‘Silenced memories: how personal archives often do not become public’

by Merilyn Moos
This paper is drawn from my interviews with twelve members of the second generation, that is the children of refugees from Nazi Germany and elsewhere, who settled in Britain, leaving family behind. It is also drawn from my own experience as I too am a member of the second generation. This paper is thus not so much an analysis of archives from ‘outside’, as are some of the articles in this collection, but rather presents the intimate responses of the parents of the refugees, now in the possession of their grandchildren, the children of the refugees. Another distinction is that as a result of my own family history, I have not so much made a career choice about subject matter as had this choice force itself upon me.
Any primary data, such as letters, official certificates or photos, from people subsequently murdered by the Nazis can be deeply troubling for their descendants. Such letters are not like media reports: they reveal a subjective understanding of the writer’s everyday life and have a personal poignancy for the reader. What I shall be focusing on is how difficult the second generation, that is the children of the refugees and usually the grandchildren of the letter writers, have found coming to terms with such material and yet how impossible they find it to hand over their documents to a public archive. I end by considering broader issues around archiving such documents.
Interpreting the letters written from 1933 onwards to family who had fled or left Germany and later elsewhere, can be problematic. The letters contain a mixture of daily trivia – about tablecloths and gaberdines- woven in with the significant, where small details often conceal much meaning. Letters sent abroad could be opened and censored, making for circumspection, for example the terrible ‘Moved home’ or ‘Address no longer known’. This code can make translation and understanding tricky.
The date of the letters also matters: letters written in Germany up till the 1938 pogrom, may well suggest many serious but generally not life-threatening inconveniences but the assumption still seemed to be that anti-Semitism had come and gone in the past and so it would this time.1 It is after the 1938 pogrom that the construction of the letters often changes and becomes unendurable: ‘Please find us a way out of Germany.’ ‘It is urgent.’ The attempt to appear ‘normal’ is subsumed. Such letters were soon to be written from many other countries. Later still, letters or Red Cross cards sent from the camps had to be incredibly brief and were only able to tell a small part of the truth. People writing what they will have feared was their last communication wanted to express their love but also to present themselves as coping. Reading them is excruciating.
Then there were the letters which arrived after the war, when the refugees in Britain were trying to trace their family and friends and which often brought terrible news and to this day can be unbearable to read. In my study of the second generation, one of the interviewees said to me that his father, who had escaped Hungary, ‘got a letter immediately after the war from his surviving aunt in Budapest and it didn’t mention what had happened to his parents, his uncle, his cousins and so on. It was just signed: Your only relative. And that was it.’ I found a heart-breaking letter from Jewish Aid to my mother telling her they had found her father, only to then inform her that it wasn’t he, though he had the same name and place of birth.
The refugees, the parents of the second generation, did not always preserve these, their parents’, letters. The letters were too unbearable, the refugees wanted to turn their backs on the past, wanted to look forwards and start new lives, and wanted to protect their children from past horrors. In addition, for the refugees, the past was associated with the guilt of survival, and so doubly unendurable. Our parents threw away the connections to the past. When letters did exist, they were usually hidden away, well concealed from the casual gaze. One second generation person I chatted to though didn’t interview told me he had witnessed his parents throwing away boxes of old papers. ‘Who wants these now?’ they had said. What emerged from my interviews is quite how few personal letters from the Nazi period still exist.
The second generation sometimes only discovered hidden archives late in their own lives when they cleared out their refugee parent’s home or when a parent told them of their collection shortly before death. But for the second generation, the letters and other material can provide a crucial source of information about their family’s past. They lacked family memories as their parents had rarely talked to their children about what had happened to their parents and did not welcome their children’s enquiries about the past. The child learnt quickly not to upset their parents, whom they often observed as vulnerable – and stopped asking questions. This silence between parents and children about the family dead is symptomatic of the strained relationships in many of these refugee families.
The letters and documents which have been preserved can weigh heavily on those who have them. They were not written for us. Nor are we ‘objective’ researchers trying to deconstruct meaning. What hangs over these letters is what befell the writers, our grandparents or other close relatives. This gives the letters an extreme and distressing significance.
In almost every interview, the Second Generation person showed deep emotion when referring to the letters and photos they had from their grandparents and from the youths of their parents. In an interview that was not used, the interviewee started to cry almost uncontrollably when talking of the one letter she had from her grandmother. There is a deep attachment to such a precious link to a murdered past.
Peter expressed what many of the interviewees said about the absence or near absence of letters: ‘The letters are a mystery which my father has carried with him to the grave. There certainly were letters from my grandparents to my father during the War but what became of them, I have no idea…. Nothing. I find that very strange indeed.’ Robert also lamented that his father had destroyed all the letters from his murdered grandparents.
John was demonstrably touched by having a few of his grandparents’ letters, whom he had known, for his father had got rid of almost all the correspondence. John said: ‘I’ve got some of my grandparents’ letters. .. Those he [his father] didn’t destroy.’ But it is worth noting that these letters were written in the 1950’s as his grandparents had survived. His father, John said, could not talk ‘about the people who hadn’t made it. He drew diagrams. Who died where and when…. That [the people who hadn’t made it] he didn’t talk about.’ John’s father had been a member of the KPD and John suspected paranoia as one reason why his father had got rid of the letters and documents
What these personal archives also occasionally revealed were letters written between our parents. Becoming a refugee pulls couples apart plus even when here, the British government’s policy of internment caused separation. It isn’t easy to read letters between our parents – or indeed one of our parents with a significant other – that were never meant for their children’s eyes. The sense of not wanting to go there is very strong. I know of at least one person who has such letters and refuses to read them.
Another issue is that many of the interviewees did not speak or read their parents’ mother tongue. This had a number of causes: parents wanted to encourage their children’s assimilation, spoke to their children in English –even if they spoke to each other in their first language, and didn’t want their children to seem different; also, to an unexpected degree, the children did not wish to learn the language of their parents and of a past that felt remote but also oppressive. Thus many of the second generation could not read and understand the letters and required a translator. Translation is even harder when the writing is faint and written on tissue thin paper. Finding somebody up to interpreting the meaning of these letters is difficult. A couple of people I talked to indeed had ended up having letters translated twice as the first –and cheaper- translator hadn’t understood the complexity of what they were translating. Even more difficult are the letters written in Zetterling: as I know from my own experience, finding somebody who still knows how to translate this old German script is problematic. I had one terrible experience when the old refugee I had approached in London threw me out of his home: How could you bring these to me? he almost howled at me, crying. So, many of the second generation read a translation rather than the letters themselves, an uncomfortably distancing process.
Photos were a recurrent issue in a way no other object, including letters, were. They created emotional turmoil for both the parents and the second generation child. Before he had even sat down for the interview, Mike had pulled out a photo and said: ‘OK. I just wanted to show you. That’s the only picture saved of my family. That’s my dad as a young boy. That’s his family. None of those people survived. They are his parents.’ The photo was permanently on his father’s desk ‘in front of him every day of his life, always. That was my image of the family. I had no others.” But at the same time, his dad never talked of the people in the photos and Mike feared his dad would break down if he asked.
Similarly Peter said: ‘I suppose the Holocaust was something in which 6 million people died but in which there was hardly any concept of my own grandparents… My father had had pictures of both of his parents by his bedside. It was another strand of the confusion. We were told nothing about them….What could be more important than having those photos by the bedside but you know nothing about them.’ As with Peter, Robert’s father had once shown him a photo that he kept locked up in his desk, but Robert had found it impossible to get his father to tell him whom the people were.
The photo could provide the only possible even if constructed link with the murdered grandparent. Mike said: ‘There was this one moment when my father photographed us [the 3 children] staring at these cards from Auschwitz-Birkenau, the family’s [Mike’s grandparents] last contact with the world. It was revelatory but very painful.’
Tom gives us a glimpse of the unbearable emotional pain that can be attached to photos and of his resistance to looking at family photos. Tom unusually had access to ‘a large trunk of photographs’. He said: ‘That’s an emotional time when I go and look for them.’ Asked how often do you look at them, he replied ‘Once every 20 years.’ He went on to explain that he didn’t know who the people were and even when there are names on the photos, he still doesn’t know who they are. Tom continued: ‘There is a resistance there somewhere. If I go into that, I will start to discover all the things I don’t know. Is there a way of discovering all that? If they were people I knew very well, or had lots and lots of stories about so I felt I knew them or had met their children, or something.’ When we observe the people in the photos, we do not know who they are but the photos remind us about why we do not know.
So how does this all link to the issue of turning the personal into a public archive? Of the tens of thousands of refugees from Nazism who settled in the UK, only a very few of their descendants have made public the correspondence or other artefacts from kin who were living under Nazism. Indeed, I suspect that many in the second generation if they did inherit an archive from their parents often found these letters or photos too personal, too upsetting, from a long – gone world and unknown, long – gone people and either did not keep them or again shoved them away somewhere invisible. When I approached members of the second generation hoping to interview them for my research, a recurrent response was: No, I can’t go there. I don’t want to think about it. Too upsetting. Wardi talks about how only a few of the second generation will become what she refers to as ‘the memorial candles’ for their family dead.
But some members of the second generation, the bearers of the ‘memorial candles’, often late in life, did try to find a link to their grandparents through such letters and photos, indeed felt a desperate need to find out more. For almost everybody I interviewed, the letters and photos were often the only record they had of their grandparents. They- we – had lived in the shadow of our grandparents, although or maybe because we had never known them and rarely knew much about them. Our grandparents’ ghosts hover at the edge of our consciousness. It is hard to let go of these fragile filaments to our murdered families. There is an attachment here which makes giving away these documents difficult.
Then the papers also tell us about ourselves. My personal trove of boxes of old letters was revelatory. I finally broke through my parents’ silence and lies. Here I discovered something of my family’s lives under Nazism and what happened to them. I had not known they were murdered by the Nazis – and as Jews. There were many other ‘surprises’. While I recognise intellectually that my archive has a collective significance, I find that I cannot yet let go of this chronicle of tragedy which is a part of my own history.
There are also more prosaic problems: people, whether the refugees themselves or their children, may not know what to do with their archives. Even if the person wants to hold onto their personal archives in life, after death, where should they go? Who should one approach? Also, some refugees see their ancient personal archive as of little interest to anybody but themselves. Sometimes the second generation, who are also now getting old, want to hand over their papers to their children or their next of kin – although my impression is that not that many of third generation children are that interested. Nevertheless, the parent may want the archive to stay ‘in the family’. After all, they say, we didn’t get interested till we were quite old, so our children may yet want these papers.
Then there is the issue of which countries’ archive to give ones papers to. One long- term effect of displacement is the tantalising question about whether the papers should go back to the grandparents’ country of birth or stay in the country the refugee and second generation now live in. This is especially complex when that country of origin was Germany: the institutional heart of Nazism. One person I know did send his papers back to Germany or, more specifically, to the Jewish Museum in Berlin. After a lengthy internal struggle, he decided that it was more appropriate for papers about the deadly effects of Nazism to be read by Germans, even though he resisted returning the documents to the Germany which had, he felt, deprived him of his property, family and citizenship.2
Another issue over the location of the most suitable archive arises from Nazism having caused families to be scattered across the surface of the earth, all linked at least biologically through the murdered ‘ancestors’. I recently talked to a person who is thinking of sending her papers to America at least in part because a significant part of her widely dispersed family, though not her own parents, ended up living there, with their own cache of family papers. She wants the ‘family’ papers to be put back together. For her, the central figure is her murdered grandmother: the different papers from different connected branches of the family will go to where the most papers now are i.e. the US, not where her grandparents lived i.e. Germany, or where her parents spent the majority of their lives: the UK.
I want to end by focusing on the case of my own family, to raise some general issues about archiving the documents held by the second generation from their grandparents and parents. There is a politics to archiving: what categorisation is employed, the language and concepts used, what should the family unit be understood as and what is given prominence, all associated with a sometimes explicit, other times implicit political paradigm. Archives do not so much present facts as an argument. Even though it is an extreme case, remember the heated arguments, popularised in the film ‘Denial’, over ‘proving’ the holocaust happened and was deliberate. Museums about the Holocaust are constructed on a particular paradigm.
There is much debate about the causes and character of the Holocaust: I’m suggesting here that archives on the Holocaust need to be understood within the context of Nazism and to include a focus on anti-Nazi resistance prior to and post 1933.3 What needs to be a focus is agency.
What story should my family papers be used to tell? Is this to be primarily about the Holocaust: about my grandparents and other family left in Germany where the mode of their deaths becomes their defining characteristic or or about the family as a whole, including my anti-Nazi parents? 4
The person also needs to be seen in the round. After rather eventful times, both my parents constructed rich and successful lives in the UK.5 Although deeply affected by what happened to their families, neither of my parents would ever have deigned to see themselves as victims or, crucially, as defined by the Holocaust. Indeed, their silence about the past was precisely an attempt, amongst other motives, to ensure that I, their daughter, never saw them in any of these terms.
I would want their lives to be as much a focus as their murdered German families: then they can be seen as people not simply at the mercy of the forces of history. This calls for a distinctive agenda, which may not always fit with some constructions of anti-Semitism.
Where the boxes and boxes of my parents’ papers do not fit are in a Holocaust museum. I gather from the number of approaches I’ve had from museums that specialise in the Holocaust that the letters from my parents’ German families are seen as of significance (‘Gold-dust’ is how one archivist described them.) But I am not going to reduce my parents’ lives to the heart-breaking correspondence from their families without a recognition that my parents fled not as ’victims’ but because they were ‘actors’.
Much more information needs to be readily available about which libraries or collections are interested and in what. I hope that as a result of the Conference and this publication, somebody will try to pull together information on the character of all the different British archives and publicise it very widely. But the premise of archives relating to the Holocaust should not be simply that they are commemoration or for scholarly research but crucially to look forwards and to stop anything similar ever happening again.

Merilyn Moos: Breaking the Silence. Voices of the British children of refugees from Nazism Rowman and Littlefield, 2015
Dina Wardi: Memorial Candles: Children of the Holocaust, Routledge, 1962