Like many Jewish women of my generation, I’ve had a number of friends whose parents were Holocaust survivors. One man’s father never spoke of what he’d been through, saying it was “better to forget,” but in the middle of the night, he’d streak through the house screaming in PTSD-induced nightmares. The image of his face alight with phantoms only he could see haunted his son for years. Clearly he had not really forgotten.
Another friend’s parents never stopped remembering – or reminding — their young daughter of what they’d been through. They harshly dismissed the trials and tribulations of her middle class American schoolgirl’s life as “nothing” in comparison to what they’d endured “in the camps.” Her parents’ particular form of remembrance felt like a punitive infliction of their trauma upon their daughter.
Though none of my own family were Holocaust survivors, Nazis peopled my childhood nightmares. A knock at the front door, my family hauled off by Gestapo thugs, scenes of unspeakable torture, heroic attempts at escape. These dreams were common among Jewish children, produced by our elders intentionally exposing us to vivid descriptions and newsreel footage of skeletal Concentration Camp inmates, piles of bodies. They wanted to make sure that we would “never forget, never let it happen again.”
Elizabeth Rosner, poet, novelist, and daughter of Holocaust survivors, was not only exposed to such images, she feels as if she inherited them. “I cannot remember first hearing my parents’ war stories,” she writes, in her ambitious new book, Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory, “It seems to me that I always knew. Shards of the past lodged themselves inside me at birth, if not before. . . Most if not all of my peers – the so-called Second Generation share this sense of inherited trauma, amid a spectrum of emotion that often feels too nuanced to name.”
Rosner’s own history led her to this book’s far-reaching examination of societal trauma and its aftermath. She considers a wealth of critical questions, driven by one central question: How do we extend “never again,” beyond the intent to vigilantly protect one’s own people, to a commitment to never let genocide or any of its associated atrocities happen to other peoples, to any people? How do we commemorate horrific events in a fashion that heals the immediate victims, does not traumatize subsequent generations, and yet motivates us to prevent such horrors in the future? How do we commemorate traumatic experiences and honor our own dead in a manner that fosters empathy for all?
A pretty tall order for human beings. Brutal wars, mass slaughters, rape, torture, genocide, and acts of terrorism have continued to mark human history since World War II, in fact, have characterized human history since its first recording. As Rosner writes, “human evolution includes the repetition of atrocities on a scale that defies all reason.”
In Survivor Café, Rosner tells her own story as the child of Holocaust survivors, while also creating a sort of montage, a mosaic, of other atrocities and their effect. Her intent is to make us see the connections between them, and so expand our capacity for empathy. By the time Rosner is through, she will give at least a mention to tragic events and mass killings in Rwanda, Syria, Vietnam, the Cambodian Killing Fields, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Iraq War, the Armenian Genocide, American slavery, the Japanese internment, the slaughter of Native Americans, and 9/11. She considers epigenetics research (Is trauma passed on in the DNA, as has been shown in mice and suggested in some human studies?); truth and reconciliation committees in South Africa and elsewhere; various forms of restitution and reparation; somatic therapies for trauma recovery; denshosha, Japanese people entrusted with passing on the stories of the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and many more trauma-related topics.
The book’s attempt to give full weight to so many different events, so many different forms of commemoration and healing, may have the opposite of Rosner’s intended effect. Our overexposure to the horrors of the world, glimpsed on a TV screen or a Facebook page, have left many of us jaded, numb, desensitized. More statistics and facts, quick glimpses, do not alleviate this numbing. Some of the rapid jumps between short sections in Rosner’s montage do work effectively to illuminate connections we might not otherwise see. But some of the shorter sections of this book feel more like products of an unmetabolized internet search on the subject of trauma and recovery than a thoughtful consideration of the same. There were moments reading this book when I just wished for Rosner to sit still with her material and trust her own capacity to go deeper. Because when Rosner does sit still, and trusts her own strengths as a poet, her own powers of interpretation, her own experience as the daughter of survivors, her book comes into its own.
On the question of how we express in language events that by their very nature are unspeakable, poet Rosner is particularly eloquent. She recognizes the paradox: trauma renders us mute, resides in our bodies, in our memories in ways that defy language. At the same time, it compels us to describe, to bear witness, to process through telling and retelling our stories to convince others (and ourselves) that we have actually seen what we have seen. Human beings organize experience through narrative. Yet even the word “story” is loaded. She recounts, for example, how Holocaust survivors asked to recount their “stories” may “flinch” as if the very word “story” implies fiction and not something that happened to them.
In her family, the language of her father’s homeland, German, could never be divested of the connotations it had come to assume; “German was the ‘language of the murderers,’” she writes. And even English words had been warped forever, “I learned early that certain words carried disorienting and unavoidably disturbing associations. ‘Camp,’ for example, innocent enough to most of my childhood peers, wasn’t modified by standard accompaniments such as “summer,” or “sleepover,” but by the inexplicable, ‘concentration.’”
Language is also tricky, Rosner shows us, because it can be used in the service of what Rosner calls “erasure.” Some of the strongest sections of this book are the extended narratives encompassing Rosner’s three trips to Germany. The first was with her father in 1983, before Germany had fully begun to grapple with its own past. The second was with her (since deceased) mother, father, and siblings in 1995. Finally, she returns in 2015 with her ailing 86 year-old father, nephew Ezra, and French cousin David, as part of an official German commemoration at Buchenwald. (“Buchenwald which literally means beech forest can never just mean beech forest again,” she writes.)
At the latter commemoration, her father was meant to participate at the Survivor Café, a poor English translation of an event (Zeit Zeitung Café) at which survivors, camp liberators, and residents of Weimar were to interact. “Here are two words that do not belong together,”Rosner writes, about the words that were to become the title of her own book. (I fear readers seeing this book in a bookstore or online may be unsure of its content, the irony lost on them.) On this final trip especially, Rosner delineates the ways in which impulses for commemoration and erasure compete. By 2015, Rosner finds that the entire region of Weimar, where Buchenwald was situated, has been turned into a tourist destination, celebrating the civilization that predated the Third Reich. “Weimer represents the heart of Germany’s most iconic and romanticized heritage, its towering achievements during centuries of still-treasured music, art, literature, and design . . . ” Despite the Buchenwald Memorial Committee’s attempts to “reclaim” the “Hotel Elephant, one of Hitler’s favorite hotels,” by housing the survivors there, Rosner cannot help but erase the erasure: “Above and to the right of the Hotel Elephant’s mall entrance is the balcony where Hitler stood, glorying in the collapse of the progressively democratic Weimar Republic, promising to restore the Aryan race to supremacy, to Make Germany Great Again.”
Rosner worries what will happen when all the survivors have died, when even their children are no longer around to tell their stories; will society’s impulse for erasure, and relentless penchant for atrocities simply repeat?
For now, no attempt at erasure can triumph over the startlingly resonant impact of some of the images Rosner captures, such as that of the elderly survivor at the Buchenwald commemoration who wears his tattered “striped prison uniform along with his matching cap.”
Later, on a repeat trip to the Holocaust Museum, Rosner watches a film of firsthand testimonies: “I found yet again that these firsthand testimonies affected me most and would stay with me longest.” As a reader, we are like that too. As horrified and nauseated as we might be by footage of piles of bodies, or statistics of the thousands murdered in one horrible event after another, it is the image of that one child refugee’s body upon the shore in Syria that may compel us to action. To comprehend the full grasp of trauma, we need to empathize with individual victims; we need a story. And yet, as Rosner also makes clear, our vulnerability to stories and their malleability can be our downfall; the Russians cast the “story” of Buchenwald as being about the triumph of Communism over fascism; and “East Germany’s version of the past has been rewritten several times.” If we were not, as Americans, so vulnerable to the pleasures of the simple story, perhaps we would not have fallen victim to Donald Trump’s retro fable of “making America great again,” in favor of Hilary’s much less storylike and more complicated and nuanced version of America’s challenges in the 21st Century.
Nevertheless, it is Rosner’s stories of her own family, and her sense of the deeply resonant and symbolically laden detail that stick with me most after reading her book. One image she recounts may tell us more about trauma and the complexity of its aftermath than all the accumulated statistics. It is that of her mother sitting at the dinner table, cracking open and sucking the marrow from chicken bones, the blood from them staining her plate. “. . . When the chicken bones piled up on her plate, when she cracked them open to suck out the marrow, I tried not to look at my father’s face. I tried not to hear the sound.” This one act contains a young girl’s history of starvation, the violence she suffered and how the memory of both were incorporated into her own being.
Rosner sees even more: “My mother’s marrow contained her own parents’ and grandparents’ suffering – pogroms occurring decades before, during, and even after Hitler. This includes her father, my grandfather, who died of bone cancer. Thus, my perplexity as she ate the chicken bones and talked about the cancer in her father’s marrow, as I saw the dark stain of old blood inside the cracked fragments on her dinner plate. I didn’t understand why she could choose to eat something so raw, so bitter.”
I found Rosner’s Epilogue the most compelling, the most moving section of the book and wished it had come earlier. There she allows herself the full expression of her poetic gifts: “Because we are all obligated to remember, imperfectly and uncomfortably. This duty is incumbent upon each of us. Because it’s the truth of being human, the monstrous and the divine . . . We are both lost and holy. We are neither. We own everything that happened to us and everything that happened to others before us. That includes holding guns and holding babies, and watching the ones with guns shooting the babies. And then the mothers. And the mothers holding babies, watching. And the babies yet to be born, watching.”
Deborah A. Lott is the author of the recently completed Tell Me I’m Still Breathing: A Memoir of An Anxious Childhood which has been acclaimed by National Book Award winning poet and memoirist Mark Doty, among others. Her work has been published in the Alaska Quarterly Review, Bellingham Review, Black Warrior Review, Cimarron Review, the nervous breakdown¸Los Angeles Review, Salon, Cactus Heart, StoryQuarterly, Psychology Today, and other places. She is the author of the book, In Session: the Bond between Women and their Therapists, and the memoir (currently being shopped) Don’t Go Crazy without Me. Her family of origin was recently featured on an episode of This American Life. She teaches creative writing and literature at Antioch University Los Angeles
Elizabeth Rosner is a bestselling novelist, poet, and essayist living in Berkeley, California. Her first book of non-fiction, SURVIVOR CAFÉ: the Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory, was published in September 2017. Her third novel, ELECTRIC CITY, published in 2014, was named among the best books of the year by National Public Radio. Her poetry collection, GRAVITY, was also published in 2014. THE SPEED OF LIGHT, Rosner’s acclaimed debut novel in 2001, was translated into nine languages. Short-listed for the prestigious Prix Femina, the book won several literary prizes in both the US and Europe, including the Prix France Bleu Gironde; the Great Lakes Colleges Award for New Fiction; and Hadassah Magazine’s Ribalow Prize, judged by Elie Wiesel. BLUE NUDE, her second novel, was selected as one of the best books of 2006 by the San Francisco Chronicle. Rosner’s essays have appeared in the NY Times Magazine, Elle, the Forward, and several anthologies; her poems have been published by Poetry Magazine, Catamaran, Poetry East, Southern Poetry Review, and many other journals. She travels widely to lead intensive writing workshops, to lecture on contemporary literature, and to visit with book groups. Her book reviews appear frequently in the San Francisco Chronicle. Website: www.elizabethrosner.com