by Nat Bernstein
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is the editor of the recently published God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors (Jewish Lights Publishing). Jewish Book Council had the opportunity to discuss his book with him and learn more about his process.
Nat Bernstein: I’m interested in the process of making this book, particularly because you included such a wide range of writers. How did you select and seek out contributors? Did you approach each one with a specific theme, or did you organize all of the essays into the four parts of God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes after collecting the entire body of writing?
Menachem Z. Rosensaft: One of my principal goals was to have as broad and diverse a representation of children and grandchildren of survivors, known in shorthand as 2Gs and 3Gs—religiously, politically, professionally, geographically, etc.—as possible. And I wanted each to be accomplished and recognized in his or her chosen field. Of course, I have known many of those whom I invited to contribute to the book for a long time, some for decades, but there are also a large number whom I knew only by reputation. In addition, numerous friends and colleagues generously gave of their time and made recommendations.
It was extremely important to me that the book should not be seen as having an agenda, as it were. Since 2Gs and 3Gs are not in any way a politically, theologically, or intellectually homogeneous group, the book had to reflect all our views, beliefs and perspectives. In my letter inviting 2Gs and 3Gs to participate in this project, I made clear that the book was not meant to have an introspective or psycho-social focus, asking each of them to write about how their respective knowledge of their parents’ or grandparents’ experiences during and after the Shoah have shaped their lives, thoughts and careers. The book, most simply put, was meant to reflect what we believe, who we are, and how that informs what we are doing.
I had no idea at the outset what the essays for would be like, and I did not want to influence or predetermine what the different contributors would write; I therefore gave them a great deal of leeway. For example, I expected the Rabbis in the book to emphasize issues of faith, and most but not all did so. At the same time, equally profound and poignant religious points were made by 2Gs and 3Gs who are not trained or ordained theologians.
NLB: What has the response been since the book’s publication? Did you have an objective in mind when you set out to compile God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes, and if so do you feel that it has been met?
MZR: The response has been extraordinary and, most gratifying to me, uniformly positive. I wanted the book to convey an image—which I believe to be an accurate one—of 2Gs and 3Gs not as somehow traumatized or weighed down by our identity and heritage, but rather as a collective of creative, highly intelligent, often brilliant, in many cases iconoclastic individuals endowed with a balanced, forward-looking view of the world and our different roles within it. I also want readers of the book to come away with an understanding and appreciation that who we are is a direct result and reflection of who our parents and grandparents were or are. I think it’s clear that almost without exception, the contributors to God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes see our parents or grandparents as role models and sources of strength, and that our accomplishments are a tribute to them.
I want the book to be read widely not just by members of the Jewish community but also by non-Jews, and it is my fervent hope that it will comfort and inspire the victims and descendants of victims of other genocides and atrocities. After all, if the survivors could emerge from the horrors of the Shoah 70 years ago and, instead of turning their back on humankind—something they would have had every right to do—chose to rebuild their lives in new, not always welcoming surroundings and to start new families, and that we, their children and grandchildren, consider their legacy to be not a burden but a hallowed birthright , then there is no reason why the victims and the descendants of victims of genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia or Darfur, or of atrocities in Syria or elsewhere, cannot do so as well.
NLB: Is there a voice or perspective missing from this collection? Whether by intention or by happenstance, do you feel that there are narratives that didn’t make into the book?
MZR: Unfortunately, the book—like all books—had a length limitation, which meant that I could not include all the 2Gs and 3Gs I wanted to include. For each contributor whose essay is in the book, there are many whom I simply could not invite because of this space limitation. Also, Stuart Matlins, the editor in chief and publisher of Jewish Lights Publishing, and I worked very closely together to have as much balance in the book as possible, and not to have any one perspective—again, whether religious, political, geographic, or professional—overshadow the others. We also had to limit the number of contributors from any one field—academics, novelists, judges, physicians, reporters, psychologists, political activists, etc.—and to make sure that we had a broad geographic distribution. As a result, I regret that I simply could not invite many talented and interesting individuals whose narratives would have been extremely significant.
NLB: What did you learn from and through working on this project? Has the process been what you expected?
MZR: Reading the essays confirmed that the 2Gs and 3Gs are as diverse and as multi-dimensional as their parents and grandparents. It is important to bear in mind at all times that the common stereotype of the victims of the Shoah—both the dead and its survivors—while not inaccurate, conveys only part of the picture. The popular images of the murdered Six Million include a mother or father comforting a child on their way into a gas chamber, rabbis and devout Jews praying in ghettos and death camps, the idealistic Anne Frank in her hiding place before she and her family were betrayed and taken to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, and heroic partisans or ghetto resistance fighters. And they all, of course, were there in what Alexander Donat called the “Holocaust Kingdom.” But so were Zionists from Bialystok, Jewish socialists from Budapest and Jewish Communist from Brussels, as well as Jewish shop owners from Warsaw, Jewish intellectuals and artists from Paris, the assimilated Jewish industrialist from Berlin, the Jewish entertainer from Vienna, the Jewish diamond cutter from Antwerp, and the Jewish boxer from Amsterdam. As is clear from the essays in God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes, the children and grandchildren of the survivors are just as heterogeneous. One unexpected dimension of the essays turned out to be the absence of redundancy. While there are common themes, each of the contributors to the book carved out an individual niche for herself or himself with the result that the book is, I believe, a mosaic in which each element is an integral and essential part of the whole.
NLB: If you were to add a fifth section to God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes, what would it be? Who, according to your vision, would be included in it?
MZR: This might be counter-intuitive, but there are those 2Gs and 3Gs who do not identify with or speak about this aspect of their identity—or who consciously or subconsciously do not consider their parents’ or grandparents’ Holocaust experiences and memories to be a contributing factor in who they are. Thus, for example, even though Billy Joel is the son of a German-Jewish refugee, he has never, to the best of my knowledge, made any attempt to even acknowledge Holocaust memory in his lyrics. His one “social consciousness” song, We Didn’t Start the Fire, merely sandwiches Eichmann, without commentary, between Hemingway and Robert Heinlein’s sci-fi novel, Strangers in a Strange Land, among the personalities and events that Joel sees as epitomizing the second half of the twentieth century. It would be fascinating, I think, to engage with him and others in whose lives a legacy of Holocaust memories seems not to play a decisive role in a dialogue.
NLB: What are you working on next?
MZR: I primarily have to devote my time to and concentrate my energies on my responsibilities as General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress and on my classes and students at Columbia Law School and Cornell Law School. Having said this, my to-do List includes a book based on my lectures and the assigned readings for my courses on the law of genocide and war crimes trials, a volume of the poems I have written over the years, and, eventually, a collection of my essays and articles about controversies I have been involved in and issues I considered significant enough to write about.
Nat Bernstein is the JBC Network Coordinator at the Jewish Book Council and a graduate of Hampshire College.