Growing Up with Ghosts, Searching for Stories

Growing Up with Ghosts, Searching for Stories

Arlene Stein (Rutgers University)


In Australia in 2008, on “Sorry Day,” Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized for the centuries-long mistreatment of its indigenous population. Members of the Stolen Generation—victims of the Australian government’s policy of forced relocation—spoke about how those policies had personally impacted them.

One woman described how her mother had been taken from her own mother, placed in a church-run dormitory, and refused permission to visit her parents, and how her great-grandfather, an indigenous man who fought for Australia in World War I, returned from battle only to be enslaved by his own country. It was a story about how trauma silenced a generation, leaving their descendants with many questions and a good deal of shame. While their parents’ generation knew all too well what they had lost, their children, removed from the traumatic episode, had only traces of the past—names mentioned in hushed tones, photographs retrieved from hidden boxes—hauntings and gaps.

In a world characterized by ever-increasing saturation of media images of violence, the experience of being haunted by events that predate one’s birth, and excavating the past in order to understand it, is becoming ever more common. For the past several years, I have been studying these efforts, and what they tell us about our late-modern culture.

American descendants of slaves travel to Africa to fill in the blank spaces of the historical record and represent the lives of those who had deemed unworthy of being remembered. Descendants of Punjabi Hindu refugees after the Indian Partition experience the “presence of absence” and yearn to know about their parents’ and grandparents’ past. Sikh activists in the diaspora mobilize on the Internet, invoking memories of the Holocaust to make claims for their own suffering. A child of a Korean War survivor speaks of the way gaps in knowledge of her family history, turning secrets into phantoms that haunt her generation. (1)

Descendants of traumatic histories, who grow up dominated by events that occurred before their birth, frequently develop an enormous hunger to fill in the missing pieces of their histories; as a result, some become coaxers and carriers of their parents’ memories. In my research on the rise of Holocaust consciousness in the United States, I look at how, since the 1970s, descendants of Holocaust survivors have excavated the past, and how these efforts offer a template for the efforts of other trauma-descendant groups.

The Holocaust ‘Second Generation’

“True we know who our parents are,” said Susan, a woman in her 50s who was active on an electronic listserv for children of Holocaust survivors. “But so much has been robbed from those of us who lost grandparents, aunts, uncles, and potential cousins.” She added: “I always felt ‘incomplete,’ or at least not like my friends with American born parents because I never knew my mother’s immediate family.” This sense of absence motivated her to search for evidence of her familial history. “I became very interested in finding out my parents’ and my families’ histories so that I could understand who I was and why I was here, and how I became who I was.”

For members of the “second generation,” motivations for undertaking genealogical research vary. Some want to find surviving relatives and make contact with them; others simply want to find some kind of tangible proof of their parents’ and grandparents’ lives, or to gain a clearer understanding of their family backgrounds and the chronology of wartime events; others seek an opportunity to mourn their losses. What they share is a desire for origin narratives that offer greater clarity and coherence.

Susan took some tentative steps toward filling in the gaps of her knowledge when she was in her early twenties. Her genealogical work intensified when she reached middle age and her parents neared the end of their lives. “I was uncomfortable with not having a family pedigree, even among other Jews who presumably would understand what was missing from my own life.” She was troubled by not having a story of origins. This absent story became salient and troubling to her as her parents aged, and as she had children of her own.

In middle age, descendants often become mindful of the fact that they are becoming the primary bearers of living memory and generational continuity. Aided by the Internet and social media, in the new millennium, they engaged in genealogical practices, excavating family stories, photographs, and letters, traveling to parents’ places of origin, and telling stories about their memory projects in films and memoirs. Like detectives and archaeologists, these post-Holocaust memory workers begin with fragments of evidence and work backward, searching for clues, deciphering signs and traces, and making deductions. Their relationship to the past is, in Marianne Hirsch’s words, one of “postmemory” –mediated not by recall but by “imaginative investment, projection, and creation.” (2)

In recent years, post-Holocaust memory workers have been joined by other post-trauma descendant groups, who similarly excavate the past, coaxing stories out of their relatives, and documenting their familial legacies. How can we account for their considerable drive to know more about their traumatic histories?

 Narrating Traumatic Histories

Sociologist Anthony Giddens has written that the “reflexivity of modernity” leads to doubt rather than certainty as identities are constantly called into question. We try to address this growing doubt through forms of identity work: planning, journal keeping, and consulting therapists. We construct our self-identities by preparing for the future, as well as by “reworking past events.” We work hard at constructing an “integrated sense of self” that maintains a semblance of continuity through time, connecting past, present future. (3)

Today, genealogy is one of the most popular hobbies in the United States. In an anthropological sense, genealogies are products of imagined kinship relations that connect people over time and across space. Genealogists hunt for a line of descent or pedigree in order to locate themselves in temporal schema and narrative history. The further one journeys back, the more one has in common with others—common ancestors, common points of origin. The contemporary expansion of genealogy represents a search for identity and origins in an uncertain world.

But while genealogists seek to establish a line of family continuity that comforts them with pleasurable memories of endurance, “second generation” memory workers begin with knowledge of trauma—a “dramatic loss of identity and meaning, a tear in the social fabric affecting a group of people who have achieved some degree of cohesion.” (4)

While hobbyists reach far back into history to reconstruct lines of biological succession over several generations or more, post-traumatic genealogists tend to reach back only one or two generations—to their parents and grandparents. They are not merely hobbyists seeking a vicarious connection to unknown ancestors: they are individuals for whom war and genocide severed a connection to their familial roots, who wish to construct a sense of continuity.

Such memory work is possible at a time (and place) when victimhood, or membership in a group that has suffered, is no longer inevitably a source of shame. Since the 1970s, and in the aftermath of the “ethnic revival,” feminism, and identity politics, victimhood is often a mark of status, or distinction, or is at least seen as deserving of sympathy. Today’s memorials, for example, are just as likely to commemorate victims of terrorism, or dead astronauts, as they are to recall heroic individuals, according to Erika Doss, in her 2010 book, Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America.

Collapsing distinctions among different traumatic histories is not a particularly fruitful exercise: every incident of mass victimization takes place in a specific context. The Bosnian genocide is not equivalent to the forced removal of Australian aborigines; nor are the experiences of Punjabi refugees wholly comparable to those who witnessed the genocide of European Jewry. Moreover, power politics determines which conflicts, and which mass tragedies, we become aware of, and how they come to be addressed, if they are addressed at all. Suffering populations can, and do, frequently become pawns in larger games of power.

Yet survivors of mass trauma often endure many common experiences: traumatic shocks upend their places in the world; they feel betrayed by those around them; after the event, they must reconstruct their lives, practically from scratch; and they must figure out how to convey a sense of the past to their children—though others may prefer that they move on.

And as experiences of mass violence become more commonplace, and global information flows accelerate, there are many more potential encounters, points of contact, and possibilities for witnessing the pain of others, and of forging bonds between different survivor populations. This process will almost certainly be initiated by the descendants of survivors, for whom distance from the terrible events themselves tends to creates gaps in knowing–and a will to know more.

(1) Dhooleka Raj, “Ignorance, Forgetting and Family Nostalgia: Partition, the Nation State and Refugees in Delhi,” Social Analysis 44 (2000); Saidya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007); Shruti Devgan, “Crevices in Dominant Memories: Virtual Commemoration and the 1984 Anti-Sikh Violence,” Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power (2013), 1-29; Grace M. Cho, Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2008.
(2) Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust (Columbia University Press, 2012); Arlene Stein, “Trauma and Origins: Post-Holocaust Genealogists and the Work of Memory,Qualitative Sociology (2009) 32:293-309;
(3) Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991).
(4) Ron Eyerman, “Cultural Trauma,” in Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity, ed. Jeffrey Alexander, Ron Eyerman, Bernhard Giesen, Neil J. Smelser, and Piotr Sztompka (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 123.


Arlene Stein is Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University. Her latest book, Reluctant Witnesses: Survivors, Descendants, and the Rise of Holocaust Consciousness (Oxford, 2014), looks at how mass traumatic events shape the families of survivors, how they tell stories about these events, and how their stories enter the public sphere