The following excerpt is taken from In the Shadows of Memory: The Holocaust and the Third Generation (2016), a multi-disciplinary study of the third generation of Holocaust survival, that is, the grandchildren of those who emerged from the camps and ghettos to produce new families and lives elsewhere, but were redefined by trauma. This book presents scholarly research from different fields of inquiry, including literary studies, sociology, history and psychology, alongside autobiographical accounts by individuals from the last cohort, as it were. As the last generation to have lived among survivors, these individuals grapple with a unique set of questions. Jordy and Ben Silverstein, a historian and Indigenous Studies scholar respectively, discuss belonging and exile, solidarity, and memory.
“A Politics of the Third Generation: Two Siblings Converse”
By Ben Silverstein and
For many members of the third generation, the (post)memory of the Holocaust – those memories of our grandparents’ experiences that we carry – stands as an ethical call. For Marianne Hirsch this comprises ‘an ethical relation to the oppressed or persecuted: as I can “remember” my [grand]parents’ memories, I can also “remember” the suffering of others’ (1).
Locating the universal in the particular, and exploring the tensions between these perspectives, seems to us to be critical to the development of a broader politics of being third generation descendants of survivors.
We wanted to discuss these issues, to explore the conflicts, politics and identities to which we find ourselves led as members of the third generation. In the conversation that follows, we raise questions about belonging, solidarity and memory as we relate to the Holocaust and the many shadows it casts. We hope that in doing so we point to the open-endedness of the conversations produced by being of this third generation, the Jewish grandchildren of survivors of the Holocaust.
Belonging after the Holocaust
Jordana Silverstein: A question I keep coming back to, when I think about my relationship to my Holocaust-surviving grandparents and to the lives (I imagine) they lived, is to ponder how they felt they fitted-in where they lived. And then I find myself pondering how those feelings have been passed on to us. So, a good place for us to jump into this conversation – a conversation that I think we, like many other members of the third generation, have been having for a long time – might be for me to ask: where do you feel you belong? Is being an exile part of the Jewish condition?
Ben Silverstein: Let’s begin with the second question you’ve posed. In some ways, I think an exilic sensibility is central to the way we are Jewish. But Jewish exile is, I think, more a sense of a story we tell of ourselves than a migratory state. Because, really, our lives are not defined by being out of place. We become in place. We are transformed by movement, we change to adapt, and we change in unexpected ways. So, even if we are exiles, we can never ‘go back’ and, I suspect, we wouldn’t want to.
I’m not interested in exile inasmuch as it leads us to a story of origin, of looking for a Jewish essence that we can recall as Jewishness changes into what we are today; an archetype against which we can only be measured and found lacking. A people has no invariable essence. What interests me, instead, are stories of production. How did we come to be the way we are? In looking to the past we look not for the real we have lost, but to approach a tradition with an unpredictably dynamic history.
To be in exile is to be out of place, and as migrants or the children of migrants I don’t think that is what we are. We have been made by the experience of living in Melbourne, of living as Jews in Melbourne. But this is accompanied by a continued awareness – one that comes from being, in some sense, marginal, but also from being definitively non-Indigenous to the land we live on – that I am not from here.
However secure we may be here where we write, we reproduce that exilic sensibility. But the question was also where do you feel you belong? It is curious that belonging is so often tied to place, implying a sense that to be exiled – to be cast out of a place – is to belong no longer. Isn’t one of the lessons of Jewish diasporism that one can belong in a way not circumscribed by space? And you ask where I feel I belong, suggesting an interest in belonging as sensation, rather than as an objective state. I want to ask you about the affective elements of this Jewish condition. How does this feeling manifest?
JS: It interests me that you bring up this question of place: there’s nothing in the question I asked that inherently (only) refers to place. I think I unconsciously formulated it that way, hoping to ask a question about Poland/Europe/Melbourne, but also about a relationship to belonging to being Jewish, or belonging to being a descendant of Holocaust survivors, or belonging to this idea of the third generation.
I think the question of belonging is one which is necessarily raised by the Holocaust, and by the effects of the Holocaust for those who went through it: displacement, being made into a refugee, becoming a citizen again in another place. The emotions which would accompany being produced as non-citizen and then as citizen are, for those of us who have not undergone this experience, impossible to imagine (2). So in that way – materially, discursively, emotionally – there is no sense in which I am an exile. It’s not entirely precise to equate the loss of citizenship with being an exile, but I think the parallels are there.
1. M. Hirsch, ‘Surviving Images: Holocaust Photographs and the Work of Postmemory’, Yale Journal of Criticism, 14, 1 (2001), pp.10–11.
2. Jean Améry makes this point in a more expansive sense in his At the Mind’s Limits (Bloomington,
IN: Indiana University Press, 1980), p.93.
Taken from Esther Jilovsky, Jordana Silverstein and David Slucki (eds), In the Shadows of Memory: The Holocaust and the Third Generation, London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2016, pages 231-233.
The book can be purchased from the publisher, bookdepository.com and amazon.com.