It’s a story you hear time and time again in Israel and in the Diaspora. Somebody made it through the Nazi death camps and went on to lead a relatively normal life after the war, but for years, did not speak of their experiences to their nearest and dearest. In numerous cases, the survivor in question carried them to the grave.
For many years after the Holocaust, it was extremely common for survivors to keep silent about their experiences. Then in recent decades the prevailing opinion has been that it is good to talk — especially in a family setting. The survivor’s silence, goes the theory, results in a damaged relationship with his or her children, who often suffer effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
A new piece of Haifa University research takes issue with this now-mainstream view: Only 20% of survivors’ children suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and they don’t really have an emotional need to hear their parents’ experiences, according to Haifa sociologist Carol Kidron, whose research on the subject has just been published in the peer-reviewed academic journal Current Anthropology.
Kidron interviewed 55 children of Holocaust survivors, the vast majority of whom revealed that their only knowledge of their parents’ Holocaust experiences was transmitted to them via taken-for-granted everyday interpersonal interaction.
This, she found, leads to a “knowledge” and presence of the Holocaust that, despite remaining unspoken, contributes to the life experiences and shapes the personality of the person exposed to it.
The people interviewed were able to get a sense of their parents’ experiences through the unspoken. One recalled hearing a parent’s nightly cries; another remembered wondering about the numbers branded on a parent’s arm; several described watching their parents reminiscing or looking through old photographs or memorabilia.
The silent day-to-day presence of Holocaust memories that the descendents of Holocaust survivors gleaned sufficed, Kidron argued in her report: As children, they frequently felt no need to question their parents in depth. They had no desire to document their families’ Holocaust history. An overwhelming majority of interviewees — 95% — said that they were not interested in telling the story of their parents’ Holocaust experiences in the public domain, or their own.
In Kirdon’s words: “By forming an experiential matrix, these silent traces maintain an intimate and non-pathological presence of the Holocaust death-world in the everyday life-world.”