Over thirty years ago, critic Alfred Kazin, writing about the Holocaust, noted that ‘year by year these terrible events press themselves more tightly on our mind’ (1970). And indeed, the passage of time, nearly sixty years since the end of the war, has not reduced the flow of memories, evidences and fiction about the Holocaust but has increased it. The memory of the Holocaust has not faded; rather, no longer the sole purview of survivors, it has continued to resurface in the public arena. Indeed in Israel over the last two decades, the return to the past has evolved into a national obsession. Significantly, ‘Planet Auschwitz’ has assumed a principal position in the lives and identity of the Jewish people, both in Israel and the Diaspora. In fact, a 1999 survey published by the American Jewish committee reported that 98 percent of American Jews viewed the destruction of European Jewry to be a significant or very significant part of their identity.
In actuality, there is a collective feeling that this unprecedented catastrophe must be broached by art, and the Holocaust has become an integral staple of post-war literature, providing creative and cathartic fodder for artists wishing to decode and depict what has been called the incomprehensible and the inexpressible. The feeling among Israeli writers is best summed up by Nathan Alterman, one of Israel’s greatest poets, who declared after the Eichmann trial that the Holocaust ‘is a basic powerful essence; its quality and image, the horror of its memories, are beyond life and beyond nature, an indelible part of the quality and image of the nation to which we belong’ (Holtzman, 1992: 24). This is echoed by the writer Yehudit Hendel’s sentiment that ‘to the end of time it is forbidden to stop talking about it and telling it again and again, and if it is spoken about for a thousand years and recounted for a thousand years, still not everything will be told’ (Holtzman, 1992: 24).
Second Generation Holocaust Literature
One of the most interesting and important developments in the post-Holocaust era is the emergence of a unique and fascinating genre of novels, short stories and poetry that may be labelled ‘second generation’ or ‘secondary Holocaust literature’. Over the last two decades there has been a cluster of writers, children of Holocaust survivors and their contemporaries, who have been at the forefront of producing a variegated and rich cannon of literature which tells their parents’ stories and their own (Sicher: 1998). What links these writers is the fact that most were born in the 1950s, 1960s and even the 1970s, that they belong to the second generation and are not necessarily children of survivors. This unique genre of novels and poems ‘opens a new window of awareness concerning the possibility of working through the cultural, psychic and theological trauma of the European catastrophe … What these and other second-generation works share is their search for a way of bearing witness to the Holocaust and to their authors’ own identity’ (Berger, 1996: 85-86). Committed to bringing to light their terrors and to testifying on behalf of their parents, children of Holocaust survivors have produced a diverse genre of art that seeks to depict their own reflections of their parents’ ongoing survival and struggle to fashion Holocaust memory. In other words, the primary aim of the second generation is to confront their onerous legacy while at the same time transforming their heritage into writings that morally mend or improve the world. Saul Friedlander, in considering the redemptive and healing aspects of Holocaust fiction contends, ‘There is a growing sensitivity to literature and art. The voices of the second generation are as powerful as the best work produced by contemporaries of the Nazi epoch. This sensitivity is not limited to the community of victims’ (1992: 263).
This new genre is a direct consequence of the terror that the Third Reich wrote into its authors’ personal narratives before they were even born. As one author has remarked, it is a memory not just buried deep inside the psyche, but coded into their very genes. With the inevitable demise of the war generation, the onerous burden of transmitting the pain has been passed on to those who were not there. Doubtless, this is a tall order, in an emotional and an artistic sense, for post Holocaust narratives need to imagine and re-create the direct experience of what they never experienced. Alan Berger, in his cogent and insightful book Children of Job: American Second Generation Witnesses to the Holocaust (1997) detects two distinct approaches to the psychological and cultural inheritance of the Holocaust among post-war authors. The first group, whom he terms ‘universalist’, aim for moral repair or improvement of the world, combating the various ventilations of racism and bias. The second group, the ‘particularists’, also strive for repair, but their mending is of the personal kind, struggling to find other forms of Judaism, seeking interfaith dialogue and exploring the issue of God’s silence.
Indeed, the growing outpouring of fictions by the second generation indicates that the young generation of artists wants to stare into what Lawrence Langer calls the permanent hole that the Holocaust opened in the ozone layer of history (1995). Putting aside diverse background and cultural difference, the post Holocaust generation is marked with a psychic imprint of their parents’ trauma which compels them to remember an event they did not live through, and thus accept the duty of not only shouldering the hovering weight of collective memory, but also of maintaining it. This transgenerational transmission of memory can be categorised as absent memory, or as non-memory, for it is composed of blanks and silence typical of a survivor home where fragmented stories, characterised by chronological holes, old photographs and non verbal communication, have seeped into their psyche. As a result, members of the post Holocaust generation who were scarred by the dark images and unspoken anxieties projected by their parents, found that those traumas persistently encroached on their present day existence. Thus, it is this transferral of the survivors’ syndrome onto their inheritors, and the subsequent internalising and absorbing of those terrifying stories, that furnish the second generation artist with the thematic raw material which they weave into a telling of their own. James E. Young nicely sums up this conundrum: ‘How is a post-Holocaust generation of artists supposed “to remember” events they never experienced directly … This post-war generation, after all, cannot remember the Holocaust as it actually occurred. All they remember, all they know of the Holocaust, is what the victims have passed down to them in their diaries, what the survivors have remembered to them in the memoirs’ (2002: 71).
One of the pioneers in the field of Holocaust psychoanalytical studies is Dinah Wardi, (1992) who coined the term ‘memorial candles’ to describe the role children of Holocaust survivors are invested with by their parents. Wardi was one of the first Israeli psychotherapists who used group therapy in her treatment of the second generation. Her seminal book Memorial Candles explains how the Holocaust imprints its own stamp on the second generation, unloading its victims’ load onto the shoulders of their offspring and creating an index of feelings including guilt, excessive anxiety, fear of separation and lack of independence (Wardi, 1992: 27-47). It was no accident, Wardi asserts, that those children suffered psychological disturbances, exhibiting symptoms that mirrored their parents’ pathology. The children of survivors did not pick up this heavy box of transferred traumas and anxieties – it was placed there (Bar- On, 1995; Kogan, 1995; Bergmann & Jucovy, 1982). Crucially, the emotional burden placed on the children stemmed from the role they were assigned by the generation of 1946. The babies born after the war were seen as the light that pierced the darkness and were designated the part of filling the terrible emptiness permeating their family’s life:
The existence, then, of second-generation writers as witness underscores the continuing presence of the Holocaust as an event that cannot be confined to the historical past. As Terence Des Pres has observed, ‘We live in the unrest of an aftermath’ (1976: 51). The simple knowledge that the Holocaust occurred creates in the second generation both trauma and a sense of obligation to remember the event that is somehow known, yet not experienced. Moreover, in the second generation, the Holocaust manifests a perfect tense and allows no refuge from its claim. What the second-generation works share is their search for a way of bearing witness to the Holocaust and to the authors’ own identity. Consequently, as stated earlier, these texts are not about the Holocaust per se, but rather constitute reflections of witnesses about their parent’s continuing survival and their own attempt to shape Holocaust memory. Unlike many survivors, whose initial silence allowed the world to assume that the Shoah ceased wounding in 1945, their children are committed to testifying on their behalf. The second generation confronts the enigma that the most important event in their lives occurred before they were born. This heritage leaves an indelible, if invisible imprint. The issue for the second generation is therefore not how to remember the Holocaust, but how to transform their legacy into memory and deeds that help move the world away from genocidal modes of thought. Second generation Holocaust texts can be termed ‘works of mourning and protest’, in that they reflect on the losses suffered by the Jewish people, and represent their authors’ attempt to confront pain, innocent suffering, and evil (Eckardt: 1993).
Writing ‘in the unrest of an aftermath’: a brief historical overview
There is little doubt that one of the most effective ways to provide access to what happened in Europe is through fiction. Stories and novels are the best avenues we have to enter lives that are not our own. The written word actualises the human experience of the Shoah with characters, setting and plots that emotionally and intellectually involve those who were not part of those terrors. True, no novel can solve the bleak puzzle of the Nazi deeds – Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel has said that the Holocaust begets more questions than answers. Yet, it is enough that art leads to some insights and paths of entry for people to think about the issues (Wiesel: 1988). The second generation of writers knows that the survivors are dying, and literature is still a place where we can hear their voices.
At this point it is instructive to provide a brief historical overview. For forty years after the Second World War the Israeli canonical corpus was greatly absorbed with state and nation building issues, as well as the fostering of a national mythos. But this focus was at the expense of marginal groups, including Holocaust survivors and their offspring. By and large, the writers who had set the tone in modern Israeli fiction wrote out of identification with the conventional trammeling rubric of the community. It is thus symptomatic that Israeli literature was besieged by the normalizing context of the mainstream terrain, which, while at times slashing away the goals of Zionism, in the main focused on the foundational issues of statehood and survival. The stories and novels of the ‘Generation of 1948’, those Israeli born writers who came of age after independence, centered on the Zionist pioneers and soldiers and their experience (Shaked, 2000; Balaban, 1995: 15-77; Halkin, 1970: 100-141). To be fair, some writers did criticize the military aspects of Zionism and delegetimised the Zionist enterprise, skeptical of its goals and objectives. Yet, Zionism served as the touchstone, the reflexive marker that monopolized the work of Israel’s best fiction writers and effaced all traces of ‘othernesses’. Although the ‘state generation’ authors, those who came of age in the 60s and 70s, argued that their works accentuated the human condition of the individual over the collective, a closer look reveals that they were never successful in cutting themselves off from the political sphere. In addition to adopting fierce public stances on a rainbow of issues, their fiction assumed a dual, analogical stand, in which relationships and characters were symbolic of the overriding national situation (Gover, 1994; Shaked, 1971).
Thus, in the early years of nationhood, Israeli culture, in the words of Yael Feldman, attempted ‘to assimilate the experience of the Shoah to its overall Zionist experience’ (Feldman, 223). Moreover, the majority of stories penned during that period focused exclusively on the heroic aspects, further succouring the widespread ethos of heroism. Indeed, Israeli culture attempted to provide its post-Shoah generation with comforting images of heroic partisans as part of its Zionist code that integrated the Shoah within its own emplotted representation. For years, therefore, the collectively shared, communal story of the Holocaust was that of the faceless mass of six million Jews, not of individuals who each had his or her own harrowing tale to narrate. The Shoah was compressed into the abstract number of six million, a generalising model shorn of distinct and individual narratives that continuously erased the fragmentary nature of the atrocities (Segev, 1993; Hass, 1995).
However, this paradigm changed in the 1980s. The deep change that saw Israeli society become less ideologically motivated and driven, signaled a move away from an identity constructed by a national collective myth towards a multiplicity of narratives situated in many zones and peoples. A greater openness by the mainstream towards artistic genres earlier sidelined to the margins has resulted in a further proliferation and crowding of Israeli literature, moving the margins to the center (Yudkin: 1984). In different ways, the principal direction of Israeli fiction in the mid 1980s and 1990s was a revolt against the traditions of the 60s, waged by young writers, battling for artistic and thematic independence from the preceding generation (Bartana, 1993: 41). By the mid eighties and early nineties, a phalanx of fresh writers had gained prominence within the literary community. They were not exclusively interested in the national condition and were, to a great extent, disinclined to deal with ideological or political issues, preferring to foreground obscure, marginal aspects (Furstenberg, 1996: 48-50). Indeed, Israeli literature is now more conducive to the fostering of otherness, to the needs of the individual rather than the destiny of the nation. Rather than preaching and being messengers of cause, the generation of new writers is refashioning the stable notions of yore into a flux of fragmented identities. In response, the door has opened to a more pluralistic and personal style of writing that is no longer male or concerned with state and nation building issues. Instead, these new waves of fiction, unafraid to disengage from the Zionist superstructure and give expression to neglected landscapes, moved to centre stage, reflecting a more fragmented Israeli reality and identity.
One seminal group showcased within the literary world of contemporary Hebrew literature has been that of Holocaust survivors, an often-tainted minority whose voice has been projected with great resonance onto the literary scene. Standing apart from native Israelis, who viewed most Jews as passive weaklings going to their death ‘like sheep to the slaughter’, and thus in sharp contrast to the core myth of the heroic Sabra (native Israeli), their visibility in fiction was almost non-existent (Weitz, 1995: 129-145). Yet, this binary opposition collapsed during the 1961 Eichmannn trial in which the survivors were urged to tell their stories to the world, bringing a significant change to the prevailing situation. And by virtue of this breach in silence, the new band of second-generation writers appeared. Born after the war, they overcame the dual moral obstacles of describing a reality they did not directly experience and making art of a subject that defies human comprehension.
The crumbling of the walls of silence in recent years can be also attributed, as Aharon Megged notes, to survivors overcoming the guilt and shame they felt for staying alive, and their willingness to talk to others about the cruelty and hellfire they endured (Megged 1998: 98). Additionally, this breaking of the silence owes much to the coming of age of the survivors’ children, whose writing cover issues facing those living with the aftermath of the Holocaust. Govrin elaborates on the sea change of the 80s and 90s:
Thus, the past two decades have witnessed the conspicuous surfacing of a poetical direction known as ‘bearing witness’ fiction (DeKoven Ezrahi, 1980; Mintz, 1984; Friedlander, 1992). Moreover, the much-derided portrait of the Diaspora as the locus of oppression, persecution and passivity is now being incorporated and accommodated into the arena of Israeli consciousness as a vital part of the country’s persona (Zerubabel: 1995). Today, the hallmark of the sharp thematic changes in Hebrew literature is the fusion of native and old world Jew, the hero and the victim – a true amalgam of the rich imaginative diversity exemplified in the canon. Cultural commentator Gurevitch maintains that:
Avner Holtzman notes that the one central direction the younger writers have adopted concentrates on
A number of the ‘bearing witness’ narratives respond to this recognition by engaging with the Holocaust not so much as the historical reality of the genocide, but rather as the psychological reality that overhangs their every move. In doing so, they remind us of the psychic difficulties of writing about the Holocaust. The piston engine of these works is not strictly towards ‘representation’ or ‘understanding’ of the ‘realities’ of the Holocaust, but rather an attempt to grapple with the psychological consequences of the Holocaust as they impact on the lives of young Israelis and Jews today (Morahg, 1997: 143-183). As a result, in many of the novels and short stories of the after-effects of the Holocaust, the historical distance of the second generation coincides with, if not requires, a heightened use of artistic imagination and media to construe the Holocaust memory. In both literary and visual art, the post Holocaust generation resists the convention of realism. Instead one finds some among post-Holocaust writers an affinity for fantastic realism and the blurring of conventional boundaries of genre (Morahg, 1997: 143-183; Bartana, 1989). These works are rooted in the metaphorical, propelled by the heroes’ interior journey of broken frames, as they separate themselves from the ‘here’ and ‘now’, and spiritually travel to foreign sites of scorched earth in search of relief. In place of mimetic Holocaust historiography, they dramatize emotional conflict, a battle that is waged exclusively within their characters’ soul and that pulls the reader into the midst of a personal Holocaust (Sicher, 1988: 19-88). Often, the employment of a psychiatrist as a medium for the protagonists to air their grievances and come to grips with loss and suffering looms large over the course of the narratives, accentuating the psychological nature and structure of the tale as well as the writers’ desire to work along the lower levels of consciousness in pouring forth the young protagonists’ torrent of agony.
The function of Memory
Dorit Peleg, the native born Israeli author of the spellbinding and imaginative Una, who is part of the great outpouring of second generation writing, admitted in an interview that all through her youth she continuously tried to ignore the inescapable truth that in one way or another, the Shoah had stamped itself indelibly on her psyche:
In not avoiding the pain of the past or participating in the process of collective repression, authors of the ‘after-generation’ remind all people of the function of memory. Importantly, the books are often dedicated to the writers’ parents (Nava Semel, Dorit Peleg) who are Holocaust survivors, further reinforcing the belief that although the present generation was not seared by the Nazi fire, they must imaginatively and unequivocally affirm the event’s bestiality. Much of the strength shimmering out of the texts is due principally in their ability to strikingly illustrate how the Shoah dramatically affects the post-war generation though they did not personally witness its death cycle.
It is not too much to say that there are those who believe that all artistic responses are inadequate. There are Holocaust purists who argue that any form of representation is unacceptable because it unavoidably falsifies and aestheticises (Steiner: 1979 Adorno: 1974). Still, the authors of the ‘bearing witness’ era refuse to respond with stunned silence to this century’s most horrific life-denying event. The second-generation texts make it clear that silence is no longer a suitable response to the terrifying kingdom of darkness. In various ways, the message is clear: fiction does encase within it’s midst a crucial role in facing the hideous 20th century bestiality that haunts our lives. Beyond the issues of silence and language, recognised early on by George Steiner and putting aside the debate of the appropriateness of fiction, identified by Adorno, Langer, Arendt, to name only a few, the second generation are determined to explore the ramifications of an event they had not lived through but which has dramatically shaped their lives. Authors such as David Grossman, Savyon Liebrecht, Yaacov Buchan, Lizi Doron and Itamar Levy, have taken on the difficult responsibility of making sure that people never forget, and to combat the ever spreading and disturbing Holocaust denial.
In this regard, it is useful to turn to eminent literary scholar Lawrence Langer who in Art from the Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology offers a blunt analysis of what constitutes outstanding literary responses to the Holocaust: ‘The best Holocaust literature gazes into the depths without flinching. If its pages are seared with the heat of a nether world where, unlike Dante’s, pain has no link to sin and hope, no bond with virtue, this is only to confirm the dismissal of safe props that such an encounter requires.’ (1995: 7). One of the chief tasks of second generation fiction is to inscribe, externalise and incorporate the Holocaust back into the shared national identity by providing the uninitiated reader with textual space to enter, both emotionally and intellectually this horrific realm, from which they were psychologically removed by the incapacitating impact of suppression. One may suggest that the second-generation writers understand, as Dominic LaCapra emphasizes, that
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