by Sandra Lipner

Sandra Lipner is a techne (AHRC)-funded PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London. In her doctoral thesis, she uses a cultural family history approach to investigate German bourgeois subjectivities within the context of the Third Reich. She completed a three-month placement at the Wiener Holocaust Library in 2022, working on the Library’s family collections for the current exhibition on Letters from the Holocaust. These views are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wiener Holocaust Library.

Follow the links in this article to full reviews of the texts mentioned…

A stack of Holocaust family memoirs by second- and third-generation authors sits on my desk. I am re-reading some old favourites and discovering new titles in order to include them and their writers in the Wiener Holocaust Library’s exhibition, Holocaust Letters. The family-letters-cum-personal-reflections emerged as a recognisable genre around the 1990s; a notable early publication was, for example, Monika Maron’s Pawels Briefe about the experiences of three generations of her family. Since then, Holocaust family memoirs have grown into a substantial body of works. They have their own publishing house and, since 2017, a dedicated book series. The format has become an established part of the non-fictional literary landscape. This blogpost asks what unites these family histories, what sets them apart, and why they matter.

What unites Holocaust family memoirs?

Most Holocaust family memoirs are a mixture of travelogue, history and memoir and take a personal approach in all three of these strands. The authors present their material in the form of the archetypal quest story, which creates interest and pace. The reader follows the author and their companions as they uncover their family’s Holocaust histories. Most authors retrace their ancestors’ lives by visiting the places where they lived and reflect on their own reactions to these literal and metaphorical journeys. Even municipal and institutional records become intensely personal and meaningful historical fragments in this context.

 Whether it is Jonathan Wittenberg’s story of looking for evidence of his family’s fate beyond the letters that were kept in a suitcase in his aunt’s apartment in Jerusalem, or Elizabeth Rynecki’s detailed account of her search for her great-grandfather’s paintings and how this has shaped her own identity, the authors’ personal journeys and their emotional connections to their ancestors bring their families’ histories into the present and make them relatable.

What sets Holocaust family memoirs apart?

Most Holocaust family memoirs follow at least two timelines: a modern-day one that covers the years the author has invested in their search, and a historical one that spans any number of years up to 1945 and beyond. Like Hadley Freeman in House of Glass, many authors use the 20th century to structure their books’ narrative arcs around the time before, during, and after the Holocaust. Some authors choose a narrow time frame and focus almost exclusively on the events of the 1930s and 1940s, such as Ariana Neumann in When Time Stopped or Maxim Leo in Wo wir zu Hause sind. Others take a long view. Peter Bradley, for example, starts his family history The Last Train in the early modern era and takes in some early church history to argue that the Nazis’ persecutory measures were not historically new, yet differed in scale and in their inescapability for the persecutees. Not only the time frames vary, the geographical foci of the family memoirs and their authors’ outlooks also differ greatly. This variety provides part of the reason why my answer to the question whether there is a need for more Holocaust family memoirs is ‘yes’.

Another one?

Family history memoirs are certainly not without their critics. Even some of the second-generation authors themselves wonder whether there is need for yet another one. Atina Grossmann cautions historians that family historians (herself included) had a ‘propensity to write self-absorbed and narcissistic – if often quite fascinating – texts about ourselves and our own histories’.[1] Rejecting the self-reflexive elements of most Holocaust family histories, Andrew Kolin crafted his family history One Family Before, During and After the Holocaust without them and calls for ‘a shift in orientation’ among second-generation authors to research the past without looking to the present or the future. Grossmann’s and Kolin’s engagement with their family histories despite their reservations illustrates the attraction of Holocaust letters for historians and non-specialists alike. Family collections provide unique historical source material, and the potential shortcomings of working with them can be redressed by choosing a suitable approach.

Holocaust family memoirs are naturally of direct relevance for the authors’ families. The quest described in them is a labour of love that in itself commemorates those who suffered persecution. The books shed light on the lives they lived and thus help to make sense of the authors’ familial contexts. They can be shared with relatives and passed down the generations in a way the family letters themselves often can’t because of language barriers. However, the family memoirs speak to an audience beyond the small circle of family members. Readers with similar family histories or researchers interested in particular locales and events can further their own understanding by selecting relevant publications. In fact, when writing about their ancestors, many authors draw on other families’ materials and employ an experience-based patchwork approach to fill in gaps. Most importantly, Holocaust family memoirs are relevant to readers without a geographical or even thematic connections. They appeal because of the personal and emotional journeys they reveal. They reflect a kaleidoscope of voices that witness to the existence of many Holocaust histories. Last but not least, by moving from subjective experience to the bigger picture, family memoirs testify to the Holocaust’s personal, local, national, and global dimensions and its relevance and continued impact to this day.

A selection of Holocaust Family Memoirs with their Wiener Holocaust Library catalogue links, where available:

Peter Bradley, The Last Train: A Family History of the Final Solution (2022).

Hadley Freeman, House of Glass: The Story and Secrets of a Twentieth-Century Jewish Family (2020).

Menachem Kaiser, Plunder: A Family Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure (2021).

Andrew Kolin, One Family Before and During the Holocaust (2021).
The WHL holds the first edition, published in 2000.

Maxim Leo, Wo wir zu Hause sind: Die Geschichte meiner verschwundenen Familie (2019).

Monika Maron, Pawels Briefe: Eine Familiengeschichte (1999).
                English translation: Pavel’s Letters (2002).

Ariana Neumann, When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains (2021).

Joachim Schloer, Escaping Nazi Germany: One Woman’s Emigration from Heilbronn to England (2021).

Géraldine Schwarz, Die Gedächtnislosen: Erinnerungen einer Europäerin (2018).
                English translation: Those Who Forget: One Family’s Story – A Memoir, A History, A Warning

Jonathan Wittenberg, My Dear Ones: One Family and the Final Solution (2016).

[1] Atina Grossmann, “Versions of Home: German Jewish Refugee Papers out of the Closet and into the Archives,“ New German Critique 90 (Autumn 2003): 102.