Jun 22 2009
Unspoken memories of Holocaust survivors find silent and non-pathological expression in the everyday lives of their families
Aspects of knowing about a parent’s or grandparent’s Holocaust experiences and traumas are transmitted to other members of the family through unspoken and sometimes unintentional behaviors in the home. This leads to a “knowledge” and presence of the Holocaust that, despite remaining unspoken, contributes to the life experiences and constitutes the personality of the person exposed to it.
This has been shown in a new ethnographic study carried out by an anthropologist at the University of Haifa and recently published in the peer-reviewed academic journal Current Anthropology. Dr. Carol Kidron of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Haifa interviewed fifty-five children of Holocaust survivors. The large majority revealed that their only knowledge of their parents’ Holocaust experiences were transmitted to them via silent, taken-for-granted everyday interpersonal interaction.
The children were able to get a sense of their parents’ experiences through the unspoken. One recalled hearing a parent’s nightly cries. Another remembered wondering about the numbers branded on a parent’s arm, and others described watching their parents reminiscing or looking through old photographs or memorabilia.
In contrast to previous and well-known psychological studies published so far, which have suggested that the children of Holocaust survivors suffer effects of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Dr. Kidron was able to conclude that 80 percent of the interviewees did not perceive themselves as suffering from such effects. Moreover, the “knowledge”, the silent day-to-day presence of Holocaust memories that the descendents of Holocaust survivors gleaned, sufficed: As children, they frequently felt no need to question their parents in depth. They had no desire to document their families’ Holocaust history. A prominent 95 percent of the interviewees assured that they were not interested in telling the story of their parents’ Holocaust experiences in the public domain, or their own. “By forming an experiential matrix, these silent traces maintain an intimate and nonpathological presence of the Holocaust death-world in the everyday life-world,” Dr. Kidron explained.
This study disputes the more common views that a survivor’s silence results in a damaged relationship with his or her children, or in the absence of an inter-generational Holocaust legacy transmitted to the second generation. It is precisely the presence of the Holocaust past in everyday silent interaction, rather than the vocal transmission of Holocaust testimony or history, that sustains and commemorates the genocidal past in the private familial domain. The accounts provided by the interviewees in this study “depict the dynamic, normative, and self-imposed silent presence of the Holocaust death-world interwoven with everyday life” and indicate that children’s relationships with their survivor parents were equally normative.
Dr. Kidron presented the above study, alongside her present extended comparative research on Cambodian Canadian children of survivors of the Cambodian genocide, at a conference hosted by the University of Haifa: “The Holocaust: Its traumatic and inter-generational effects in comparison to other persecutions and its reflection in the arts.”