Are our memories limited to what we experience first-hand? Do we somehow remember what our parents, grandparents and ancestors lived through? Is it possible that second generation Holocaust survivors have memories of horrors that they didn't experience? And what is it that could pass on this hereditary memory?
Marianne Hirsch, director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender and professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, began to answer these questions and others during her lecture, “The Generation of Postmemory,” the second lecture in the Spring 2008 Fisher Center Lecture Series.
“Eva Hoffman explains that 'We who come after don't have our own memories of the Holocaust,'” Hirsch said during her lecture. “However, many of us do have postmemories of it. Although postmemory isn't identical to memory, it is equal in its affective force. Postmemories are like enigmatic yet very real fairy tales; we experience them like auras of memories. This is how many second generation survivors experience the Holocaust.”
Exploring the role that postmemories play in lives of the second generation, Hirsch examined the theories of German egyptologists Jan and Aleida Assman, the creative works of graphic novelist Art Spiegelman and author W. G. Sebald and much more.
“In the experiences, literature, art and photography of the second generation, there is an expression of pain and victimhood as well as a disassociation with first generation survivors,” explained Hirsch. “Holocaust photos play a significant role in the second generation's postmemories of the traumatic event: they provide an intimate physical connection and a 'piercing' – what Roland Barthes calls the 'punctum' – that touches the second generation and others who view them.”
By the end of her lecture, Hirsch had questioned the three “powerful and prevalent elements” of memory studies: memory, family and photography, asking then answering why each was essential to the postmemories of the Holocaust.
In addition to her work at Columbia, Hirsch is also the author of the forthcoming book, “Ghosts of Home: The Afterlife of a Czernowitz in Jewish Memory and History” (with Leo Spitzer) and her book-in-progress “The Generation of Postmemory: Gender, Visuality and the Holocaust.” She also edited “Gender and Cultural Memory, Special Issue of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society” and earlier the well-known book “Conflicts in Feminism” (with Evelyn Fox Keller).
Hirsch's lecture was co-sponsored by Genocide Series.