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'Survivor Cafe' Explores How To Preserve The Legacy Of Horrific Events


Elizabeth Rosner writes this in her new book, "Survivor Cafe." We are all obligated to remember. But the best way to do that when it comes to atrocities and other traumatic historical events is another question. Elizabeth Rosner's parents survived the Holocaust, which means she is what's known as a second-generation survivor, though she's not totally comfortable with that term. Second-generation survivors of course are the people, most of them Jewish, whose parents survived the camps, deportations and ghettos of World War II.

Elizabeth Rosner is with us now. Thanks for being on the show.

ELIZABETH ROSNER: Thank you for having me.

MCEVERS: I want to start with the title of the book. What is a Survivor Cafe?

ROSNER: Until a couple of years ago, I had never heard anything like that phrase. But I was in Germany with my father in April 2015 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation from Buchenwald, where he was a prisoner as a teenager. And we were there along with the other remaining survivors as well as some of the liberators of the camp who were from the American Army.

And we were also with Germans. And some of those Germans were the grandchildren of Nazis and perpetrators. And they had organized this event, and they titled one of the items on our itinerary Survivor Cafe. And what that turned out to be was an organized gathering of survivors sitting at small, round, cafe-style tables in a public space that in this case was the National Theatre of Weimar.

MCEVERS: Right. The idea of course is bringing people together to have dialogue all these years and...

ROSNER: Right.

MCEVERS: ...Generations later. And there's - that's of course a wonderful idea. But the way you write about it in the book, it sounds like it was, I mean for lack of a better way to say it, awkward at times. I mean just - you're, like...


MCEVERS: The survivors are kind of on display. There's cameras everywhere. And when a conversation would start up, other people would gather around to listen and - is that how you felt?

ROSNER: Right, yeah. And the thing is that of course the people that were there had chosen to be there. They weren't there against their will.


ROSNER: You know, but there were two men in particular who were sitting at these tables, wearing their striped...


ROSNER: ...Pajama-like prison uniforms. They had saved them for 70 years. And then you couple that with cameras and microphones and media hovering and the shuffling feet of all these people kind of crowding around and not quite knowing what to do with themselves, wanting to connect with these people but also some of them I think quite frightened about, what should we say? What is appropriate?

MCEVERS: And that seems like the point and why you write about this - is that there isn't a right way to do this, right? Is that why you tell this story? Is the idea that on the one hand, the sentiments are right but it's possible that there may not be a perfect way to execute something like this because for each person it's so different, that somebody might want to wear their prison uniform?

ROSNER: Exactly. I think that each of us really is struggling. And I include myself in this even though I'm kind of a subsidiary member of this conversation, right? But...


ROSNER: My whole inquiry was, how is it for the people who are literally still carrying the memories of that event, the past? And how is it for the people of my generation and subsequent generations who are witnesses to the process of remembering, not witnesses to the events themselves? And then how do we take on what I call the loved obligation to remember ourselves and this threshold moment where we are right now of the firsthand witnesses disappearing slowly, rapidly, one by one, all at once?


ROSNER: And what do we do now collectively - not just individually but collectively?

MCEVERS: There is some research into the idea that trauma can be genetically passed down from generation to generation. You write about this in the book. Do you think this applies to you?

ROSNER: I do. And I think it applies to a lot of us whether or not we've named it in this way. What the research is beginning to demonstrate is that people who have lived through trauma have been changed by it in a cellular way. And in particular, the expression of their DNA has been modified, and that modification is starting to show up in subsequent generations. And the explanation among researchers is it has to be inherent. It's not something they learned by watching their parents or hearing traumatic stories from their parent. They were born with traumatic residue in their bodies.

MCEVERS: How do you think that's played out for you?

ROSNER: Well, you know, it's a mixed bag. I think that it has heightened my sense of hypervigilance in the world (laughter). I'm more likely to walk into a room and kind of notice where the exits are (laughter) or to be really super attuned to people that might seem a little off, a little dangerous. I know some members of my generation literally always keep a suitcase packed...


ROSNER: ...As if they might be forced to flee at any moment. You know, for people whose parents survived war and exile, this evacuation witnessing that we're all doing by way of the news, witnessing people fleeing in a panic and grabbing whatever they can, this may be triggering some people's PTSD around, what would I do? What would I take with me if suddenly my country was invaded not by a storm but by an invading army?

MCEVERS: We talked about the Survivor Cafe model in Germany that you witnessed and kind of the question of, what's the right way to do this? I know that reparations is another way. People have - survivors can apply and get reparations from Germany. Of course that can re-traumatize people doing that application process.

But you know, now that you're finished with this book and this line of inquiry, like, what did you come up with? What do you feel like is the answer to that question? What is the right way to honor these survivors and their children, your generation?

ROSNER: I feel more strongly than ever that there is no right way and that what really matters is the effort and the intention behind the effort. So the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa is one right way, the training program in Japan for people that they call denshosha, who are becoming the designated transmitters of story. And they are literally memorizing the stories of the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki so that the firsthand witnesses get to have their stories retained into the future when they're no longer here.

So all of these efforts matter, and there is no one right way. I think it's important that we all continue to name the individual names of victims. We continue to acknowledge that there are people who may never heal from their trauma and that we have to allow that to be true, too.

MCEVERS: Elizabeth Rosner, thank you so much.

ROSNER: Thank you, Kelly.

MCEVERS: Elizabeth Rosner's new book is called "Survivor Cafe." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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