George Santayana’s famous conclusions — “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” and “Only the dead have seen the end of war” — while not referenced directly in Elizabeth Rosner’s complex Survivor Café, are nevertheless its omnipresent organizing principles. As the child of survivor parents, Rosner eloquently and thought-provokingly shares her hard-won insights into the (in)human condition of the Holocaust, and connects it to other genocides whose aftermath reverberates in the lives of their descendants today: slavery and Jim Crow then and now, the destruction of First Nations, the atom-bombing of Hiroshima/Nagasaki, the Vietnam War, the Killing Fields of the Pol Pot régime in Cambodia, Rwanda … Rosner illustrates that understanding all sides is non-negotiable if any healing is to take place.
Focusing on three trips with her father to Buchenwald, the concentration camp he survived as a teenager, Rosner ponders complicated questions of adequate remembering of the Holocaust, especially as its survivors dwindle. At the same time, she acknowledges the impossibility of doing individuals’ experiences in the Shoah any justice. She writes,
Because whose story is it to tell? Because thinking and feeling and analyzing and remembering are complicated. Because there is no complete truth that anyone can tell, and yet there is an obligation to keep reaching for the truth, to keep preserving the truth as best we are able, to keep naming the names of the dead, and restoring the identities and self-determination of the living.
The personal, the historical, the political, and the psychological dimensions of the Holocaust are interconnected, illuminating and influencing each other in the present — especially at the Survivor Café, an actual event organized (with identity cards to boot!) bythe Germansfor the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald. The inadequacies and unwitting ironies of trying to find forms of remembering the un-rememberable could not have been depicted more accurately.
The Holocaust was not the last genocide. Others have followed and are in the process of happening as I write this. Are we condemned to repeat the trauma and the transmission of the Shoah, onto the seventh generation? The research Rosner conducted seems to confirm that war and its atrocities don’t end; they live on in the descendant’s psyche and body, and, without understanding, preclude healing.
“To hold the past in the present with a sense of acceptance – but not resignation, not resentment. A commitment to memory that is healthy.” — This is the intention of Survivor Café. Rosner has succeeded in showing her process of achieving this acceptance in her important and fascinating contribution to the “postmemory” conundrum.
Reinhild Draeger-Muenke left her native Germany as a young adult and has lived in the United States for almost 40 years. She is a psychologist and family therapist in the Philadelphia area, helping people heal from intergenerationally transmitted trauma.