parents’ pasts, whereas others are continually forced to grapple with (and are traumatized by) the burden of what their mothers and fathers went through leading up to, during, and after the Shoah. However, despite their many differences and despite their varied career paths, that which united them was their parents’ Holocaust pasts and their own engagement with social justice issues.

I was particularly struck by two of the women whom I interviewed, two women who were sisters and whose mother was a child survivor. They were both sharp, articulate, engaging, and each had a strong sense of humor. They were both college-educated, and each had families of her own. Although they shared much—particularly their emphasis on family, helping others, and a keen sense of empathy—they were also emphatically different in how they approached the knowledge of their mother’s past.

One sister—a physiotherapist and a mother—was afflicted by panic attacks since she was a child. These panic attacks have lessened as time has gone on, but she told me that she still wakes up from night terrors and is never sure when they will overtake her. As a child, when she would have one of her panic attacks, she would sprint as fast as she could and would not stop until the sense of panic had lessened. She was also one who did her best not to think about the Holocaust. This is not to say that she has not in some ways engaged with her mother’s past (for she emphatically has), but it is to say that she disengaged and tried her best to separate herself from having to hear about the Shoah, particularly through film, books, and other media. Such an active disassociation and refusal to engage was and is an act of self-protection. When children are inundated with stories that instill a great amount of fear, they naturally do their best to remove themselves from the situation and keep themselves (psychologically) safe. When I spoke with this narrator about how she would sprint when she felt panicked, I thought about how her sprinting away could be a way of trying to run, figuratively and literally, from that which was haunting her. Such a somatic response is of course very much an externalization of the inner emotional/psychological turmoil that has commonly plagued children of Holocaust survivors.

The other sister—a former restaurant owner and also a mother—diverged significantly from her sister in how she dealt with their mother’s Holocaust past. She was the historian, so to speak, of the family. She was very much engaged with keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive, and she was in the process of writing her own memoir that detailed both her mother’s story and her own. Unlike her sister, she read books on the Holocaust and watched Holocaust films. Through her active grappling with Holocaust memory and history, this sister was seemingly trying to make sense of not only her mother’s past but her own life as well—which makes sense because for the second generation, the Holocaust is personal. And though these individuals were not alive during the Shoah, the Holocaust continues to impinge upon them and impact their lives in ways that seem, almost, as if they were.

As I asked these two women about their childhood homes, I was again struck by how different two individuals raised by the same survivor can respond so differently. As I said above, I am interested in how members of the second generation describe their childhood homes, and when I asked these sisters to describe theirs, their descriptions underscored again how differently they respond to the Holocaust. When I asked the first sister who actively disengaged with the knowledge of the Holocaust to describe her childhood home, she did not once actually mention the inside of her home. She described playing outside, traveling, hanging out at other friends’ houses, but she never once described the interior of the home. The sister who actively engaged with the Holocaust, on the other hand, offered a detailed description of the house in which she grew up. These divergent descriptions reflect how the first sister disassociated herself from the intimate space of the home, a space that is defined for her by her mother’s sadness that stemmed from the Holocaust. The other sister, the one who consistently confronted her inherited trauma, was contrastingly more than willing to describe her home and the sadness therein. These descriptions, again, reflect how the children of Holocaust survivors relate to their parents and their parents’ traumas.

My time in Charleston this spring was fruitful, as it was my first time around, and the oral histories I conducted offered me powerful insights into the transmission of traumatic knowledge from one generation to the next. These oral histories will reside in the Jewish Heritage Oral History Archives and will be made publicly available through Addlestone Library’s Lowcountry Digital Library. Once they are posted, I encourage all to listen to these first-person accounts of the lived experiences of the extraordinary men and women I was fortunate to interview.

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