How to Remember: Holocaust Literature From Survivors’ Accounts to 3G

By | Mar 20, 2024
A collage of different Holocaust literature novel cover pages

As more time has elapsed since the Shoah, its role in both Jewish and mainstream literature has changed. Holocaust writing—nonfiction, fiction, and fictionalized memoir—has both helped generations cope with the trauma and testified to the reality of those events for those who would prefer to forget—or distort—that they happened at all.

The genre was pioneered by survivors themselves. Later, their children took up the mantle in order to process and reckon with the magnitude of their parents’ stories. The second-generation population had to adapt to and, to some extent, acquire the traumas that their parents developed during the Holocaust: the frequent sounds of a father’s loud night terrors, the oft-seen prisoner number tattooed on a mother’s forearm and the fear of hidden secrets.

For a generation now, the grandchildren of survivors have taken on the daunting task of writing Holocaust novels based on information—sometimes limited—available in their families. We offer a brief introduction to the evolution of Holocaust literature across different generations and provide a few select recommendations for each epoch. 

First-Generation (1G) Holocaust Literature

Holocaust literature written by the surviving generation themselves is considered “First-Generation” (1G) writing. Many of these stories are nonfiction memoirs that accurately relay the experiences of survivors—a task that no other generation of Holocaust literature can accomplish with such immediate precision.

Examples of First-Generation (1G) Holocaust Literature

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl (1946)

Frankl’s book is broken into two parts: The first discusses his experience at the concentration camps and the second offers lessons to be learned from the Holocaust. “The thought of suicide,” Frankl recalls in the first part, “was entertained by nearly everyone, if only for a brief time. It was born of the hopelessness of the situation, the constant danger of death looming over us daily and hourly, and the closeness of the deaths suffered by many of the others.”

Frankl later became a psychiatrist who developed logotherapy, which is based on the idea that the primary motivational force of an individual is to find meaning in life. Frankl’s survival of the Holocaust left him full of questions such as “What keeps us going?” Frankl’s book touches on answers to this question through introductions to logotherapy. It is widely used today in therapeutic contexts, including prison support groups. 

[Read more: What Makes Us Happy? A Symposium]

The Choice by Edith Eger (2017)

This memoir tells the story of 16-year-old ballet dancer and aspiring Olympic gymnast Edith Eger and her family, who are sent to Auschwitz in 1944. Eger and her sister are separated from their mother and father on arrival—their parents are sent to the gas chambers. Hours later, Eger is forced to dance for the “Angel of Death”—Nazi officer Dr. Josef Mengele—for his amusement and her survival. 

The Choice was published long after the main era of 1G writing—when Eger was already in her 90s. Thus, Eger is able to describe not only her traumatic experience at Auschwitz—but her subsequent life. After marrying and moving to America, Eger notices that many things often trigger her memories of the Holocaust; chimneys, uniformed officers and other related sights immediately bring her back to Auschwitz. As time passes, Eger continues to wonder what her purpose in life is following her improbable survival; she eventually acquires her Ph.D. in clinical psychology—determined to help others who are suffering.

Eger’s inclusion of her life after the Holocaust creates a touching message to the reader that the past cannot be changed, but the life you live now can be chosen.

Night by Elie Wiesel (1956)

Arguably the most famous 1G Holocaust book, Moment founder Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night, takes the reader into a firsthand depiction of Auschwitz. The book is closely based on Wiesel’s real experiences. 

After the Nazis occupied Hungary in 1944, Eliezer, a Jewish teenager from Transylvania, is forced into a ghetto and eventually transported to Auschwitz. After Eliezer and his father are separated from his mother and sisters—who are presumably killed—Eliezer is forced into months of extreme labor. Wiesel’s gruesome details of what transpired at Auschwitz encapsulate what makes 1G literature so impactful; while 2G and 3G literature can depict relatives’ experiences vicariously, reading a firsthand account of what transpired is invaluable. As the story progresses, Wiesel explains how he progressively lost hope in humanity and God. 

[Read more: Young Readers Share Their Thoughts About Wiesel’s Night]

Second-Generation (2G) Holocaust Literature

Although second-generation writers had no direct experience in the Holocaust, their experiences as the children of survivors are nonetheless strongly marked by it. Eva Fogelman is a psychologist who specializes in treating such children. Her report, titled “The Evolution of a Second-Generation Holocaust Survival Identity,” dives into the psychological effect of having a parent experience the Holocaust. “On the surface, 2Gs are no different from any other group of people their age,” Fogelman writes. “[But] the values and worldviews that some children of survivors were subjected to also contributed to a sense of isolation; observing the world as a hostile place, learning not to trust anyone outside the immediate family…being prepared for a catastrophe, keeping a low profile as a Jew.”

Fogelman also explains the disconnect between many 2Gs and their parents; children often heard bits and pieces about their parents’ experiences by eavesdropping on private conversations but were reluctant to ask direct questions for fear of upsetting their parents. 2G literature often bears a heavy weight, as the trauma of the Holocaust is not exclusive to firsthand survivors but extends to their offspring whose relationships with their parents are often tumultuous.

[Read more from Eva Fogelman: Book Review | The Baggage You Can’t Leave Behind]

Examples of Second-Generation Holocaust Literature

Maus by Art Spiegelman (1986)

One of the first graphic novels to achieve mainstream success, Art Spiegelman’s Maus tells two separate stories: The Holocaust survival story of Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, and the strain that the story causes between Vladek and his son. While the presentation is vastly different from that of other Holocaust novels, the medium is strongly evocative: the Jews are drawn as mice, while the Nazis are their predators: cats. Spiegelman’s depiction of his tough interactions with his father speaks to the larger struggle of 2G writers—and the second-generation population in general.

As the only graphic novel to ever win a Pulitzer Prize, Maus is a must-read. The originality of the novel, and the vast trauma endured by Vladek, from his survival of the Holocaust to the suicide of his wife, allows the reader to watch Vladek’s secret torments emerge right in front of his son’s—and our—eyes. 

[Read More: The Maus That Roared]

The Ones Who Remember: Second-Generation Voices of the Holocaust edited by Rita Benn, Julie Goldstein Ellis, Joy Wolfe Ensor and Ruth Finkel Wade (2022)

This anthology is a collection of 2G narrations from 16 different families. Similar to Maus, the collection contains two aspects: parents’ experiences during the Holocaust and how their relationship with their children has been affected. One of Eva Fogelman’s findings about the 2G generation is that “Not knowing anything about the family history resulted in a lack of intimate relationship with parents.” This statement is reflected by editor Ruth Finkel Wade, who says her writing helped her better understand the trauma that her father went through. After having a rocky relationship with her father, “By the time my chapter was completed, I also had a better understanding of who [my father] was and my frustrations had melted away.”

Third-Generation (3G) Holocaust Literature 

Because third-generation writers—grandchildren of Holocaust survivors—are even farther removed from the Holocaust, their methods have been even more inventive. 

Each 3G writer’s situation is unique, since some authors’ grandparents died before they were born, while others had relationships with them; and for those who had relationships with their grandparents, some learned more about their grandparents’ past than others. 3G writer Erika Dreifus, a CUNY Baruch College professor and Moment contributor, understands the challenge of writing an accurate novel with limited information. “[3G writers are not] scrupulous about getting the history right—even if it’s the details of our own family; details, such as characters, may be modeled on a family member and not fact.”

Dreifus has dealt with this dilemma in her writing also, noting how “I didn’t get to ask [my grandparents] all the questions I had. It seemed like fiction was going to be much more fruitful for my writing—because I couldn’t find the real answers.” Dreifus is the author of Quiet Americans, a collection of stories of Holocaust experiences. These stories range from a Jewish doctor treating the child of a Nazi officer to the challenge of a Jewish soldier having to supervise German POWs. 

“I came to 3G writing in part because I had a lot of unanswered questions, and this is a way of working through my familial legacy—as well as a larger Jewish legacy,” Dreifus says. “Writers often feel that there is certain material that you inherit as your own birthright, and 3G writing is definitely that for me.”

[Click here to read Dreifus’s Moment stories]

Examples of Third-Generation Holocaust Literature

Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind by Sarah Wildman (2014)

Years after Sarah Wildman’s grandfather died, she found his vast collection of letters. One set stood out: love letters between her grandfather, Karl, and a woman named Valy. Originally from Vienna, Karl managed to escape Europe after Germany annexed Austria; however, Valy decided to remain behind. 

This was not Wildman’s first awareness of Valy’s existence, as she once asked her grandmother about an unknown woman in a photograph. “She was your grandfather’s true love,” her grandmother responded. Obsessed with Valy’s story, Wildman searched for clues about her for years.

By narrating the book herself, Wildman allows readers a change of perspective from novels narrated by someone who is actively experiencing the Holocaust; this echoes the angst and curiosity that 3G writers feel when trying to uncover information about their grandparents’ complex lives. Wildman’s addition of photographs of her grandfather and Valy and their letters immerse the reader further in Wildman’s quest for Valy’s whereabouts.

“[Wildman] applied incredible journalistic research skills in order to find out what happened to Valy,” Dreifus says. “This is an instance where [Wildman] couldn’t ask her grandfather questions about Valy, but she did manage to uncover quite a lot.”

The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer (2010)

In the late 1930s, Andras Levi is a Hungarian-Jewish architecture student living in Paris. Andras’s exhilarating experience in Paris, and his newfound love with a ballet student named Klara, come to a halt in 1939 when his student visa is revoked as the war gains steam. The thriving, exciting first half of the novel quickly turns into agony as Andras experiences the dehumanizing effects of the Hungarian Labor Service System

Orringer’s inspiration for this novel came from an impromptu conversation with her grandfather. Orringer explains how during a hike, she told her grandfather that she was planning a trip to Paris. After her grandfather became suddenly silent, he told her about his experience in Paris, after which he was quickly enlisted into forced labor for the Hungarian army. In just a few minutes, Orringer learned about a story that demanded to be told; however, she knew very little about life in Hungary during the Holocaust. After spending the next ten years researching not only her grandfather’s story but those of dozens of other French and Hungarian Jews, she assembled Invisible Bridge

[Read more: People of the Book: Interview with Julie Orringer]

The multilayered relationships that writers can have to the Holocaust and the various writing styles used make it an extremely diverse and ever-changing genre. The varied experiences and voices of 2G and 3G writers ensure that the complex memory of the Holocaust will endure for many generations.

This story is part of a package on the evolution of Holocaust literature and the emergence of similar themes by hostages following October 7. Other stories in the package are:

Analysis | After October 7, Holocaust Literature Will Never be the Same 

From 1975 | “Remembering,” by Elie Wiesel

In Israel and Beyond, Hostages Freed by Hamas Share Their Stories 

Top image: A collage of different Holocaust literature novels.

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