Sur­vivor Café: The Lega­cy of Trau­ma and the Labyrinth of Memory

  • Review
By – December 13, 2017

Sur­vivor Café: The Lega­cy of Trau­ma and the Labyrinth of Mem­o­ry by Eliz­a­beth Ros­ner | Jew­ish Book Coun­cil

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 regime 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.

Discussion Questions