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  • Being Without Pleasurable Memories: On the Predicament of the Shoah’s Child Survivors in Norman Manea’s “Proust’s Tea” and Kindred Narratives
  • Dana Mihăilescu (bio)

In Ghosts of Home (2010), Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer recount their 1998 return to Czernowitz with Marianne Hirsch’s parents, first-generation adult survivors of the Holocaust. Hoping to gain insight into the latter’s life before the time of persecutions and deportations, they visit the home where Marianne’s mother, Lotte, spent her first twenty-seven years of life and where the authors observe her ambiguous reactions to two enduring objects that she still finds there: two tile stoves. The stoves possess ambivalent symbolism. While they represent everyday, positive prewar life—a “childhood sense world of familial warmth and safety, of privacy and interiority” (Hirsch & Spitzer, 2010, p. 295)—at the same time they recall the abnormal, negative experience of wartime, when the two stoves were no longer used for heating but for cooking and baking. Thus does the first-generation adult survivor recover her own personal sense of the past as a contradictory mixture of nostalgic and painful feelings toward the small pleasures that ensured or accompanied survival.

This essay begins by asking whether the equivalent of the homely pleasures of pre-Holocaust existence can be found in the case of child survivors, and, if not, with what implications for the survivor. Serious research into the lives and experiences of child survivors has derived importantly from the work of Judith S. Kestenberg, the founder of the International Study of the Organized Persecution of Children (1981) and the psychoanalyst [End Page 107] who devoted her life to child psychiatry. Kestenberg (1998) distinguished three categories of Holocaust survivors: “adult survivors” who lived through the Holocaust as adults; “children of survivors,” born after the war; and “child survivors,” who survived the Holocaust as children, either with their parents or alone (p. 59). Kestenberg underscores the relevance of a child’s age during the Holocaust, noting, for example, how “[a] nhedonia (absence of pleasure) is prevalent among young child survivors who were infants during the persecution” (p. 62). 1

Drawing on Kestenberg’s work, the psychoanalyst as well as child survivor Paul Valent (1998) defines child survivors as those youths who were at most 16 years old at the end of the war (p. 10). He particularly notes how acknowledgment and analysis of child survivors’ traumatization began only in the 1980s, before which time specialists tended to believe that, given their young age, children did not comprehend the traumatic situations they lived through and hence were not affected to the same extent as adult survivors. Clinical observation, however, showed the contrary; as Valent stated, “the younger the survivor, the greater were the potential harmful effects of traumatic experiences” (p. 100). Further, Valent (2006) stresses the importance of three age-ranges in child development and their relevance for understanding the experience of child survivors. For infants and toddlers under three years of age, environmental and maternal influences and “physiological attunements” are crucial for development. “Mental attunements” become decisive from three to seven years. In that period, language and thinking are developing fully but have not yet achieved cohesion; at the same time, the child is forming a sense of self through imitation of and obedience to “parents-gods” considered to be the sources of the offspring’s cohesive world. By the end of their seventh year, children have attained a coherent narrative capacity and sense of self and become capable of independent action (p. 2).

In his article, “Children of the Holocaust,” Gabriel Motola (1999) emphasizes further particularities of the child survivors’ generation. First, Motola stresses that the Shoah—an extreme situation that presupposed the suspension of a moral code—presented the first life frame for the child survivors, with important consequences for their formation, memories, and life [End Page 108] development. He cites the case of Simon Srebnik, a Polish Jewish survivor featured in Claude Lanzmann’s documentary, Shoah (1985). A 13-year-old prisoner of the Lodz ghetto and the killing site of Chelmno, Srebnik explains in the documentary how he deemed normal the act of feeding dead bodies to the ovens: all...


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