As firsthand survivors of many of 20th century’s most monumental eventsthe Holocaust, Pearl Harbor, the Vietnam Warbegin to pass away, Survivor Café addresses urgent questions: How do we carry those stories forward? How do we collectively ensure that the horrors of the past are not forgotten?
In this wide-ranging book, Elizabeth Rosner discusses the intergenerational inheritance of trauma, as well as the intricacies of memory and remembrance in the aftermath of genocide and atrocity. Through a series of interconnected pieces, Survivor Café becomes a lens for numerous constructs of memorializationfrom Holocaust museums and commemorative sites to educational methodology, from national reconciliation projects to individual cross-cultural encounters.
With her own personal experience as a daughter of two Holocaust survivors, Rosner describes a series of trips to Germany with her father, re-visiting the site of his imprisonment in Buchenwald concentration camp. She extends this exploration to consider echoes of similar legacies among descendants of African American slaves; descendants of Cambodian survivors of the Killing Fields; descendants of survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the effects of 9/11 on the general population, and others. In a thoughtful examination of language (and its limits), as well as current brain research involving the mechanisms of memory, Rosner depicts a variety of efforts to create a map of human tragedy and transcendence.
Beyond preserving the firsthand testimonies of participants and witnesses, individuals and societies must also continually take responsibility for learning the painful lessons of the past in order to offer hope for the future. Survivor Café offers a clear-eyed sense of the enormity of our 21st century human inheritancenot only among direct descendants of the Holocaust but also in the shape of our collective responsibility to learn from tragedy, and to keep the ever-changing conversations alive between the past and the present.
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About the Author
Elizabeth Rosner is the author of three novels and a poetry collection. The Speed of Light was translated into nine languages and won several awards in the US and in Europe, including being shortlisted for the prestigious Prix Femina. Blue Nude was named among the best books of 2006 by the San Francisco Chronicle. Electric City was named among the best books of 2014 by NPR. Her essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Elle, the San Francisco Chronicle and others She lives in Berkeley, CA.
Table of Contents
Author's Note xiii
The Alphabet of Inadequate Language xv
1 Beech Forest III 13
2 The S-Word 35
3 The Woman Who had Eight Mothers 63
4 They Walked Like Ghosts 93
5 Beech Forest I 115
6 3G and the Opposite of Forgetting 131
7 Stumbling Stones 161
8 Beech Forest II 187
9 Post Memory and the Paradox of Artifice 203
Reading Group Guide
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
SURVIVOR CAFÉ: the Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory
1. Some insist that the Holocaust is a unique historical event that cannot be discussed alongside any other genocide, before or since. Others emphasize that a shared endeavor to remember and study the Holocaust, including the examination of other atrocities, is key to developing a sense of collective responsibility for the past as well as the future. What are some of the reasons for these different points of view?
2. How do you understand the various goals of memorialization and commemoration? In what ways might these efforts be incompatible and yet also intertwined? Do you feel there is an effective way to distinguish between the past and the present?
3. What are some of examples of “inadequate language” that you have encountered in your own life, and/or in your field of work or education? What are some of the most problematic words and phrases you have heard used, or found yourself using, and why are they challenging for you?
4. Are you aware of stories in your family and/or your community that you have never heard, but wish you could find out about? Why do you think these stories have remained hidden, or at least have not yet been told?
5. Do you or your family members have certain possessions that have come to represent the history of your ancestors? Is there any object or item that doesn’t necessarily have monetary value but which has been a cherished keepsake for generations? Choose one of those objects and tell its story.
6. In what ways do you observe the inheritance of trauma in your own family and/or culture? It may take the form of silence, or absence. Are there experiences you have had that are unspeakable? Do you believe that experiences must be named in order to be understood?
7. This book interweaves numerous individual as well as collective narratives of violence and loss, war and its long-lasting aftermath. Is there any particular story related in Survivor Cafe that seemed to have the most powerful effect on you, whether emotionally or intellectually or even physically? Can you talk about why you felt so impacted?
8. Do you feel that your education has included enough breadth as well as depth in the study of genocide and atrocity, past and present? If you were to choose one aspect of Survivor Café to use as a springboard for learning more, what would that subject be? What do you still want to know?