In January, Maia Ipp and Arielle Angel—writers, friends, and granddaughters of Holocaust survivors—wrote each other a series of letters about making art and meaning from the Holocaust, partly inspired by Arielle’s editing of Maia’s story “Of All Places” for this magazine. Their first letters, slightly modified, appear here.
I’ve been wrestling with Holocaust legacy—and making things—for my entire life, and yet I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve tried to make something about the Holocaust. One attempt was a video installation, another a personal essay, both from a decade ago, in art school, when the pressure of having to produce constantly forced me to mine every aspect of my identity. These pieces were spectacular failures, judging from both the formal classroom critiques and my own internal sense of them, and since then I’ve taken it for granted that this is not a place my art goes. I’ve come to accept a measure of failure as inherent to the exercise of making meaning from the Holocaust, either in work or in life. I know this is not your experience, that making capital-M meaning from the Holocaust and its echoes has been your bread and butter these last few years. Despite my deep affection for your writing that is focused there, I must admit, there’s something threatening to me about the exercise itself.
We have been swimming in this water together for a while now—the water we call Holocaust, or 3G, an insider’s term for us grandchildren, a term we dislike but agree is useful in the absence of another—and so there’s a presumption of general agreement, of a shared enlightenment. We are not, we say to each other in a thousand different ways, those poor, old, traumatized Jews. We do not fall prey to the baser emotional manipulations. We don’t reflexively fear the Other, or love Israel. The Holocaust is both our story, and a story that belongs to the world. And to the extent that we are traumatized, we are aware of it, and how it is being used by those among us who are on the wrong side of history (see: Abe Foxman, Bibi, et al). And if they are going to weaponize it, so are we, but against their current.
And yet, thinking back to all the times we’ve spoken about this, I hear my anger, my fear, my defensiveness, my hopelessness, crashing against your transcendence. You have reclaimed Europe, embraced (and been embraced by) the cities and people who once threw us out, while I cling to a reactionary vision of that continent as a cold and hostile graveyard. Where I feel a bottomlessness to the quality of my pain—what’s more, it sometimes seems a well overflowing—you talk of having moved through, of healing.
On the one hand, I think I should just take responsibility for my animal brain. To say, ok, I have not evolved. I am not yet well. I have more work to do. And on the other, I think fuck that. I want to dig my heels in. I want to fling the questions back at you: What does carrying this legacy mean if not carrying the pain? Isn’t the pain, alive in us, what makes it real and alive, what makes it more than a story? And speaking of alive, isn’t fascism and white nationalism enjoying a resurgence in Europe? Is it wise to minimize that on account of your personal experiences and relationships, no matter how good? And what is healing anyway, with a wound like this, a wound so unfathomably deep, a wound that doesn’t start and end with our grandparents’ individual traumas, but is multiplied and magnified millions of times over?
I think I’ve mentioned to you my frustration with the Museum of Jewish Heritage here in New York, which I had some occasion to visit recently. How, being organized in large part around artifacts donated by survivors, it ended up telling a lopsided story—the story of the living, when of course, it is also a story of so many dead. What I didn’t realize until after our conversation was that I was taking offense not just on behalf of the dead, but also on behalf of the living dead, those like my grandparents, who would never be “healed” enough to tell their story, who came back from the war, but not really.
Strange that in a conversation between two people so intent on naming things, it often goes unnamed—this difference in our families. The fact that your grandparents lived. That they were joyful. That when we catch up on your family we are talking about new babies, your parents’ fiftieth anniversary celebration, and when we talk about mine we are talking about medication and unhappy marriages and a near-constant threat of suicide. Not to mention the difference in being hidden by righteous gentiles, as your grandparents were, and being in Auschwitz, as mine were—what the presence of an ultimate human kindness means to the story and worldview you received, as opposed to its equal and insoluble absence in what was given to me.
I don’t think there is such a thing as “4G” (and though I don’t need epigenetics to validate my experience, I think the researchers are saying the same thing, that it won’t stretch more than three generations). And so perhaps I am a bit protective of the rawness of this pain, the stories of my dead grandparents, as I’m afraid that soon we’ll have nothing but narratives written by the living, by the joyful, by the healed. It is a sentiment both similar to and different from the desperate way “never forget” is played out in those museums, with hologram survivors and the like.
I don’t think I am consciously thwarting meaning-making. And I’m mindful of overstating to make the point. I’m a writer, after all, and more committed than most to narrative. But perhaps there is a fear that there is something distasteful even in the level of contrivance required for a magazine article, some buried insult to the trauma and its natural insistence on fragmentation. That when it will be ordered, intellectualized, processed, healed, it will also be sanitized, and therefore meaningless.
I see your point when you ask what this legacy means if it’s not about carrying the pain. But my sense is that it’s extremely hard to find a right measure of pain—that is, there’s no way we could actually feel our way into the story, into what they experienced, and even if we could, what would it offer (them, the world, us)? An attachment to suffering as the primary way of honoring this legacy seems dangerous—where does it lead us, internally and externally, individually and collectively?
And yes, the difference in our family stories does play a role in this. The specifics count. I got to meet descendants of the family who hid my grandparents at the end of the war, and I could imagine my grandmother encouraging my travels in Eastern Europe. But the difference in our experiences (and in our grandparents) leads me even more to believe that if pain is the primary mode of meaning-making, determining a hierarchy of suffering seems inevitable, which we know leads in dangerous directions. I believe that there’s a relationship to this legacy which contains pain but isn’t defined by it: the pain neither repressed nor sanctified, but given the attention it needs without being seen as the primary way of knowing, representing, or attaching. So I do believe in healing—not in a cure, not in a resolution, but in change.
I want to say, though, that I feel like an asshole speaking this way, taking something like a position on this, as though it’s a simple binary, or as though I’ve transcended something. It also pretends a kind of clarity that I resist. I hadn’t been thinking about healing or meaning-making or any of this when I showed up to a workshop for descendants of survivors in 2009. But seven years later I was still meeting with many of the women who attended that workshop, having co-founded a group that used art and movement and ritual to get to what we discovered we needed: not just talking in circles, but feeling into how this legacy impacted us. Over many years of group gatherings, I often had to force myself against all desire to participate, to even show up; it was excruciating sometimes, the grief that appeared once we had made a space to hold it.
When I started going to Lithuania and Poland and Germany, I had to put into practice what I had in some senses been training for: suddenly there was the potential to be truly submerged by grief, by loss and anger. Some days (or months) it did feel like that. But there was also something else, something I couldn’t have expected: I was having so much fucking fun. There’s nothing like ecstatic celebration, release, in a place you were never supposed to exist, the place where your forebears were meant to be erased. (I’m reminded of lines from a poem by Abraham Sutzkever, my landsman from Lithuania who survived the war: “A funeral by day/a concert at night/To attend both is my fate.”)
Because when I got to really know people in those places, once I lived there—places that before had been such powerful black holes in my imagination—when I began doing dialogue work with descendants of Nazis, I could feel how the Jewish absence was a force on the people I met, how much pain they felt too. Not everyone, of course. But the connectedness I often felt was at once so surprising and so obvious. It was when I started to feel joy and affection alongside the pain—indeed, when I found love and humor precisely in and around Holocaust research and dialogue—that I knew I was truly touching the depths of the complexity of this history.
Arielle, I don’t know how I’ll describe this part of my life in a few years. Maybe I’ll decide I attributed too much to the intimacy I felt with the others bound by this history in different but shared ways. Of course, I totally get your discomfort about creating art from or about it. Maybe that’s part of why your “bread and butter” line stung, because I fear some days that I am exploiting the Holocaust as much as, if to different ends, the people we criticize for doing just that. One time I asked Menachem, who is writing a book about a family property in Poland, if we were exploiting the Holocaust, and he said, you can’t exploit what’s yours. I thought that was liberating (even if I’m uncomfortable with the idea that the Holocaust is ours, meaning, only ours), and it aligned with the feeling I sometimes have of righteous power in this whole thing, which I both fear and revel in. I’ve taken money from the Polish Ministry of Culture and from the Jews to be in Europe, to research, to write. But if I’m honest, alongside the dreary and tragic and terrible, I’ve used that money to live the life of an artist I’ve always dreamed of, to take long walks through small European cities, to see art and hear music and to eat well and drink and dance and bring home men—goyish men!—and find something like a freeness, something like the life I might have had if all of This hadn’t happened (though I know that’s a real flight of fancy).
And if not exactly right, it also doesn’t feel wrong to use that research money for a pursuit of pleasure, of beauty. For me, that has all come in Europe, in my grandparents’ Old World—Vilna and Krakow and Berlin—made somehow new, alive, not a sepia-toned, pathos-filled re-creation. I know why you and others see it as a wasteland, and I think that isn’t just a reaction to the Holocaust, it’s also a commitment to America, to the dream of hybridity and modernity. And I believe in that too. There’s just something about certain corners of those old cities that run my imagination simultaneously backward and forward; there’s something in the shaping of a bridge between past and present, them and us, that happens to contain the precise chemistry I’ve needed.
If all of This hadn’t happened. I shuddered when I read that.
I know you don’t need to hear my standard screed about that most famous 3G return-to-Europe narrative, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated—my indictment of the denial at its core, the fantasy of the old Poles so sorry about their complicity that it drives them to suicide, of a history preserved in a box for a young American grandchild to come and claim it. But that’s what came to mind, and perhaps it’s a good study in whether one can exploit what’s theirs.
I was so angry reading that book, because I knew from my own experience in Greece—where my grandparents’ Salonica has been entirely erased—that what he’d written was not just fiction, but an utter lie. I read an interview with him at some point after I read the book where he admits that all he did in Poland was have tea with polite strangers who had nothing whatsoever to tell him.
But I get it. It would make for a shitty book, this nothingness. I understand both the narrative allure and the convenience of redemption, but it shares a language with denial, which is why I’m so threatened by its echoes in your letter, even when I know that you more than anyone has done the work required to arrive at pleasure and reclamation as a personal and political declaration, and not just take it for granted. As a writer who writes specifically about this, you will shape the narrative for those who may never think about it, and perhaps unreasonably, I want all assurances that you won’t be seduced, that you’re committed to the task as I see it: to create what we can manage in full view of that loss, to reach for the hard truth/beauty in redemptionless narratives, especially when they seem too painful to be useful, when they aren’t aesthetically pleasing in the least. I suppose my commitment to the suffering—beyond my simple inability, thus far, to stop it—is more than anything a commitment to its faithful representation, to the way we give the story to others.
And yet, I agree with you, the suffering alone doesn’t serve anyone, least of whom our grandparents, who would be horrified if they knew how much this exploration figures in our lives, who would likely be freaked out by the concept of 3G.
Until recently, I suspected the suffering lent me a greater perspective on the world. A dark one, to be sure, but also one which helped with discerning truth from falsehood, good from evil. But this past year has disabused me of those notions. Strangers in the 3G Facebook group shrug over literal Nazis marching in Charlottesville and rail instead against Black Lives Matter or BDS. African refugees facing deportation from Israel are being hidden by survivors, and Israeli Jews are leaving comments on the news story to the effect of “Hitler should have finished the job.” In other words, the pain itself is not political. I’m on the left because I would be anyway, and this story is a convenient support. There is no such thing as Holocaust memory, really. There is its primary experience, and there is its exploitation.
Because—you’re right—whatever suffering is mine alone, I can’t access the past. I know because I’ve been trying my whole life. I stood in Auschwitz (though my grandmother begged me not to go) and Majdanek and Treblinka and strained, pathetically, to transport myself but stayed rooted in place. How embarrassing to want to feel that, what strange worship of horror and suffering and pain. Which leads me to a new understanding and appreciation of all of your work around this, the dialogue and the stories. It is so alive, so rooted in the present: it’s about these places now, these people, now. It’s a valuable reminder. The Holocaust is not a point on a circle, the place we always end up; it’s also not an inevitable starting point. We are not searching desperately for ways to keep it alive; we are awake to our own aliveness, to what lives in us presently and cries out for expression.
Arielle Angel and Maia Ipp are editors at Jewish Currents.