- Reluctant Witnesses: Survivors, Their Children, and the Rise of Holocaust Consciousness by Arlene Stein
Arlene Stein’s Reluctant Witnesses: Survivors, Their Children, and the Rise of Holocaust Consciousness began as an effort to
tell a story of the rise of Holocaust memory in the United States that focuses on the private, informal acts of memory that took place among families of Holocaust survivors [while investigating how] these acts of memory were shaped by the social and political environment that surrounded them, and the kinds of stories that were possible to tell.(4) [End Page 281]
The book, however, is not only about the survivors and their struggles to communicate their experiences and to assimilate into post-war American society. It also focuses on the role played by the children of survivors, the second generation, or 2Gs, in bringing their parents’ private memories, what Stein calls “thick” narratives, into public discourse and in contributing to the creation of a shared, “thin” narrative of Holocaust memory in the United States of today. The book is also about storytelling and the nature of storytelling, especially the “trauma stories” of Holocaust survivors as well as others who have undergone traumatic events (3). Closely connected to this point are the questions of how these stories have evolved over time and how external events have affected how they have been told. According to Stein, this is a book about getting from “there—a time when speaking about the Holocaust was mainly a private activity, confined to certain groups—to here: the rise of a robust Holocaust memorial culture that has broad resonance” (3).
Although Stein, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University, is careful to point out that the book is “not a work of history per se, but a psychosocial account of the transformation of Holocaust consciousness,” it is organized chronologically and divided into six chapters that roughly correspond to the six decades following the end of the war, from the late 1940s until the present (17–8). At the end, she includes an appendix that discusses her methodology and sources.
The first chapter of the book covers 1945 until the late 1950s. Here, Stein does an excellent job of discussing the obstacles faced by survivors in telling their stories while trying to place themselves in American society during a period marked by pronounced social change. This was a period when most survivors tried to hide their identities for fear of being stigmatized, while others created new identities for themselves that downplayed or hid their Holocaust experiences. Those that did talk confined their narratives to close family circles and other survivors. Identifying oneself as a survivor was also hampered by social and legal questions surrounding the definition of the word. These individuals also had to contend with an established American Jewish community that had, by World War II, come to identify almost completely with American culture. Empathizing with the survivors and their experiences required American Jews to open themselves up to the traumatic narratives of these newcomers, and this served to distance American Jews from the new arrivals. Regardless of these obstacles, survivors began creating support networks among friends and family, laying the foundation for the changes that were to come.
Chapter 2 continues her narrative into the 1960s. According to Stein, these years were marked by the continued quest for normality by the survivors and an early period of discovery for their children, the 2Gs. As the survivors sought to integrate themselves into American society, they began opening up to their children, telling “piecemeal stories . . . that filled in some of the gaps . . . while withholding a sense of narrative coherence” (55). These disjointed narratives had to be carefully interpreted by the 2Gs, who learned how to parse them together into larger, but not necessarily more cohesive, narratives. Underlying and perhaps shaping this process was the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the beginning of financial restitution for the survivors. The foundation of Israel spurred many to begin talking more publicly about their experiences...