In the beginning was the war. That was my childhood theory of origins, akin perhaps to certain childhood theories of sexuality. For me, the world as I knew it and the people in it emerged not from the womb, but from war. The theory was perhaps understandable, for I was born in Poland, in 1945, that is, on the site of the Second World War's greatest ravages; and so soon after the cataclysm as to conflate it with the causes of my own birth.
The war of the Germans against the Poles was openly acknowledged, even if the Polish politics of that time was, in the public version, distorted. But the non-Communist resistance, while officially banned from memory and discourse, was the kind of secret about which one talked among intimates with proud defiance. The neighbor in our building who had fought in the underground army spoke about it in lowered tones and allusive phrases; but he spoke through gritted teeth with a fervor of fury and pride. I sensed, on the other hand, that what happened to my parents and their Jewish friends was a more obscure matter, the kind of secret one wraps in a cocoon of silence, or protects as one protects an injury.
A consciousness of war, in its most extreme and cruel manifestations, seemed to come with the first stirrings of consciousness itself. And yet I had no direct experience of extremity or collective violence. It was many years before I saw a person close to me die, and more than fifty years before I experienced a historical upheaval in medias res.
The paradoxes of indirect knowledge haunt many of us who came after. The formative events of the twentieth century have crucially informed our biographies and psyches, threatening sometimes to overshadow and overwhelm our own lives. But we did not see them, suffer through them, experience their impact directly. Our relationship to them has been defined by our very "post-ness," and by the powerful but mediated forms of knowledge that have followed from it.
It is perhaps simply this that defines us as "the second generation." But while the postwar generation, which is a chronological entity, was here from year zero, the second generation, a more complex concept, did not make its appearance till much later. I first heard the term in the early 1980s, when it was just coming into common usage, over dinner in a restaurant in the middle reaches of Manhattan's Upper Vilest Side. I was speaking to a man of about my age whose family, it emerged in the course of our conversation, also had a Holocaust history. A very different kind from my parents' stories: His mother was one of the few participants in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising to emerge from that particular inferno alive. It was perhaps significant that, although I had talked to my dinner companion on several previous occasions, I did not have an inkling of this part of his biography. We were not yet in a period when one particularly brought up such subjects, or when such a family past was thought to be a mark of interest or distinction. It was in connection with these matters, however, that my acquaintance described a meeting he had attended shortly before of a group consisting of children of survivors, or what he called the "second generation."
There are so many ways to conceive of our lives, our identities, our stories--to shape memory and biography. It did not occur to me to think of myself as a "child of Holocaust survivors" for many of my adult years. Other threats of causality, influence, development seemed more important; or at least, I gave them other names. I think this was true for many of us who grew up in post-Holocaust families and for whom this legacy seemed on the one hand simply normal, and on the other, better not dwelt upon.
Identities are malleable and multidimensional, and I am reluctant to fix my own through reifying labels. And yet, we do not only define ourselves; we are also defined by our circumstances, culture, the perceptions of others and--perhaps most of all--the force of an internalized past. However much I wanted to keep the Holocaust history in the shadows, there was no countenancing its presence in my life. I am congenitally not a joiner of groups; but the phrase "second generation" provided a sort of illumination, and a sort of relief. The phrase suggested that three were others for whom a Holocaust inheritance was both meaningful and problematic; that living with it was a palpable enough experience to be overly recognizable; that it was in fact an experience; and that, in some way, it counted.
A certain skepticism still seems to me in order. What kind of grouping is the "second generation," and what is the basis of its claim to coherence? Is it a sociological phenomenon or an existential one, a collectivity or a mentalité? If a "generation" is defined by shared historical experience and certain attitudes or beliefs that follow from it, then the "second generation" is surely a very tenuous instance of it. We have grown up, in the postwar Jewish dispersion, in different countries and cultures, under very different circumstances and within different political systems. There have been no great events or public milestones to mark our own histories. The defining event we have in common belongs not to our allotted time on this planet, but to our prehistory.
There's the rub, and the crux of the problem. It is all too easy for us to feel as a consequence that we do not have our own history, that we are secondary not only chronologically but, so to speak, ontologically. And yet, as a growing body of research, literature, and personal testimony makes clear, the "second generation" does constitute a recognizable entity. Perhaps the character of this grouping can best be defined (to use a term borrowed from a certain idea of the nation) as an "imagined community"--that is, a community based not so much on geography or circumstance as on sets of meanings, symbols, and even literary fictions that it has in common and that enable its members to recognize and converse with each other with a sense of mutual belonging. We of the "second generation" do recognize each other across boundaries and languages, and we do have symbolic reference points we can touch on as on common scrolls. The Event that preceded us was fundamental enough to constitute an overwhelming given and a life task. The reference points through which we communicate and recognize each other have to do with our location in the dark topography of the Shoah and with the stages of along and difficult reckoning--with our parents' past and its deep impact on us; with our obligations to that past, and the conclusions we can derive from it for the present.