- Talking about Loss after the Holocaust
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Laura Levitt offers this description of her book American Jewish Loss After the Holocaust (New York University Press, 2009):
Many of us belong to communities that have been scarred by terrible calamities. And many of us come from families that have suffered grievous losses. How we reflect on these legacies of loss and the ways they inform each other are the questions I take up in my book. Writing in a manner that is personal, creative and theoretical, I reflect on the experiences of a particular Jewish family (my own) in contemporary America and on the way Jews in the United States have tried to make sense of the great communal disaster of the twentieth century that is the Holocaust. Throughout this book, I show what happens when public and private losses are seen next to each other, what happens when difficult works of art or commemoration are seen alongside ordinary family stories about more intimate losses. By presenting different stories of loss next to each other, I argue that there is a compelling need to make space for particular narratives of loss and mourning within the practice of Holocaust commemoration. In so doing, I offer a more individualized, less totalizing notion of Holocaust commemoration that acknowledges the ordinary [End Page 155] losses in these enactments. American Jewish Loss After the Holocaust shows how different legacies of loss move in and out of each. By experimenting with standard academic writing, it invites readers into a space where critical texts and complicated works of art and commemoration of the Holocaust intermingle with ordinary stories of loss. It shows how these different legacies of loss are intertwined, both connected as well as distinct from each other.
Reading of your struggles to come to terms with the significance of a family mystery—the long silence about your father's birth mother Lena, for whom you were named—my own memories—what you call memories of forgetting—flooded back. Your searching (or Benjaminian "digging") inspired me to be an active reader, not only of your book, but also of my own murky familial past.
Dan, this is exactly what I hoped readers would be able to do as they read the book. I wanted the book to encourage others to take more seriously their familial pasts, the ordinary, and not so ordinary tales that are a part of them. I really did mean it quite literally when I wrote that the book is an invitation to others to do this kind of exploration. Although I expected that the way in might be through family photographs. That said, gestures, whispers, discomforts, and silences, as you so powerfully demonstrate, also can enable other readers to consider their own stories. This was certainly the case with "Secret Stashes." When my friend Catherine Staples read various drafts of the chapter, she identified with my father as a child who had also lost her mother when she was very young. I think that this kind of identification is part of how I chose many of the works of commemoration that I wrote about. Ravett's films and the episode of "This American Life" share a kind of visceral resemblance, a structure of feeling that was familiar to me—an absence and its haunting presence.
Why did you take the risk of writing an academic book that nonetheless involves telling your own story in the first person, and relating it (however taboo) to the Grand Narrative of Holocaust Loss? Did you hope to validate those ordinary and yet strange family stories of other American Jews as worthy of contemplation?
Yes. And the feminist theorist in me is committed to precisely the idea that this kind of emotional and intellectual work can be empowering. Since completing the book I have worked with some amazing students who have taken on this challenge with me, writing about their own families. These include: the story of a grandfather and his estranged artist father and, most especially, a young woman who worked in multiple media to get at the...