In the Shadow of History: Second Generation Writers and Artists and the Shaping of Holocaust Memory in Israel and America

By Sicher, Efraim | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

In the Shadow of History: Second Generation Writers and Artists and the Shaping of Holocaust Memory in Israel and America


Sicher, Efraim, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


We now stand half a century after the holocaust, as Israel marks its fiftieth anniversary, yet the issues raised by that cataclysmic event are no clearer now than they were in 1948 when the state was established; indeed, many of the attempts to forge a new identity and mold a collective memory now seem simplistic or have been discredited. In the renewed debate over the legacy of the Holocaust in Israel's collective identity and public memory questions are being asked that undermine the official line of the state's early years: What exactly is the place of the Holocaust in Jewish history? What is the place of Israel in Jewish history? Is it a new beginning, or a stage in the coming redemption? Why has the past refused to go away? Why has no happy medium apparently been found between forgetting everything in order to start new lives free of the past and remembering so much that any political or moral decision-making is crippled by the Holocaust complex? Something has gone seriously wrong with the shaping of public memory and it is not clear anything but confusion is being bequeathed to the future.

Not only has the memory of the Holocaust become disturbingly obsessive in Israel's national culture, as well as in the Diaspora, but it has thrown open questions of Jewish identity and, particularly, the national versus universalistic meaning of being a Jew and of Jewishness.(1) Moreover, the institutionalization of the memory of the Holocaust and its conscription to sometimes opposing ideologies has become inextricably entangled with the ongoing debate over Jewish identity and particularly over the identity of a Jewish State which inevitably dominates community politics in America and national politics in Israel. The status of identity (as the recent conversion law controversy showed) is no longer a matter of largely American or Israeli concern, but a messy story of rivalries and common causes between and within the two largest centers of Jewish population. The memorialization of the Holocaust, too, reflects common concerns as well as sharp differences. This is no mere academic question, since the competition for control of memory is also a contest for formation of identity of the State of Israel, and it is an issue which must no longer be a squabble over which historian is "right," but in which version of history and religion we believe we are living now.

One of the ways in which this confused public discourse gets aired and a major medium for the transferal and shaping of collective memory is their inscription in literature and art. Fiction, moreover, gives space in the imagination for what cannot be said otherwise, for what has not been experienced directly but must be reconstructed or even invented.(2) In Israel and in North America, with the passing of the survivor-witnesses, the task of transmitting the memory has been bequeathed to the second generation, to those who were not "there." This means that the indirect experience and the gaps in personal and collective history have to be largely imagined, so it is in writing (whether creative, testimonial, or academic) that we are seeing the emergence of narratives of post-Holocaust identity. In Children of the Holocaust (1979), Helen Epstein wrote about the "iron box" deep in her psyche of the buried Holocaust memory of her parents. Since then many children of survivors have, like other stigmatized minority groups, "come out" and told of their inherited traumas, exploring their own identity and unlocking the "iron box" of their family memory. Apart from Epstein's new book, Where She Came From: A Daughter's Search For Her Mother's History, and Theo Richmond's careful reconstruction of his family's shtetl, Konin: A Quest, autobiographies in which the children of survivors give voice to their parents' stories and space to their destroyed communities include Julie Salamon's Net of Dreams: A Family's Search for a Rightful Place, and Anne Karpf's The War After: Living with the Holocaust (both first published in 1996). …

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