Together with Adi Duchins, Hadas Wiseman of the University of Haifa examined the impact of learning their grandparents’ experiences of the Holocaust on the third generation. Many Holocaust memoirs have been written in the last number of years, partly out of a sense that time is running out for survivors to share their memories, and partly due to a shift in attitudes to the Holocaust. As survivors increasingly share their stories and the third generation from the Holocaust grows up, the question arises of how these experiences affect the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.
As Wiseman and Duchins note, the children of Holocaust survivors are heavily impacted by their parents’ silence about their Holocaust lives. They grow up in a double silence, as the parents don’t tell and the children don’t ask. In Wiseman’s words, the children of survivors often have a strange experience of ‘knowing not-knowing’, as they absorb the existence of their parent’s traumatic memories without knowing the details or ever being told.
While the second generation of survivors experience strong echoes of trauma, those echoes are weaker by the third generation. Wiseman and Duchins refer to clinical studies which have produced mixed opinions about the impact of Holocaust trauma on the third generation, and empirical studies showing that it has had no physical or emotional effects on. For this study, Duchins and Wiseman interviewed five young Israeli adults whose grandparent had published Holocaust memoirs, to discover how they relate meaning and impact to their own family’s Holocaust story. Through narrative analysis, they examined how these adults respond to their grandparents experiences and the ways in which those experiences shaped their own lives and those of their family.
Of the adults interviewed, four expressed some measure of distance from their grandparent’s story. Two of them had not read all of their grandparent’s book of memoirs. Duchins and Wiseman note that these individuals wanted to keep their relationship with their grandparent separate to their grandparent’s Holocaust experience. One wished that the memoirs had not been published publicly but kept as a private family matter, which the authors take to indicate that she has not fully processed the impact of her grandparent’s experiences. In some way, these interviewees feel that their grandparent’s survivor identity takes them away from being Grandma or Grandpa. Most of the interviewees relate to their grandparent’s Holocaust experiences through the prism of their parent’s response. All of them refer to how difficult it was for their parent to be the child of a Holocaust survivor.
On the other hand, two of the young adults interviewed expressed that reading their grandparent’s memoirs brought them closer to them. It formed a connection between the generations and strengthened their relationship. One noted that his grandfather could express in writing memories that he could not verbalize in speech. Wiseman and Duchins comment that the third generation felt a responsibility to bear witness and pass on their knowledge of their grandparent’s experiences, although not all to the same degree.
In summary, the authors comment that all five grandchildren of Holocaust survivors feel a sense of ‘partial relevance’ to their grandparent’s experiences, and at times a ‘paradoxical relevance’. That is, each one felt that their grandparent’s memories relate to their own lives and identity in some way, but none of them felt that it defined them. As some of the interviewees note, the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors are able to communicate with their grandparents in a way that was never open to their parents. In contrast to second generation Holocaust survivors who feel locked in to bear their parents’ burden, Duchins and Wiseman conclude that the third generation feels a freedom to choose how to relate to their family’s Holocaust narrative. They can choose to examine the responsibility to pass on their grandparent’s story, to reshape it and to accept or refuse it in a way that their parents could not.