Saturday, December 13, 2014

Q&A with Arlene Stein

Arlene Stein is the author of the new book Reluctant Witnesses: Survivors, Their Children, and the Rise of Holocaust Consciousness. Her other books include The Stranger Next Door and Sex and Sensibility. She is Professor of Sociology at Rutgers, her blog can be found here, and she has co-edited the American Sociological Association's journal Contexts.

Q: In Reluctant Witnesses, you state that one of its main themes is “the powerful role that shame played in the lives of many survivors, and in their children’s lives as well.” How did shame affect many of the survivors, and did it affect their children in similar ways, or in different ways?

A: As you can imagine, survivors did not think about their experiences in an affirmative way. Many experienced guilt for having survived when most did not.

And as I show in my book, they also experienced shame—a sense of being judged negatively by others. Those around them told that Jews  “went like lambs to the slaughter.”  They were certainly not viewed as war heroes—except, perhaps, those who had joined resistance movements. So there really wasn’t much of a place for them in the U.S.—except among communities of other survivors.

Children often picked up on these feelings of shame, and came to learn not to talk about their families’ losses. This was during the first few decades after the war, before survivors were the revered figures they are now.

Q: What do you think is likely to happen to public perceptions of the Holocaust once all the survivors have passed away?

A: Museums and memorials will play an even more important role as representations of the genocide. And of course the existence of survivor testimony projects, such as the Shoah Visual History Foundation, will mean that tens of thousands of survivor stories will “live" on in posterity. This is a good thing in many respects, particularly for their descendants.

But one of the things I worry about is that this is a somewhat skewed sample of survivor stories—it over-represents survivors who were quite resilient. But many, if not most, survivors probably would not have chosen to share their stories—it would have been too difficult for them to do so. 

Q: You write of your family’s Holocaust legacy, “It haunted me, and saddened me, and entered my world at inopportune moments: as I brushed my teeth, embraced friends, rode on trains.” Why did you decide to write this book, and how did writing it affect you?

A: I thought about writing about the Holocaust’s formative effect on my family early in my career but I put it aside—I wasn’t yet ready to delve into that difficult part of my history. It took me many years to muster the courage, and the perspective, to take it up again.

The process of writing this book, which has taken over 10 years, has been challenging intellectually. How could I integrate history, sociology, and memoir? How could I say something new?

And of course, it has been difficult emotionally —but useful too. It has helped me organize my thoughts and feelings and make some sense of a history that was just too chaotic before. It also brought me closer to a few family members—of my generation—who have appreciated my work, especially my brother.  

Q: How did you research the book, and what particularly surprised you in the course of your research?

A: I probed my own memories, analyzed interviews with survivors that had been conducted by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and interviews with children of survivors that had been conducted by a group of psychologists in Philly.

I also conducted some interviews with descendants myself, and with Holocaust experts. In addition, I participated in support groups for children of survivors, and wrote about them.

What was most surprising? How many books and articles have been written about the Holocaust—what a huge field of study it is. Of course that should not be all that surprising, but when I first started working on this subject, or at least contemplated working on it 20 years ago, it was not nearly as huge.

The other thing that I was not nearly as aware of was how much the Holocaust has become a subject of fascination for non-Jews.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am researching the lives of three generations of women from one Warsaw family and the story they tell about the meanings of Jewishness, gender, marginality, and cosmopolitanism in post-Communist Poland.

What does it mean to be Jewish in Poland today, where there are only scant vestiges of what was once one of the world’s largest, most vibrant Jewish communities, and where the vast majority of those who identify as Jewish are from mixed, highly secular backgrounds? How has the collapse of communism offered new openings and greater personal freedoms, facilitating a Jewish “revival”?   

A memorial culture has taken root in different ways in the U.S. and Poland, in relation to very different national histories. But there are also some interesting parallels as Poland, in recent years, has been influenced by western conceptions of personhood, self-fulfillment, and introspection. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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