ONCE UPON A TIME
Ruth Franklin misrepresents the artistic writings of children of Holocaust survivors and trivializes the entire experience of having parents who so narrowly escaped genocide ("Identity Theft," May 31). Indeed, the authors Franklin denigrates have in common not only their artistic response to their legacy--varied and idiosyncratic as it is--but also the absurd, fortuitous miracle that their parents survived the Holocaust when most everyone else of European Jewish heritage did not. That, in itself, distinguishes them as members of an exclusive club, entitled to a special voice when it comes to interpreting the post-Holocaust experience. Not Auschwitz, but its aftermath, is their domain. Their life lessons became the very special knowledge that life itself--and everything associated with it--can rapidly and mercilessly disappear. The fact is, children of Holocaust survivors are not the same as children of alcoholics or abuse. The comparison is insulting and stupid. Had the Nazis succeeded, these writers would never have been born. If the Holocaust was indeed unique, which almost everyone recognizes it was, then the offspring of its survivors must have experienced something that was unique as well. And that singularity can give rise to art--sometimes great, sometimes mediocre--but legitimate art nonetheless. There is no "theft" in such inevitability of creation. All artists have been inspired by the households in which they were raised. The identity that belongs to children of Holocaust survivors--the very basis for their common experience--has not been stolen. It is theirs alone.
Franklin attacks one writer in particular, attributing his style and motivations to those of every other writer of the second generation. I, too, was lumped into this rebuke based on a single short story that she misrepresented. Obviously, however, Franklin had not read my stories, novels, and essays--nor was she apparently aware of the public positions I have taken on Holocaust art and memory--before writing her essay. It is simply untrue that I have elevated my own personal suffering (which I have never professed anyway) beyond that of my parents or of any other survivor. Moreover, Franklin's essay disingenuously discounts whether the second generation even exists. She mockingly questions whether there is any research or literature to authenticate the claim. Yet, many highly credentialed psychologists have written widely on the subject. So, too, have literary critics. There are over 100 doctoral dissertations testifying to the very phenomenon that Franklin so imperiously and casually dismisses. To dispute the literary merits of the second generation is legitimate, but to deny its existence or to question its source material is to become a strange stepchild of Holocaust denial. The art created by the second generation is not based on trauma or even testimony, but rather is a genuine expression of mourning--the deep, unfulfilled longing to comprehend the unknowable and to repair what can't be fixed. In the absence of graves, these children have produced an entirely different kind of grieving ground. Nobody would want what it is that Franklin has accused us of taking away.
New York, New York
Ruth Franklin points out the regrettable tendency of some in the second generation to "elevate their own childhood traumas above and even beyond the sufferings of their parents." This should not, however, obscure the fact that being born into a survivor family comes with heavy psychological demands. I grew up in this milieu. As a child, it was almost impossible to escape exposure, impact, and, yes, some trauma, no matter how much my family tried to shield me from the horrors of the recent past. The same was true for my second-generation friends. The inner, inextinguishable pain of parents and other loved ones who survived the war couldn't be hidden from those born after.
The notion that evil people sought to inflict suffering on one's parents evoked very strong feelings. Some parents had nightmares and woke up the children with their terrified screams. Some children knew the names of murdered relatives. Many families were dispersed among several countries, with huge gaping holes of murdered grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins. There were endless debates about whether it was permissible to speak German after the war. German-made products were boycotted. The existence of God was constantly called into question. Almost every country in Europe was seen through the prism of its wartime behavior. Many were judged wanting and, therefore, untrustworthy, off-limits, and eternally condemned. Given the starvation that parents endured, meals could be complicated if children left food uneaten. The list goes on and on, all of it far from easy for a youngster of any age to grapple with.
True, we the children, are not "primary in this dark story." But we share a real consciousness--not a "false consciousness" based on vicarious experience, as Franklin suggests. This positive consciousness of the Holocaust is translated in many cases into action, not merely into self-reflection. The second generation is disproportionately represented among the activists and leaders in Jewish life, both here and in Israel. The knowledge, emotional freight, and responsibility carried by the children is hardly negligible, especially as aging survivors seek to ensure that their history will not be forgotten after their deaths.
David A. Harris
Executive Director American Jewish Committee
New York, New York
RUTH FRANKLIN RESPONDS:
My article did not lump all writers who are children of Holocaust survivors into a single group: I named several, among them Art Spiegelman and Carl Friedman, who portray the peculiar tensions of the "survivor family," as David A. Harris aptly calls it, with sensitivity and profundity. Nevertheless, one of the books I reviewed was an anthology, edited by Melvin Jules Bukiet (the unnamed writer to whom Thane Rosenbaum refers), of second-generation literature, in which most of the writers I discussed appeared. If Rosenbaum did not want to be associated with Bukiet, he should not have allowed his story to appear in the book. (Incidentally, Rosenbaum's suggestion that I am unfamiliar with his work is disingenuous: This constitutes our third public dialogue on topics relating to Jewish literature and culture.)
But Rosenbaum in fact agrees with Bukiet's central claim: As he states here, the children of Holocaust survivors belong to "an exclusive club" and are "entitled to a special voice" regarding "the post-Holocaust experience." "Had the Nazis succeeded, these writers would never have been born," he writes. This is typical of the single-mindedness that my piece criticized: In their relentless trumpeting of their own grievances, these writers have become unforgivably distracted from the true sufferers of the Nazis' persecution. This is not to deny that there is something uniquely strange and painful about being the child of a Holocaust survivor, which Harris's anecdotes amply demonstrate. It also is not to deny the Holocaust itself--a comparison that is outrageous and insulting. But, coming from a writer who used the phrase "second-hand smoke" apparently without irony as the title for a novel about a survivor family, such lack of nuance is hardly surprising.
This article originally ran in the July 26, 2004, issue of the magazine.