For Berkeley author and poet Elizabeth Rosner, the child of Holocaust survivors, that horrific period of Jewish history comes to the fore of nearly every piece of writing she does. That’s been true of her highly regarded novels, including “Electric City” and “The Speed of Light,” and it’s true of “Survivor Café,” her first nonfiction book.
Rosner admitted that she always thinks she is done with the topic when she finishes a book — but then it crops up again and she realizes she’s wrong. That she’s not quite finished with these questions after all. And then she realizes that she may never be.
Calling it both a blessing and a curse, she said, “I think most novelists would say that their subjects choose them. And as long as this stuff keeps choosing me, I have to say ‘yes’ to it.”
She shared that her father once told her, “You’re almost lucky you have this to write about,” referring to the Holocaust.
“Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory” is framed by three visits Rosner took between 1983 and 2015 to the Buchenwald concentration camp with her father, who was sent there by the Nazis. (Her mother, who died in 2000, survived the Holocaust by hiding in the Polish countryside.)
While the Holocaust and the intergenerational trauma that has resulted makes up a large portion of the narrative, Rosner felt it was also important to bring other atrocities into the conversation. In “Survivor Café, she discusses the scientifically proven trauma that all children of survivors inherit from their parents, whether they survived Auschwitz, Rwanda or Hiroshima.
“Honoring the suffering of others is essential to moving forward together,” she said. “There are so many other stories of genocide and atrocity occurring in this moment, and I knew I couldn’t include all of them. While the Holocaust and what happened in Rwanda or Cambodia were all horrific atrocities, and they were also unique, they need to be talked about together so we can understand why humans are capable of so much violence, and how can we transform that.”
Rosner said she chose the nonfiction route this time because she felt a sense of real urgency, and with the character development and architecture of a plot that fiction requires, it would take too much time to write. It was important for her to complete the book before the threshold is reached of having no living Holocaust survivors.
That reason is both universal and personal; she wanted her survivor father, 88, to be able to hold the book in his hands. (Rosner spoke to J. by phone from her father’s home in Schenectady, New York, and had just brought him an early copy.)
That people will learn about and process the Holocaust differently after the last survivors are gone is something that weighs heavily upon Rosner’s mind, and how the memories will be transmitted down the line is another major theme of her book.
Honoring the suffering of others is essential to moving forward together.
“My fears are that it will become more faded and more generic and either diminished in some way, or overly generalized in the way that history can become compartmentalized or not real,” she said. “But my hopes are that people like me are so committed to retaining that sense of individual storytelling, that sense of profound human experience, that we will transmit it in a way that will prevent that loss.”
One survivor interviewed in the book predicted that the Holocaust “will die with us,” but Rosner counters, “My hope is that with great devotion and humility, subsequent generations will continue to honor these memories as singular occurrences and not mass events. Like the Black Lives Matter movement, we need to remember individual human losses and lives; that’s our only hope for redemption as a species.”
The narrative is told in fragments that are strung together. The beginning is titled “The Alphabet of Inadequate Language,” and is perhaps one of the most affecting parts of the book. For example, the letter “A” stands for Auschwitz and Arbeit macht frei (“Work sets you free,” the slogan that appears at the entrance to Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps); M is for Mengele, Mauthausen, Maidanek, Murder, Memory, Massacre, Motherland; Z is for Zyklon B, used in the gas chambers.
For this reader, who is well-versed in Holocaust history and is a descendant of survivors, these words all need no further explanation, but to those who don’t know much, the definitions are necessary.
“My intent was to say, isn’t it crazy that we’re familiar with this language, that we can toss these words around like they’re no big deal?” Rosner said. “In that way they’re inadequate.
“And for an audience seeing some of them for the first time, I’m saying, these words are impossibly meager, given what I’m trying to explain to you.”