Who gets to be called a ‘sur­vivor’?

Why the grav­ity of the Holo­caust de­mands that we choose words care­fully.

The Canadian Jewish News (Montreal) - - Front Page - Eve­lyn Tauben Eve­lyn Tauben is an in­de­pen­dent cu­ra­tor, pro­ducer and writer in Toronto.

Iwas pleased to see The CJN’S Dec. 15 fea­ture on the chal­lenges faced by chil­dren of Holo­caust sur­vivors. As my par­ents count among that group, I know well the par­tic­u­lar ties that bind those who were raised sur­rounded by ghosts and deaf­en­ing si­lences. It’s no co­in­ci­dence that my fa­ther and his brother mar­ried fel­low chil­dren of Holo­caust sur­vivors, part­ner­ing with an­other who im­plic­itly knew that unmatched, com­pli­cated ex­pe­ri­ence.

The CJN ar­ti­cles il­lus­trated how the chil­dren of sur­vivors share depths of un­spo­ken loss, para­noia, fears and patholo­gies, and an im­per­a­tive to ex­cel in the wake of their par­ents’ suf­fer­ing. It is a wide­spread so­cial and psy­cho­log­i­cal phe­nom­e­non that de­serves in­creased at­ten­tion.

With our own par­tic­u­lar­i­ties, the ex­pe­ri­ences of the grand­chil­dren of Holo­caust sur­vivors are an­other arena for thought­ful di­a­logue. It is promis­ing that the sub­ject is be­ing ad­dressed with re­newed fo­cus and that groups gather for mu­tual sup­port, com­mit­ted to car­ry­ing on their par­ents’ sto­ries. How­ever, what re­quires an im­me­di­ate course cor­rec­tion is the ter­mi­nol­ogy by which the topic is dis­cussed.

The CJN cover story was ti­tled “Un­der­stand­ing sec­ond gen­er­a­tion sur­vivors,” ex­plain­ing that some re­fer to them­selves as “2Gs.” Un­for­tu­nately, this phrase­ol­ogy is by now preva­lent. I re­ceive news­let­ters from 3GNY, a New York non-profit that brings to­gether grand­chil­dren of Holo­caust sur­vivors.

How­ever, the sub­ject of the Holo­caust is no place for lin­guis­tic short­cuts or cute ab­bre­vi­a­tions. The grav­ity and com­plex­ity of the Holo­caust de­mand care­fully cho­sen words that com­mu­ni­cate ex­actly what they mean, not a slip­page of lan­guage that per­pet­u­ates in­ter­nal­ized col­lec­tive vic­tim­hood.

Call­ing one­self a “sec­ond gen­er­a­tion sur­vivor” is not syn­ony­mous with “be­ing part of the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion since the Holo­caust” or “a child of Holo­caust sur­vivors.” Words have mean­ing. Those words mean that a sec­ond gen­er­a­tion went through the ghet­tos and con­cen­tra­tion camps and, ac­cord­ing to the cho­sen ter­mi­nol­ogy of many, the pur­suit of sur­vival un­der Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion con­tin­ued into my own gen­er­a­tion.

While by now we are in­creas­ingly aware of the very real is­sues in­her­ited by my par­ents’ co­hort and even my own fol­low­ing the Holo­caust, it is nev­er­the­less an in­ap­pro­pri­ate, dis­re­spect­ful mis­use of lan­guage to call our­selves in any man­ner “sur­vivors.”

As it is, in the wake of the Holo­caust, an en­tire group was dis­pro­por­tion­ately bur­dened with the la­bel “sur­vivor,” to the ex­tent that it prac­ti­cally ef­faced the in­di­vid­ual. My grand­par­ents did not lose their fam­i­lies and sur­vive the hor­rors of the Holo­caust to be dis­tilled into a la­bel – dubbed for time im­memo­rial as “Holo­caust sur­vivors.” They cer­tainly did not sur­vive and re­build their lives in Canada so that two gen­er­a­tions of Cana­dian-born Jews could lib­er­ally call them­selves “sur­vivors” or the friend­lier sur­ro­gates: 2G and 3G.

Lan­guage emerges from our cul­tural un­der­stand­ings of our­selves, but lan­guage also cre­ates cul­ture. The re­la­tion­ship

Let them grow up per­ceiv­ing them­selves as Jewish thrivers rather than as per­pet­ual Holo­caust sur­vivors.

be­tween lan­guage and cul­ture was the life­work of prom­i­nent Jewish an­thro­pol­o­gist and lin­guist Edward Sapir: “We see and hear and oth­er­wise ex­pe­ri­ence very largely as we do be­cause the lan­guage habits of our com­mu­nity pre­dis­pose cer­tain choices of in­ter­pre­ta­tion.”

The habit of re­fer­ring to our­selves as sur­vivors writ-large is a pro­cliv­ity of our com­mu­nity that must not sur­vive. Es­pe­cially with gen­uine Holo­caust sur­vivors pass­ing away, we must be in­ten­tional and rig­or­ous about not tak­ing on the la­bel “sur­vivor” in any way, shape or form. What does such a turn of phrase im­ply about how we un­der­stand our­selves as the de­scen­dants of those who did come through the atroc­i­ties of the Shoah? How will such ter­mi­nol­ogy im­pact how our own chil­dren see and hear and oth­er­wise ex­pe­ri­ence them­selves in this world?

Let them grow up per­ceiv­ing them­selves as Jewish thrivers rather than as per­pet­ual Holo­caust sur­vivors. Let’s con­sider how we in­ter­nal­ize Jewish op­pres­sion and how we can purge those cor­ro­sive mes­sages. Let’s bol­ster our im­per­a­tive to carry for­ward the mes­sage of “never again” with re­newed pur­pose. But please, let us not adopt the man­tle of sur­vivor. Free­dom from that la­bel is what my grand­par­ents sur­vived for.

Are gen­er­a­tions since the Holo­caust too lib­er­ally re­fer­ring to them­selves as sur­vivors?

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.