By Arlene Stein
If talk of the Holocaust was in the air when I was growing up in the 1970s I was barely aware of it, even in New York City which was home to a large Jewish population, many of whom were Holocaust survivors. We did not learn about the Holocaust in school, even in lessons about World War II, or about the waves of immigration to America’s shores. There was barely a category of experience called “the Holocaust.” The genocide of European Jewry was generally subsumed under talk of “the war.” A patchwork memorial culture was forming, but it was modest, somber, locally-based, and generally not seen as relevant to non-Jewish Americans. In encounters with family and neighbors in the early postwar years, survivors often felt misunderstood, unrecognized, and even shamed.
Today, in contrast, the genocide of European Jewry is a frequent subject of Hollywood films and part of US high school curricula. Our losses are much less private; now they have a name and a hulking museum in our nation’s capital. Few in the West would deny that remembering the Holocaust is one of our responsibilities as human citizens.
A number of historians have shown how American Jewish organizations gradually came to recognize the Holocaust and call for its public commemoration. But what of the efforts of survivors and their children? Paradoxically, they have been left out of such histories.
Interviews with survivors and descendants, and my own experiences, suggest that children of survivors were instrumental in bringing Holocaust stories into the public sphere. For decades after the war, few survivors talked openly about what they had endured, fearing that others did not want to hear, and trying to protect their children. That changed in the 1970s, when their children moved into adulthood. Influenced by feminism, the ethnic revival, and therapeutic culture, they began to probe their parents’ pasts, bringing their private stories of trauma into public view. In families where so many ghosts shared the dinner table, this was exceedingly difficult to do. Building a Holocaust memorial culture entailed a great deal of work: emotional, material, and political.
But even today, in the midst of a robust memorial culture, the Holocaust remains forbidden territory. We distance ourselves from it, bathing it in Hollywood homilies to the power of human kindness. We draw boundaries around it, housing it in concrete structures, hoping to contain it. A sense of fatigue seems to be setting in: many Jewish Americans yearn to be an ethnic and religious group defined by foods and ritual customs, rather than by pain and suffering.
A number of years ago, I sat in Carnegie Hall listening to the Klezmatics meld the music of the shtetl with contemporary folk. They had performed a song in Yiddish that spoke of the genocide in a small Polish town. As one of the performers translated the lyrics for the audience, a man sitting in front of me turned to his wife and said facetiously, “Oh that’s very uplifting.” It jarred his sense of what is suitable to perform in public, and what constituted entertainment.
More and more, one hears ambivalence about the fact that the genocide has emerged as a core element of Jewish identity. Like other Americans, Jews wish to move on from traumatic pasts. As sociologist Nancy Berns writes: “Closure offers order and predictability instead of ambiguity and uncertainty.” It allows us to “get on with our lives” and resume expectations of productivity and forward trajectories.
The permanent association of Jewish identity with victimization is highly problematic, to be sure. Jews, particularly in the United States, are no longer collectively powerless, even if they consistently perceive anti-Semitism to be more endemic to American society than public opinion polls say it is.
For much of the world the continued strife in the Middle East and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories captured in 1967 diminishes Jewish claims to moral authority and sympathy on the basis of past suffering. So do specious Holocaust analogies, such the recent claim by private equity titan Stephen A. Schwartzman that asking financiers to pay taxes at the same rate as those who work for a living is comparable to Hitler’s invasion of Poland.
Still, those who say that the past is behind us and that we need to move on fail to appreciate what a hard-won accomplishment Holocaust consciousness was, how much resistance those who tried to speak openly about the genocide often encountered during the first decades after World War II, and how important it has been for survivors and their children to finally be able to share their stories. In this light, the call for Jews to stop talking so much about their tragic past may be awfully premature.
Arlene Stein is Professor of Sociology at Rutgers and the author of Reluctant Witnesses: Survivors, Their Children, and the Rise of Holocaust Consciousness. Her writing has appeared in The Nation, The Forward, and Jacobin, among other publications.