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In the middle of Sonia Pilcer's The Holocaust Kid - a collection of short stories about a young woman's struggle with her identity as a child of survivors - is a fictionalized account of something that happened to the author in 1974.
At one of the first interfaith conferences on the Holocaust, which took place in Manhattan at the Church of St. John the Divine, the 25-year-old Pilcer was determined to read to the assembled historians and clergy some of her early poems about what it meant to be "a child of the Holocaust."
As speaker after speaker took turns on the podium, she sat waiting patiently for the opportunity to get up and - as her fictional character puts it - "show all these merchants what it meant to suffer, or to be so close to it that you got a dose."
But the organizers failed to call on her. Undeterred, even though the audience was now making its way to the exit, Pilcer ran up on stage, grabbed the microphone and began reciting: "We dream we are there/We hear the Gestapo shout, 'Raus!'/We stand on line. Waiting to be selected/Left side or right. We dream we suffer/Real things."
What Pilcer was articulating to the empty Upper West Side church hall was her unique brand of identity crisis. This was well before the idea that children of survivors - now coined "2G" (second generation) - constituted a demographic, a collective entity with inherited trauma.
Today, the 57-year-old Pilcer - who lives in upstate New York with her husband and seventeen-year-old son, and commutes once a week to her apartment in New York City - says she is a bit bewildered by what has become of attempts like hers to come to terms with one's own personal family history or "legacy": that it has turned into a movement, a whole genre of creative output and study. She's even more shocked that she may have played a role in igniting it.
She tells of her first encounter with Thane Rosenbaum, another New York writer and child of survivors who writes a lot about his relationship to the Holocaust, who bowed his head, put his hands together and murmured, "You are the mother of us all."
When she heard this, Pilcer says, "I nearly plotzed."
This, she says, is because it took her a long time to be able to embrace her identity as a "2G."
She sees herself, instead, as a transitional figure, coming from a world in which it was taboo to talk publicly with anything other than sad sentimentality about the survivors and moving into one in which every aspect of the "2G" psychology is probed and discussed.
Pilcer was born "on the other side," in the German DP camps in Landsburg in 1949, immigrating to the US with her parents when she was a year old and settling in Brooklyn. Her two younger siblings - one of whom now lives in Israel - were born in America.
She says she spent much of her youth and young adulthood "just trying to be a normal American kid," turning her back on any connection to her Jewish identity, let alone one as a "Holocaust kid."
Her first novel, Teen Angel, published in 1978, is the story of a rebellious teenage girl who joins a Puerto Rican street gang. Though the book includes a Polish-Jewish family, they are far from central to the story.
It would take a few more years before Pilcer would move them to the foreground. "I wrote four other books before I wrote about the Holocaust and, to be honest, I wanted to make my name as a writer without writing about that," she says.
It was in 1983, while spending a year teaching in Jerusalem, that she began exploring, through her fiction, the issues that first emerged in the poems she felt compelled to recite in 1974: the sense of being overshadowed by the Holocaust; of having it upstage anything she did in her life; and simultaneously the desire to take on her parent's suffering - to get inside it, to understand it. So much of her identity, she says, was shaped by what her parents had lived through. So much of it had seeped into the way they raised her. (Dressing her little girl in the morning, the fictionalized version of her mother says, "You must look decent. They tried to destroy us. Now we must show how well we dress.")
As she wrote in a 1990 essay, "While the survivors seem to have the ability to go on with their lives...it is their children who spend much of their time, not to mention money, talking to Ph.D.s, and social workers. In unaccented, well-reasoned English, we speak of anger, guilt, trying to separate ourselves from our parents and their Holocaust past. Secretly, we believe that nothing we can ever do will be as important as our parents' suffering."
YET NOBODY wanted to hear Pilcer's stories when she started telling them. The Holocaust Kid received rejection after rejection from publishing houses (40 by her count), and the reasons given seemed to reflect society's sense of how survivors should be depicted in literature. Pilcer says one editor wrote her asking, "Haven't your parents been through enough already? Why do you want to make them suffer more?"
Another complained, "The parents are great characters, but we don't like the female protagonist. What is her problem?"
It wasn't until 2001 that the book was published. By then it had evolved into a collection of stories with a main character, Zosha Palovsky, in whose life the Holocaust played a central role. Through Zosha, Pilcer says, she "was trying to hit as many of the different responses the Holocaust evoked in me, empathy and compassion, but also outrage."
And she didn't want to tell the stories in a sanctimonious or sentimental way. The book is filled with humor and sex, what Pilcer calls "strategies to disarm the readers and take them to places they might not want to go, but that I've gone to."
Her parents have reacted by distancing themselves. Her father claims never to have read a word she has written. Her mother was once overheard telling another woman that the stories were actually about downstairs neighbors she must be remembering from her youth - not about the Pilcer family.
Such a response would seem natural, given the painful mixture of emotions Pilcer deals with in her writing. The story "Imagining Auschwitz" is an example of such a mixture. In it, Zosha is visiting the death camp. Sitting in one of the old barracks, she wills herself to imagine what it was like. She is drawn to and fascinated by the place that has existed only in her dreams and through her parents' stories. But at the same time, she is overburdened with the demand to remember, and to be a vessel of memory.
"There is an injunction to live," Zosha says. "No posthumous victories for Hitler. When one doesn't live, the devil triumphs. Had my parents survived so I, their only child, could put myself back in a concentration camp? Back? I'd never leftâ€¦I had spent years within its architecture. I was not supposed to leave, to have or want. Tattooed on my arm: Must never forget, not even for a moment. Because I lived when so many died."
WITH THE proliferation of "2G" literature, not only have the themes
Pilcer explores in her work become fairly common, but their expression has been subject to some criticism. In a 2004 essay in The New Republic, entitled "Identity Theft," senior editor Ruth Franklin accuses the "2G" writers of having "convinced themselves, by means of complicated maneuvering in postmodernism, poststructuralism, and trauma theory, that they are in some essential way primary in this dark story, that the second generation's 'experiences' of the Holocaust are just as valid as those of the survivors."
Franklin resents what she sees as a crude expropriation of the parents' suffering by their children, singling out in particular the writer Melvin Jules Bukiet for proudly declaring that he uses the number on his father's arm as the code for his bank machine.
Pilcer agrees that this kind of vulgarization of the Holocaust legacy is just as bad as the oversentimentalized version Hollywood often gives us. She says that both undermine any real attempt to see the survivors' stories for what they are, on their own terms.
Though one could argue that Pilcer, in The Holocaust Kid, portrays some of the "glamor in trauma" that Franklin derides, she appears to be wrestling with the legacy rather than merely letting herself be weighed down by it. Reading the book, one sees she is concerned with a much larger question than Jewish suffering alone. She says she wants to understand "what it means when you are connected by blood to a historical event that you did not participate in, but in which your relatives did."
She describes hearing a German recount how she discovered that her father had murdered people during the war, and how, as a result, she tried to commit suicide by jumping off her roof. "It made me feel such compassion for her," Pilcer says. "I felt we were parallel. Just as I had not been in a concentration camp, she had not murdered Jews."
PILCER HAS just finished a stage adaptation of The Holocaust Kid, which will be performed in early May in upstate New York and, Pilcer hopes, eventually in Israel and maybe even Lodz, the Polish city where her parents are from.
The play, she says, has plunged her back into material she has been dealing with for two decades. And it's after all this time, she says, that the essential theme and conflict of her work was illuminated for her by a fellow playwright: "Can this woman live with hope?"