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American Imago 59.3 (2002) 249-252

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Jay Geller

In 1991, American Imago published two special issues under the editorship of Cathy Caruth devoted to interdisciplinary approaches in the study of trauma; their contents were collected and published by Caruth in 1995 as Trauma: Explorations in Memory. The seeming ubiquity of "trauma" as a topic in both scholarly and clinical writing in the past decade can in no small measure be traced to these landmark issues. No less inescapable during the same period have been studies of the Shoah, the exemplary atrocity of the twentieth century. Impelled by the dying out of those who survived the concentration and extermination camps—this last silencing of those whose presence bespeaks the unspeakable—and undeterred by the backlash reflected in such labels as "false memory syndrome" (Crews 1995) and "Holocaust industry" (Finkelstein 2000), the present special issue of American Imago on "Postmemories of the Holocaust" seeks to articulate the emerging convergence between these two fields of inquiry.

A generation passes on. Is their witness passed on as well? The double meaning of "passing on" lies at the heart of both trauma and Holocaust studies, just as understanding the necessary connection between death or loss and the often unconscious transmission of a heritage is no less fundamental to history than it is to psychoanalysis. If truth is contingent upon personal experience, and if truth—as opposed to falsehood—is the desideratum of both disciplines, how can either be practiced when its subjects are absent? Freud, writing on the eve of the Holocaust in Moses and Monotheism (1939), speculated about how the experiences of the generations in the wilderness and at Qades came to reinscribe themselves in the religion of the prophets some 600 years later. He drew an analogy between the workings of tradition and his model of individual trauma ("Early trauma—defense—latency—outbreak of neurotic illness—partial return of the repressed"). More [End Page 249] recently, Marianne Hirsch (1997) has derived from research on children of Holocaust survivors—as well as on the survivors of other traumas—the notion of "postmemories." By postmemories, she means the deferred effects of the traumatic experiences of both individual parents and entire communities—often transmitted in the form of seemingly strange behavior and fragmentary narratives—upon subsequent generations, which can never fully understand or appropriate these memories as their own.

In this issue, Hirsch, together with her husband Leo Spitzer, pursues her investigation into how the memories of the first generation become the postmemories of the second. In a personal memoir, they describe accompanying Hirsch's parents on a return trip to Czernowitz, their birthplace and the site where a snap decision in 1941 to turn in one direction rather than another saved them from becoming two of the millions who died in the Shoah. Hirsch and Spitzer discover that actually revisiting the places of those wartime experiences threw into doubt, if it did not belie, some of Hirsch's parents' memories and the familiar narratives that had formed her understanding of her origins and identity. They also explore how the competing pulls of nostalgic recollections and negative memories, which find an emblem in the crossroads in Czernowitz where her parents made their fateful turn, are felt differently by everyone concerned.

Reflecting theoretically on what it means to have witnessed the Holocaust, Susan Suleiman revises traditional categories by introducing the concept of the "1.5 generation." Its members are children who were born during the Holocaust and who survived its horrors, but were too young at the time to have had the cognitive capacity to understand the experiences to which they were subjected. These individuals, whose stories were long ignored (whether due to skepticism about their veracity or the misguided assumption that silence would lead to forgetting), are now finding their voices and a receptive audience. Suleiman thinks through questions of definition. What constitutes a generation? Can we speak of a generational consciousness if the formative experiences occurred in early childhood? And can there be a group mentalité if, until recently, [End Page 250] the individuals concerned did not think of themselves as collectively belonging to...


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