This week Rebecca Clifford explains her current research project….
They spent the years of the Second World War, the years of their early childhoods, hiding in basements or attics, bundled into foster homes, or sheltered by peasants or in convents. A very few survived concentration camps. They were robbed of parents, homes, and in many cases even their very names. In the early postwar period, foster carers and rescue workers told them that they were the lucky ones; such a great number of Europe’s Jewish children had not been so fortunate. They did not think of themselves as survivors.
Nor did anyone else, through much of the Cold War period. One exception, however, was a small group of psychologists, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts who took an early interest in these children. In the immediate postwar period, these clinicians became interested in what they saw as the resilience of Jewish child survivors, whose apparent good mental health challenged Freudian concepts of the central importance of the mother in early childhood development. By the 1970s, however, psychologists were instead stressing the trauma endured by child survivors, and beginning to detail the lasting negative effects of this experience. The shifting focus of mental health authorities tells us much about changing attitudes to the war and its legacies in the postwar period – but does it tell us much about the lived experience of child survivors as they moved into adulthood?
This is a fascinating question for the historian, and it raises other questions. How did child survivors integrate their early experiences into their adult lives? How did their memories of their childhoods change over time – and how did their intimate remembrance interact with – or collide with – changing public memories of the Holocaust? How does an adult bear witness to events seen through the eyes of a child – events that sometimes skirt the borders of conscious memory?
Given the vast literature on the Holocaust, child survivors have been – and remain – a remarkably understudied group. My latest project will be the first of its kind to look at the life stories of child survivors, drawing on oral history and memoirs to explore the trajectory of their lives from childhood through to the present. The key output of the project will be a book, provisionally entitled The Shadows Behind Them. The title is deliberately a double entendre. Emphasize ‘behind them’, and we focus on the resilience of these children in the face of extreme suffering. Emphasize ‘shadows’, and we look directly at the long reach of these traumatic pasts through the adult’s life: the fears, the destabilization, the searching for a lost childhood self that sometimes became a consuming pursuit. For most of my interviewees, the life trajectory lies somewhere in between these two extremes.
Rebecca Clifford’s book on Holocaust commemoration, Commemorating the Holocaust: The Dilemmas of Remembrance in France and Italy, was published by Oxford University Press in 2013.