Have you written about being part of the second generation before?
Not really. This was the first time I handled it head on. Indirectly, I had written about it in "Lost in Translation." I think it's an important issue, but I didn't always think of myself in these categories.
When did you begin to think of yourself as a member of the second generation?
I still don't think of myself as second generation. But particularly in the last 15 years, as the broader phenomenon of Holocaust preoccupation started to be so evident, I had my own views on this. Some of the manifestations made me a little uneasy. I realized I had my own particular perspective. And then when my parents died, I felt that my conduit to the past was being lost, to me and to others, and I wanted to reckon with the influence of all of this.
How is your perspective on the Holocaust unusual?
I think the second generation's perspective is different from the broader culture's perspective. We were much closer to it, so the human realities of those events are more evident. The tendency to view the Holocaust as sacred is not as strong.
When you say there's a tendency in the larger culture to consider these issues as sacred, how does the second generation tend to treat them instead?
I think there's more a sense of the complex realities. First of all, we have a much more complex relationship to survivors themselves. When you grow up with people, you know they're not quintessentially survivors or victims--they cannot be reducible to this category. At the same time, you know that they're often not saints, that the experience of great persecution is not a kind of character-improving project. It does not guarantee a special virtue--people have often been disturbed in ways that are then disturbing to others. So one has a sense of the ambiguities and the complexities of it.
In my own case, I certainly had a sense of the complexities of Polish-Jewish relations and Ukrainian-Jewish relations. There are stories of the others behaving very badly, of the others behaving very wonderfully, of Jews behaving very badly, of Jews behaving very heroically. There is a much larger gamut of human realities than we typically see.
I did not like "Life Is Beautiful" at all. I thought it would be possible to bring humor and biting irony to the subject, but this did not seem like the right valence of humor. It was a real violation of what had gone on. "Schindler's List" seemed to me less so. Spielberg found the one story out of that time that could be done as an adventure story and as a heroic story--but he did find it, it's a true story, it's part of that history. It was a film that worked on its own terms but did not seem to me to violate the history.
People have enormous sensitivities about how this should be depicted. Sometimes the danger for the second generation is that we become very attached to our parents' versions of what happened.
You write a lot in your book about contemporary Jewish feelings about Poland--it's often still considered a bastion of anti-Semitism.
That viewpoint is very common. People had terrible experiences there and they don't want to continue their association with their place. My family stayed there till 1959, so my experience there was unusual. For survivors, one can understand not wanting to go back by any means. There are some absolutely potent personal feelings. But this is where one needs to step away from our parental versions, which depend so much on personal experience.
One of the ironies about attitudes towards Poland is that we know so much more about Polish anti-Semitism, or we think about Poland so much as the center of anti-Semitism, because this is where the majority of world Jewry lived. So we just have more stories from there. This is where the Holocaust, of course, was executed, but not by Poles. So I think there is a misunderstanding around this.
One aspect that it seemed your book didn't address as much was specifically passing Jewish tradition on after the Holocaust.
In a sense, it's a separate issue. And it's true that it's an issue that is less close to me. I don't think Jewish identity can revolve around the Holocaust. How one passes on Jewish tradition is, as we know, varied and often vexed.
Your book is about the responsibilities of the second generation. Have you thought about the responsibilities of generations to come?
I do think the moral charge of responsibility and mourning will decrease. I don't think we can sustain this kind of emotionally charged relationship to the Holocaust forever, nor should we. I think the responsibility is to understand what happened, incorporate it into our understanding of the world, not violate the realities of what happened, not diminish its extent, and take what lessons from it that we can.
As I said, I don't think Jewish identity can revolve around this forever, nor should it. I don't think that our relation to it will be sustained. That's precisely why there is a kind of second generation task--it is to pass it on in a way that grapples with what happened.