by Elizabeth Rosner
Everyone copes with trauma in their own way, including the way they share their (hi)stories of trauma with others. However, there does seem to be a generational pattern of how trauma is passed from parents to children to grandchildren, and so on throughout human history. As a member of the second generation after holocaust survivors, Elizabeth Rosner has the experience of living with stories told and untold about the horrors her parents experienced during WWII. Her own experience listening to her parents, traveling to holocaust memorial sites, and bearing witness to the stories of survivors and children of survivors informs her understanding of not only the way families understand their past, but also the way communities, societies, and countries make sense of their collective past. Throughout her writing, she focuses primarily on the experience of holocaust survivors, but also delves into the stories of holocaust perpetrators (and their progeny), atom bomb survivors, refugees and genocide survivors, others who have experienced collective trauma. The themes she finds throughout these (hi)stories testify to both the indomitability and fragility of the human spirit, and the way that, spoken or unspoken, trauma is shared by more than those who are directly affected.
“Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory” by Elizabeth Rosner is part memoir, part exploration of the limited research available on epigenetics and the generational transmission of trauma. Rosner’s writing is centered on anecdotes, her own experience and the experiences of others that lead to informed speculation about what happens when parents do and do not tell their trauma history to their children, and what pieces of the full story are told. She takes a holistic view by including the story of holocaust survivors, their children and grandchildren, and also holocaust perpetrators and their children and grandchildren, questioning not only the ways people are hurt, but also the ways people are hurt by hurting others. Her writing is full of prose and vulnerable honesty, making her anecdotes compelling and emotionally-laden. Although her honesty reveals deeply painful truths about humanity and society, it is also imbued with a profound sense of hope. At times the stories she shares are so overwhelming it can be hard to connect with the emotional content of the book, which emphasizes Rosner’s point that we must bear witness to the suffering of others if we are to collectively do anything to reduce the amount of suffering in the world.
I was expecting something with a little more research to it, but the human stories are always more compelling than the numbers and statistics behind research. This book reinforces many of the anecdotes I hear through my work, and many of the speculations I have about how trauma is held and shared both for the person directly impacted and by those close to the trauma survivor. Her holistic perspective, including holocaust perpetrators, feels neither forced nor contrived, but necessary and balanced. The whole book is authentic and compelling. I highly recommend reading this one.