Cardiff talk on the absence of memory

by Merilyn Moos

What is distinctive about the children of refugees from Nazism is the absence of memory. Although the Holocaust is now part of the understanding of the consequences of Nazism, the images and meanings are general. But the British second generation were told almost nothing about what had happened to their own grandparents and wider family. Even when their parents did tell the children about the murder of the grandparents, they did so only in the broadest strokes. The 2G children knew not to ask, knew not to try to break their parents’ silence. And yet they were deeply burdened by the absence of a past and what they sensed about the deaths of their grandparents.

A brief methodological note: My concern was with the children whose parents had arrived as refugees in the UK up to the beginning of the 2nd W war, not during or after. These are the ‘typical’ refugees into the UK: the figures are contested but 50-80,000 refugees arrived in the UK before the outbreak of war, about 5000 afterwards, of whom there were only about 2000 Holocaust survivors. The 2G generally were born around the 1940s rather than much later. Altogether I interviewed 12 2G people in depth, talked to many others, sometimes at length, and am myself a member of the 2G. I used what are referred to as opportunist and also snowball sampling, making use of a variety of networks. I also wanted to draw on people whose parents had fled from a variety of countries: Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Because of the relatively unstructured nature of the interviews, I refer to the interviewees as participants. . I am not laying claim to the sample or the testimonials being representative or unrepresentative, but I do see them as offering useful insights.
I now want to refer to some of the participants’ comments about the silences about the past they grew up in. Peter said of his father’s Hungarian parents: “The fact that they died in their 40s looms as the one large fact about their lives. Everything else I know is only tiny, and is utterly shadowed by that… I don’t think I could tell you one story about either of them.” He said he thought everything his father had told him until shortly before his father’s death could have been slotted into five minutes.

The participants as children knew their parents were hiding terrible secrets. Mike said that he knew something frightful had happened as if by osmosis. Again and again, the participants said they learnt quickly as children not to ask questions because of the pain it evidently gave their parents. What appears to have aggravated this rupture was that the child’s first language was English, which for the parents was a foreign language with an often opaque meaning. The second generation participants were denied their own history.

The participants often felt overwhelmed or to use the word loosely, haunted by people they had never known. As Peter said: ‘I couldn’t say why my strength of identification with that fact, that my grandparents being murdered, was so strong, but it was.’ Mike, who had been told almost nothing, said that he had dedicated much of his adult life to finding out about his Czech father’s parents and sister, all murdered in Auschwitz.
For Mike, there was an added complexity. He said: ‘In my family, the first secret kept from me was my name. When my mum died, when I was 18, I found my birth certificate in my mother’s cabinet. And I thought: ‘Who is this bloke?’ It said ‘Michael Buchbinder’. And my step- father admitted it was my father’s surname. .. That shattered me. Why haven’t I been told?…I once said to my father: ‘I feel like honouring my name.’ Mike’s father got very cross and said: ‘Bor is your family name.’
Another unexpected result was how severe was the participants’ sense of dislocation. Although all but one of the participants were born in the UK, none of them saw themselves as British/English. Nor did they identify with their parents’ country of origin. The most common word used about themselves was that they were ‘outsiders’. Sarah typically called herself a ‘rootless cosmopolitan.’ The silence by the participants’ parents, far from encouraging their second generation children to feel identification with Britain, appears to have deepened their sense of ‘unknowingness’ and non-belonging.

There was also an ambiguity about the meanings of Jewishishness. All but one of the participants had had kin murdered as Jews. But this was an identity most of the respondents struggled with. Robert called himself a ‘hidden Jew’ because his parents told him he must never tell anybody he was Jewish. Peter’s parents did not tell him he was Jewish. Mike worked it out when he was about ten because of the hostility of his mother’s English grandparents. One of the women was sent both to a Christian Sunday school and a Jewish Sunday school. I asked all but one of the male participants about whether they had been circumcised and none had, though in two cases, the father’s had pushed back their son’s prepus so as to imitate the effect of circumcision.
Henry was the only practicing Jew and the only participant who partook regularly in even cultural manifestations of Judaism and, intriguingly, the only person who saw themselves unambiguously as British. At the other end of levels of identification, Sarah did not see Jewishness as of importance to her. In-between was Robert who in his 60’s, realised that Jewishness was important to him but what was more important was that he was a socialist and maybe that he was a man.

I was also interested in whether having parents who had knowingly taken on the Nazis and fled at least in part for political reasons would affect the children: would this affect the meaning of being the child of refugees compared to those whose parents had fled because of antisemitism? It is often forgotten that Nazism’s first victims – whom the Nazis started to round up on the night of the Reichstag fire – were the anti-Nazis: first Communists, then trade-unionists, Social Democrats, and the radically inclined members of Germany’s thriving cultural world.
To my surprise, all the sample, except for the two people from Hungary, had parents had taken part in anti-Nazi activities, even though many – though not all – fled as much because they were Jews. There were differing levels of commitment: Tom’s mother had been a youth member of the SPD and merely distributed a few leaflets, though this was enough to end her up in prison, Tania’s parents had been dedicated members of the KPD and in the underground.

What distinguished the children of the more political parents was their refusal to see themselves as victims, as opposed to many in the second generation. John the child of an Austrian Jewish Communist father identified closely with Jewishness and with being a socialist. He stated explicitly that he did not attend 2G meetings because the people there presented themselves as victims. Tania, the other child of German Communists, herself a Communist and the only person in the sample who was not in any sense Jewish, emphasised that her parents’ active opposition to the Nazis, which had landed both in prison, her father seriously tortured, was a source of pride. This crucially provided her with a sense that she was also not a victim. This contrasts with many in the Second Generation who do not appear to view their parents positively, seeing them as refugees who had been the victims of circumstance, and themselves as lacking choice or agency in their own lives.

But what emerged was an added disjuncture for the children whose parents had been active anti-Nazis. Against my initial expectation that these parents would talk about their past deeds, they too were silent. Tania now in her 60s is trying to find out about her parents, KPD members and active in the German underground till 1936 when they fled to the UK. I was only to discover in my 60s how very active my father had been in Berlin organising against the Nazis.

Why is it when opposition to Nazism is glorified, that the parents were unable to talk about their own anti-Nazi pasts. I can only suggest some explanations which do not generally apply to the refugees from antisemitism. The allies may be popularly constructed as the good guys in the Second World War, but, with very few exceptions, the struggle against Nazism at a grass-roots level in Germany and elsewhere has received little recognition, certainly in the UK. Moreover, as so many more refugees arrived after the 1938 pogrom, Krystallnacht, the political refugees who arrived here years earlier and in far fewer numbers, have received little recognition. In addition, entry into the UK was conditional on the refugee not participating in political activities and many of the political refugees were very aware of the need to keep under MI5’s radar. Then, after the end of the war, the dominant ideology of the Cold War framed previous anti-fascists as possible or probable Communist sympathies and therefore possible traitors. The parents did not betray their beliefs but they also were not able to express them. Even when refugees were no longer in sympathy with the Communist party or Communism, there was at times a disinclination to ‘betray’ previous beliefs and previous comrades which strengthened a reluctance to speak out. The parents had also been defeated: they once provided an alternative hegemonic view to Nazism and in many cases to capitalism, but Nazism’s barbaric victory challenged their modernist and rationalist world view. Moreover, their defeat had intolerable consequences, reinforcing the disinclination to speak.

The child of these anti-Nazis was brought up by parents who were unable to give voice to their experiences and past beliefs. So the child was both cut off and dissociated from their parents’ political pasts as well in most cases not knowing about their murdered families.

It is only in middle-age, that some in the British second generation are trying to ‘break the silence’ and painfully trace what happened to their families. The process of discovery left many of the participants shaken. Henry talked about the impact of the Holocaust on his being. He said: ‘I think what really was transmitted through the Holocaust experience was not death itself but the fears that went with it. I couldn’t speak to either of my parents about it because it only occurred to me much later. I feel the anxieties are so deep ground; it’s almost as if it was inherited.” Henry described himself as being in a permanent state of anxiety about just about everything.
Peter also talked about how the process of discovery was personally very costly. He had gone without success to look for any sign of his father’s family in Hungary and strongly hinted that his visits had left him temporarily mentally ill.
Tom had found details of his mother’s family on the web about 10 years earlier in his 60’s. He said:” I felt like I’d cut myself. Somebody’s talked about mutilation. Much stronger than I wanted it to be. I didn’t want to know they went to x,y,z Concentration camp…Too strong. .. I could understand exactly why my mother didn’t want to find out. It just makes it more real.” In his late 50’s, Isaac looked up the records in the Jewish museum in Berlin, to discover that every one of his mother’s family had been murdered. Similarly, Robert found his murdered family in the pages of the records in Vienna. Mike only found out about many of the murdered members of his family when going through his dead father’s letters and when in middle age he visited the Jewish cemetery in Prague with his father- in- law.

Having no link to grandparents led to some participants trying to find a link through possessions, such as through rare old letters and other mementos, which for some, though not all, had come to assume a profound emotional significance. Photos were a recurrent issue in a way no other ‘object’ was. Tom gives us a glimpse of the cost of researching the past when he talked of his resistance to looking at family photos. He could hardly bear to look at them because of the pain: he did not know who the people were and was filled with fear as to how they had died. The photos also remind the viewer why they do not know who the photos are of.

Although the issue of public commemoration has been receiving attention, Mike was one of the few to talk explicitly about commemoration. For him, this did not involve objects such as stolpersteine or public ceremonies, but meant privately dedicating himself to an intellectual analysis of Nazism as well as a commitment to ‘find’ his murdered kin. Unlike his parents, his goal was to pass his knowledge onto his children. A few people I talked to, some of whom did not want to be interviewed, made clear that they could not cope with the pain associated with the construction of memories or acts of commemoration. Tom raised another question over formal commemoration: As an enterprise it falls apart, he said. Where would I commemorate my grandparents: In Austria, in Israel, or in England?

Even now there is a disputed heritage. There are many ways to interpret a past which caused thousands to flee and millions to die. The refusal by the children of the anti-Nazis to construct their parents or themselves as victims is seen as contentious within second generation circles. For many in the second generation, their ‘memory’ of their grandparents is perceived through their victim status. But the elephant in the room is Israel. How the experience of Nazism is understood is also mediated by the position on Israel. The legitimacy of Israel is connected to the barbarity inflicted on Jews. An emphasis on the potential of opposition can be seen to confront this view. So, even in relation to Nazism, the issue of agency becomes crucial.

But I do not want to overstate the difference within the experiences of the British second generation. Though none of us met our grandparents and we were born in the UK, we are all overshadowed by the experience of dislocation, non-belonging, and a rupture in memory akin to an un-knowingness.