What is the role of the third generation in Holocaust remembrance and reconciliation? This is the question I am left with after reading Eva Hoffman’s thought-provoking book After Such Knowledge: Memory, History and the Legacy of the Holocaust. Hoffman tells us that the second generation is the hinge generation “in which received, transferred knowledge of events is transmuted into history, or into myth.” But as the connection to the Shoah becomes more tenuous for the grandchildren of survivors, and is less of a living connection, what is the third generation’s responsibility to grapple with this history and extract meaning from it?
Some of us feel a stronger desire to connect with our past than others. When my students were asked whether they would choose to time travel to the past or the future, most of them chose the future. I choose the past, still wanting to go back and learn more about my family’s pre-Holocaust history, even after nearly two years spent wading through the shadows of the past in Germany. I know there are many others like me. They even have their own organizations such as Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors, which can be found on Facebook. There is also a growing body of literature on the third generation’s stories, reflections, and insights about the Shoah.
But despite the desire of many grandchildren of survivors to receive and interpret the memories and narratives of their parents and grandparents, my sense is that such sentiments are not the norm. Most of my cousins showed little interest in my own family research and discoveries. For those who do have interest, delving into such a distant past is not an easy undertaking. But as Hoffman stresses, it is our distance from the past that can be useful in developing perspectives and understandings that are not available to the victims. Far from indulging in victimhood, the third generation can still play an important role in reconciliation.
My hope is that the third generation will not be labeled the unhinged generation, the generation that has lost its connection to the past. Early in her book, Hoffman references an Israeli psychotherapist, Dina Wardi, who says that “in every survivor’s family, one child is chosen as a memorial candle….an instrument of commemoration, devotion, and mourning.” If this is the case for the second generation, I hope many of us who make up the third generation will continue to shine a light on our shared history in a way that will inform the present and benefit our future.