Dr Ruth Wajnryb talks about her book

"The Silence" how tragedy shapes talk
followed by a conversation between Ruth and Dr George Halasz.

On Sunday the 2nd of June Descendants of the Shoah and the Child Survivors Group jointly hosted an evening with Dr Ruth Wajnryb, Sydney applied linguist, researcher and author of “the silence – how tragedy shapes talk” and Dr George Halasz, Melbourne psychiatrist and member of the Child Survivors Group. Some of George’s recent work has been with JewishCare’s intergenerational dialogue workshops and for Survivors and children of Survivors.

Floris Kalman, Chairperson of the Child Survivors Group introduced the format for the evening. Firstly George introduced Ruth and her book. Then Ruth talked about how and why she wrote the book. This was followed by a “Parkinsonian style” interview with Ruth and George and finally there were questions from and discussion with the audience.

Ruth’s book, launched in June 2001, is a combination of her academic training and her biography. It is about Holocaust spoken narrative, “unspeakability’ and “unhearability’; terms the reader will become familiar with. It is profoundly a work for the second generation, an important book, in George’s words, “a gift from a courageous explorer.” It is also an important book for the child survivors who are very familiar with the difficulty of dialogue between the different generations, in Floris’s words “a milestone book, a revelation.”

Ruth declared from the outset her distance from psychiatry and psychology, the perspective from which a lot of Holocaust literature is presented. She is an applied linguist and is interested in how language works and how it brokers human interaction. The preface to her book has a quote from James Young: “None of us coming to the Holocaust afterwards can know these events outside the ways they are passed down.” In other words, descendants came after the Holocaust and our experience is mediated though our parents’ talk or lack of it.

Ruth emphasised that today Survivors talk – they talk to schools, they do guided tours of the Holocaust museums, they talk to the press and to their grandchildren and they make testimonies on audio or videotape. What they didn’t do is talk to us. And we didn’t know how to talk to them. We didn’t know that we didn’t know. Ruth explained three distinct categories of knowledge or lack of knowledge in her childhood: firstly there were things she didn’t know. She didn’t know where she and her parents came from. She didn’t know about the war and what it meant. She didn’t know any old people or any family lineage. Secondly, she realised there were things about the war that she did know, but she didn’t know their significance. And thirdly, she didn’t know how to find out what she didn’t know. But she knew there were taboos, things she shouldn’t ask about, but she didn’t know where the perimeters were. This resulted in a childhood full silence, a powerful form of communication where trauma resides.

Ruth’s methodology for the book was using interviews with 27 children of Survivors to examine the process of communication in survivor families. She intersperses this with her own story and that of the second generation to understand how trauma is transmitted. By understanding the language of silence and its transmission, this becomes the first step to healing. Ruth concluded that there is truth in the Buddhists’ belief that after a time of killing it takes three generations for healing.

The “Parkinsonian style” interview or conversation between George and Ruth covered many themes. First they talked about “wordlessness”. Ruth described this as heaviness and suffering, something beyond her control that she couldn’t name. She thought that when she grew up she would understand it, but that didn’t happen. Her parents’ seriousness as Survivors inhibited her from speaking; she couldn’t be flippant or trivial about anything.

The next theme was the idea that a barrage of repetitive talk is as powerful and as full of impact as silence. People in the audience related to this. Those whose parents talked a lot also realised that they really didn’t know much about their parents’ experiences. The talk was often the same stories over and over again and as children they switched off. Ruth explained that with minimal text, or the same text, the harder the context has to work and it is more likely to result in non-communication.

The conversation then moved on to perimeters and safety zones in communication. As a child, you don’t know where these safety zones are. Asking questions is like stepping on land mines – you don’t know when a question will cause an explosion, because you don’t know where the land mines are planted. Ruth then examined the need to know, combined with the fear of finding out, which also stands in the way of successful communication. Ruth describes this as permission to talk and the many subtle ways the opportunities for communication are thwarted. It is a big task for children to fulfil, to give parents permission to speak. With the hindsight of the child being grown up, it is sometimes too late.

The book declares the minefields; declaring they are there makes them safe. The book declares the minefields exist beyond the silence. She was worried survivors would misinterpret the book or feel she was blaming them, which she wasn’t. The book focuses on the suffering of the second generation, rather that the suffering of Survivors. In this journey of discovery and research Ruth takes away the blame, it is not the parents’ or the children’s fault that it was hard to communicate.

We are very appreciative to Ruth and George for their time and effort in making this evening valuable and informative for everyone there. It was also a wonderful opportunity for the Child survivors and the Descendants Groups to exchange information and dialogue. We hope to have more joint meetings in the future.

Lena Fiszman, of Descendants of the Shoah, gave the vote of thanks, with an invitation to members of the audience to come and talk to the committee members present about our group.

Back to Reviews Index Page