American Imago 59.3 (2002) 277-295
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The 1.5 Generation:
Thinking About Child Survivors and the Holocaust
Susan Robin Suleiman
Almost without exception, Jewish children in Europe during the war experienced the sudden transformation of [End Page 277] their world from at least some degree of stability and security to utter chaos. We know the statistics: only eleven percent of those children were still alive in 1945 (Dwork 1991, xxxiii). What did the eleven percent tell themselves to explain the chaos, and how did they adjust to it while it was occurring and afterward?
These are compelling questions, and for the past two decades we have seen increasing attention directed to them by historians, psychologists, and child survivors themselves. 1 Organized groups of child survivors of the Holocaust began meeting in international venues in the 1980s, and currently there are dozens if not hundreds of local groups as well, in various cities around the world. Oral testimonies, systematically collected, have multiplied during that time, as have published and unpublished memoirs. Documentary films, such as the 1999 Academy Award-winner Into the Arms of Strangers (dir. Mark Harris), which tells the stories of children who escaped Germany and other Central European countries on the Kindertransports to England, have also focused on the experience of what I am calling the 1.5 generation.
In one sense, then, this term is provocative only at first glance; it becomes reassuringly familiar if we say "child survivor" instead.
But familiarity is not the best recipe for thought. So let us forego the comfort of home for a while and defamiliarize what we think we know. What is a generation? What is a child? Are there in fact generations of the Holocaust, and in particular a generation of child survivors? That's just for a start.
The Concept of Generations in History
In an empirical and family-oriented perspective, the existence of generations is obvious and incontrovertible: parents, children, grandchildren succeed each other at more or less regular intervals. Variations occur, of course: today's serially monogamous families have produced the phenomenon of fathers whose children by a second marriage are the same age as their grandchildren by a first (a circumstance that obtained, [End Page 278] incidentally, in Freud's own family of origin). But, on the whole, families are defined by distinct generations.
In a theoretical perspective, however, historians and philosophers have been puzzling and...