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Quit calling yourself a (Holocaust) survivor

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Photo from Center for Jewish History, NYC

I was pleased to see The CJN’s Dec. 15 feature on the challenges faced by children of Holocaust survivors. As my parents count among that group, I know well the particular ties that bind those who were raised surrounded by ghosts and deafening silences. It’s no coincidence that my father and his brother married fellow children of Holocaust survivors, partnering with another who implicitly knew that unmatched, complicated experience.

The CJN articles illustrated how the children of survivors share depths of unspoken loss, paranoia, fears and pathologies, and an imperative to excel in the wake of their parents’ suffering. It is a widespread social and psychological phenomenon that deserves increased attention.

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With our own particularities, the experiences of the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors are another arena for thoughtful dialogue. It is promising that the subject is being addressed with renewed focus and that groups gather for mutual support, committed to carrying on their parents’ stories. However, what requires an immediate course correction is the terminology by which the topic is discussed.

The CJN cover story was titled “Understanding second generation survivors,” explaining that some refer to themselves as “2Gs.” Unfortunately, this phraseology is by now prevalent. I receive newsletters from 3GNY, a New York non-profit that brings together grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.

However, the subject of the Holocaust is no place for linguistic shortcuts or cute abbreviations. The gravity and complexity of the Holocaust demand carefully chosen words that communicate exactly what they mean, not a slippage of language that perpetuates internalized collective victimhood.

Calling oneself a “second generation survivor” is not synonymous with “being part of the second generation since the Holocaust” or “a child of Holocaust survivors.” Words have meaning. Those words mean that a second generation went through the ghettos and concentration camps and, according to the chosen terminology of many, the pursuit of survival under Nazi occupation continued into my own generation.

While by now we are increasingly aware of the very real issues inherited by my parents’ cohort and even my own following the Holocaust, it is nevertheless an inappropriate, disrespectful misuse of language to call ourselves in any manner “survivors.”

As it is, in the wake of the Holocaust, an entire group was disproportionately burdened with the label “survivor,” to the extent that it practically effaced the individual. My grandparents did not lose their families and survive the horrors of the Holocaust to be distilled into a label – dubbed for time immemorial as “Holocaust survivors.” They certainly did not survive and rebuild their lives in Canada so that two generations of Canadian-born Jews could liberally call themselves “survivors” or the friendlier surrogates: 2G and 3G.

‘Calling oneself a Second generation survivor is not synonymous with being part of the second generation since the Holocaust ‘

Language emerges from our cultural understandings of ourselves, but language also creates culture. The relationship between language and culture was the lifework of prominent Jewish anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir: “We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.”

The habit of referring to ourselves as survivors writ-large is a proclivity of our community that must not survive. Especially with genuine Holocaust survivors passing away, we must be intentional and rigorous about not taking on the label “survivor” in any way, shape or form. What does such a turn of phrase imply about how we understand ourselves as the descendants of those who did come through the atrocities of the Shoah? How will such terminology impact how our own children see and hear and otherwise experience themselves in this world?

Let them grow up perceiving themselves as Jewish thrivers rather than as perpetual Holocaust survivors. Let’s consider how we internalize Jewish oppression and how we can purge those corrosive messages. Let’s bolster our imperative to carry forward the message of “never again” with renewed purpose. But please, let us not adopt the mantle of survivor. Freedom from that label is what my grandparents survived for. 

Evelyn Tauben is an independent curator, producer and writer in Toronto.

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