Survivors follows the lives of one hundred Jewish children who survived the Holocaust through their adulthood and into old age. First published in 2020, Rebecca Clifford draws on archives and interviews to chart the experiences of these child survivors, exploring the aftermath of the Holocaust in the long term and challenging our assumptions about trauma.
In this blogpost, part of the 50 Years in 50 Books series for our 50th Anniversary, Rebecca Clifford shares how she came to write Survivors and gives an insight into the process of finding the archival material which became the basis of the book.
Article by Rebecca Clifford
What inspired me to write Survivors: Children’s Lives After the Holocaust was a project that in fact had nothing to do with the Holocaust. I was lucky as a postdoctoral researcher to join an Oxford-based team of thirteen historians working on a collaborative oral history of 1960s activism in Europe, the ‘Around 1968’ project. Each member of the team worked on a country (I was the project Italianist), and we were tasked with identifying networks of activism in our countries, tracking down former activists and interviewing them using the ‘life history’ approach. ‘Life history’ interviewing is quite simple: you sit down with an interviewee, get comfortable, and talk about their whole life. It’s an unbounded conversation, with freedom on both sides to bring up unexpected topics and to ask unexpected questions. It can yield surprising results.
I did around fifty interviews for that project, some wondrous, some joyful, some traumatic, and some just awful (but that is another story). Listening to story after story, I was struck by how almost every speaker started their life story from roughly the same point: they began with their parents and their hometown, their date and place of birth, the origin point of their life narrative that they knew with precision but of course could not remember. I had never before realised that there is an existing script that we unconsciously conform to when we tell the story of our lives. That got me wondering about what happens when a person doesn’t know who their parents were, has no memory of their hometown, or possibly doesn’t even know their own birth name. If you don’t know where you come from, how do you explain who you are?
For many very young child survivors of the Holocaust, this is exactly the case. They may have no knowledge or memories of their parents or their birth homes. Some still to this day don’t know their original names. They seemed an ideal group to help me unpick that question.
I began the project in 2014, and at that time there was very little academic work on child survivors. The work that existed focused on what had happened to these children during the war. I wanted to look at their lives after the war, weighing up how memory, identity and the life narrative changed for this group over time. For example, was a child survivor who knew nothing of their parents able to tell their own story in a different way if someone filled in the gaps? If they received confirmation of a parent’s deportation or death? If a lost relative was found, and could tell them a bit about that parent as a person? In other words, does it make a difference to your sense of self if you know the facts of your own beginnings?
No one had ever before looked at child survivors (or any survivors) through the seven decades of their postwar lives. This seemed a strange omission to me, because how can we understand the long-term consequences of persecution and genocide if we don’t trace its effects across whole lifetimes? The question remained, however, as to how to actually do this research. It sounded exciting in theory, but in practice it is devilishly hard to tell how a person made sense of their past in the past. Oral history interviews reveal how we understand our pasts in the present. We do not necessarily remember past emotions or reactions accurately.
I admit, with some embarrassment, that I hadn’t resolved this methodological issue when I arrived at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for a six-month stint of research for the project in 2015. I will be forever grateful to their librarian, Ron Coleman, for asking me an absolutely terrifying question: ‘What, ideally, are you looking for?’ It was an emperor-has-no-clothes sort of moment because I didn’t know what I was looking for. But I suggested that, in an ideal world, I would find some collections that allowed me to dip into an individual survivor’s life at different points in their postwar trajectory. These ideal collections would contain both archival material such as case reports, and self-generated material such as letters, memoirs and oral history. It was a shot in the dark; I didn’t know if any such collections existed.
Ron did some searching in the catalogue, went off and came back with a box. It was a private collection donated to the museum by a woman named Felice Z. Inside were five folders, and in these folders was the most extraordinary collection of documents I had ever encountered. Felice, born in Germany in 1939 and deported to France as a baby, had carefully preserved her parents’ desperate letters written in the Gurs internment camp in the south of France. Here were her postwar case reports, and correspondence with the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants, the aid organisation that had rescued Felice and her sister and placed them in hiding during the war. Here were letters she had written after the war to the beloved woman who had hidden her until the war’s end in the small town of La Caillaudière, near Vendoeuvres. She had also carefully documented her attempts to find out what had happened to her parents, starting in the 1960s and going through to the 2000s. There were photos, childhood drawings, a memoir, and mention of several existing oral history interviews which I located in the museum’s broader collection. It was extraordinary: Felice had meticulously documented her search for her own past from the war years straight through to 2013, when she gifted the collection to the museum.
Alas, irony does at times put its oar into our lives. Having found exactly what I was looking for on the first go, I was never able to find another collection quite as meticulously detailed and broad in scope as Felice’s. Her collection, however, had shown me all sorts of possible ways that I could build similar collections myself. Starting with aid organisation case reports on individual children, I then hunted down any other traces that these children had left in the archives: photos, letters, memoirs, oral history, compensation claims, participation in meetings for ‘hidden children’ or child Holocaust survivors. It ended up taking several additional years and many visits to archives large and small across the globe, but I managed to create ‘collections’ for one hundred child survivors of the Holocaust, and this was the font I drew on when I wrote the book.
But Felice’s account always remained my favourite. Her collection demonstrated that knowing the details of your early life has an enormous impact on how you tell your story. It took Felice the better part of six decades to learn what she could about her origins, and it radically changed how she told the story of herself. What changed was not the facts – she was always scrupulous about including only what she knew for certain – but rather the tone. As she learned more, her story grew more confident, more coherent, more like those life histories that I had heard many years before on the ‘Around 1968’ project. If there is a narrative pattern to how we tell the tale of our own lives, she could at last fit her individual story into this collective mould. If I had to sum up how the emotions in her various accounts changed over time, I would say that her earliest narratives betray disjuncture, even panic, but her last ones suggest relief and acceptance. This is the difference it makes to know where you come from – and ultimately to know who you are.
About the author:
Rebecca Clifford is professor of European history at Durham University. Her book, Survivors, was shortlisted for the 2021 Wolfson History Prize and a finalist for the 2021 Cundill History Prize.
About the book:
Children’s Lives After the Holocaust
Told for the first time from their perspective, Survivors is the story of children who survived the chaos and trauma of the Holocaust—named a best history book of 2020 by the Daily Telegraph
Yale University Press is celebrating 50 years of publishing in London. To celebrate, we have selected 50 important Yale London books from our past, present and future to tell the story of our publishing through a series of articles and extracts.