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24 January 2002Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

The 'second generation' of Holocaust survivors
Most of Frank Furedi's family perished in the Holocaust - but he does not consider himself a second-generation victim.

by Frank Furedi

  • From the Jewish Lesbian Daughters of Holocaust Survivors to Children of the Holocaust Anonymous, children whose parents died in the Holocaust are lining up to claim the status of Holocaust victims.
  • There is a growing tendency to interpret victimisation as a kind of disease that can be handed down from generation to generation.
  • What is it about today's society that makes people so keen to get a piece of their parents' trauma?
In our therapeutic culture, the politics of memory is on the rise. On an individual level, and now across societies, past experiences are continually reinterpreted.

The cultural manipulation of memory has been particularly controversial in relation to what one side characterises as recovered memory syndrome and the other as false memory syndrome. Yet from a sociological standpoint, the most interesting aspect of this debate is not who is right and who is wrong, but the fact that memory itself has become so politicised, and that the representation of the past is so contested.

In one sense there is nothing new in the manipulation of memory. The rewriting of history has produced rich and effective national and cultural mythologies throughout past centuries. Now, however, the stakes have been raised. The erosion of individual and collective identities has fostered an unusual interest in the past, and given rise to fundamental cultural assumptions about the decisive influence of the past over the present.

As a consequence, history today is rewritten through the language of emotionalism and therapy.

During the past two centuries, the key motif in the rewriting of history was the unique greatness of a particular people or culture. National myths were based on heroic deeds and glorious events. Such myths were not simply used as sentimental celebrations of the past - they were mobilised to construct a positive vision of the future. The myth of the American frontier promised a great destiny for US society, while British, French and German national myths were mobilised to provide an optimistic representation of future possibilities.

Today, the rewriting of history is driven by a very different impulse. The manipulation of collective memory makes no grand claims on the future. On the contrary, the historic memory serves as a monument to a people's historic suffering. In a perceptive contribution on this subject, Ian Buruma has drawn attention to the tendency of many minorities 'to define themselves as historic victims'.

The Holocaust has become the icon for therapeutic history. The extreme and singular brutality of this event ensures that those who perished or suffered in the concentration camps are regarded with a reverence unmatched by any other groups of victims. Jewish identity - even Israeli identity - has been fundamentally recast around the Holocaust. Zionism, which had traditionally promoted an optimistic modernist vision of the pioneering new Jew, has in recent decades sought to forge a sense of community around an emotional connection with the Holocaust.

Yet, as I know from my own childhood, many of the direct survivors of the death camps talked very little in public about their terrible experience. Their dignified, self-contained response stands in sharp contrast to the behaviour of their children and grandchildren today: the so-called second- and third-generation survivors. In recent years, some of the promoters of second-generation survivor groups have even criticised their parents for bottling up their emotions and refusing to embrace a victim identity.

The appeal of the Holocaust, as the basis for creating a sense of self-identity, has attracted the attention of competing groups of people claiming a particular identity status. Gay activists have insisted that their suffering during the Holocaust should be recognised through the construction of monuments and memorials. Other activists, representing gypsies and disabled people, have also demanded that recognition should be accorded to their plight during this terrible experience.

The language associated with Holocaust discourse - particularly the image of the traumatised survivor - has been appropriated by numerous activists determined to stake a claim to the status associated with emotional suffering. The Irish potato famine of the 1840s has been reinterpreted as an abusive experience that continues to traumatise people to this day.

The emotional power of the Holocaust has been co-opted and transferred to other experiences such as the African-American holocaust, the Serbian holocaust, the Bosnian holocaust or the Rwandan holocaust. In Germany, anti-abortion campaigners hold forth about a holocaust of fetuses; in Canada, animal rights activists denounce the holocaust of seals.

Second-generation survivor groups have criticised their parents for bottling up their emotions and refusing to embrace a victim identity
The custom of demanding that past wrongs - in some cases perpetrated centuries ago - be put right has acquired momentum during the past few years. Saying sorry has allowed public personalities to both embrace the victim and also to share vicariously in their pain.

Politicians have been quick to embrace the ritual of the apology. The Australian government organised a National Sorry Day on 26 May 1998, when Australians were exhorted to express their sorrow for the injustices inflicted on Aboriginal people. A month later, the German government apologised for the 1904 massacre of African people in Namibia. UK prime minister Tony Blair has apologised to the Irish for Britain's role in contributing to the suffering that people experienced during the potato famine. And the Vatican has apologised for the havoc that the Crusades wreaked on the people of the Middle East.

The demand for a public memorial to commemorate past suffering is not confined to representatives of national minorities and ethnic groups. AIDS activists have sought to construct monuments to commemorate the tragedy of AIDS sufferers. Victim advocates have been particularly vociferous in innovating rituals and symbols of remembrance. The wearing of a ribbon became a potent symbol of remembrance during the 1990s, and has been appropriated by numerous interest groups seeking recognition for their cause.

RoadPeace, a British advocacy group devoted to the cause of traffic victims, self-consciously promotes semi-religious symbols of remembrance to gain support (1). Its 'Red Flag Campaign' was launched in August 1997 'to mark the start of an appeal for a permanent national memorial to road victims'. RoadPeace publications continually emphasise the theme of remembrance. Road victims - those 'who have died on the roads since the advent of motor traffic' - are presented as the 'unnamed' casualties of a century-long war. The European Federation of Road Traffic Victims has designated the third Sunday of November as the European Day of Remembrance for road crash victims. Candlelit vigils, shrines and roadside memorials are the typical artefacts of victim culture.

The politicisation of memory has stimulated individuals to re-examine their own biographies. In some cases individuals have literally invented a personal narrative of victimisation. Binjamin Wilkomirski, author of Fragments - a harrowing account of a Jewish childhood destroyed by the Holocaust - had his memoir exposed as a fake. Wilkomirski was actually Bruno Grosjean, a Swiss man who had invented his Jewishness and his Holocaust experience.

There have been cases where individuals have falsely claimed to be AIDS sufferers in order to claim the status of a victim. The American social scientist Carol Tavris has raised some interesting questions about why so many women find their way into sexual survivor groups. She believes that the 'sexual-abuse-victim story crystallises many of society's anxieties' and therefore 'draws like a magnet those who feel vulnerable and victimised, and who wish to share in society's sympathy'.

Clearly, the appeal of the victim story goes beyond that of sexual abuse. In contemporary society, a cry for recognition and the desire to belong often find their focus in victim identity. And there is a growing tendency to interpret victimisation as a kind of disease that can be handed down from generation to generation. This paradigm is most coherently developed in recent studies of Holocaust survivors.

It is claimed that the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors ought to be considered victims just as much as their ancestors, who had to confront the horrors of Nazi death camps directly. As a result, attention has shifted to the problems of the so-called second generation of Holocaust survivors.

Some studies contend that children born to Holocaust survivors became the victims of their parents' own destructive experience. 'These children, now grown men and women, have sometimes been raised in a psychological atmosphere poisoned by the scarring that their survivor parents have brought to their child-rearing tasks', claims one authority. According to proponents of this thesis, second-generation survivors often grew up in a family atmosphere where they were stifled by over-protectiveness, shame and mistrust. As one writer on the subject argues, 'Most members of the second generation whose voices have been heard feel that they have been damaged in some way through their parents' Holocaust experience'.

The literature on the second generation provides useful insights into understanding the social construction of victim identity. According to the accepted paradigm, the compulsive behaviour of concentration camp survivors has led to negative and stifling parenting styles, which in turn had a damaging impact on their children.

One of the most common claims made about camp survivors is that they sought to become parents in order to acquire a new identity for themselves. Parents often named their children after a lost favourite relative. It is claimed that children, who felt that they had been 'given the mission to be a link in the broken chain of families and to fill the emptiness in their parents' lives', often 'felt burdened and weighed down by such impossible expectations'.

Constituencies demanding to be recognised include the Descendants of the Jewish Community of Augsburg and the Jewish Lesbian Daughters of Holocaust Survivors
Yet severe dislocation, suffering and tragic loss, which lead to distinct overprotective parenting styles, are by no means confined to any particular experience. Adults who have experienced the trials of war, hunger and death will invariably inflict their insecurities on their family. And whether such parental anxieties are particularly damaging for children is far from evident.

The case of the 'second generation', with its redefinition of family life as a conduit for victimisation, says more about the therapeutic discourse of the post-1960s era than about the parenting skills of their fathers and mothers. The invention of the second generation is, ultimately, the outcome of a culture which increasingly links individual identity to the experience of childhood.

Victim identity, and the moral authority accorded to it, seems to allow people to make sense of their experience. Many who describe themselves as second-generation survivors are involved in medicine, counselling, psychotherapy, social work and education, and are drawn towards expressing their identity through the vocabulary of therapy.

The activists in second-generation survivor groups recognise the predominant role played by therapeutic professionals in this movement. Take this activists' advice to survivor groups:

'Start your own "Rap group" by just getting together on a weekly basis, or there is a good probability that one of your members may be a social worker, or a counsellor of some type. In my first group there was a clinical psychologist and a social worker.'

Second-generation survivor activists appear to be preoccupied with forging a distinct identity - one that distances them from the experience of their parents. For example, the host of the website 'Resources for Children of Holocaust Survivors' carefully draws attention to the fact that his page is not for Holocaust victims who, it is claimed, already have a lot of resources geared towards their needs (2). The website is for their children. 'It is not about the legacy; it is about living with the legacy', he notes.

These 'Children of Holocaust Survivors' want to claim a separate and distinct survivor identity both from their parents, and from one another. It is evident that many individuals are not satisfied with being defined merely as a second-generation survivor. There are numerous constituencies demanding to be recognised as possessing a distinct victim identity: including the International Association of Lesbian and Gay Children of Holocaust Survivors, Descendants of the Jewish Community of Augsburg, Second Generation Children from Nuremberg, and the Jewish Lesbian Daughters of Holocaust Survivors.

The representation of the traumatic harm faced by second-generation survivors is usually promoted through anecdotes, and through the retrospective association of private troubles with family background. The few studies that have attempted to test the theory of the intergenerational transmission of trauma have failed to find any validation for this thesis. But whatever the facts of the matter, activists are busy constructing a victim identity through rendering their family existence pathological.

Aping the American addiction and co-dependency movement, some second-generation activists have even launched 'Children of the Holocaust Anonymous'. This initiative has self-consciously borrowed the Alcoholics Anonymous '12-step' support programme to support its constituents. And there is more to come, as publicists are promising to bring the third generation of survivors into the frame.

Predictably, the second-generation survivor paradigm is already being imitated by other claimants to victim status. According to a survey carried out by a psychologist in 1997, 750,000 British women are still suffering from the stress and trauma of the Second World War. The psychologist Melinda Waugh calls these women the 'forgotten generation', and states that it is 'possible that children of the women bore the psychological scars of post-traumatic stress disorder'. All this speculation was based on extrapolation from a survey involving 100 women.

Watch this space for the fourth and fifth generation of victims.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent. His books include:
  • Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting Twenty-First Century Philistinism (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004)

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  • Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age (Routledge, 2003)

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  • Paranoid Parenting: Why Ignoring the Experts May Be Best for Your Child (Chicago Review Press, 2002)

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  • Culture of Fear: Risk Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation

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Visit Frank Furedi's website

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spiked issue: The Holocaust

(1) See the RoadPeace website

(2) See the Resources for Children of Holocaust Survivors website

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