The New Generation of Holocaust Memoirs
As survivors die, their children and grandchildren are writing about how the Holocaust continues to reverberate
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I was first introduced to the monsters when I was very young. They were rarely spoken of and yet always present. As the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I felt trauma everywhere, as a sort of all-encompassing stardust. It was present in the way my grandfather asked about the weather, in the way my dad kept the house so clean that your lungs filled with bleach whenever you took a breath, in recipes, and routines. Still, I couldn’t quite ask my family for any details. And as long as my grandfather lived, I could barely get more than a few words out of him. His tales were brief and stifled by tears and an unfortunate, albeit intentional, lack of memory.
I’d have to find out about the monsters elsewhere, so I did. First, it was from Elie Wiesel, whose 1956 memoir Night forged a new literary genre. Since Wiesel recorded his story of survival and terror in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, the Holocaust memoir has been an important part of the literary canon as well as the American experience (Wiesel emigrated to the United States in 1955). A decade prior in Europe, similar accounts had been written by Italian chemist Primo Levi in Survival in Auschwitz and Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychologist, in Man’s Search for Meaning. These are first-person stories by men who survived the unimaginable, stories—as Levi would say—interwoven with freezing dawns.
Their memoirs are not only about their own experiences but about those whose experiences can never really be known. “For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty to bear witness for the dead and for the living…to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time,” wrote Wiesel. What he posits is essentially the need for storytellers.
As a generation of survivors continues to disappear, those left to tell their stories are children, or grandchildren like me, who grew up in the shadow of their family’s traumas, entrenched in secrets, surrounded by puzzles. In recent months, three new memoirs by Esther Safran Foer, Hadley Freeman, and Ariana Neuman have given readers a glimpse of a new type of Holocaust memoir—one written not by the survivor, but their next of kin. Their writings have breached the literary canon, making way for a new type of storyteller, one who not only bears witness to the dead, but triumphantly wakes them from their slumber.
When I was in college, I assumed the responsibility of collecting my family’s history. I laminated the documents, recorded the testimonies, and even traveled to Poland to visit my grandfather’s home town. Years later, my Aunt Faye would become the family’s lead historian—connecting with the children of my grandfather’s estranged sister, Genia, as well as other cousins and friends of my grandparents. Faye Riva Rosenzweig, named for both her paternal and maternal grandmothers, was born in a displaced-persons camp in what was formerly the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Northern Germany. A young refugee, she grew up surrounded by an unspoken, creeping feeling that trouble, even in good times, was imminent.
I’ve always adored my Aunt Faye, and as I got older, I understood that the burden of maintaining our family’s legacy as Holocaust survivors had largely fallen on her. As my own obsessions unfurled, her ambitions came to light. Suddenly, our family’s photos were on the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s website. You could search our name and pictures of my grandmother cradling my aunt would pop up. As I—the granddaughter—became more and more curious, my aunt—the daughter—assumed the work of quelling my curiosity. In I Want You to Know We’re Still Here: A Post-Holocaust Memoir, Esther Safran Foer describes a similar multi-generational phenomenon.
Like my aunt, Safran Foer was born in a displaced-persons camp in Germany. In 1949, she became a two-and-a-half-year-old refugee. At the time of writing her book, Safran Foer displays an intimate understanding of her childhood and young adult years in America, citing how different she felt from other kids growing up. But unlike many of her fellow memoirists, she comprehends why she feels so different. She understands her family’s struggles, recalling her mother’s experience of fleeing the Nazis after losing her entire family. And although she knows quite a lot about her mother, her father—who committed suicide when she was just eight years-old—remains a mystery.
In the summer of 1998, Safran Foer urged her son Jonathan to visit the shtetl Trochenbrod, in Ukraine, where she believed her father to be from, in hopes that he would find that family that hid her father from the Nazis. Jonathan, as those who have read his half-fictitious, half-autobiographical novel Everything is Illuminated already know, found nothing. More than a decade later, his mother decided to take the journey herself; I Want You to Know We’re Still Here is the result of that exploration. In the book, when Esther tells her mother, Ethel, about her trip, Ethel screams, “How can you do this to me?” She fears for her daughter’s safety, likely remembering the Ukraine of her childhood, the place where her entire family was killed by Nazis. Nevertheless, Safran Foer travels to Trochenbrod, armed with an old photograph and the guidance of a couple historians, in search of the family who hid her father from the Nazis. While there, she learns the names of her father’s first wife and daughter, Tzipora and Asya, who had been murdered during the liquidation of the Ukrainian village of Chetvernia in 1942.
Unlike some of her fellow second-generation memoirists, Safran Foer leads with a vision that is quintessentially Jewish. Her propensity for remembrance is present from the start, as she chronicles her mother’s resilient escape from the Nazis—almost entirely on foot—from what was then Eastern Poland to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. She possesses an acute awareness of the refugee experience, recognizing the sheer presence of absence that’s been with her since birth. Safran Foer’s quest, then, is about filling in the gaps, about understanding how those gaps became gaps in the first place.
Sometimes, though, the gaps are more like voids. Sometimes, children and grandchildren of survivors know nothing of their families’ origins, or what they think they know turns out to be very wrong. In her book House of Glass, Hadley Freeman begins with little prior knowledge of her own lineage. Having spent her life convinced that her posh grandmother was French, Freeman’s detective work reveals that her grandmother was born in what is now Poland, but was then still Austria-Hungary. Freeman maps the very divergent paths of her grandmother, Sala, and her three brothers, each of whose stories represents a separate strand of the Jewish experience through the twentieth century. “Learning about them,” writes Freeman, “provided me with not just a map for what was behind me but one that explained where we are today.” In Freeman’s family, trauma and silence are recurring themes. Her grandmother lived a life of quiet complacency, relying on luxury to quell her lifelong sadness.
As a result, her grandmother’s children—her father and his brother—never really got involved in the past. They, too, remained quiet, even assimilating to secular life out of fears they’d seem too Jewish. Freeman acknowledges that the responsibility to tell the stories, to wake the dead, to discover that her great-uncle Jacques—her grandmother’s brother—had been killed in Auschwitz, would fall entirely on her shoulders.
A third-generation chronicler of the Holocaust, Freeman is not simply a memoirist, but an interpreter of the silence, silence spanning two generations. Freeman’s book is the sort every grandchild of Holocaust survivors longs to write. It’s the kind of book I’ve dreamed of writing. It’s a deep dive, an illumination of lives previously unknown—a looking glass through which kaleidoscopes of homes destroyed; parents, cousins, and lovers dragged to their deaths; and bodies furtively huddled in dark shadows suddenly appear before our eyes.
I am lucky to have recorded testimony from my grandfather. When I watch him, sitting in a chair, speaking to an invisible interviewer, the life I’ve long imagined is made all the more real. My focus sharpens and I can see a family, a shtetl, and a boy. In When Time Stopped, Ariana Neumann includes segments of her father’s unpublished memoirs—projecting images of twilight train rides and crumbling cityscapes.
Neumann’s father was in his 50s when she was born, so although close to Freeman in age, she is closer to Freeman’s father in her proximity to the Holocaust. Hans Neumann kept secret virtually every detail of his life before his immigration to Venezuela. For Neumann, her father was simply a Czech immigrant, and the question of her grandparents was, of course, a non-starter. As for her Jewish heritage, Neumann asserted up until college that she was Catholic, like the majority of Venezuelans.
As a child, Neumann always longed for the perfect mystery to solve. What she didn’t know was that she’d wind up solving the mystery of her father’s life, and along with it, awaken the ghosts of her grandparents, Ella and Otto, both of whom were killed in Auschwitz. She recalls a few once-mystifying encounters with her father, all of which become startlingly clear when she understands his history: a twilight shouting fit in a language she’d never heard, his paranoia around a set of bug bites which he mistook for tiny bullet holes, a tearful visit to an old train station in Prague. In her memoir, Neumann also wakes the ghosts of her father’s past lives: Handa, the secular Jewish boy writing poetry in the streets of Prague; Jan Šebesta, the Czech chemist working in Berlin while hiding in plain sight from the Nazis; and finally Hans Neumann, Venezuelan businessman and philanthropist with a penchant for timekeeping.
“Sometimes I lose my bearings,” writes Neumann. “I want to rush again to my father. I want to tear along the checkered floor of the hall to the long windowless room and, as he raises his visor and looks up from his watches, explain that I finally solved the puzzle. I have to let him know that I found the boy he was, the unfortunate boy, and that I love him.”
When I traveled to Poland in 2011, my grandfather had been dead for about a year. Had he been alive, I’m sure he would have reacted a bit like Esther Safran Foer’s mother, giving me plenty of reasons not to go. Mameleh, no, he’d caution. I’ll admit I’ve put most of the visit out of my mind. In Sosnowiec, Poland, every remnant of Jewish history has been paved over. There is a single Jewish graveyard which remains barely intact. Beneath the mounds of snails and several hundred invasive species of moss, you can still make out symbols representing the different tribes of Israel on each gravestone. Across the street, there is a Catholic cemetery flanked with ivory columns and lions’ heads, the grounds perfectly manicured and mausoleums shimmering silver.
How do I tell the story of my grandfather’s childhood when this is what his home has become? How do I tell the story of a life so brazenly torn to shreds?
In her diary, which predates any Holocaust memoir, Anne Frank writes, “I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.” While writing about life inside the camps may not have given these writers courage, it did give birth to an invigorated sense of selfhood. Sisyphean in nature, first-generation Holocaust memoirs are testaments of willpower, of the mind engaged, against all odds. My grandfather always told me that he stayed alive because he tricked the Nazis into believing he could do any job. If they need an electrician, he was an electrician. If they needed someone to roll a boulder up a hill, he was the best man for the job. One must imagine David Rosenzweig happy.
In a segment of his unfinished memoir, Neumann’s father, Hans, recalls a quote from Nietzsche: “What separates humans from animals is the ability to find one’s condition risible. Nazis tended to solemnity and humorlessness. They always showed what Nietzsche called ‘Tierischer Ernst,’ a certain ‘animal earnestness,’ a complete inability to laugh at themselves….They could not recognize their own ridiculousness or indeed appreciate the absurdity of anything. Without imagination they were predictable.”
By writing alongside her father’s memoir, Neumann shows us Hans’s mind in motion. As he hides boldly in plain sight, she wakes up the ghosts of her grandparents. She is a detective—searching ceaselessly, paving over craters of lost history. And her father, just like my grandfather, is rolling a rock up a hill, tricking the monsters in broad daylight.