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Pierre Sauvage (1988) to 1984 and 1988
on the experience of children of Holocaust survivors
originally prepared for publication in a "Second Generation" anthology
Re-reading these 1984 and 1988 artifacts from my evolving Second Generation experience, I am struck by how little I would change today. With every passing year, I measure how profoundly that experience has shaped me.
I am proud of that candid, trouble-making first address in 1984. Since the ‘70s, I had just heard too many dutiful speeches by traumatized children. As I spoke that afternoon, there was growing discomfort on the dais of this large conference of Holocaust survivors. Several of the big machers started looking away and grumbling among themselves. “Who let this guy in?” some faces seemed to say.
Although everybody pays lip-service to the righteous these days—it has become a popular, trivialized fund-raising device—my closing words then on the subject were greeted with even less enthusiasm than my pained references to child-rearing problems in survivor families.
But I had earlier sent the speech to Elie Wiesel, and he had very kindly responded with an encouraging note; I felt armed to take whatever criticism might come my way.
I was pretty much ignored in the lobby afterwards, except for a fairly young girl who turned to whisper a touchingly private, earnest and succinct “Thanks,” as she walked out with her parents. It was reassuring to me that my words had been of some use to somebody, and I am delighted to see them republished here.
For some reason, I have always found it helpful to work out my dilemmas and personal problems in public. My father’s death in 1988 had a strong impact on me, and I groped with the experience on the occasion of a Second Generation panel I had been asked to moderate. Unfortunately, no such occasion arose after my mother died in 1996.
When I identify myself as Second Generation, I realize that my experience is rather atypical. My parents were not survivors of the camps, but survived the Holocaust in the uniquely favorable circumstances I outlined in my documentary Weapons of the Spirit (earlier they were in the Marseille of 1940-41 that I am documenting in the upcoming And Crown Thy Good ).
Moreover, I was born not after the war, but right in Nazi-occupied Europe while the Holocaust still raged. If I am one of the oldest Second Generation, I am also one of the youngest child survivors; my daughter Rebecca, who came to me relatively late in life, is thus one of the youngest Second Generation.
Last but not least, my Second Generation experience was not typical in that I wasn’t raised with the Holocaust, insofar as my parents kept from me that crucial aspect of their identity and their history, as I first mentioned publicly in the 1988 speech.
Perhaps because of my own experience, I was amazed at the skepticism and insensitivity Madeleine Albright faced when she had to address publicly the lies her own parents had told her and the extent to which she had believed them or not believed them. Particularly among Jews, there seemed to be a widespread assumption that she must have known all along, that she had probably refused to acknowledge the family history out of mere expediency.
What I found particularly outrageous is that American Jews, who have such difficulty coming to terms with their own family myths, taboos, lies and self-deceptions about the American Jewish experience during the Holocaust, would be so quick to demand a simplistic, judgmental accounting (“What did she know and when did she know it?”) from somebody wrestling with such a traumatizing childhood.
In fact, knowledge is not always cut-and-dried. We all have unacknowledged “knowledge” rattling around in our brains. And here was a woman, after all, who was famous for her candor and indeed bluntness. For my part, I felt an almost instinctive kinship with somebody else who had obviously been hurt by lies.
I’m not an idiot, but despite the mountain of evidence that surrounded me, I never figured out my parents’ secrets. To this day, even in the midst of my own casually Jewish family, I still feel the lingering power of the taboos with which I was raised. I may be an extreme case, but I think that the “Children of Job”—the children of those who talked as well as the children of those who didn’t—are also the children of taboo.
I have referred to the American experience—and the American Jewish experience—of the Holocaust. The Holocaust did not just happen there—the Holocaust happened wherever it was allowed to happen.
I believe that as we in the Second Generation begin learning to identify the taboos that shaped us, we will be in the forefront of those ready to come to terms with the unacknowledged American experience of the Holocaust—indeed, with the mere fact that there was an American experience of the Holocaust.
1984 address to the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors (pending)
1988 address to Second Generation event (pending)
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