What we owe to Survivors

I hope you didn’t read this Gawker piece and I hope even more that you never read Anna Breslaw’s Tablet piece. Please do not click on either of these links if you’ve been able to avoid them thus far. I shudder at the thought of each but believe we ought to take a moment to attempt to digest them:

Andie Karras writes for Gawker “His Story Repeats Itself” about the grandfather she met too late in life. He overcame great odds as a Holocaust survivor and was later reunited with his sisters. Ms. Karras is a young woman whose mother was ashamed of her Judaism, who was offended (discriminated against?) as a Jewish American, dated a terrible man who was not ok with her being Jewish, had an abortion,  was manipulated by her mother to the extent that she crippled her financially, and, finally, was reunited with her brothers. I can’t begin to explain, because I can’t comprehend it myself, how she ties these unfortunate affairs to her grandfather’s heartrending and all-too-familiar torment at the height of his youth. Take this sample as my testament to you, reader, that this is a shoddy piece of writing:

“I saw that he [her terrible ex] was married to a woman with a seemingly Jewish-sounding last name on last year on August 4. August 4, 1944, a brown-eyed Anne Frank wrote about the trainloads of Jews, too. Maybe she heard my grandfather whir by. Maybe the train shook the bookcases in front of the annex alive. Maybe when typhus got hold of her a year later, it was she who my aunts and great-grandmother tripped over on the way to the woods.”

In Anna Breslaw’s piece, she defends her gut instinct that people who have a will to live, and are fortunate enough to do so, should not be trusted – for why does the act of survival deserve to be lauded? She refers to the moral ambiguity of Breaking Bad’s central character, Walter White, who, according to almost everyone involved in the production of the show, has gone so far off the deep end that he can no longer be considered good. [The only thing she does get right is her analysis of the show by reading it as a text exploring ethical complexity.]

(Aside: this ought to always be up for debate despite what Gilligan, Cranston, etc. say, because consumers of art have the right to derive alternate meaning from it, but… morally ambiguous is a bit of a generous way to describe Walter White.)

But Breslaw wants to attack us for being inherently sympathetic to those who have clawed back from adversity. She says we are wrong for pooh-poohing Walt’s behavior since he did bad things only when he began to suffer. However, she fails to refer back to her opening about her distrust of Holocaust survivors before concluding her article. Aside from a single survivor’s psychological trouble, she doesn’t even attempt to tell us what any man or woman who lived through it had done to compromise, or even complicate, their moral cores. For an article titled “How the cancer victim at the center of the AMC series justifies my skepticism of Holocaust survivors,” this is a gratuitous, naive perspective (if it can even be allowed to be called a perspective at all).

The Holocaust was the type of incomprehensible destruction that elicits a tricky challenge to those of us in the generations following it. For the first generation, relating to those who survived is personal: it is to be probed within the relationship of parent and child. (Furthermore, a child appears to be one of the best ways to reconstruct a survivor’s sense of meaning, personhood, and legacy.) For the second generation, developing a connection to the Holocaust is more difficult, and, can be argued, more important: this is the generation that ties the future to the past. We’re the last generation to hear firsthand testimony and develop personal relationships with survivors. We have an obligation to carry on the relationships that anyone might normally have with their elders. And yet there is, in a sense, a burden: we have the last opportunity to extract testimony, stories, any part of this history that is otherwise bound to be lost. Similarly, we are the only generation to not just have the privilege to develop valued relationships with these remarkable people, but to become their advocates and carry on their lessons in a world that does not have them around.

These two articles fall on opposing ends of a spectrum. Breslaw distances herself from survivors through a mistrust that is the result of her inability to relate to a human who has faced any challenge at all, whether that be cancer or oppression. Karras creates a false (to put it nicely) equivalence between personal hardships (somewhat legitimate, to a point) but comes out with the weak conclusion that both have been caused by antisemitism, which is the most offensive thing she could have done.

What we, the grandchildren of survivors, must take the time to admit to ourselves, is that there is no way to relate to that misfortune, and we are doing them a disservice by trying.  They don’t want us to. They tell stories, or they avoid that, and hope that whatever aspects of themselves or their histories they wish would carry on will not be forgotten. Our job is not to explain away their struggles as “just like ours,” nor is it to conclude that anyone whose life has been undermined by struggle is partially responsible for it. We are here to make sure such a thing does not happen again, without victim blaming, without false empathy.

Sympathy is a valuable human quality, but none of us look good when we compete to prove our emotions go deeper than that when they very often do not.

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