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„Traditionalität als reflexiver Prozeß: Großmütter, Mütter und Töchter in jüdischen Displaced-Persons-Familien. Eine biographieanalytische und wissenssoziologische Untersuchung“




Lena Inowlocki und Fritz Schütze

Auszüge aus der Habilitation:


Grandmothers, Mothers and Daughters

Intergenerational Transmission in Displaced Families in Three

Jewish Communities


What happens when generations in a family cannot talk to one another about what was most important for their lives? Those who experienced Nazi persecution, the loss of their family and the destruction of their community, have since been preoccupied by these events. But, at the same time, because of the intensity of the trauma, they have not been able to talk about this period in their lives. In contrast to other groups who also suffered during the war and who have now begun to talk about their experiences of hardship,

especially to their grandchildren, such an intergenerational narrative

has remained impossible in most Jewish families. For them, the only

stories that can be told are those of resistance or escape. But the heart of their experience cannot be turned into a story for the grand-children, who must be protected from knowing about the pain and absolute despair, from the complete absence of meaning of the individual, and the collective, suffering.

Case studies of the consequences and effects on survivors and their family members of not being able to talk about what happened have focused on individuals and families so severely affected by the trauma that it dominated every aspect of their life. But this is not true for all families. While it can be said that the persecution of the older generation always figures as a central existential condition for themselves and their family members, many make conscious efforts to find ways of living their lives, and sometimes even to create especially meaningful areas of life.


The family members’ lives have been affected not only by the trauma of the persecution itself but also by the post-war social consequences, especially the years of displacement before finding a place to settle down ‘for the time being’, and failed attempts at migration overseas. Both are typical for Jewish survivors from eastern Europe who have settled in western Europe. How are these experiences represented in the family communication?


We may also wonder how traditional practices are transmitted in these families. Living ‘in the traditional way’ requires a lot of practical knowledge. Such knowledge is not handed down by formal explanation but is imbibed through a shared cultural environment with displacement, and the disruption of family rootedness and continuous social connections, one might have expected traditional ways of life to disappear within a generation or two. Why was this not so?

In attempting to understand transmission between the generations in these families, I carried out interviews with three generations of women from three different Jewish communities: in Amsterdam, Antwerp, and Amstadt. These three Jewish communities share a background of persecution and displacement, but each has a distinctive history and characteristics which are theirs alone. In Amsterdam, it is rare to find three-generational Jewish families who came from eastern Europe. Before the war, few eastern European

Jews had immigrated there; and after the war, only a very small group of displaced persons who came to The Netherlands remained, usually because they had relatives there. Most went on to emigrate. Unlike the Jews of Antwerp and Amstadt, the majority of Amsterdam Jews have a definite local affiliation which leads them to consider themselves as Dutch Jews. The Polish Jews who arrived after the war were made to feel they should not speak Yiddish, at least not in public: it sounded too much ‘like German’. Speaking Polish was

discouraged as well, as it sounded ‘too harsh’. There was considerable

presure, and a strong wish ‘to be Dutch’. A woman of the middle generation describes how her father's greatest desire had been to be chosen as one of those citizens to receive a ribbon from the Queen, as is the custom each year. This would have been for him the ultimate recognition of his appreciation of, and his integration into, Dutch society.


The post-war Jewish community in Amstadt was established mainly by surviving Polish Jews, and by a smaller group of former German Jews who came to the city from different ‘Displaced Persons' camps in the Allied Zone. Most of the survivors who had made their way to the Allied zone after liberation had planned to emigrate to North or Latin America or to Palestine; but this proved impossible because of visa restrictions. An established Jewish community took shape only slowly, and with some reluctance. The more religious Jews did not remain in Germany, and there has been no orthodox revival there, as in Antwerp or Amsterdam. The Jewish community in Amstadt is the least enclosed of the three communities studied, in the first place on

account of the school situation. The Jewish elementary school admits

also non-Jewish children, and there is no Jewish high school, unlike in both Antwerp and Amsterdam.


In contrast, going to Antwerp seems like entering a time warp. The journey begins the moment you leave Antwerp station. Next to Moroccan groceries, Flemish beer cafes and Indian novelty stores, in a dozen narrow streets, there are kosher butchers, restaurants and bakeries; and shops for religious books and supplies, for children's clothes, fabrics, and diamonds, as well as synagogues, schools, social and cultural organizations for the Jewish community. There are old and young men wearing caftans; women with their hair covered by sheitels (wigs), pushing prams with a baby at one end and a toddler at the other, and another three or four children following; young

people speaking to one another in Yiddish. Only in Brooklyn, Jerusalem, or London, communities founded by immigrants from eastern Europe over a hundred years ago, can a similar reproduction of a tradition lifestyle be found.


Although the three families described here vary in their degree of observance, in this they are typical of the variation in their respective communities, as they are typical also in respect to which they participate actively in their own local communities. They are also typical in that their children attend Jewish schools, indicating some degree of traditional orientation.


The interviews took as their focus the communication process between the generations concerning the persecution, on the one hand, and the continuity of traditionality on the other. Traditionality can include the keeping of religious traditions, but is meant more generally as an orientation towards traditional beliefs, norms, values, and practices. This broader concept is more adequate since the women I interviewed did not explain their practice of observancy with

religious belief. Whether they were more or less observant, or not at all, their deliberations on how they lived and acted were not connected to religious rules, but to whether they continued a particular ethic and ritual practice that they had known from home.


Older women, for example, compared how they lived now to how their family had lived before the war, maintaining similarities in attitude and in principles against all the differences; similarly, mothers expressed the expectation that their daughters would continue their life in the way they had brought them up.


The similarities and differences between the generations were of particular interest to the women of the middle generation, some of whom found themselves pulled in both directions. For some, their interest was expressed during the interview situation in a concern to protect and also to control their daughter, or daughters, and they insisted that the interview should take place in their presence. Some women of the middle generation also came to the interviews with their mothers. In addition to the protective intention, there was also a more or less direct interest in hearing their mothers’ life story. For the

analysis of the interviews, the unexpected presence and participation 93

of the middle generation fortunately provided many interesting insights into intergenerational communication.


The topic of continuity and change between the generations proved a relevant and not too threatening topic for the interviews, a topic which could be elaborated in different ways. To ask directly about the experience of persecution and its consequences for the family would have been too stressful. Several women of the older generation specifically insisted before agreeing to be interviewed that they would not be questioned about it. Others, however, spontaneously chose to take the traumas they had undergone as the central theme in their life story.


Among the women of the older generation, who had all been raised in observant homes, those who recalled their experiences of persecution described losing their religious faith, and giving up being observant. In contrast, those who referred only briefly to such experiences, or said explicitly that they would not talk about them, were observant. Family allegiance to observancy also precluded the middle and the younger generations from speaking about the persecution. In the middle and the older generation, the Amsterdam family is somewhat less ‘Dutch’ in its identification than others in the sample. The children had grown up in Amsterdam; their mother, Ms Neumann, came to Amsterdam when she was married. She grew up in an observant home, her parents having come from Hungary to western Europe as survivors. She did not go to university because this would have risked bringing her into too great contact with non-Jewish peers. When her two daughters were born, close together soon after her marriage, she gave up the artistic career which she had only just begun. Her priorities were traditional ones - first, to

take care of her husband; then, her children; and lastly, herself. One of the main influences in the family's decision to remain in Amsterdam had been the availability of an Orthodox Jewish education for their children.


Ms Weiner, Ms Neumann's mother, was a widow who spent a lot of time with her daughter's family. In her interview, she speaks about how the upbringing of her granddaughters has followed the same traditional lines as her own, but how they knew so much more than she did by reason of their religious education. She praises one of her granddaughters for being the epitome of gentleness, beauty and attentiveness; and the other for her energy. But she describes both as studious. She refers briefly to her own survival, mentioning the constant fear that her ‘Aryan’ disguise would be unmasked, but she

does not elaborate. In this family, talking ‘too much’ about the persecution is frowned upon. Ms Neumann and her daughters repeatedly refer disapprovingly to an older woman relative who does so. Ms Neumann mentions that her husband had himself been in a concentration camp as a child, and adds, ‘Thank God, we never talk about that’.


How can the deliberate avoidance of this topic within the family be understood? On the face of it, trauma theory suggests that suffering is intensified, for the younger generations too, when the experience of persecution is unmentionable. But perhaps we should follow Howard Becker when he points out that research should not be so much about people's problems as about the solutions they havefound. What researchers may find problematic as solutions, for instance ‘Thank God, we never talk about that’, should not obscure what are actually creative attempts to live with an unbearable past.


When the daughters Daphne and Nurith were interviewed, they called in their mother to help explain why they had separate lessons from boys in their school - not because the reasons were not obvious to them, but because they needed her help in communicating with me who, though Jewish, seemed ignorant in these matters. A long conversation followed, which allowed Ms Neumann to explain her own attitude to the observance of traditions. She argued against a departure from the traditional rules such as not lighting fires on the Sabbath, even though lighting fires could no longer be considered to

be work:

But if one does not keep this basis, this essence of Jewishness, and grinds everything down, nothing at all remains of it. Nothing more. Only persecution in the war, because one remains a Jew whether one keeps it or not. The Liberals were persecuted, just like the Orthodox. It did not help them at all, the bit of water they threw over their head, that they would not be Jewish anymore, it did not help them at all. So one might as well maintain Jewishness in its original form, and with its roots - keep it that way. And especially if you understand, given that girls now have the same opportunity as boys to learn

everything just as well - then they do it not only automatically like my mother did it, but also out of conviction, and with comprehension, and they know at least why you do it, and when they don't under-stand something, they have learned at least where to look it up, and they can also read it in the original language.


Ms Neumann refers to her daughters’ generation as the first in which girls had the opportunity to study the religious books. Before the war, girls had learned about Jewish life, keeping a kosher home, and carrying out religious duties almost exclusively within their mothers’ households. ‘Learning’ itself, the study of the codifications and the interpretations of the religious laws, was restricted for boys and men. Girls did not even learn Hebrew, the language reserved for the study of the books. They were able to follow the prayer book because the

letters were the same as in Yiddish, the common vernacular; but they had no understanding of what they were reading. Ms Neumann interprets the new possibility in terms of an obligation on the younger generation to take rules even more seriously. Furthermore, she argues, it has been proven by the persecution that the only positive Jewish identity is the traditionally observant one. Because of the persecution, traditions must be more strictly observed even than before.


As for the daughters knowing about the persecution, Ms Neumann remarks dryly later on, ‘for them it is history, just like where Napoleon died; if you have heard it once, there is no more interest for details’. Daphne quietly contradicts her mother, saying she chose to study the persecution for her finals. ‘All right,’ her mother responds, ‘you must know about it as history, but not what your grandparents’ part in it was’.


Ms Neumann’s priority is to give her children a stable and balanced home. The impressive effort in this family to constitute a positive sense of being Jewish through the strict maintenance of traditional practices is linked to reducing the preoccupation with the persecution. The social consequences of following this path for the younger generation are to confine them to a restricted group within the Amsterdam community. There are also clear biographical expectations:


study and work are only permissible to the extent that neither interferes with an early, preferably arranged marriage, and the bringing up of a family. The daughters’ ambitions may have been raised by their extensive studies:

conflict might arise in the future. But for the time being, interestingly, it is the daughters who defend their strictly observant school education when Ms Neumann characterises it as ‘brainwashing’. Neumann is not the only respondent to disparage her daughters’ education while at the same time considering it absolutely necessary. The teaching of observancy in school is more formal, more rule oriented, and more explicitly verbalised than the

indirect and implicit instruction which the middle generation themselves received. There is also a certain tension for the middle generation between what they hold to be ‘right’, and their actual life experience: for example, Ms Neumann insists that women must continue to be excluded from religious community functions; but at the same time she displays in the course of her argument an increasing scepticism about the reasons for their exclusion,

attributing it to men’s fears of women. As she becomes more agitated

and outspoken on this topic, her older daughter admonishes her to be

calmer – more, one might say, like a Dutch Jew. Daphne also uses

her formally acquired knowledge to argue for women’s exclusion, on

the basis of the normative expectations of ‘modesty’, knowing that

her mother cannot but agree. We can understand the constructive efforts as ‘generational work’, as activities of younger and older generations in a family -grandmothers, mothers, and daughters - to redefine their identity


Given the events of the persecution, and the communicative crisis constituted by the unspeakable memory, there is no generational narrative to which each can relate. In the encounters 98 sought by mothers and daughters in the interview, the contours of differences and similarities between them are drawn.

The generational work in this interview consists of the mother and the daughters describing and discussing their knowledge and practice of

traditional observance, thus actively working out forms of continuity which did not end with the destruction of the old life world. They show that leading their lives by prescription is not easy, but neither is it limiting; and it is certainly not enforced: observance can be enjoyed when performed according to the rules. ‘The rules’ are a matter of lively debate, their essential meaning worked out and understood on the assumption that carrying them out is a duty which they can rely on one another to perform. The grandmother, however, remains

outside of this construction of family belief, as if her contribution might interfere with the process by introducing too much lived history. She tries to ally herself with the others by talking in her interview mostly about her granddaughters, rather than about herself or her earlier life.

In the Amstadt family, the underlying theme in the interviews is the conflicts and opportunities which had arisen as a result of moving outside a given traditional community order. Maya, a 15-year-old, expressed her intention to ‘live as a hippie’ in different parts of the world; to become a model, a film star, and to avoid anything which might tie her to a desk. She also says how much the persecution of the Jews, and of her grandparents in particular, preoccupies her, and how impossible she has found it to communicate about this past with her classmates in high school, although she can talk about it to her old friends from the Jewish elementary school. She suspects older Germans of having been, or even still being, Nazis - she describes an

incident when she had been persuaded to give up her seat on the bus

to an old man only to notice a swastika on his lapel. She enjoys the social aspects of living in Amstadt and having different groups of friends, but thinks it likely that renewed anti-Semitism may mean that she will have to become a fugitive one day. She emphasizes how she would marry for love regardless of nationality, be he French, Italian, or German - well, not necessarily German. But even then her mother would help her out, wouldn’t she? Her mother, Ms Goldfarb, to whom she addresses this appeal, does not respond during this

interview itself. But in her own interview she talks about her fears that her daughter will move too far outside the Jewish community, thus breaking the tenuous links that still connect her. This was what she herself had done, or almost done, in her own youth. Before her own interview, Ms Goldfarb joined her mother in her interview. When she arrived, Ms Biale was just describing how she had managed to save her nieces in Nazi-occupied Poland. To her

daughter she remarks: ‘But this must bore you’. ‘No’, her daughter replies reluctantly, ‘we have to listen to this now’. ‘My husband and I never talked about this in front of the children’, Ms Biale told me. Ms Goldfarb contradicts her mother:: ‘You were always talking about it’. It seems that both mother and daughter are indeed referring to the same kind of ‘talking’, expressing Ms Biale’s simultaneous preoccupation with what had happened and her avoidance of talking about it except by allusions, which in her daughter’s perception occurred constantly.

Ms Biale went on to talk about how she had got by with ‘Aryan’ papers because of her looks, and her perfect Polish, and how that had enabled her to save other family members from being deported to the camps from the ghetto. But she had not been able to save her parents, even though her presence of mind had prevented their deportation a few times. She sums up the futility of her efforts, by concluding mournfully, ‘one saved the father. One did not save him’. During the interview, the hopelessness and powerlessness brought about by the persecution becomes more and more pervasive. Overcome by sadness, and worried about Ms Biale’s frail health, I was about to bring the session to an end. But Ms Goldfarb took the initiative, asking her mother why, given her traditional upbringing, she had not been observant herself - half-jokingly challenging her with the thought that even if the war had not intervened, she would not have agreed to a traditionally arranged marriage. Earlier Ms Biale

had described the traditional life of her parents and extended family with sad longing. Now, in answer to her daughter’s question, she remembers, in a lighter tone, how even as a young girl she had been different from others, more independent, and attracted to the Polish, non-Jewish society; and also more accepted than usual for Jews. She wouldn't even have minded not being Jewish, except that she was already born that way: ‘Should I have converted? But that would have killed my family’. But her parents had not worried about her. Within the large family there had been space for difference. Ms Biale’s wish to mix with a different social group without having to leave her own community was not uncommon in pre-war Poland. But what is unusual about it is that she can remember and express how she felt at that time. The German occupation made it absolutely necessary for her to change sides, to become so Polish that she forgot her upbringing. In contrasting herself with others who had passed themselves off as Christians but who had secretly continued

to observe Jewish prayer times and holidays, Ms Biale says that she

forgot completely about such religious obligations: her unresolved

ambivalence and her moral dilemma result from her having been able

to accomplish completely, and relatively successfully, what had

seemed to her before the war to be desirable. But having been forced

Ms Biale asked me whether her granddaughter cared about what happened during the war, saying that Maya never called on her to ask her about what she had lived through. Maya had explained to me in her interview that she preferred to listen to her paternal grandmother about how she had managed to survive, rather than to her maternal grandmother. Her paternal grandmother had recently returned to Auschwitz equipped with a video camera, and could tell a story of survival, as well as document it, in an acceptable format. One could say that she had turned the endless exposure to suffering into a narrative - a story that could be told - by reschematizing it as purposeful survival. This grandmother held strong religious beliefs, and she and her husband celebrated the holidays in a lively way. In contrast to Ms Biale, the traditional context seemed to be a way of giving meaning to survival rather than becoming overwhelmed by desolate and painful thoughts. During Ms Goldfarb’s interview, Ms Biale remained in the room, seemingly absorbed in her own thoughts, though occasionally commenting unexpectedly on her daughter's story. Ms Goldfarb’s life story highlights her childhood, marked by the emotional consequences of the persecution for her parents, as well as by her own experience of displacement and failed attempts at migration. She describes her friendships with non-Jewish Germans today, and the communication gaps between herself and them: unlike her friends, she cannot tell coffee-table anecdotes about her grandmother. She also describes, somewhat faster and in a low voice, but still with her mother present, how she almost broke off contact with her parents and with the Jewish community. Now she greatly fears similar developments with her own daughter who might not be able to find her way back as she had.

In this family, the persecution is a preoccupation about which they do not talk to one another. Rather, each generation attempts to live with the knowledge without letting it become overwhelming. What can be talked about more easily are the conflicts in each of their lives which arise as a result of the expectations of remaining within certain traditional boundaries. Marrying a non-Jewish partner inflicts deep pain and loss against the background of the persecution. While in this community it is relatively common and accepted for Jewish men to marry non-Jewish women who convert, it is Jewish women who are held more responsible for maintaining the traditional culture,

especially through their choice of partner. Reassurance is sought by Maya from her mother, and by Ms Goldfarb from Ms Biale that there is a possibility of universal values and freedom of action, even though they know the limitations. Their generational work consists of appeals to one another to recognize that they have all faced similar situations of conflicting pressures on

them. They seek each other’s reassurance that they will continue to

find supportive understanding when needed. Close contacts with non-Jews often engender different ways of interpreting past and present experience. Whether such contacts are perceived as harmonious or conflict-ridden, they create a general need to reflect on these relationships on the background of the war and the persecution; for the Jews of the three generations in Amstadt, the mere fact of living in Germany demands explanation.


pdf coming soon