Aftermath: the value of second generation Holocaust literature

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Daniella Choynowski


Writing About Literature

Dr Jerz

Aftermath: the value of second generation Holocaust literature

         Hitler has claimed another generation of victims. The survivors of the Holocaust, mentally and emotionally scarred forever, have passed their pain onto their children, who have responded in a fairly recent genre called second-generation Holocaust literature, including such works as Mazel and Maus. In Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Vladek, has a range of odd tendencies, from hoarding to smothering. His new wife, Mala, complains about how “he has hundred of thousands of dollars in the bank, and he lives like a pauper...he even grabs paper towels from restrooms so he won’t have to go buy napkins or tissues!” (I, 132) Spiegelman has major issues himself, stemming from his mother’s suicide and the survivor’s guilt over his brother having been poisoned during the war. Though Richieu was just “a large, blurry photograph in my parent’s bedroom…the photo was a kind of reproach…it’s spooky, having sibling rivalry with a snapshot.” (II, 14-15) Vladek wishes to block out the past; for this reason he burns Anja’s diaries. Realizing the value the diaries could have had, Art screams, “God-damn you! You-you murderer! How the hell could you do such a thing!!?” (I, 159) The two men are both psychologically skewered due to the repercussions of the Holocaust and complement each other perfectly. Though the two have a very strained relationship, the Holocaust brings them together, “for without that reason, they might not have any relationship at all.” (Staub 34) In Mazel, Pearl has a barely non-existent relationship with her father Jack Sittsamer, a survivor of 6 camps. Though she says Jack never talked about what happened, “it has always lived in the underbelly of our everyday.” (3) Pearl cannot understand why Jack’s rules for her growing up were “unpredictable, impenetrable and delivered at high volume. (3)

         Second-generation Holocaust literature is of literary value because it includes something that the first-generation survivor’s tales do not: aftermath. Through stories that inter-mingle the Holocaust and men’s lives now, we can see how the past has affected the present. The Holocaust did not end all the way back in 1945; it just cooled off, and the second-generation literatures we find today are its simmering embers.

         A one-legged man does not want to spend the rest of his life talking about how he lost his other leg. So the same goes for first-generation survivors. There is a “conspiracy of silence” among first-generation survivors. (Hadas, Einat, and Barber 176) The unspoken past, too difficult to discuss, blocks the channels of communication, causing distance between the parent and child. In Mazel, Pearl has a fight with Jack about his unwillingness to open up to her:

Always hiding from me, pretending with me…. Everything is spinning out from under me and running away from my grip…not talking about the war, or who you are, your past… (44)

Jack is perfectly comfortable getting up in front of large crowds of complete strangers and speaking. Never revealing his feelings to Pearl, “not talking became all of what was between my father and me.” (3) She tells her father she wishes to attend one of the talk sessions, to which he responds harshly, “I would not appreciate that at all.” (38) In Maus, Art rarely comes by to visit his aging father, his last visit before beginning the book being six months prior. There is an unwillingness to talk about the traumas of the past, survivors believing that the Holocaust can remain detached from their lives. But the only thing they end up detaching themselves from is their children. The second generation has not experienced the same horrors as their parents have.

         Out of respect, appreciation, and fear, they usually stay silent as well. This “double wall of silence” keeps both generations at a distance from one another. (Hadas, Einat, and Barber 176)

         There is an enormous amount of guilt felt on both sides. The parents had to live and watch while their relatives were taken and killed. And they cannot help wonder why-why me? Why did God have to take them and leave me here? This condition, “the feelings of guilt for outliving loved ones, though the survivors themselves were victims of the atrocities but somehow managed to survive”, is called survivor’s guilt, and pertains to both generations. (Hadas, Einat, and Barber 177) Jack Sittsamer never forgave himself for what he was forced to do during the war: “I am so ashamed. I will never tell. Never tell….I dug his grave for him, Pearl.” (88). Jack’s mission back to Poland was for the sole purpose of giving his father a much delayed proper burial. For until then, Jack “will not be able to erase that first night.” (his first night in the concentration camp). (86) So traumatic was this one instance that every time Jack heard the Holocaust mentioned, he flashed back to the grave digging. So he ceased speaking of the past altogether for a long, long time. In addition, Jack also feels responsible for Pearl’s extreme hatred of Germans, which has come from her observation of her father’s behavior (they caused in him the traumas that made him distant and over-protective). Jack cannot speak to Pearl about the past because of the bitterness it has caused in Pearl: “How can I tell you when I see this bitterness eating away at you, I---it’s not the German people I’m afraid of. It’s this stain I’ve caused in you. This stain that nearly killed me.” (62)

In return, due to his father’s “strange behaviors”, Art feels guilty as well. Remarking to his wife Francoise, he admits:

I know this is insane, but I somehow wish I had been in Auschwitz with my parents so I could really know what they lived through…I guess it’s some kind of guilt about having had an easier life than they did. (II, 16)

Although throughout the book Art is frustrated by his father’s obsessive behaviors, he nevertheless finds himself making excuses for Vladek: “I always thought the war made him that way.” (1, 131) Art does not understand why Vladek behaves the way he does because he has not lived the kind of life Vladek had, though Art knows that if he had, that he surely would understand. Art also feels guilty for having had a good life, while his brother Richieu perished during the Holocaust. Although the only memory Art has of his brother is of a large photo in his parents’ bedroom growing up, he always felt somehow compared to the ghost:

The photo never threw tantrums or got into any kind of trouble…It was an ideal kid and I was a pain in the ass. I couldn’t compete…the photo was always kind of a reproach, he’d have become a doctor, and married a wealthy Jewish girl…the creep. (II, 15)

What Richieu would have been always made Art feel like less of a person, for he knew he was not what his parents had hoped for: a cartoonist who married a French woman.

         Often times, the first generation survivors are often too protective and obsessive. Art recalls that during his childhood, “pop wanted to leave the leftover food around until I ate it…he’d save it again and again until I’d eat or starve.” (II, 43) Another woman remembers her mother’s obsession that she always ate everything: “It was so important for her that I eat…I was so afraid that she would catch me and make me eat….she simply chased after me through the street and I ran and hid.” (Hadas, Einat, and Barber 179) Jack also makes Pearl and his visitor Martin, who happens to be a German, eat everything he puts on their plates, believing it is “better not to let anything go to waste.” (14) The prisoners in Auschwitz had to take whatever kind of food they could get (such as potato shavings), for eating was the only thing that could give them hope and sustained them. Despite the understanding, the children are still angry. “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 into their child rearing tasks.” (Furedi 5) The first generation’s previous losses cause them cling on to their present loved ones as hard as they can, for fear they will somehow be snatched away. In return, the second generation survivors feel smothered and overwhelmed.

         Both men have attachments to material possessions. Vladek cannot seem to throw anything away: “look at this stuff…old menus picked up on cruises...a pile of stationary from The Pines Hotel.” (I, 93) Mala, though a survivor herself, cannot understand this behavior, lamenting about his hoarding and his seeming indifference to her: “he’s more attached to things than people!” (I, 93) Jack also has an attachment to certain material possessions; in particular, a teacup that is “very precious”. It is only when the cup is broken by Pearl that the story behind the cup is revealed: an old woman, showing kindness to two Jews (one obviously having been Jack), had given them both tea in ornate cups. Jack carries that cup with him always since as a reminder. During the war, friends and relatives in the camps came and went, never to return. The only things that remain are belongings such as cups. While Jack holds on to the cup so he will never forget his past experiences and the kindnesses shown to him, Vladek holds on to items for another reason. He does not want to remember the Holocaust: it claimed his youngest son and eventually his wife. Painful reminders of the past, such as Anja’s diaries, were destroyed: “These notebooks, and other really nice things of mother…one day I had a very bad day...and all of these things I destroyed.” (I, 158) Thus, he holds onto these seemingly useless possessions to surround himself with: “Look at all this stuff!...old menus he picked up on cruises….A pile of stationary from The Pines Hotel…four 1965 Dry Dock Savings bank calendars…I’ll bet he never even had an account there.” (I, 93) Vladek is distracted by his collection of junk, and therefore will not have time to reflect.

         Both Jack and Vladek’s behaviors became too much for theirs wives. Pearl has a discussion with her mother, discovering that “she’s left you because you’re reconsidering Poland.” (27) Jack’s obsession with properly burying his father drives his wife away, which of course he cannot understand. Mala similarly runs off to Florida, not being able to withstand Vladek’s possessiveness, stinginess, and coldness any longer, feeling “like I’m in prison! I feel like I’m going to burst!” (I, 131) Although she was a survivor too, the war did not affect her as it did Vladek. People react in different ways to traumas. For instance, when two people break up, they deal with their emotions in different ways: one may praise the other and put themselves down, or they might curse out the other, raising themselves up in the process.

         The main question is why all the secrecy and silence about the past? One reason is fear. Vladek recall that when Art was a baby, his “arm always jumped up, like so. We joked and called you ‘heil Hitler’. Always we pushed your arm down.” (I, 30)

         Pearl feels that the young people “need to know where they are from so they don’t go back.” (46) But Jack feels differently. Pearl is an Orthodox Jew raising her children as such. Jack, due to all the loss and destruction, does not “talk to God, because he doesn’t talk to me.” (3) Pearl eventually sees, after conservation with Martin the German, that her father “kept the horror of the war from me. He also kept his anger at God away from me, for if he had taught me God had abandoned my people, I don’t know if I would have found the faith I have to carry down to his grandchildren.” (95) Jack wished for his grandchildren to be raised as Orthodox Jews, loving their religion. He knew that this would not be so had he told his daughter about all the atrocities of the war. Pearl yearned for the truth, and Jack finally gave it as they said a burial prayer over Jack’s father’s grave in Poland. Pearl realizes that her father “didn’t want to hurt me, he thought he was protecting me.” (94) That is the reason for the possessiveness. The reason Vladek threw Art’s jacket out is because it looked shabby. He gives Art a new coat, which he believes “looks on you a million dollars!” because he wants his son to look well-off, to want for nothing. (I, 69)

         Some survivors made it through the war unscarred, and resumed normal lives, having children who did not exhibit any signs of trauma. “Before the Holocaust many of these people had normal lives and supportive environments. That enabled them to put their traumas aside and resume normal lives after the war ended and they had children of their own.” (Siegel 1) But, just as the soldier returning from war has difficulty re-adjusting to civilian life, so does the prisoner have problems adjusting to being a free person, able to make their own decisions. Old habits are hard to break.

         Though a spin-off genre, second-generation Holocaust literature can give us an additional understanding of the past, one that the limited perspective first hand accounts can. Stories like Maus and Mazel present the “story of this “central trauma of the Twentieth Century” that is much more accessible to a general audience than many other accounts, because it is particularly effective at inviting emotional involvement.” (Staub 33) Seeing the traumas in two generations, the

aftermath caused by the Holocaust makes it seems not as distant, and makes the whole event, as Spiegelman said, “more human.” (I, 23)

Works Cited

Furedi, Frank. “The ‘second generation’ of Holcoaust survivors.” Spiked Politics. 24 Jan 2002: 1-8. 17 Nov 2007

Hartman, Amy. Mazel. 2005.

Siegel, Judy. "Holcaust Trauma is not passed down to descendants new study shows." The Jerusalem Post. 16 April 2007: NEWS, pg. 5. Lexis-Nexis Academic. Seton Hill University Greensburg, PA. 17 Nov 2007

Spiegelman, Art. Maus: 1 & 2. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986, 1991

Staub, Michael. “The Shoah Goes On and On; Remeberance and Representation in Art Spiegelman’s Maus.” Melus. Vo. 20, issue 3 (fall 1995): pages 33-46. EBSCOhost. Seton Hill University Greensburg, PA. 12 Nov 2007

Wiseman, Hadas, Metzl, Einat and Jacques P. Barber. “Anger Guolt and Intergenerational Communication of Trauma in the Interpersonal Narratives of Second Generation Holocaust Survivors.” American Journal of Orthopyschiatry. Vol. 76, issue 2 (2006): pages 176-184. EBSCOhost. Seton Hill University Greensburg, PA. 14 Nov 2007

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Jeannette said:

I have recently completed a memoir about my life as a 2nd generational adult child and what life was like for me and my siblings. Would there be any interest in me posting a chapter or two for your review?
Baby Boomers are getting older and our parents are slowly beginning to leave us. For many, issues of inheritance will be fair and equitable event, but what would it be like if it wasn't? In "Broken Birds" my mother Channa, who was a Partisan fighter in World War II, and my father Nathan, who was a survivor of Dachau death camp have five children. When Channa dies she doesn't leave the family house to Dad, but instead selects only one child to give it to. What was once a family is now led down the road to emotional destruction?
Broken Birds is a little Holocaust, a little sibling rivalry and a lot of family emotion.

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