December 18, 2017

The Long Shadow of the Holocaust

By Joanna Michlic –

Editor’s note: Last weekend, we commemorated the Holocaust on Yom Hashoah. Research by Joanna Michlic shows the importance of studying the Holocaust from the point of view of subsequent generations. Her new book, Jewish Families in Europe, 1939-Present, demonstrates the importance of children and youth’s voices in the reconstruction of the social history of the Holocaust. – 

I am convinced that what I call,  “the current children’s turn” or “the renaissance of children’s experiences” in the Holocaust studies and post-Holocaust Jewish social history gives us not only new avenues to explore previously ignored subjects about the lives and (self)-representations of young individuals and the smallest social unit – Jewish family, but that it also throws a new light onto the “big historical questions.” By critically examining young survivors’ testimonies, we can get fresh insights on topics such as the rescue and betrayal of Jewish fugitives, local anti-Jewish violence, Jewish self-help, family dynamics, and relationships with a non-Jewish social environment during the Holocaust. Critical analysis of children’s accounts contributes to the reconstruction of a fuller historical picture of the social landscape of the Holocaust, in spite of their cognitive and linguistic limitations, and different ways at making references to time and space.

Without interrogating in-depth the voices of child survivors and their multi-generational families: second and third generations, we are also not capable of fully grasping  “the long shadow” of the Holocaust, and drawing serious and intellectually meaningful comparisons with the voices of young survivors of other genocides taking place in the 20th and 21st centuries. Of course, I also recognize that among my colleagues and historians, some still view the history of Jewish children, youth, and Jewish families as less valuable than the standard classic topics in the Holocaust and Jewish histories.

The mortality rate for Jewish children and elderly was extremely high during the Holocaust. According to reliable estimates, only six to 11 percent of Europe’s pre-war Jewish population of children numbering approximately between 1.1 and 1.5 million, survived as compared with 33 percent of the adults. Thus, the history of Jewish child survivors is a history of the smallest youth minority among any groups of child-victims in Nazi-occupied Europe.

My frequent conversations with the literary scholar Lawrence Langer during my tenure at Brandeis University, made me strongly aware that conventional Holocaust historians in the past failed the youngest victims and survivors most by denying them not only agency and diversity of experiences, but also a legitimate and valued place as a subject of historical inquiry. Yet, as a scholar intellectually shaped by major developments in the field of history in the second half of the 1990s and the early 2000s, I am fortunate to belong to a growing milieu of historians of the Holocaust and East European Jewish history who view personal testimonies as a source to provide different perspectives of events that would have been missed and lost by historians who rely only on the so-called conventional “official” documents.

In my view, one of the major achievements of Jewish Families in Europe, 1939-Present is showing older children and youth as important historical co-creators of everyday life during and in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Just to remind us, the first pioneering studies of Jewish children in Nazi-occupied Europe representing a child-oriented historiography appeared in 1990s and during the first decade of 2000. In 1991, Debórah Dwork, published her pioneering study, Children with A Jewish Star: Jewish Youth in Nazi-occupied Europe. In 2005, Nicholas Stargardt published Witnesses of War. Children’s Lives under the Nazis, written from a child’s point of view and placing children’s experiences within broader social and cultural contexts of the Second World War. The last decade has witnessed a growing ‘boom’ in the publications of rich collections of primary sources on children during the Holocaust, and monographs dealing with the history of Jewish children in particular countries of Nazi-occupied Europe such as Holland, Belgium, and France.

My main goal in publishing Jewish Families in Europe, 1939-Present is to offer the reader, a collection of essays written by a wonderful team of well-recognized senior and younger scholars, of how the Holocaust was experienced by Jewish families, and, in particular, by the children, primarily in East-central Europe, and of subsequent difficulties in coming to terms with their wartime experiences, above all in Poland, Hungary, Israel and the United States. Jewish Families in Europe, 1939-Present demonstrates that the post-Holocaust history of central east European Jewish youth and family consists of many transnational aspects such as the reconstitution of Jewish families, adoption, and a variety of life trajectories of young survivors, including first loves, future marriages, long-life friendships, and family-like relationships among youth who met in children’s homes and kibbutzim established in the aftermath of genocide. Therein, it is a history that must be approached through a transnational lens. My other main argument is that to understand the short-term and long-term impact of the Shoah on young survivors and the post-1945 multigenerational Jewish family, it is important to study that history both in the wartime and postwar historical contexts, and not separately.  Many Czech, Slovak, Polish or Hungarian Jewish children were part of the Displaced Persons camps in the early postwar American, British and French zones in divided Germany, and made their new postwar homes in the West: in the USA, Canada, and Australia, and to lesser degree in the United Kingdom and France. The majority of orphans migrated to Yishuv in Palestine/Israel between 1945 and 1948 and was settled in kibbutzim.

I strongly believe that present-day scholarly examination of the experiences of children in WWII should reflect historical distinctions between various groups of children, and not be “colorblind” to the differences between Jewish children’s experiences and those of children from other groups. Such a scholarly analysis should, of course, be free of any ideological goals and of attempts at ascertaining a hierarchy of victims. At the same time, I am a keen advocate of comparative studies, for example, concerning the postwar modes of reconstruction of childhood experiences in biographical memory between Jewish children and non-Jewish children such as Roma and Sinti— the other victims of Nazi policies of violence, discrimination, and persecution. I am also an advocate of comparative synchronic genocidal studies of particular issues such as the memories and self-perceptions of Jewish youth as they had emerged from the Holocaust with those of young victims of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, or the attitudes and behavior of East European rescuers towards Jewish children during the Holocaust with the attitudes and behavior of Turkish rescuers towards Armenian children during the Armenian genocide of 1915–1917.

I am pleased to see that today, as historians of the Holocaust, we accept the subjectivity of children’s gaze at reality as an appropriate topic for historical inquiry. The catalogue of scholarly works on child survivors and youth during and in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and the studies of the ways young survivors remember the traumatic past, is constantly growing. I strongly believe that with the endorsement of the child-centered historical methods and interdisciplinary approaches, the field will continue to thrive and bear new important fruit. In my work, I constantly emphasize that the history of Jewish youth –the smallest group of young survivors from the Nazi-occupied Europe is worth examining for its own merits, and in order to understand better the plight of other young victims and survivors of wars and genocides in the second half of the 20th century and the first two decades of the 21st century. I trust that Jewish Families in Europe, 1939-Present will make engaging reading not only for students and scholars of Holocaust and Genocide studies, and East European Jewish history, but also for psychologists and other practitioners who work with the now aged child Holocaust survivors and members of the second and third generations, and social workers and psychologists working with child survivors of other genocides, and general public.

Joanna Beata Michlic is a social and cultural historian, and founder of HBI’s Project on Families, Children, and the Holocaust. She is an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the UCL Centre for the Study of Collective Violence, the Holocaust and Genocide, UCL Institute for Advances Studies, and an Honorary Senior Associate at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) in London. She teaches at the Leo Baeck College in London.

Jewish Families in Europe, 1939-Present: History, Representation, and Memory, (HBI Series on Jewish Women), is the fruit of an interdisciplinary, in-depth research project on Families, Children, and the Holocaust, conducted under Michlic’s directorship at HBI, and vigorous academic discussions, involving historians, sociologists, psychologists, literary scholars, and child survivors such the acclaimed Polish-Jewish American writer, Henryk Grynberg.

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