Book Review: Living with the memories of generations past

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

No matter how much someone tries, it’s impossible to escape the past and that includes the events that influenced the lives of our parents and grandparents. Even deliberately doing something different from prior generations is itself a reaction to history, as is embracing the past to define oneself. Three recent memoirs offer very different explorations of family histories, including a discussion of trauma by the child of a Holocaust survivor, the story of a non-Jewish woman who marries into a family of survivors and the musings provided by the grandson of a woman who not only survived World War II, but escaped Communist Hungary.
“Survivor Café” 
Elizabeth Rosner has difficulty with the way the word survivor is currently being used. Her parents lived through World War II and the Holocaust so when the word is defined in other ways – for example, when Rosner is called a cancer survivor – it strikes her as somehow off. In fact, even her mother never self-identified as a survivor because she was never placed in a concentration camp. The idea of surviving horrific events is the theme of Rosner’s “Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory” (Counterpoint), which explores the legacy not only of those directly affected by a traumatic event, but their descendants. She speaks about a wide variety of traumas, from slavery to the Holocaust to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the Killing Fields of Cambodia, to name only a few.
The most interesting sections of “Survivor Café” focus on the latest research about trauma, which suggests that trauma can be physically passed from one generation to the next. The environmental change – the traumatic event or its after-effects, also known as post-traumatic distress – creates changes in people’s biochemistry and neurology, which in turn affects the children born to them. This is true even if the mother herself is not the one traumatized; living with someone with PTSD can affect her children. For example, the research quoted by the author notes that children born to Holocaust survivors have less cortisol than control groups; this hormone helps regulate a body’s stress response, which means the children – and perhaps grandchildren – of survivors are less able to deal with stressors. Exactly how this works, and if anything can be done to prevent these problems from passing through the generations, is still being researched. However, Rosner believes it explains physical and psychological feelings experienced by many children of Holocaust survivors.
Also of interest were the chapters that focused on the three trips Rosner took with her father to Germany. Each trip was a very different emotional experience. Rosner was the primary force for the first visit. Her father has such difficulty before and during that trip that she’s surprised when he decides to bring the entire family on the second visit. Rosner’s mother, though, finds ways to recuse herself from the more emotional parts of their travels. The final trip takes place after her mother’s death and includes the extended family as the invited guests of the German government for a 70th anniversary event.
In addition, Rosner discusses a wide variety of horrific and traumatic events that have taken place over the centuries, and tries to understand thems in term of the current research on trauma. While each section is well written, the material can be painful to read. Also, unfortunately, the many disparate parts of her book don’t jell into a cohesive whole. What is clear is the pain that Rosner feels and how she wishes there was some way to heal those who have suffered. Her ending does not suggest a way to solve the problem: in fact, she notes the only change that will occur is that our memories will fade beneath new examples of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man.
“Jumping Over Shadows”
Annette Gendler found herself in an unexpected position in 1985: this young German woman fell in love with a Jewish man, the son of Holocaust survivors. Neither figures their relationship will work: Harry because his parents will resist him marrying outside his faith and Annette because of her family history – an aunt whose marriage to someone Jewish as the Nazis rose to power portrayed just how difficult an intermarriage can be. Yet, as she shows in “Jumping Over Shadows: A Memoir” (She Writes Press), sometimes love can prevail.
The memoir is actually a double love story, as Annette’s relationship with Harry makes her want to learn more her own family’s history and what they did during World War II. What makes Annette’s marriage possible – or at least more acceptable to Harry’s parents – is that she converts to Judaism and has since kept a Jewish home. Annette also develops an understanding of antisemitism, particularly the casual kind, as she becomes more involved with Harry. This results in some changes in friendships and, in one case, a friendship lost.
“Jumping Over Shadows” is easy to read because Annette’s writing is dispassionate. It’s not that she’s lacking in emotion, but she sticks to the facts rather than being melodramatic. From the opening of her work, she felt like a friend, someone worth knowing – a feeling that didn’t change as the story of her life unfolded.
“Finding Maria”
Spending time with your grandparents is not something high on the list of many 20-somethings. Yet, when Peter Szabo moves to Connecticut, he begins a relationship with his grandmother that turned into a true friendship. In “Finding Maria: A Young Man’s Search for His Grandmother, and Himself” (ChickPrince Book), Peter not only writes about his family’s trials during World War II, but how his grandmother and her two children managed to escape from Communist Hungary. Her story and advice frees him to try new things, including leaving a job that gives him little emotional satisfaction.
“Finding Maria” offers its greatest insights when dealing with Maria’s war year. The story of Peter’s’s father’s survival was interesting, particularly in light of his changing relationship to Judaism. Peter also learns some difficult truths about his grandmother that are hard to reconcile with the woman he loved, but help serve as part of his maturation process. His interest also allows family members to discover exactly what happened during the war and how it still affects them decades later. Readers may find this Jewish journey of interest.