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The ‘Third Generation’ in Australia and Israel

February 9, 2011 – 10:24 pm3 Comments

Transgenerational Holocaust Trauma: An Australian and Israeli Comparison

By Elisheva Massel

The impact of Holocaust trauma can be understood as being passed down as a family legacy, as a mission to be achieved. The term ʻtransgenerational traumaʼ is largely applied to situations where the second and third generations have no experience of the original trauma and no longer live in the area where the traumas occurred. Bonnie Burstow supports this definition of transgenerational trauma by explaining, ʻpeople subject to transgenerational trauma may not have directly experienced, witnessed, or even been confronted by traumatic events. Indeed, they may have experienced nothing but the particular ways their parents respond to the worldʼ.

The “third generation” refers to the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors and spans the age range of newborns to adults in their forties. The third generation is viewed throughout the literature as the generation that broke their grandparents’ silence. The majority of the third generation were brought up learning and acknowledging the Holocaust as one of the major events of modern Jewish history. They were exposed to countless movies and television shows about the Holocaust as well as the possibility of organised heritage tours to places like Poland and Germany. Eva Fogelman describes the above development and concludes that ‘the third generation was learning history, and imbibing a language in which to talk to their grandparents’. Dan Bar-On explains that the third generation normalised dialogue for their survivor grandparents, as it was easier for survivors to communicate with their grandchildren.

The Australian perspective on transgenerational trauma was ascertained through my Social Work Honours thesis. Seven participants, aged between twenty-one and thirty-nine and having at least one grandparent who survived the Holocaust were interviewed. The study found that the third generation manifested transgenerational Holocaust trauma across three main areas; (1) within the family experience, (2) in terms of Jewish identity, and (3) as a responsibility to humanity.  For the purpose of this journal, the second area will be elaborated on.

A major finding was in relation to identity, specifically Jewish identity and Holocaust identity. The participants identified very strongly with Judaism and processed the Holocaust as either separate or intertwined within their Jewish identity. In reflecting on the meaning of the Holocaust, all participants expressed that their Jewish identity was important to them. While none of the participants spoke about this in religious terms, they all identified with Jewish culture and family life.

Two of the participants were very specific in regard to Jewish identity, recognising dating and marrying within the Jewish faith and having a Jewish home as significant.  For one participant however, the concept of dating and marrying within the Jewish faith provoked a discussion with his brother and his friends. He relayed his experiences and opinions as follows:

‘My brother was basically saying, how could you date a non-Jewish girl, you’re the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, it’s disgusting and I [Jonathan] was saying, you shouldn’t just want to date Jewish people or even be proud of being Jewish just because your grandparents were in the Holocaust.’

This encounter highlights two important points regarding third generation psyche; (1) the inherent and underlying importance of Jewish continuity which was almost destroyed during the Holocaust and (2) that even within the same family, there can exist two opposing ideas in terms of third generation identity and understanding and therefore two separate outcomes of transgenerational trauma. The third generation are grappling with multiple components of their identity and trying to determine how their painful family histories fit into who they are today and how they perceive the world. It is this internal struggle within each of the participants which is a manifestation of transgenerational transmission of trauma.

The place that the Holocaust has in the psyche of Israel has influenced the way the third generation understands the Holocaust. In Israel, the Holocaust is not family or even community-specific as it is in Australia, but has relevance on national and societal levels. As a paradoxic consequence, for third generation Israelis the relevance of the Holocaust is in its impact on their personal and immediate family and not on their Jewish identity. One participant interviewed was born and grew up in Israel, only recently having moved to Australia. For him,

ʻThe Holocaust becomes a personal memory rather than a collective memory… With the Holocaust it’s much more focused on a personal thing.’

Rachel Lev-Wiesel interviewed Israeli families with Holocaust history and the grandchildren expressed high levels of empathy and identification with their grandparents’ suffering. They emphasized the importance of the family and each perceived life as fragile and temporary, and therefore something to be appreciated. There was also an expression of a common mission; to remember the Holocaust, never forget what happened, and to transmit this responsibility to future generations.

Dan Bar-On & Alexander Paul Hare surveyed eight secular public schools from across Israel. They found that the Israeli third generation utilized and mobilized the Holocaust to justify their specific political perspective whether it be ‘left’ or ‘right’ due to the polarized political situation.

“If one believes in compromising for peace with the Arabs (left political orientation, less authoritarian thinking, lower national identity), then the Holocaust serves as an example of how minorities should be taken care of especially by the Jews, the victims of the Holocaust. If one internalised the Arabs’ wish to annihilate Israel and reacted by a more right wing political orientation, higher authoritarian thinking, and a higher national identity, then the Holocaust serves as an example of why Israel should be strong and rely on nobody but its own military might.”

While there were some differences in how the Australian and Israeli third generation perceives the Holocaust, specifically in regard to components of identity, the crucial similarity is that the impact of the Holocaust on the third generation is one of ‘partial relevance’. This concurs with Julia Chaitin’s theory of relevance and the existing literature, which explains that for the third generation, the Holocaust would still bear some relevance but not as much nor as intensely as the second generation. This means that while the trauma is still transmitted, the symptoms are not as severe.

Elisheva was Federal Head of Chinuch as well as a madricha for shevet Adir in 2006 in Hineni Sydney.

This article is part of the Hineni journal, Partition, which was distributed in synagogues around Australia on the 63rd anniversary of the UN’s adoption of the Partition Plan for Palestine. We are publishing a selection of articles from the journal.

The following parties helped make the journal possible:

Frank Levy, JNF, Unger Catering, JMC Corporate Real Estate Consultants, Caulfield Hebrew Congregation, Hagshama Melbourne, Antique Silver Company, shaundesign.com, Danielle Blumberg (editing), Mervyn Chait (formatting)

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