The term “second generation,” for children of Holocaust survivors, has become inherent to Jewish identity, referring to those who did not themselves experience the Holocaust but whose lives have been shaped by the unbearable traumas suffered by their parents, generating common fears and integrating the Holocaust into their worldview. The term refers not only to son and daughters of concentration camps survivors, but also individuals whose parents experienced various aspects of Nazism, and extends even to students of the very small and intolerable details of the atrocities. All are a part of the generation living in the shadow of the Holocaust, though born after it was over.
The brilliant book by David Grossman, A Horse Walks into a Bar, which earned him the International Man Booker prize, deals with this phenomenon. It is a rich, multi-dimensional novel with universal implications; a substantial part of it depicts a childhood and adolescence shaped by the Holocaust. The protagonist, Dovale Gee, is a stand-up comedian performing in a basement in Netanya, revealing details of his life to the audience. He invites a childhood friend, a retired judge, whom he hasn’t seen for forty years, to “judge” his performance, which unearths his life story. At first, the spectators—and with them, the reader—are led to believe it is an ordinary stand-up show, though unusually vulgar. Gradually, though, we learn about the early trauma experienced by the comedian. Most spectators leave, though some stay, eager to take part in and understand Dovale’s most difficult and meaningful moments.
Dovale is the only son of a Holocaust survivor. His mother hid for months within a train car. “She spent six months of the war in a small train car, I told you that. They hid her there for half a year, three Polish train engineers in a little compartment on the train that ran back and forth on the same tracks. They took turns guarding her; she told me that once, and her face wore this little crooked laugh I’d never seen before.” After six months, they threw her “straight onto the gatehouse ramp,” where she fell into the hands of Doctor Mengele. His father escaped from Europe right before the war broke, but his entire family was exterminated.
Dovale’s childhood experiences often refer to the Holocaust. For example, when he is sent to a Gadna (youth training) camp at the age of fourteen, he is terrified. It feels like going abroad, but “going abroad wasn’t done then, definitely not by our sort. Overseas, for us, was strictly for extermination purposes.” But it is the end of the story that illustrates the profound influence the Holocaust had on the “second generation”: when in a Gadna camp, Dovale is told that he has lost a parent, but no one tells whether his mother or father has passed away. On his way back to Jerusalem, he delves into a miserable calculation: who would he prefer to have died? Mom or Dad?
How is that connected with the Holocaust?
The desire to rank the atrocities of the Holocaust in order of importance or significance is, of course, wrong. One cannot weigh and measure the innumerable sufferings the Nazi mechanism generated. It is impossible to determine what was more or less terrifying. An analysis of various tortures turns into what is often called “a pornography of death,” dealing with details but missing the main point. But in spite of that, I feel that the worst torment some survivors had to go through was a command to choose between family members, as with Sophie in William Styron’s famous book, to choose who would live and who would die. Sometimes parents were given the opportunity to save one child, and they had to choose who would be sent to the gas chambers and who would be saved.
David Grossman shows how this monstrous aspect of the Holocaust gradually becomes part of his protagonist’s life. Nazis forced Jews to make an impossible decision: who would be better dead, and who would be better to save. The first-born son? The youngest? Mother? Husband? The possibility of such an unthinkable, atrocious contemplation had become part of our world. Acknowledging that someone forced our parents, remote family members, or even Jews we didn’t know, to decide which member of the family would live and who would die implied that this option existed and cannot be ignored anymore. It becomes an element of our self-perception, our common consciousness, even as we recognize it as detestable. The climax of the novel relates when, at the age of fourteen, Dovale is trying to “decide” who he would rather find out had died, father or mother, is nothing but a natural extension of the “second generation” experience, applying the tragic ordeals of the parents to the lives of the children long after the Holocaust was over.
A word on the link between the comic and the tragic: Prof. David Flusser, my instructor at Hebrew University, grew up in Prague and knew some of Franz Kafka’s childhood friends (Kafka is mentioned in the novel). He told me that one of them described to him the details of the very first time Kafka read his work to his friends and they all burst into wild laughter and couldn’t stop. What eventually became the ultimate literary expression of the indifference to the fate of man and of impersonal cruelty was, at first, funny. So is David Grossman’s novel. But, unlike Kafka, he tempts the reader with jokes and gradually transforms his world into a dark and cruel place. The joke is the last resort, a means to escape the understanding that someone had to decide who of his family members would live and who would die. And Dovale, exactly like Kafka’s Joseph K., is awaiting the verdict for a crime he did not commit.