THE NAZIS had no intention of allowing a book about the children of Holocaust survivors ever to appear in print. Hitler wanted all the Jews exterminated and had he triumphed, as he nearly did, such a fate would surely have befallen Helen Epstein's parents. She is a young American writer, she writes intelligent, clear prose, and she obviously is an energetic, thoughtful observer of her fellow human beings. There are dozens of journalistic subjects she might have pursued with less heaviness of heart than this one. But she knows that the Nazi Holocaust continues to live-in minds such as hers.
She is no naive believer in the tricks of exorcism. She has not sought out others like herself in order to be rid, once and for all, of recurrent obsessions and nightmares. Nor has she embraced psychotherapy as a promised land. The anguish she lives with is grounded not in fantasy or the private mischief of family life, but in that larger (social and political)"reality" psychiatrists occasionally remember to summon for their patients. Millions did get killed because a 20th-century, "civilized" nation went berserk. The response of those who survived such arbitrary, unpredictable terror is, quite reasonably, one of continued terror. No earnest psychiatric listening, followed by interpretation will quite subdue a kind of fear and trembling that was grounded in years of living.
And naturally, boys and girls born to Holocaust survivors are not going to escape the burden of what amounts to a continuing psychological inheritance. Such children are also going to be a problem to psychiatrists, as the author repeatedly points out. At one moment, as she is well into her "conversations" (a nice way of putting it, and so much better than the pomposity of "interviews") with the sons and daughters of concentration camp survivors, she pauses for a while: "I began looking into the professional literature on children of survivors with mixed feelings. Like most of the people I interviewed, many of whom had studied psychology or psychiatry themselves, I disliked the way the psychiatric profession had portrayed our parents." She and those she was talking with resented the flat, categorical, one-di-mensional quality of something called a "survivor's syndrome" - yet another effort to convert the trials of life into a matter of psychopathology.
In fact, the author and her friends know, the Holocaust casts a terrible shadow over us precisely because it prompts not neurotic anxiety, but gnawing ethical questions that won't go away - and that, ironically, in the repeated asking, make "victims" or "survivors" something else: haunted religious seekers, intent on trying to figure out explanations for terribly important why's and how's.
Again and again these "conversations" reveal men and women trying to comprehend what their parents experienced in the death camps; trying to imagine survival in the face of such gruesome adversity, trying to find a reason for what was, of course, beyond any understanding. And as hard as it was to live through the monstrous terror of an Auschwitz, a Terezin, those born to survivors in the post-war period have had their own serious difficulties. They have witnessed mothers and fathers pursured by memories on one can forget - or again, talk out as part of a "therapy." They have, in a sense, lived with heroes as well as victims, because on one who escaped Hitler's satanic gas ovens or firing squads can be regarded by any of us without a certain awe. The odds against such an outcome, life over a seemingly ever triumphant death, were almost infinitely small. The ironic amazement of children in the face of such parental achievement is one of the more macabre twists of 20th-century family life in the "advanced" nations of the West.
The author of this book has traveled widely in pursuit of the many truths a number of lives can offer. Her informants are, of course, spiritual kin. They have all had to face what it means to be a Jew - a very special kind of Jew. And they have all been tempted: to escape their "background" as best they can: to forget a history of extreme pain and merge into the company of the blessedly untouched, the millions for whom death camps were first a rumor, then an increasingly likely anomaly, and finally, an awful blemish on a continent's history - soon to be forgotten , however.
There is no forgetting for Helen Epstein, and it turns out, for those she has met and shared thoughtsand feelings with. She shuns psychological characterizations. She has no interest in judging the mental maneuvers of her informants. She exposes us to a wide variety of individuals; they come from South America, this country, Canada, Israel - places to which badly hurt, ailing Jews fled after the Nazi camps were liberated in 1945. They are stubborn, agile, wary, knowing men and women. There is little they feel able to take for granted. The long hand of history has touched them for good. They walk on streets strewn *ith glass. Most days they peer over their shoulders. But they have learned, also, to be in touch with life. There is an intensity to these conversation, a fierce determination to meet life's mysteries head on.
None of these men and women is ever going to be quite as contented with this life as many of us get to be. Their prickly evasiveness, their desperate short-lived embrace of various masks or deceptions, their constant inquiry - as to what happened, or how one or another person dealt with what happened during those Hitler years - can rather too readily be regarded as a collective warrant for our pity. It may seem presumptuous to say so, but one wonders whether, actually, Helen Epstein and her recently made friends are not touched by grace. While the rest of us wobble precariously between hectic self-indulgence and apathetic boredom, these driven souls come closer and closer to a knowledge of themselves. They can't help asking the truly important questions about life, its nature and meaning; and so doing, they tower over those of us whose fate it is to be less driven but less serious, less collared by life's urgencies.