Friday, May 27, 2011

Show Me Your Face

I taught Ehud Havazelet's Bearing the Body this week in my Holocaust Film and Literature course. And, like last time I taught the novel, I'm compelled to write about it. When I put this course together I knew that I would have to address the perspective of what we call the Second Generation survivor--the child of a Holocaust survivor, exposed to the terrible trauma by proxy, everything secondhand. A life spent filling in the gaps in an attempt to know the elusive parent, the formidable and perpetually unknowable. Havazelet is not a child of survivors, but he has written an incredible novel that speaks to this experience.

I have to admit that over the last few years I have been turned off by the Second Generation racket--people forging their identities and making their careers based on their status as children of survivors. As the last generation of living Holocaust survivors shrinks smaller, many of their children rise in stature, conceiving of themselves as the only repositories of the authentic story of the Holocaust. They forget that not even their parents can claim that status--that that story died with the drowned, as Primo Levi and Giorgio Agamben will both attest.

Those children of survivors who write novels--their work is so often comprised of one long metaphorical scream. They make compelling cases for their entitlement, urge us to deify them with the passing of their parents. The story is ours, and ours alone, Melvin Jules Bukiet, a child of survivors, has said.

But it is not. He's wrong. It belongs to no one, perhaps. And, anyway, since when did it become fashionable to preside over narratives, claim ownership over them? It certainly isn't a Jewish impulse--to own narratives. Yes, Jews love stories. But the existence of Midrash--stories that provide commentary on biblical narratives, showing us the inadequacies of the original stories, deepening them, filling them out, and extending them in a way that ensures their relevance to a contemporary era--illuminates the Jewish capacity to own narratives while simultaneously relinquishing our right to them. We would rather see them grow, take shape, become relevant in the context of now.

And yet I don't quite despise the tendency of some of the more artistically and intellectually visible Second Generation Survivors to act out, imagining themselves in cattle cars they never saw, pretending the flesh of their arms is tattooed. Let me know what you know; show me your face. This is what they are essentially saying to their parents. Let me know what you know so that you can love me, and I can love you. Let me see your face.

The face on which was written "Thou shalt not kill." The face unread. The face that remains, painfully and necessarily, hidden.

I, in part, understand this impulse. The experience of feeling known by someone, inside and out, is exhilarating. I have often been loved, but rarely known.

My father was in the Vietnam War. In fact, he was part of some of the most gruesome battles of that war. He was wounded and nearly killed. His body bears incredible scars, but these scars break away from the body under the weight of the emotional burden. This quarter, as I taught about the transmission of trauma, I couldn't help but think of the similarities between children of Holocaust survivors and children of people traumatized by other events. No, it's not the same thing, but there's something...

I will never know my father. As much as I love and adore him, and as much as he loves, protects, and adores me, I will never know him. He lives within the trauma, though his body exists outside of its chronological grasp. The inside continuous with the outside. My father, the Mobius: no lines to distinguish beginnings from endings.

These histories that don't belong to us--they haunt us in the beginning, but become ash in our mouths before the day is done. He is caught. And it is not for me to save him or try to identify with him. I only bear witness, carry traces. I, daily, bear and bury the remnants of his strife, the relics of his trauma. And I realize, today, that if I am sad, if I embrace the sadness of life, it is because I want to share in his sorrow. I want to know.

And so it is with the issue of children of survivors. It is not for me to decide whether their position is right or wrong, ethical or unethical. It's not for me to levy judgments against their shortcomings, their flailing about in a desperate attempt to know. All I can do is bear witness.