After the release of his breathtaking and important film Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg established the Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education. There, on film, are recorded the memories of eye witnesses to a systematic, deliberate, and nearly successful attempted genocide by Adolph Hitler. Six million Jews were murdered in Eastern Europe during what is commonly called The Holocaust, but what is in Hebrew, and within the Jewish community called The Shoah — the destruction.
As the generation who witnessed (and survived) the Shoah firsthand ages and dies off, we are left merely with memory, and memory, like anything in history, can be revised, manipulated, and altered consciously and unconsciously with the passage of time. (Which makes Spielberg’s Institute so crucial to the preservation of history as it was, and not as some would wish to be remembered.)
But what of the generation that followed: the children of survivors? What experiences do they carry with them? Are the horrors experienced by their parents and other family members reflected in their own lives — carried forward another generation, not only as memory, but as its own peculiar sort of torment?
A Generation Apart, an emotional first-person documentary by filmmaker Jack Fisher, distributed by City Lights Media, explores the generation once-removed from the camps and gas chambers: the children of Holocaust survivors. “The horrors of the Holocaust didn’t end with the brutal slaughter of innocent men, women, and children,” says the filmmaker. The lives of the survivors will forever be tainted by those atrocities, he explained. Fisher’s personal narrative and the stories of family, neighbors, and friends the world over suggest that the children of survivors need to be as strong as their parents had been.
But coming to terms with what their parents went through, now, as adult children, with children and grandchildren of their own, is not so easy. And the burden carried by survivors’ children is often heavy, as their parents, reticent to relive — or even discuss — their experiences often do not want to talk about those times and experiences. “To survive physically, emotionally, and spiritually, our parents had to summon strength beyond human comprehension. We too need to be strong.” But being strong to them often means fulfilling the wishes of parents whose lives were stripped of them when they, themselves, were young.
The documentary is intensely personal, far from what you might expect in a “Holocaust documentary.” Not a recitation of facts and photographs of emaciated concentration camp victims, A Generation Apart is an ongoing conversation between brothers and sisters, children and parents, one generation to another. The result is a candid and sometimes surprising series of reflections on what it means to be a child of the Holocaust.
It is the conflict that the children of Holocaust survivors live with, growing up in the nightmarish shadow of parents, aunts, and uncles who have gone through such horrors that informs the documentary. One adult child recalls feeling the stories told by her parents, for all of their horror, seemed “exciting.” Another, an Israeli actor, expresses both the ambivalence and freedom he feels as a film role requires him to play an SS officer — the embodiment of what has cost his family so dearly.
Although the footage of the documentary looks very dated (filmed originally in the 1980s), it is supplemented with additional materials on the DVD, including more recent conversations and a director’s commentary. The filmmakers have also established a vehicle on the film's website for children of Holocaust survivors to share their own narratives and experiences.
Distributed by City Lights Home Entertainment, the DVD will be released April 29 to coincide with the National Holocaust Remembrance Day and Jewish American Heritage Month.