It took me a long time to grow up, to find the strength to ask myself the questions that my parents had not wanted asked. I had known they had been active anti-Nazis in Berlin in the early 1930’s and had fled from the Gestapo in 1933, arriving some time later in Britain, but that was just about it. My parents were distant and over-protective, paranoid and, more than anything, silent. But hey, isn’t that what parents are like?
It was when a whole lot of people started to tell me their life stories, and to say they had never really talked about this before, that I grew interested in the shared experiences of people born to refugee parents from Nazism, the ‘second generation’. No study has focused on the narratives of this second generation, so I decided to do it – and undertook a series of interviews. I ended up interviewing 12 people, 8 of whom came from Germany and Austria, while the other four came from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.
What rapidly emerged was the importance of the absence of grandparents. In fact, I realised my upbringing had been quite ‘normal’. Among the children of the second generation, almost nobody had been told stories by their parents about their grandparents, intensifying the experience of loss and a fracturing from the real. Yet for almost everyone the absence – and all too often the murder – of their grandparents, whom they had never known, was of profound – even over riding – concern. Here is one typical comment from an interviewee whose paternal grandparents had come from a small village in Hungary; neither survived:
‘I suppose the Holocaust was something in which 6 million people died but in which there was hardly any concept of my own grandparents... We were told nothing about them [by his parents] ... When it gets to actually thinking of my grandparents, its heartbreaking… I couldn’t say why was my strength of identification with that fact, that my grandparents being murdered, was so strong, but it was… The amount I actually know about their personality is just tiny… I don’t know how far that [knowing about them] can go... Because there is a level of vulnerability on my part that I don’t know if I can get beyond… The fact that they [grandparents] died in their forties looms as the one large fact about their lives. Everything else I know is only tiny, is utterly shadowed by that… I don’t think I could tell you one story about either of them.’
While almost all of the sample could loosely be categorised as Jewish, the meaning of Jewishness varied enormously. Only one man identified his Judaism as the most important part of him, while for others it had far less meaning. One crucial explanation for this was that so many of the parents had also been socialists. Those whose parents had fled for political reasons, because of their Communism, rather than because of anti-Semitism, appeared to be less insecure, more sure of who they were. In general, however, mental health issues cropped up frequently in the interviews, on one occasion explicitly linked to the person’s difficulties with ‘the past’. Finally, what became increasingly evident was that the country of origin really mattered to the present-day experience of the second generation in so far as it was linked to whether anybody in their families had survived. In both cases where the respondent’s family had been Hungarian, nobody had been left alive, leaving an absolute caesura between present and past.
Although I had aimed for a gender balance in the sample, one intriguing outcome was that three women (but no men) refused me permission to use the transcripts of their interviews, leaving me ultimately with a sample badly skewed towards men. Giving voice to thoughts and feelings in an in-depth interview is not as controlled as writing an email or article; what had been concealed becomes revealed. These women could not cope with what they had made visible. I can only guess why this affected women more than men, but I suspect one reason is that the women felt a greater responsibility for their parents and feared the had ‘confessed’ would upset their mothers and fathers.
Another issue was assessing whether my small sample was in any way ‘representative’: of the countries from which people had fled; their reasons for exile; their attitudes to religion or politics. How many refugees overall had come to the UK from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland etc?
Although I searched for this data, I still haven’t found some of these figures, and I suspect that the numbers of people who arrived here from countries other than Germany/Austria, and maybe Czechoslovakia, have not been systematically compiled. And why could I not find any children of Communists or anti-Stalinist socialists (like my parents became) or Social Democrats, who had been both born and bred in Britain? Why were there so many socialists, mostly also Jewish, in my sample? Where were the right-wingers of the second generation? But in the end, I decided that my sample was representative enough, especially given all the caveats I built in! I have been approached by a publisher and I expect that my book will be published.
The parents of the ‘second generation’ could not bear to look back into that vale of tears. ‘We are doing it for the children’, I can hear them reassuring each other, excusing their silence. But the children understood that they were different, saw their mothers weep, their fathers’ averted gaze, and knew not to ask. So great were the parents’ fears and desire that their child assimilate, that a few respondents had either not been told about their family’s Jewishness until they were adults or were told to keep it quiet. The respondents started putting things together at different stages of their lives, but often it was not until middle age that they wanted to know, and could cope with knowing. Many felt for a long time that they could not betray their parents while they were still alive or feared penetrating the enveloping miasma.
And it is difficult to recuperate the past when the connection with the past has been severed, when there is no relative to ask, when the past has not been spoken of and to speak its truths has been forbidden. The discoveries have been slow and often acutely painful. One middle-aged man told me about going to the place where his parents had lived in Czechoslovakia. There, chancing to look up at a wall of ‘memorialisation’, he discovered the names of his grandparents. It was the first time, he said, that he really ‘knew’. He only recognised the names,he explained to me, because he had found out his ‘real’ name on his birth certificate after his mother’s recent death, for his father had ‘Anglicised’ their surname.
A woman, whose parents had been committed Communists who had both worked ‘underground’ against the Nazis after 1933, discovered in her mid sixties, from official German records, that her mother as well as her father had been imprisoned for ‘activity against the State’.
Sometimes it is almost unbearable for we of the second generation to go there, to enter those tunnels of the past without feeling we will be crushed into oblivion. At least, our parents knew more than we did. It is we who are stumbling around in the dark and the dust. But while our past beckons us to approach, we cannot go there. We may find names and dates and places but we will never find our grandparents or hear their stories. Thus the second generation, though born in Britain, often after the Nazis had been defeated, are left feeling like outsiders, like they don’t belong, that they are not sure who they are. Nazism has a long historical arm. But we are learning to push back the silence and to speak.
Anyone interested in discussing the issues raised here, or in my semi-autobiographical novel The Language of Silence, please contact the author.