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Reluctant WitnessesSurvivors, Their Children, and the Rise of Holocaust Consciousness$

Arlene Stein

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780199733583

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: August 2014

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199733583.001.0001

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(p.185) Appendix: Methodological Notes

(p.185) Appendix: Methodological Notes

Source:
Reluctant Witnesses
Publisher:
Oxford University Press

How can we study the lives of those who have survived a terrible history? As much as we might try to fix the object of such a study, it remains complex and elusive. When I met with him a few years ago, Menachem Rosensaft, a descendant of survivors who has long been a leader in Holocaust commemorative efforts and whose parents were leaders before him, admitted as much, cautioning against generalizing about survivors and their descendants. “The victims of the Holocaust, both the dead and the survivors, represented the entirety of European Jewry, from the orthodox to the assimilated, from the Zionist to the communist, the rich to the poor, ” he said. “They included the banker from Paris, and the rabbi and pickpocket from Warsaw, the Jewish mother from Krakow and the Jewish prostitute from Paris.” Because the Nazis did not differentiate between rich and poor, educated and uneducated, assimilated or not, he told me, the group of survivors is exceedingly diverse.

The same is true of children of survivors, Rosensaft insisted. “It’s a completely heterogeneous group that goes across the spectrum and in large measure we are a reflection of our parents and the upbringing we received from our parents, ” he said. “All we really have in common is the fact that our parents went through a particular historical experience, ” he cautioned. “But even there those who were in Auschwitz had a different way of relating a story than someone who was in the Bielski brigade, who survived in the forest, who again had a different experience than someone who was in hiding on a farm or who passed on Aryan papers.” Because of this, he said: “any generalization about these populations is dangerous.”

His comments gave me pause. And yet we sociologists are in the business of generalization; I’ve spent my career looking at how societies pattern human experience, and I was not yet ready to throw in the towel. But how, I wondered, could I possibly write a book about a group that encompasses (p.186) such a vast array of different people, and such divergent responses to trauma? Could generalizations suffice? The challenges have been daunting. This qualitative, interpretive study of survivors and their children, and the making of Holocaust consciousness, uses multiple research methods: participant observation, secondary analyses of archived interviews, interviews, content analyses of films and memoirs, and auto-ethnography. I began this project in an autobiographical vein, trying to figure out my relationship to a painful past; it became a sociological project somewhat later.

At the start of this project, I proceeded along two parallel tracks, excavating my family’s hidden past, and trying to understand the lives of descendants and what, if anything, they shared in common. At first this was a personal project; over time, it became more than that. When, for nearly a year beginning in 1997, I participated in an Internet listserv for children of survivors, I wondered, what did descendants of survivors discuss on the Internet? What, if anything did they have in common? Although mainly composed of North Americans, the discussion list drew some international participation, and was focused on a variety of issues facing descendants as they made sense of the continuing impact of the Holocaust legacy.

Forums such as these have become a common way for members of different victim groups, from survivors of child abuse to political violence, to mobilize in a relatively safe, accessible way. They are sites of communication among individuals with particular shared experiences, but also archives of memory as individuals have come to use new technologies to create virtual remembering communities. As a participant in this virtual community, I made a list of recurring themes that came up in discussions online. I rejoined the listserv seven years later, for six months during 2004, to see whether the concerns of participants had changed from the earlier period. (I can’t say that I fully embraced membership in the 2G identity. During my youth and early adulthood, I was too busy to dwell on painful aspects of my familial legacy, and had put that on hold. And yet, as a member of the baby boom cohort, and influenced by therapeutic currents moving through the culture via feminism, I believed it was important of confront one’s demons—and to do so collectively, if possible. Eventually, I became part of the wave of self-reflection that others had already embarked on.)

Eventually, I also became more interested in the lives of the survivor generation, too, and decided to consult survivors’ life histories as well. There are a number of archives of survivor testimonies in the United States, including the Fortunoff Archives at Yale University, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Oral History collection, and the Shoah Foundation Institute at the University of Southern California. (The latter now contains videotaped oral testimonies with nearly 52, 000 Holocaust survivors (p.187) and witnesses that were collected mainly in the second half of the 1990s.) Because of ease of access, and because I needed a collection of interviews that focused on survivors’ postwar lives, I consulted the Oral History collection of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC

In the 1990s, the museum conducted oral histories with 520 survivors, broadly defining them as persons who were victims of Nazi policy 1933–1945, including those who had escaped the war years in the Soviet Union. Of these, museum staff members and local journalists interviewed 105 individuals about their postwar lives. At the time of my research, the museum’s collection was among the most extensive archive of interviews focusing on survivors’ postwar lives, and particularly on the dynamics of the families they created. These oral histories were structured as a conversation between the survivor and the interviewer in which the interviewer tried to engage people in telling their story. While interviews were originally conducted on video, some subjects were chosen for audio interviews as well. The museum transcribed the interviews, and these transcripts average 80 typewritten pages each; from these I randomly selected 23 interviews to analyze.

From these interviews, we can gain considerable insight into survivors’ impressions of how family members, social workers, and others greeted them upon arrival in the United States, how they saw themselves in relation to these groups over time, and how they devised strategies of self- presentation in daily life, including with their children. Using a grounded theory approach, I made note of common, recurring themes that came up, and used these as the basis for my chapter outlines. I also tried, to the best of my capability, to capture the gestalt of the subject—to understand his or her wartime experiences in relation to the biography of a life that began before the war, and extended after it was over.

Because I had not conducted these interviews myself, and was dependent upon how the interviewers had structured the oral history, I could not probe to gain additional insights, or follow lines of inquiry they had opened up. Interviews tend to offer accounts of lives that accentuate consistency and suppress contradiction, and guard against painful feelings, such as anxiety or shame. These interviewees undoubtedly did so as well. While the relationship between interviewee and interviewer, and the bonds that are constructed between them, can be an important source of insight, I had little access to them. Much the same was true of the interviews with children of survivors completed by a group of Philadelphia psychologists in the 1990s, which I analyzed.

The Transcending Trauma Project, part of the Council of Relationships’ Research Department, conducted 100 in-depth life history interviews with children of survivors, along with 35 grandchildren, and non-survivor (p.188) spouses. These interviews were conducted by a team of psychologists, beginning in the early 1990s, who had a particular interest in communication patterns in Holocaust survivor households, and in patterns of “coping and adaptation.” Working within the framework of trauma but diverging from models that focus on pathology, their interviews focus on “the process of recovery” and on individuals’ adaptive, resilient responses.1

These interview subjects, gathered through a snowball sample, had at least one parent who survived the Holocaust, and at the time of interview they were generally in their thirties and forties. Approximately 60 percent of interviewees were female, 75 percent were born in the United States, and most were married at the time of the interview. They were based primarily in the Northeast, particularly in the Philadelphia area. From among these subjects, I randomly selected 27 life histories to focus on. I was interested in the ways descendants described how their parents communicated with them about their traumatic experiences, and how they conveyed knowledge of the past to them. Using a snowball sample, I also conducted an additional series of open-ended interviews with 15 children of survivors living in the New York City area, half of whom had been active in the “second generation” movement, and some of whom were recognizable leaders.

Rather than analyze these interviews as a succession of facts about an individual’s life, I was interested in the stories the tellers told about these events. What shape did their narrative take? To interpret the data, I read the transcripts of the testimonies, interviews, and virtual conversations repeatedly, categorizing the data and searching for evidence of analytically important themes, using ethnographic material to situate the life histories within a broader historical/cultural context. I also read numerous memoirs written by children of survivors, which are listed in the bibliography. I used a methodology similar to the one I first used in my earlier study of women’s sexual identities—simultaneously tracing the trajectory of one generational cohort alongside the movement and the culture that its members helped to create.

REFLEXIVITY AND INDIVIDUALITY

Autobiographical experience is a powerful source of sociological insight. Auto-ethnography, in sociologist Patricia Clough’s words, gives “a personal accounting of the location of the observer, ” which is typically disavowed in traditional social science writing. “It does so by making the ethnographer the subject-object of observation, exploring experience from the inside of the ethnographer’s life.”2 In telling the story of my family, to the extent that I was able to come to know it, I am also telling a story of knowledge (p.189) production, and reflecting on why excavating the past has been so important for many members of my cohort.

My family background also aided me in interpreting these archived interviews, and allowed me to better understand the gaps, the emotional register of the discussions, and the stories that were told between the lines. I have woven my own family’s story—captured though recollections, photos, and fragments—into this varied mix of data, using it to illustrate the larger trends I saw, and to situate myself as the author of this text. I tell my family’s story, focusing mainly on my father—through recollections, photos, and fragments—not necessarily because I believe that my own experiences are somehow representative of the population of descendants of survivors, but because they illustrate many of the themes that came up in other interviews I analyzed.

By tapping into my own experiential knowledge, I also hoped to disrupt some of the unspoken power dynamics of social science research, and to expand our notion of what counts as evidence. As a discipline, sociology remains committed to an objective notion of truth unencumbered by subjectivity. Because it examines the experience of tremendous suffering, a book about the Holocaust can never in my view be a dispassionate, disinterested analysis, and I question whether “value-free” social science is an effective route to understanding such an event and its impact on individual lives.

While individuals participate in collective meaning making, and are influenced by the social contexts in which they live, they are also unique individuals. In this project, while emphasizing collective patterns, I have tried to be attuned to the varied ways in which individuals respond to the same event or situation. While trauma imprints itself on individuals, for example, they do not react in uniform or predictable ways. Some are overcome by their losses, while others retain a sense of agency, exercising resilience.

For example, Nancy Chodorow describes the variability of families of survivors, who exhibit “a range from ebullient optimism and a claim that all is right with the world, to simple relief at having survived, to emotional frozenness and painful depression.” In some families, she writes, “there is silence and occlusion of a loss that is too painful to acknowledge. Other families, by contrast, rather than mourning their losses, celebrate survival and make cheerful, positive thinking a goal.”3

In my own research on the postwar lives of survivors, I, too, found considerable variation in how individuals coped with trauma. Some individuals strongly identified with their pasts, surrounding themselves with those who shared their experiences, and became willing spokespersons for the collectivity of survivors. At the opposite extreme were those who fled these kinds of identifications, distancing themselves from their pasts, some even (p.190) renouncing their Jewishness, or emphasizing their French nationality, for example. While some welcomed the newfound visibility of survivors in the 1980s, others felt deeply ambivalent about it—wondering why anyone would “air their dirty laundry.” Some questioned themselves whether they in fact were survivors, or even victims. Their identification with the dead, and their feelings of guilt for having survived when so many did not, made it difficult to see themselves as victims, too.

Descendants also varied in how they processed their traumatic inheritance, and how salient they made it in their lives. While culture and context clearly mediate how individuals experience trauma, individual experiences vary within the same cultural context, and even children growing up in the same family have different experiences. Within families, it was typical for one child to take a keen interest in their family history, and to become, in effect, the instigator of memory work, to see it as a kind of calling; other siblings often had little or no interest in such endeavors, and were at times quite uncomfortable with a sibling’s interest in them. Some actively participated in therapy groups made up of other children of survivors; others had little interest in participating in such efforts. Those who participated were more likely to be women, to have been influenced by feminism and by therapeutic discourse, and to be of Eastern European parentage, but these demographic characteristics did not, in the end, determine who did or didn’t participate; this was a much more individual question.

While there is a great deal of variability in individual experiences, and how individuals respond to those experiences, we should not overstate the capacity of the individual to stand apart from his or her environment. Burying oneself in one’s work and developing an extraordinary drive to succeed may look on the surface like evidence of resilience but can in fact be a different form of denial, a way of escaping one’s past rather than integrating it into one’s life. Cultural contexts place limits on individual variation, encouraging certain patterns of response, and discouraging others. So while how people will respond to a given event is ultimately highly variable, culture places limits on individual variation, encouraging certain patterns of response, and discouraging others. Ideally, we need to understand all of these dimensions—the cultural, the interpersonal, and the individual. My study focuses on the cultural and interpersonal dimensions.

LIMITS OF KNOWLEDGE

I have tried to the best of my ability to paint a picture that is accurate in its broadest outlines, which captures the patterns I observed. But like (p.191) all sociological studies, and indeed all studies, this is a partial rendering of reality. For example, my sample of survivors and descendants is certainly biased in favor of those for whom such identifications are salient. Descendants who participate in organized activities where they identify as a member of the “second generation, ” such as the listserv I participated in and observed, are but a small subset of the total number of children of survivors. This and other electronic communities draw people who may otherwise be too geographically dispersed, or not highly motivated enough, to participate in face-to-face discussions. But even people who participate in an online forum of this sort may not define themselves as part of a collectivity of children or descendants of Holocaust survivors. Moreover, if they do possess a shared identity, it may be fleeting, and not relevant to other areas of their lives. These caveats notwithstanding, the tenor of the online discussions suggested that most participants in them find them to be very personally meaningful.

A number of critics have cautioned against viewing archived survivor testimonies as being representative of the larger population of survivors.4 The survivor population is exceedingly diverse, coming from many countries, and possessing many different class backgrounds, ideologies, and life experiences. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum often recruited interviewees from among people with whom it had prior contact—survivor volunteers, for example, and people who contacted the museum to offer themselves as subjects. It also did some outreach through its survivors’ registry, targeting particular categories of persons who were under-represented among its interviewees—Greek Jews, for example. Generally, interviews were conducted in Washington, DC, and occasionally in New York; there were also a number of outreach efforts to other parts of the United States.

My study therefore over-represents survivors who settled in the mid-Atlantic United States, who were affiliated with Jewish and Holocaust-related organizations, and who had previously spoken about their wartime and postwar lives in non-family contexts. It under-sampled those who lacked any connection to organized Jewish communities, or who did not have children or grandchildren who coaxed them to speak. Those who had never before spoken about their wartime experiences to strangers were also less likely to be represented. Moreover, many, if not most, survivors refused to speak. My father, whose reticence to share his story infuses the narrative of this book, may be more representative of the population of survivors than those who do speak.

The sample is also biased against highly religious survivors, who were probably less inclined to offer their stories to secular institutions such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, or even to think of (p.192) Holocaust memory outside religious terms. Collectively, I would speculate that they would have an interpretation of events that lay outside the parameters of the story I am telling here. Women are also over-represented among survivors and descendants, for a number of reasons. In my random sample of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum interviews with survivors, over half of those interviewed were women, reflecting to a great extent the demographics of the postwar oral histories held by the museum. This gender disparity is greater among my random sample of individuals interviewed by the Transcending Trauma Project: about two-thirds are women, which mirrors the larger sample. The gender disparity is most pronounced in the discussion lists I studied, where more than three-quarters of all participants were women, and where women were by far the most active members in terms of frequency of posts. As I argue in this book, women are more likely to be memory workers, and are disproportionately represented among descendants who engage in excavation projects of the sort I documented in Chapter 5. They are also more likely to work in the helping professions and to be familiar with therapeutic discourse, which probably makes them more likely to participate in such memory practices.

Interpreting these interviews was at times highly challenging. Oral histories collected by archivists such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum encourage interviewees to plot their lives in terms of linear trajectories, downplaying the messiness and incoherence of lives. We know that when people talk about their lives, they actively frame their experience to suit their own needs, as well as the needs of the interviewer. In keeping with the tendency to value biographical consistency, they tend to downplay ambiguity and flux. To a great extent, survivors’ stories were all about ambiguity, flux, and uncertainty. Yet the structure of the interview often emphasizes such narratives’ linearity. The nature of the interview process leads individuals to “recast the past, ” telling their story in light of the present.

Moreover, archived interviews give the researcher access to only one side of an interaction: the survivor’s story. Discerning the context of the interaction requires one to analyze “around” interviews, and to be conscious of emotional exchanges and facial expressions. Since I was mainly analyzing written transcripts of interviews conducted by others, this was very difficult to do. It is for that reason that I decided to conduct a number of interviews of my own, to supplement the archived interviews. Moreover, interviews are snapshots of a moment in time: they are as much about the present as the past. Ideally, if I had had the time, I would have built an ongoing relationship with the interview subject, interviewing him or her at different points, again and again—a difficult, time-consuming task, (p.193) particularly as many of the interviewees I’ve written about are now at the end of their lives, or are deceased.

As one can imagine, listening to the stories of survivors of genocide entails a great deal of emotional labor. This may be particularly true for someone whose own biography is so deeply implicated in that history. This is hardly a set of “data” from which I can easily distance myself, and I encountered considerable emotional challenges in writing this book. Particularly at the beginning of the research process, before I had become acclimated to reading, speaking, and thinking about the Holocaust, when much of this material was still new to me, I found myself overcome with emotion at times. Over the course of the many years I spent reading and analyzing the transcripts of Holocaust survivors and their descendants, I was able to (partially) “work through” my relationship to this traumatic past, and to develop a clearer analytic distance. Writing this book also allowed me to develop a great deal more empathy with my parents, particularly my father. When I began this book, I hardly knew the details of his history. By the end, I had developed a much greater understanding of the sources of his pain—and his resilience, too.

Janet Jacobs has written of the problem of “double vision”: of having a personal connection to one’s research subjects, while maintaining the distance needed to analyze social science “data.” As a Jewish woman studying Holocaust memory, Jacobs describes herself as “both a witness to crimes against humanity and an ethnographic observer in search of qualitative data, ” echoing earlier discussions of the tension between a feminist ethnographer’s dual roles as participant and observer.5 Jacobs struggled with her deep emotional connection with her subjects, and her engagement in so-called “value-free” social science research. Although I have never considered myself a neutral observer, and have always had deep personal investments in the subjects I have chosen to study, the study of something as personal and overwhelming as the legacy of genocide, particularly one that was so formative in my own life, posed new challenges, eliciting inevitable sadness and loss, but also the possibility of working through those losses.

In many respects, this has been the most difficult project I have ever undertaken. Particularly at the beginning, writing and reading about mass trauma that was both close and far from my own life elicited feelings of sorrow and pain. While I have not “gotten beyond” and banished feelings of loss, or have achieved “closure”—if that were even possible—by writing this book I have found a way to acknowledge these feelings of loss and to weave them into the story of my life and my family. I have also, I hope, told a larger story that will be useful to others, about the enduring presence of difficult pasts.

(p.194) Finally, I also encountered ethical dilemmas around issues of privacy and risk, particularly when it came to deciding whether or not to identify the survivors by name.6 Sociological convention calls for researchers to protect the anonymity of their research subjects by assigning them pseudonyms. But many of these individuals, who had never before spoken publicly about their experiences, were developing a sense of agency and dignity, and reconstructing a sense of self through acts of storytelling. If I disguised their names, and disconnected their stories from their person, was I silencing them once again? Was I, in effect, wiping out their identities, at least metaphorically, and failing to portray them as complete humans?

I decided to use to the actual names of my survivor respondents, having been granted permission to do so by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Oral History collection; many of the oral histories are now available online, and individual subjects can therefore be easily identified. To protect individuals’ privacy, and to comply with the wishes of the Transcending Trauma Project, I assigned pseudonyms to descendants. For the 15 interviews with children of survivors that I conducted myself, I used the real names of public figures, and asked others whether they wished to be identified by their real names. If I could not locate them, I assigned them pseudonyms. To protect the identities of participants on second generation listservs, I refer to individuals by first names, although many of these first names have been changed.

Interviewees

Survivors

Survivors

Year interviewed

Year of birth

Country of origin

Esther Adler

1992

1924

Germany

Harry Alexander

1992

1921

Germany

Erwin Baum

1994

1926

Warsaw

Thomas Blatt

1983

1927

Poland

Thomas Buergenthal

2001

1934

Czechoslovakia

Aron Derman

1997

1922

Poland

Lisa Derman

1997

1926

Poland

Eva Edmands

1990

1929

Austria

Florence Eisen

1994

1928

Poland

Barbara Farkas

1990

1920

Romania

Nesse Godin

1995

1928

Lithuania

Rene Goldberg*

1994

1928

Czechoslovakia

Sylvia Green

1999

1924

Germany

Irene Hizme

1992

1937

Czechoslovakia

Lucine Horn

1994

1926

Poland

Anna Kleinhaus

1990

1936

Belgium

Dorianne Kurz

1990

1936

Austria

William Loew

1995

1925

Poland

Lily Margules

1990

1924

Lithuania

Edwarda Rorat

1994

1935

Poland

Laura Simon

1993

1928

Hungary

Daniel Simon

1993

1927

Hungary

Rene Slotkin

1992

1937

Czechoslovakia

Bella Tovey

1992

1926

Poland

(*) Conducted by the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center, Miami, accessed through U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. All others held in Oral History Collection of U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

(p.195) Descendants

Descendants

Year interviewed

Year of birth

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Oral History Collection:

Esther Dezube

2000

Transcending Trauma Project (listed by pseudonym):

Ann Bander

1995

1956

Theo Berg

1995

1948

Stanley Glassberg

1996

1951

Renee Grinspan

1995

1964

Sally Gross

1996

1955

David Halbert

1995

1967

Jennifer Holland

1996

1955

Janet Horwath

1994

1958

Jodi Kahn

1999

1953

Jesse Klapholz

1998

1954

Lisa Kramer

1999

1974

Melody Landsman

1995

1949

Joan Loeb

1994

1952

Jesse Klaman

1998

1954

Sandra Malkin

1994

1952

Sharon Miller

1994

1951

Sarah Moen

1994

1958

Pam Neuborne

1994

1950

Laura Pfeffer

1996

1955

Isaac Rosen

1996

1947

Julie Schwartzman

1999

1951

William Simon

1994

1967

Barbara Samuels

1996

1953

Susan Stern

1994

1958

Ron Solomon

1994

1943

Eve Stiller

1996

1947

Jonathan Keller

1996

1950

Author Interviews (*pseudonym)

Harvey Brint*

2004

1953

Martin Fellner

2004

1959

Eva Fogelman

2004

Jeanette Friedman

2004

1947

Sandi Goodman

2004

1956

Sylvia Hennig*

2003

1957

Janet Hollander*

2003

1950

Jack Jacobs

2005

1953

Anita Norich

2008

1952

Dina Rosenfeld

2004

1949

Menachem Rosensaft

2009

1948

Alan Sadovnik

2004

1953

Andrew Shear

2005

1967

Mel Simon*

2006

1955

(p.196)

Notes:

(1) . Bea Hollander-Goldfein, Nancy Isserman, and Jennifer Goldenberg, eds., Transcending Trauma: Survival, Resilience, and Clinical Implications in Survivor Families (New York: Routledge, 2012), 3.

(2) . Patricia Clough, Autoaffection: Unconscious Thought in an Age of Teletechnology (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2000), 16.

(3) . Nancy Chodorow, “Born into a World at War: Listening for Affect and Personal Meaning, ” American Imago 59, no. 3 (2002), 307.

(4) . Douglas Greenberg, “Historical Memory of the Shoah: The Use of Survivor Testimony, ” conference on The Shoah and Mass Violence in the 20th Century, January 2008, Florence, Italy.

(5) . Janet Jacobs, “Women, Gender, and Memory: The Ethics of Feminist Ethnography in Holocaust Research, ” Gender and Society 18 (2004): 227

(6) . Rachel Einwohner, “Ethical Considerations on the Use of Archived Testimonies in Holocaust Research: Beyond the IRB Exemption, ” Qualitative Sociology 34 (2011): 415–430.