Out of the Shadow
BEFORE the lights dimmed, Rita Goldberg asked for a show of hands. How many in the audience were, like herself, children of survivors of the Holocaust? A score of those attending the presentation at London's Jewish Book Week raised their arms. Some were in tears afterwards in the signing queue for Ms Goldberg's newly published memoir, "Motherland: Growing up with the Holocaust". They were relieved to hear someone else voice the burden that their generation shares.
They are known as the "second generation": the children of mainly Jewish survivors whose parents were murdered by the Nazis. Since the 1950s, the eyewitnesses' experiences have been documented in scores of memoirs, starting with Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel. But a literature of the second generation has needed time. Inevitably, such children have been shaped by their parents' trauma. Some were raised with silence, others were overwhelmed by tragic stories. Few have felt permitted to describe their own lives and the peculiar diminishment that comes from growing up in the shadow of genocide.
Ms Goldberg's book is an exemplary attempt to confront the complex fate of these families cut brutally from their own history. "Motherland" is a double memoir that braids her parents' story with her own, and succeeds in articulating a difficult truth. While the suffering was not hers, but her parents', it has nonetheless had a corrosive effect on her life.
The story of Ms Goldberg's parents is by any measure the stuff of high drama. It includes a close connection to Anne Frank's family, active resistance in Belgium, central roles in the aftermath of war at the Bergen-Belsen death camp, and valour in Israel's founding War of Independence. Faced with narratives of such epic heroism and horror, it is no wonder that many children of survivors feel silenced. "I have never known what to do with this history," Ms Goldberg writes. "It makes a better tale than anything that has happened in my own life, and it has to some extent paralysed me."
Her account is filled with remarkable revelations. We hear about the real life of the martyred Anne Frank, for instance, made concrete through the memories of close family friends. Ms Goldberg's mother, Hilde Jacobsthal (pictured), was a German Jew raised in Amsterdam whose best friend was Anne Frank's sister, Margot. After the war, in which her parents perished like Otto Frank's entire family, young Hilde and Otto were so close they called one another "father" and "daughter", and Otto became godfather to Hilde's first daughter, Rita. We hear too of Bergen-Belsen's little-known function after the liberation as Europe's main refugee camp. Hilde, the first woman to enter the worst sections, nursed hundreds of emaciated children back to life. An unlikely love story developed with a Swiss doctor, Max Goldberg, and they got married when Hilde was 22.
Born to Hilde and Max in 1949 in Switzerland but raised in the United States, Rita learned the truth early—too early. "I feel, sometimes, as if I had taken in her stories at her breast, before I had the power of speech," she writes. "By the age of three or four I knew that it was pure chance that had saved me from the boxcars." It was not until middle age that she realised, she says, that she and her sisters were "haunted by memories to which we were not entitled".
Intensive research is a common feature of these second-generation memoirs, which often bring lost genealogy to light. "Inheriting the Holocaust" charted its author's vanished Polish family; the author of the recent "Hanns and Rudolf" documented his great-uncle's life as a Nazi hunter. Nor are Jewish families alone in mining the past: Heinrich Himmler's great-niece and a child born of Aryan breeding have both recently penned their own memoirs.
For survivors' children, writing the family story is painful and not always cathartic. Yet it can help restore roots, and thereby identity. "Often you go on a journey of rediscovery," says Melissa Rosenbaum of the Second Generation Network in London. "Families span centuries, and this is like making a bridge over those twelve years (of Nazi rule) and going back to rediscover our beliefs and our values."
Ms Goldberg, a lecturer in comparative literature at Harvard University, dedicates the book to her children and grandchildren, who will never know the ghosts at their family table. But "I have tried…to raise [these ghosts] at least a little from their bed of ashes," she writes, "and make them live again in the imaginations of their descendants."
© The Economist 2014