SURVIVOR CAFÉ

The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory


As firsthand survivors of many of the twentieth century’s most monumental events—the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Killing Fields—begin to pass away, Survivor Café addresses urgent questions: How do we carry those stories forward? How do we collectively ensure that the horrors of the past are not forgotten?

Elizabeth Rosner organizes her book around three trips with her father to Buchenwald concentration camp—in 1983, in 1995, and in 2015—each journey an experience in which personal history confronts both commemoration and memorialization. She explores the echoes of similar legacies among descendants of African American slaves, descendants of Cambodian survivors of the Killing Fields,

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As firsthand survivors of many of the twentieth century’s most monumental events—the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Killing Fields—begin to pass away, Survivor Café addresses urgent questions: How do we carry those stories forward? How do we collectively ensure that the horrors of the past are not forgotten?

Elizabeth Rosner organizes her book around three trips with her father to Buchenwald concentration camp—in 1983, in 1995, and in 2015—each journey an experience in which personal history confronts both commemoration and memorialization. She explores the echoes of similar legacies among descendants of African American slaves, descendants of Cambodian survivors of the Killing Fields, descendants of survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the effects of 9/11 on the general population. Examining current brain research, Rosner depicts the efforts to understand the intergenerational inheritance of trauma, as well as the intricacies of remembrance in the aftermath of atrocity. Survivor Café becomes a lens for numerous constructs of memory—from museums and commemorative sites to national reconciliation projects to small-group cross-cultural encounters.

Beyond preserving the firsthand testimonies of participants and witnesses, individuals and societies must continually take responsibility for learning the painful lessons of the past in order to offer hope for the future. Survivor Café offers a clear-eyed sense of the enormity of our twenty-first-century human inheritance—not only among direct descendants of the Holocaust but also in the shape of our collective responsibility to learn from tragedy, and to keep the ever-changing conversations alive between the past and the present.

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  • Counterpoint Press
  • Hardcover
  • September 2017
  • 304 Pages
  • 9781619029545

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$26.00

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About Elizabeth Rosner

Elizabeth Rosner is the author of three novels and a poetry collection. The Speed of Light was translated into nine languages and won several awards in the US and in Europe, including being shortlisted for the prestigious Prix Femina. Blue Nude was named among the best books of 2006 by the San Francisco Chronicle. Electric City was named among the best books of 2014 by NPR. Her essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Elle, the San Francisco Chronicle and others. She lives in Berkeley, CA.

Author Website

Praise

A Best Book of 2017 (San Francisco Chronicle)
A Most Notable Nonfiction by Bay Area Authors Selection (East Bay Times)

Survivor Café—which combines moving personal narrative with illuminating research into the impact of mass trauma on a personal and cultural scale — feels like the book Rosner was born to write. Each page is imbued with urgency, with sincerity, with heartache, with heart…. Her words are essential, indeed — words that feel all the more urgent at a time when Nazis are rallying in Charlottesville, Va., when our administration is working hard to dehumanize immigrants. Her words remind us what’s at stake. Her words will help us remember the cost of hate long after the last Holocaust survivors are gone. Her words, alongside the words of other survivors of atrocity and their descendants across the globe, can help us build a more humane world.”San Francisco Chronicle

“Mixing the personal with the historical and the literary with the scholarly, Rosner achieves a breathtaking overview of events as varied as the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, the Rwandan genocide, and Japanese American internment. Her impressive, highly readable Survivor Café takes on important issues of atrocity, trauma, and memory, rendering them all with such great clarity and intimacy that the reader will not soon forget them, or this powerful book.”Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Sympathizer

“Rosner demonstrates a rare blend of scholarly assessment and personal revelation, tempering her singular passion with an encompassing mercy. In this important and vital contribution to the conversation about legacy and responsibility, Rosner distills the magnitude of such burdens and defines the scope of memorialization with an elegance and eloquence that reverberates with both depth and nuance.”Booklist (starred review)

Discussion Questions

1. Some insist that the Holocaust is a unique historical event that cannot be discussed alongside any other genocide, before or since. Others emphasize that a shared endeavor to remember and study the Holocaust, including the examination of other atrocities, is key to developing a sense of collective responsibility for the past as well as the future. What are some of the reasons for these different points of view?

2. How do you understand the various goals of memorialization and commemoration? In what ways might these efforts be incompatible and yet also intertwined? Do you feel there is an effective way to distinguish between the past and the present?

3.  What are some of examples of “inadequate language” that you have encountered in your own life, and/or in your field of work or education? What are some of the most problematic words and phrases you have heard used, or found yourself using, and why are they challenging for you?

4. Are you aware of stories in your family and/or your community that you have never heard, but wish you could find out about? Why do you think these stories have remained hidden, or at least have not yet been told?

5. Do you or your family members have certain possessions that have come to represent the history of your ancestors? Is there any object or item that doesn’t necessarily have monetary value but which has been a cherished keepsake for generations? Choose one of those objects and tell its story.

6. In what ways do you observe the inheritance of trauma in your own family and/or culture? It may take the form of silence, or absence. Are there experiences you have had that are unspeakable? Do you believe that experiences must be named in order to be understood?

7. This book interweaves numerous individual as well as collective narratives of violence and loss, war and its long-lasting aftermath. Is there any particular story related in Survivor Café that seemed to have the most powerful effect on you, whether emotionally or intellectually or even physically? Can you talk about why you felt so impacted?

8. Do you feel that your education has included enough breadth as well as depth in the study of genocide and atrocity, past and present? If you were to choose one aspect of Survivor Café to use as a springboard for learning more, what would that subject be? What do you still want to know?