29 June, 2008

Jews: The Next Generation

The holocaust is a subject so horrific, and so incomprehensibly awful, that much as we do our best to remember, really we consign it to a locked room in the back our minds and bring it up only as the example of evil-doing. This is true for myself and, I am sure, others with no link at all to that terrible period in the history of the Jewish people.

So how do the repercussions of that time impact the lives of people who weren't there, but were affected? This is the subject of Vanessa Engle's excellent documentary, the second of three that BBC4 have entitled, simply, Jews.

Engle explores the feelings of the children of holocaust survivors, and finds that the wounds inflicted more than 60 years ago cut extremely deep. Those who fled and became parents in the UK reacted in different ways - commonly though, changing their identities, overprotecting their families, and trying (always failing) to forget.

One subject learnt only recently of her Jewish background (yet others did not realise while their parents were still alive). She claims that those terrible times, and her parents' efforts, shape her 'entire psychological hinterland.' Another explains that she shares her name with another child her mother had, who did not survive Auschwitz. She seems to embrace this mark of her family, but it surely cannot be a fully comfortable fact.

There is something more complex here than 'dealing with' the holocaust. Relationships between parents and children, usually complex anyway, are twisted and further complicated by incredibly sore emotional scars. In some cases the surviving parents themselves are present, but rarely are they able to engage with their children's questions or feelings.

There is a sense in which as these middle-aged offspring come to realise how great the shockwaves through their lives have been, they also realise that with time the answers and causes are continuously retreating. One lady gives up her life in the UK to learn just what happened to her mother's family in Vienna, just what tore at her mother for so many years. Coming at the end of the film, this segment is especially poignant.

Interesting to me is the effect that fleeing the Nazis had on the faith of the survivors and their offspring. Out of fear, few maintained their Jewish faith, or even their mother tongues, and it seems all integrated as fully as possible. This may have interesting implications for how we relate to beliefs and culture. Their children, however, approached what was frequently a newly-discovered heritage in a surprising variety of ways.

Part two of this excellent series is a huge change of pace. The gently comedic Samuel has been replaced with a horrifying, looming, past. Inconsistent it may be, but Jews continues to make involving and thought-provoking viewing.

My review of part one is here, and this episode is available on BBC's iPlayer for a few days yet...

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