Posted by Suzanne Brogger on November 01, 2017 at 9:38 AM
We recently spoke with Elizabeth Rosner, who authored a new book that we feel is nothing short of a masterpiece, “Survivor Cafe.” You can find it here. Rosner and her book have been featured on NPR, in an incredible “All Things Considered” interview , as well as by The New York Times, and others.
Rosner’s work breaks genre-induced boundaries, mixing poetry, stories of her own life and her parents’ lives in relation to their experiences in the Holocaust, and original research that spans topics like the inadequacy of language in describing historical trauma and the way that trauma can actually be inherited and passed down across generations.
We applaud Rosner’s brilliance, and we applaud her strength in standing up in a time when our political and ethical limits are constantly being tested.
We’re so grateful for the conversation we were able to have with her.
The Upstander Project:
A young woman in the Bay Area (Marin County) named Erin Schrode recently ran for U.S. Congress. Many people were in awe of how accomplished and strong she was; she’s an environmental activist, among other things. However, she became a media flashpoint for a different reason — the anti-Semitic hate speech that was directed at her online. She received repeated death threats as the alt-right made her its favorite target. I remember reading an article in a Bay Area paper, where a well-known Neo-Nazi from the alt-right was interviewed, and expressed that he felt the whole thing was funny. One aspect of what he was saying stood out to me as perhaps the most chilling of all. He laughingly said he doesn’t understand why people get scared of words; they’re “just words.”
Your book (and arguably, history itself) is a direct repudiation of this sentiment. How would you respond to this man — to people who think words are innocuous, to people who see levity in drawing upon the most violent historical rhetoric that a young woman like Ms. Schrode, and many people of many ages, could probably ever conceive of? How about people who may not have an opinion, either way, and think that such an issue does not affect them?
Elizabeth Rosner: I think that there is something stunningly immature about believing that words do no harm. I still hear the sound of that childhood chant: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” I find this notion simply untrue, or at best, a form of wishful thinking. “It’s only locker room talk.” “I was only joking.” To me, these are transparently dishonest defenses, and need to be called out as such. I think that it’s naïve and dangerous to treat words casually.
Because, increasingly, we can all see unmistakable evidence of the connection between violence and rhetoric — not metaphoric but actual violence. In periods of war, for example, we know that the use of words and phrases to dehumanize the so-called enemy (vermin, cockroaches, yellow menace, redskins, to name just a few) enables soldiers to kill without remorse. In everyday life, we see how words can weaponize evil, because you can aim a gun so much more easily at a target when you have been told — through words and imagery and generations of belief systems — that those lives matter so much less than your own.
Aside from literal violence, though, we can see how even the subtle (not subtle) distinction between calling people refugees versus calling them immigrants can create a huge empathy gap. We can feel so much more detached and unaffected merely by way of how we name others, and how we name ourselves. I should add that I’m not referring to arguments about “politically correct speech.” I’m talking about sensitivity and respect and dignity and awareness. Not just because words can “whitewash” atrocities and turn them into “mistakes.” Not just because words can erase facts and turn them into “opinions.” We can all try harder to use words carefully whenever possible, to be willing to notice when we have used words unconsciously. We have the capacity then to recognize harm we have (even inadvertently) caused. Which also leads me to acknowledge that words of apology are complicated too.
When I wrote the section of my book called “The Alphabet of Inadequate Language”, I was feeling especially daunted by the limits of words to say what I wanted to say. Simultaneously, I felt overwhelmed by the realization that words can be so reductive and casual at the very same time in which they are also potent and devastating.
The Upstander Project: You talk about the word “survivor” and it reminds me of the conversation within the realm of sexual violence advocacy. We talk about this a lot — some of us don’t like it because it makes it sound like you’re just hanging on by a thread, or that this is your entire identity. You notably omit the word in your chapter on this conversation, “The S-Word.” You interview a prominent writer who was so opposed to having her identity construed as a “survivor” that she didn’t tell many people in California who knew her that she had been in concentration camps. Your father, too, avoids this descriptor, and says, “I was in camp.” Is there a power in this; how important is it for people who have experienced trauma to wrestle with language and create their own world of language to describe things that language really fails us in describing? What happens when we neatly categorize “survivors” as such? What happens when we break free of those linguistic categories?
Elizabeth Rosner: I have a hard time with many categorical approaches to people, and this is certainly one of them, even though I have spent much of my life using the shorthand phrase “Holocaust survivors” to refer to my parents.
In all honesty, it wasn’t until I had my own direct experience with the troubling category of “cancer survivor” that I realized how much I needed to be able to choose my own descriptions for myself.
The process helped me empathize with a much broader range of identities and definitions that others struggle with, and I hope I am continuing to stay sensitive to individual preferences. As I mentioned above, in terms of what I call dangerous language, I think that this practice takes effort as well as humility.
Similarly, I only realized (again, late in life) that using the word “Vietnam” to refer to a war was shockingly insensitive to the fact that Vietnam is the name of a country, and that the people of Vietnam refer to that same war as “The American War.” I’m finally learning to listen to the way people express their own sense of self before I neatly (and usually unconsciously) assign them a label or category. I’ve made all sorts of errors while wrestling with language, but at least I’ve made a start in the direction of greater awareness.
More than twenty years ago I wrote a poem called “Gravity” that begins like this:
sometimes I am Jacob and / sometimes I am the angel and / always I am wrestling / with God or with the idea / of God or with the idea / of myself wrestling with God / (there is always a risk / in the naming of / things, in the naming / of oneself).
I guess I’ve been thinking about all of this for a very long time.
The Upstander Project: Can you talk about bystanders — both in the Holocaust, and today? How does your father feel about people who were bystanders in Germany? Do you/he buy the often-repeated idea that the German people had no idea what was going on, as Hitler murdered millions of people? When would they have known; what would it have taken? How important is that history for us to keep in mind today?
Elizabeth Rosner: Right now, what comes to mind when I think about bystanders is the concept of “moral injury” among soldiers.
I recently learned that there are veterans who suffer from the lasting consequences of war trauma not only because of atrocities they themselves may have committed but also because of having failed to do more to prevent an atrocity.
This seems such crucial information for all of us, whether soldiers or civilians — to understand that in the presence of someone else’s wrongdoing, our very own sense of morality depends upon more than mere witnessing.
Although I do believe strongly that bearing witness can itself be a form of action, that is still very different from “not knowing” what is going on, and being able to say afterward, “I didn’t know.” My father has often said that he doesn’t hold the entire population of Germany responsible for what happened under Hitler, and that he believes it really was possible to “not know” about the murder of millions. That being said, however, no one can really say how much “knowing” would have changed anything. A lot of us know a great deal about what is happening in the world right now, unacceptably horrific things, and we don’t necessarily have the power to make those things stop. I am desperately worried about this gap between the power and powerlessness of knowing.
The Upstander Project: How do we maintain hope without sanitizing the horrors of the past — which we know we can never sufficiently represent, anyway? How important is hope, how important is truth, how important is action?
Elizabeth Rosner: This is such an essential set of questions! It seems to me that we are urgently in need of truth and hope in order to help us find our way toward “right action.”
But both of those — truth and hope — are in such short supply right now that it can feel almost impossible to do anything. For myself, I find that choosing to look back at what you call “the horrors of the past” is necessary as a first step — or even a recurrent step — in coming to grips with the worst aspects of our human condition.
Sometimes it may feel as though we have to look away from all of that if we are to focus on hope, but I disagree. I think we have to understand how some people manage to remain good and generous and brave in the very same conditions of utmost evil, and thereby to find inspiration for what might yet be possible.
History does keep repeating itself in such horrifying ways, but somehow I find comfort and resolve in learning about examples of heroic action on collective and individual levels. There are always people wiling to risk their own lives to save the lives of others — they did so during slavery, during the Holocaust, and right now they are doing so with mass migrations of refugees. In my own very small way, I am trying to share truth and hope and action through my writing.
Find “Survivor Cafe” here.
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