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After Genocide: How Ordinary Jews Face the Holocaust

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2015 was the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War Two, and, for Jews, the seventieth anniversary of the end of the worst Jewish catastrophe in diaspora history. After Genocide considers how, more than two generations since the war, the events of the Holocaust continue to haunt Jewish people and the worldwide Jewish population, even where there was no immediate family connection. Drawing from interviews with "ordinary" Jews from across the age spectrum, After Genocide focuses on the complex psychological legacy of the Holocaust. Is it, as many think, a "collective trauma"? How is a community detached in space and time traumatised by an event which neither they nor their immediate ancestors experienced?"Ordinary" Jews' own words bring to life a narrative which looks at how commonly-recognised attributes of trauma - loss, anger, fear, guilt, shame - are integral to Jewish reactions to the Holocaust. Two chapters consider how these painful feelings shape two central questions: how the Jewish diaspora relates to Israel; and how a community traumatised however indirectly might free itself from the burden of a heavy past.After Genocide opens up a neglected dimension of the post-Holocaust legacy. Written for both lay and professional audiences, Jewish and wider, readers will see powerful feelings reflected and explored in ways which are moving and thought-provoking. In addressing the question of collective trauma, it will speak to other peoples with comparable histories. It is a book which many will want to read.

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Chapter One - “A Traumatised People”?

ePub

To speak of the Holocaust in one breath almost implicitly seems to involve the word “trauma” in the next. “Jews are”, said Caroline, “a traumatised people.” Sonia thinks that “we all suffer a collective trauma”, and for Louis it is also a matter of “a collective trauma”. Avigail Abarbanel, an Israeli-born psychotherapist, believes that it is “Jewish trauma [which] is behind the aggression of Zionist ideology, the colonisation of Palestine, the ethnic cleansing of 1948 and the way Israel has been treating the Palestinian people in the last 56 years” (Abarbanel, 2006). Abarbanel continues her line of thinking (although she does not specify what the “foundational myths” she refers to are), asserting that “Jewish foundational myths show very clearly that we, the Jews, have always been thinking and acting out of trauma.” Richard sees an historic and continuous Jewish trauma derived from the practice of circumcising tiny babies: an experience which, in his view, sensitises Jews to later traumas such as the Holocaust: “it's utterly traumatic, the child does not understand this.” Another interviewee completely refuted this idea. My interviews contained many references to trauma and, often, to a kind of trauma that was thought of as generic and shared. Post-Holocaust, a concept of common trauma seems to have become part of a Jewish vocabulary of self. But it is apparent from the brief quotations above that whilst Jews are interested in the idea of trauma as a Jewish experience, especially when related to the Holocaust, there isn't necessarily agreement on what it means or how it arises. Can we accurately speak of Jews who did not suffer the Holocaust as collectively traumatised by it? And if we are traumatised “by” it without having gone through it, how has this happened?

 

Chapter Two - “A Profound Sense of Loss”

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From a Jewish perspective, loss is inseparable from any discussion of the Holocaust. Invited, as we so often are these days through memorials, museums, and archive film, to contemplate the faces of those packed into ghettoes, deported, or simply shot; the carefully-displayed remnants of artefacts once produced by living communities; or the laboriously inscribed names of thousands of murdered Jews, as on the walls of the Pinkasova Synagogue in Prague; there is simply no escaping an equation of Nazi rule with loss—the loss of individuals, of whole families, communities, institutions, of virtually everything that formed the substance of Jewish life in much of Europe prior to 1939. From her particular experience of working intensively with Holocaust survivors, Diana observed that “it would be really weird if we didn't start crying”; and hers is simply one of many voices in which “ordinary” Jews speak of the oblique feelings of loss which thoughts of the Holocaust summon up:

In many respects, loss is not only an unavoidable material fact of the Holocaust, but a central component of our psychological relationship to it. Almost for this very reason, it is enormously complicated to explore, not least because the sense of loss and the losses themselves go in so many different directions. People become “lost for words” in trying to grapple with their confusion and sheer incomprehension as to “how it happened”. Those who know or have known survivors to any degree pick up on the almost inexpressible grief at lost families, lost friends, lost homes, lost pasts innocent of Holocaust experience, which those individuals carry throughout their lives. A Jewish colleague whose mother successfully escaped to Britain from Germany in the 1930s refers to her mother's unspoken anguish at the loss of her “German-ness”. Yiddish writer Kadya Molodowsky, whose 1946 book of poetry Der meylekh Dovid aleyn is geblibn was produced in the immediate knowledge of what had happened in Europe, thought of her book as “a tombstone for a life […] vanished”, a theme of painful finality echoed by many subsequent writers close in family connection or personal history to the geographies of the Holocaust (quoted in Valencia, 2006, p. 13).

 

Chapter Three - The Broken Contract

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“Anger”, Harry wrote to me, “[is] a constant.”

“There are so many feelings crowding in on each other, it is not easy to express them in words. However, the more I have thought about it, the more I have come to understand that my feelings of anger are a constant…Anger is always to the fore. I am angry that the Holocaust happened. I am angry that a group of amoral murderous thugs took upon themselves the decision who should live and who should die. I am angry that very few individuals and not a single nation came to our rescue. I am angry that we could not help ourselves. I am just angry.”

It is easy enough to understand why Jews should be angry about the Holocaust, but the feeling itself is not an easy one to have. Far from being an emotion easy to accept, anger's frequent association with aggression, violence, hatred, and destructiveness gives it disturbing and frightening qualities. Moreover, in the context of the Holocaust, the absence of an obvious target for one's rage complicates the bearing of this feeling immensely. Who is Harry to direct his anger at now? What can he hope for?

 

Chapter Four - “It's all very Frightening”

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Fear is an intrinsic part of the human condition, and is an emotive force essential for survival. Functionally, fear alerts us to the presence of danger and triggers the crucial primitive reactions of freezing, fighting, or fleeing. We need our adrenalin-fuelled alarm bells so as to take care of our own safety and the safety of those who matter to us. Not all dangers are the same, of course: some require split-second decisions, others allow time for more measured responses. Nevertheless, recognising the presence and significance of fear is key whenever danger threatens. In certain circumstances, acting on fear can literally be a lifesaver.

But fear can also be irrational, arising even when there is no visible threat. In certain conditions or situations, human beings are prone to feel and act as though at any moment danger was about to strike, even when objectively there is nothing to worry about. Deeply traumatised people commonly feel this way. Present events, whether personally experienced or not, whether dramatic or apparently innocuous, can trigger a disproportionate, even extreme, reaction. Such reactions, which to the puzzled outsider themselves may appear unsettling and scary, reflect the way in which terrifying experiences in someone's earlier life can be re-experienced as though still happening and still as dangerous. In such conditions a quite unconscious equation is made between what was and what is now. Lemma and Levy, for example, record how, on 11 September 2001, a psychotherapist working with traumatised patients in a London clinic encountered one patient who particularly exemplified the way in which past traumas can spill over into the present:

 

Chapter Five - Guilt—or Shame?

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In his last book, The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi soberly observed that, “that many, (including me) experienced ‘shame’, that is, a feeling of guilt during the imprisonment and afterwards is an ascertained fact confirmed by numerous testimonies. It may seem absurd, but it does exist” (Levi, 1989, p. 54).

Jewish “guilt” in relation to the Holocaust has always had a perverse irrationality about it. The very idea that any people should feel guilty for being victims of such a massive crime is, as Primo Levi observed, absurd. Yet it is well-established that amongst many survivors, deep feelings of guilt were paramount. In From Guilt to Shame Ruth Leys cites at least four of the most prominent survivor-writers, each of whom described unequivocally their terrible feelings of guilt at having survived when so many others died (Leys, 2007, pp. 4–5).1 Formulating the concept of “survivor guilt” was an early outcome of post-war efforts to deal clinically with traumatised survivors. For clinicians struggling to treat survivor-patients carrying such immense trauma, it was crucial to understand the dynamics involved in survivors’ guilt feelings; clinicians therefore drew on various psychoanalytic theories, most notably “identification with the aggressor”, in order to create some kind of coherent framework within which to approach treatment.2 However, Leys also points out that this particular theoretical formulation provoked powerful emotional and philosophical reactions in a wider audience. Not least was an almost outraged reaction by writers such as Lawrence Langer and Giorgio Agamben to the implication that victims of the camps could in any degree be considered complicit in what had happened there, given that they had been surviving against all odds in a reality that was ultimately utterly “incomprehensible and unredeemable” (ibid., p. 6).

 

Chapter Six - “So Conflicted”

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In the preceding chapters, I have been considering how trauma can be understood both as a personal and as a metanarrative amongst ordinary Jews contemplating the Holocaust. I have deconstructed trauma and looked at it through its clinically understood dimensions: for trauma is not “one thing” but is constituted by a multitude of experiences, feelings, and fantasies which interact with each other, giving rise in individuals to a complex, frequently indescribable, internal world for which the word “trauma” provides both a shorthand description and a starting point for exploring its living presence in someone's mind and soul. Although it cannot be assumed that the dimensions I have discussed fully represent trauma—as though it were ever possible fully to describe something which of its very nature is complex and subject to change—these dimensions have clinical validity. Trauma is, at least partly, composed from deeply painful loss; from anger that has no expectation of a constructive outcome; from fear, tied (often realistically) to an experience of helplessness, which together lock people into victim positions; from guilt as an unconscious attempted antidote to helplessness; and from shame, the earliest and most primitive form of self-abnegation. In various ways these aspects all emerged in the narratives of those whom I interviewed.

 

Chapter Seven - Held Captive?

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“The past does not change, nor our need for it. What must change is the way of telling.”

—Anne Michaels, The Winter Vault

Seventy years after the event, what do we do with the Holocaust?

Throughout this book I have posed the question not only of what constitutes “collective trauma”, but what it is that constitutes this particular Holocaust-derived “collective trauma” in the minds and experience of ordinary Jews. The term appears increasingly often in relation to all manner of catastrophes and atrocities past and recent but, especially when separated from a direct relationship to the original experience, the parameters of “collective” trauma remain elusive.

The question is not helped by intrinsic difficulties in definition. Like “community”, the very term “collective” is nebulous. For example, in respect of memory Novick (1999), drawing on Maurice Halbwachs (1992), writes about “collective memory”, but Avishai Margalit resists the term “collective”, preferring to talk instead of “shared” and “common” as distinct categories of memory. A “common” memory, Margalit says, is “an aggregate notion”: it aggregates the memories of all those who remember a certain episode experienced by each individually. A “shared” memory is not an aggregate of individual memories but is the process of distilling from a number of disparate individual memories into an overarching memory that can be narrated. In this process, everybody has a different perception of (therefore memory of) an event:

 

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