1. Family Narratives and the Social Construction of Descendant Identity
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13 1 Family Narratives and the Social Construction of Descendant Identity Studies of children of Holocaust survivors have previously considered the ways in which the experiences of a traumatized parent become internalized and integrated into the psychological makeup of the child. This research emphasizes the transference of emotions, fears, and loss through conscious and unconscious processes that inform the construction of descendant identity. Beginning in 1966, psychiatric and psychological studies of first-generation descendants described children of survivors as suffering from nightmares, guilt, depression, fear of death, sadness, and the presence of intrusive images, indicators of posttraumatic stress symptoms among children of survivors (Bergman and Jucovy 1982; Prince 1985; Hass 1990; Berger 1997; Baranowsky et al. 1998; Binder-Byrnes et al. 1998; Holmes 1999). Although these symptoms have been found to vary across individual descendants, the overall findings suggest that the Holocaust, as “a dominant psychic reality” (Bergman and Jocovy 1982, 312), informs both the psychological and social development of succeeding generations. More recently, these findings have been expanded to include grandchildren of survivors (Fossion et al. 2003; Lev-Wiesel 2007). While the psychologically based research on traumatic inheritance is extensive and ongoing, less attention has been paid to the social and cultural contexts through which knowledge of the Holocaust is learned and the impact of trauma-based knowledge on the identity formation of children and grandchildren of survivors (Danieli 2007). In particular, the role of narrative in the transmission of trauma has been somewhat neglected in studies of the Holocaust, even as the study of narrative in identity formation has become an increasingly significant mode of anal- 14 | Family Narratives and Descendant Identity ysis in the social sciences. This chapter thus takes as its starting point a discussion of narrative in contemporary sociological thought. Beginning with a review of the literature on the sociology of narrative, the chapter addresses the intersection of memory and trauma narrativity in the formation of identity in the aftermath of genocide and mass trauma. Narrative and Identity More than two decades ago, Margaret Somers (1994) provided a theoretical framework for exploring the importance of narrative to identity formation. Challenging the notion that narratives are primarily the “telling of historical stories” (1994, 613), Somers argues that “people construct identities (however multiple and changing) by locating themselves within a repertoire of emplotted stories; that ‘experience’ is constituted through narrative; that people make sense of what has happened and is happening to them by attempting to assemble or in some way to integrate these happenings within one or more narratives” (1994, 614). Further, Somers suggests that is through the social networks and relationships of connectivity that narratives are given social meaning in the process of identification. In this respect, Somers suggests that identity is shaped by the narratives of events and history to which a person is connected, knowledge that is obtained through the relational interactions by which narratives are shared both publicly and within the private sphere of the family. Following Somers, Patricia Ewick and Susan Silbey (1995) suggest that, as a form of social practice, narratives are embedded in interactions that are defined by specific social contexts which bring cultural meanings to the process of narration. Thus, narratives are cultural productions that transmit knowledge about the conditions of social life which shape the identity of both the narrator and those for whom these narratives are intended. In the case of the Holocaust, descendant identity is therefore informed by the “metanarratives” (cultural frameworks) that surround the memory of the Holocaust in society and the social net- Family Narratives and Descendant Identity | 15 works of familial memory that preserve this history among survivors. Among the respondents in this study, it is the latter, the biographical narratives of Holocaust memory, that have been most salient for the construction of a historically situated descendant identity. Within this narrative realm of identity formation, survivor stories constitute an oral form of transmission that is distinguished from, among other narrative media, written accounts. As a story told to another, the survivor narrative is part of the social engagement of familial relations in which survivors “narrativize experience ” (Linden 1993, 18) through a recollection of events that seek to recall and give voice to what survivors and scholars alike have often deemed unrelatable. Previous research (Linden 1993; Gubkin 2007) has elaborated on the difficulty of representing the magnitude of genocidal trauma for which there is inadequate language to convey all that has been experienced and witnessed. The narratives that inform descendant identity are therefore...


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Subject Headings

  • Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945) -- Psychological aspects.
  • Holocaust survivors -- Psychology.
  • Children of Holocaust survivors -- Mental health.
  • Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945) -- Social aspects.
  • Intergenerational communication -- Case studies.
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