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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

The decimal point is a bit of provocation. For if the "second generation" is by now a familiar and fairly stable concept in Holocaust studies (the second generation, born in the immediate years after the war, are children of Jews who survived the Holocaust in Europe—strictly speaking, it is to this second generation that Marianne Hirsch's term "postmemory" applies), the concept of "1.5 generation" needs to be explained. My subtitle gives one quick summary: by 1.5 generation, I mean child survivors of the Holocaust, too young to have had an adult understanding of what was happening to them, but old enough to have been there during the Nazi persecution of Jews. Unlike the second generation, whose most common shared experience is that of belatedness—perhaps best summed up in the French writer Henri Raczymow's rueful statement, "We cannot even say that we were almost deported" (1986, 104)—the 1.5 generation's shared experience is that of premature bewilderment and helplessness. This characterization may appear inadequate, in view of the massive trauma experienced by both child and adult survivors during the Holocaust. The operative word, however, is "premature"—for if all those who were there experienced trauma, the specific experience of children was that the trauma occurred (or at least, began) before the formation of stable identity that we associate with adulthood, and in some cases before any conscious sense of self. Paradoxically, their "premature bewilderment" was often accompanied by premature aging, having to act as an adult while still a child (Kestenberg and Brenner 1996, ch. 7); this was yet another form of trauma specific to the 1.5 generation.

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...


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