Elizabeth Rosner has spent the bulk of her career penning novels and poetry, but her most recent book, the nonfiction “Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory,” is the one she says she has been “writing my whole life.”
“Survivor Café” defies the concept of genre. It is part memoir, part sociological study, part meditation, and part tribute to the author’s Holocaust survivor parents. Named a Best Book of the Year by The San Francisco Chronicle, “Survivor Café” examines, from various angles, how the descendants of Holocaust survivors and other atrocities cope with inherited trauma, as well as — perhaps paradoxically — ensure that the memories of those atrocities stay alive even after all the survivors are gone.
The book draws parallels between the traumatic inherited legacies of descendants of African-American slaves, Cambodian survivors of the Killing Fields, and survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to those of second and third generation descendants of Holocaust survivors.
Rosner will be speaking on May 17 at 7 p.m. at the Carnegie Library Lecture Hall as part of the Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures Series. Her appearance is sponsored by the Jewish Healthcare Foundation in collaboration with the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.
The book is arranged in short vignettes, with the author seamlessly switching from one topic to another, linking together a wide range of material.
“I actually believe a lot of us think that way,” said Rosner, speaking from her home in Northern California. “It’s not because we’re scattered or distracted, it’s that most of us don’t really think in a straight line. And with this material in particular, I was so determined to keep making connections, and keep drawing people’s attention to the fact that there are so many intersections between and among these subjects.”
For a Jewish audience, she acknowledged, “I think it is somewhat unusual for someone to be discussing the Holocaust in so much depth, and with so much specificity alongside other things. There really is a strong tendency — and sometimes a preference, I guess — to discuss the Holocaust in its own context only. And I know that I was challenging that.”
While she stressed that “everything about the Holocaust is unique, that doesn’t make it necessarily separate from every other story of genocide and atrocities across time and place. It’s a human story. It’s a human nightmare.”
Although she has been exploring the Holocaust throughout her life in her art and other means, Rosner noted that it was the third trip she made to Germany with her father to revisit Buchenwald, where he had been imprisoned, that was the “flashpoint” when she recognized that she needed to write this book. It was on that trip that she realized that Holocaust history was at the threshold of change, because soon all the survivors, the soldiers who liberated the camps, as well as the perpetrators will be gone.
“It will all become received history,” Rosner said. “It will start to become like the rest of history that came before, that is all now transmitted and is second hand and third hand. So, I think it was that sense of urgency that motivated me to write this book as though everything I had to say on the subject I needed to say it now.”
The book carries with it themes of both hope and despair.
“I think we have to keep honestly facing the patterns and repetitions and recognizing that they aren’t going away by themselves,” Rosner said. “Whatever it is we have tried so far to change our nature, or to change what seems to be our nature, we so far haven’t succeeded. Genocides are occurring now as we speak.
“So, it’s not that I despair about the human race entirely, but I do think that we have to keep looking at our shadowy selves, the part we would like to disown, or the part we would like to say, ‘oh it’s those other people who are evil, not us.’ I think we have to keep looking inside of our own histories, our own experiences, and take responsibility for that and that is the way toward change.”
It is often the survivors themselves who inspire the greatest sense of hope, according to Rosner.
“I just interviewed a 92-year-old Auschwitz survivor on stage in Berkley — her name is Dr. Edith Eger. She wrote a book called ‘The Choice, Embrace the Possible.’ She became a psychotherapist specializing in trauma and has an astonishing optimistic message. She literally uses her experiences at Auschwitz to deliver this message of potential and possibility. It’s kind of mind-blowing. When someone like her can reflect on her experience in the utmost hell, and come out of it with a sense of hope then who am I to be hopeless?”
Her father, said the author, is perhaps her chief inspiration.
“My father doesn’t give up on the future,” she said. “It’s quite an extraordinary aspect of his personality.”
Rosner remembered a call she got from her father one day after he heard her interviewed on NPR about “Survivor Café.”
“He said, ‘So, I have a question for you: do you think I was traumatized?’” Rosner recalled. “I had to put my hand over my mouth, so he wouldn’t hear me laughing. I just said, ‘Well, what do you think, Dad?’ And he said, ‘Well, I don’t know. I never really thought about it before.’” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.