As an oral history and memory researcher based in Poland, for years I have been recording and analysing the testimonies of World War II survivors. The memory and experience of the second generation, those growing up in the shadow of the traumatic past, became the subject of my PhD thesis in sociology.
The Polish context
Contrary to the Western context, a reflection upon war-related postmemory (a concept developed by the American literary scholar Marianne Hirsch) is relatively new in Poland. Therefore, there are not many documentation projects available devoted to the descendants of the survivors, not to mention the third or the fourth generation. It is worth mentioning that the Nazi concentration camp memorials located in Poland also seem not to be particularly interested in the topic, yet. If any relevant documentation or networking projects take place, the descendants are most often approached primarily as in a way substitutes for the deceased survivors.
The project framework
In the years 2017-2021, I’ve been conducting interviews with the people whose parents were Polish (non-Jewish) political prisoners of various German Nazi concentration camps during the war. In the meantime, in 2020 I edited and published a part of them in a book titled Pogłosy. Then, I conducted follow-up interviews with some of the book’s protagonists. In total, I collected 34 interviews with men and women, living in Poland and abroad, of different class backgrounds, religious and political beliefs, and engagement in commemorative organisations.
My goal was to investigate how the descendants perceive their own biographies in the context of their parents’ war experiences. Another important factor that I recognised were the politics of memory in Poland (how politicians shape the public memory by funding education and culture, creating laws and compensations, and promoting ideas). Socialist governments pre-1989, as well as conservative liberal that came after, acknowledged the Polish martyrology in the Nazi concentration camps as an important stake in the public memory. Sometimes the splinters of their strategies showed in the narratives of my interviewees, too – particularly in the case of those who live in Poland.
A facade of history can be breached, however, when it becomes told by specific people with specific names. Before we move on to the perspective of the descendants, let us stop for a minute at the words of the Ravensbrück survivor, Helena Hegier-Rafalska, who underwent pseudo-medical experiments in the camp. “After the war, I did not hate the Germans. I felt sorry for them that they took away my faith in man. That my dreams have been trampled, destroyed. I loved my son very much and I trembled for him, and at the same time I could not bring out a smile. I was so shut to him. It was stronger than me. I was like made of wood – I looked at him for hours and cried…” – she recollected years later.
But the burden of the trans-generational trauma has yet another dimension. Someone who carries it experiences the effects of their parents’ suffering without having direct access to its cause. One of my interlocutors said: “I did not accept that my mother did not hate her torturers. I cannot understand it, even though I am a Catholic and I know I should forgive as she did. I cannot.” A deeply emotional attitude may become mixed with a limited ability to revise one’s beliefs. The second generation has access only to a certain vision of the past, which is overlapped with the vision (or even a myth) of the parent’s figure, as well as the personal experience of growing up in such a burdened family. The prisoners’ children testify not only to their parents’ camp experience, but also simply to the suffering of their mom and dad – sometimes a cold or scary person, and sometimes a beloved, idealised one. That is why postmemory includes a myth-creating element that can affect entire communities, not only the direct descendants of the victims.
German anthropologist Aleida Assman once described Israeli historical education as “the cultural mnemonics of pain” – in post-traumatic culture, the wound is not supposed to heal. Some of my interlocutors, especially those involved in commemorative activities, mentioned the Israeli politics of memory with a general admiration, as a good, even enviable example. For some observers, it is difficult to understand the still alive (both among the prisoners and the memory activists) tendency to describe or commemorate a specifically “Polish” and not a “universal” camp experience. This phenomenon should be considered within the geopolitical context of the Eastern Bloc. Various survivors for years had been excluded from the Western discourse on war. What is more, Poles were unable to develop a catchy, concise concept for the complicated experiences of tens of thousands of people. Agnieszka Dauksza, Polish anthropologist who interviewed the Polish prisoners of Auschwitz, described the situation exactly as the “Polish experience without a name”. The lack of strong symbolism heightened the feeling of regret, incomprehension, and insufficient attention to the experience – these feelings seem to be taken over by some of the descendants, especially when it comes to the anti-German sentiments.
However, the second generation testifies also to their own suffering. One of my interlocutors declared that she agreed to an interview because she wanted herself to be included in the group of victims of the camps. Her mother, after evacuating from Ravensbrück to Sweden with “the White Buses“, decided not to return to Poland and abandoned her family. Her father, a prisoner of Auschwitz and Flossenbürg, abused my interviewee and her sister mentally and physically. Another child of two prisoners, also Ravensbrück and Auschwitz survivors, recalled: “I lived in the shadow of these camp stories for my entire childhood. It’s the gloom that was at home, this inability to get along… They were both tainted with KZ-Syndrome. All in all, it is difficult to say what their real personality was, and what was the result of their experiences (…) My mother did not have the patience to raise me – I was not an easy child, I had my own opinion. She used to hit me with her hand, and when there was something more serious, she told my father – he used to take the belt and smack me (…) My mother was physically and mentally exhausted. Impatient. Nervous. It was impossible to argue with her – there was a sharp conflict right away. I guess it was such a learned ineptitude after the camp where she had no influence whatsoever on what was going on.”  Such dramatic voices of the second generation make the monumental and martyrological narration on war crack. The victims of the war in a sense became parents to other victims.
In the family homes of my interlocutors, war traumas were hardly ever openly talked about. Many of them recalled the meetings of their parents with their camp friends, but all they overheard as kids were stories full of black humour or heroism (e.g. how people managed to maintain a religious, patriotic, or artistic life in the camp). The survivors rarely shared the painful experience of fear, hunger, or loneliness. Enclosing the camp representation within the walls of silence or a schematic narrative only increased the intergenerational distance. The emotionally inaccessible parent remained a mystery. As one interviewee, Bogna, once told me: “We saw that my mother didn’t want to talk about it. We felt it. When she mentioned something, it was usually with such a distance, ‘one’ not ‘me’: that ‘one ate swede’ and not ‘I ate swede’. We felt it perfectly well and did not ask her about it.” 
Such an intergenerational distance could have many effects on children: difficulties in establishing close relationships in adult life, reversing the roles and becoming a caretaker of parents, or subconsciously giving up one’s own satisfying life – as if in the spirit of loyalty to a parent who has suffered so much. This is what one of them told me: “Experiences of my mother in Ravensbrück made such an impact on me that I was unable to tear myself away from her. It was unimaginable for me that I could leave my mother. It seemed to me that I had to be with her in every moment – at the expense of my personal life.” 
The descendants’ experiences can certainly be read as universal narratives about the legacy of war that marked entire families for decades to come. However, I believe that to sensibly build a general story, we should first comprehend the various contexts concerning the specific groups of survivors and their families.
During my research, I met both engaged activists, dedicated to sharing their parents’ stories and those who seemed to tremble at the very mention of the topic, determined to distance themselves from the past. One thing I’ve learned is that not every descendant is willing to take up the role of the witness, and that there may be various reasons for it. In parallel, a few activists confirmed that only through the lens of my research did they see their family experience as, in general, loving and enriching. Because of that, they declared to have gained empathy towards those who don’t want to engage – be it strangers or their elder siblings. From today’s perspective, I understand the memory of war and of parents’ survival as a reservoir from which descendants derive various meanings, dependant on their own personality traits, interests, and personal life stories.
Politics of memory often instrumentalise the truth of individual experiences and transform them into simplified, pervasive tales. Through careful research, we can convey the real complexity of the topic and overcome the divisions stirred up by politics.
 The notable exceptions would be the project on the descendants of Polish Jewry by the POLIN museum, and the project on the descendants of survivors of Warsaw Uprising in 1944 by the Warsaw Rising Museum.
 My claim is based on my research in the oral history collection of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, exchange with the State Museum at Majdanek staff, and analysis of their website. I elaborate on it in my article (published in Polish): M. Buko, Elżbieta Kuta, „Teraz to wszystko mi się poukładało w jedną, logiczną całość”. „Wrocławski Rocznik Historii Mówionej“, 11 2021, 116–159. https://doi.org/10.26774/wrhm.302
 This word has a double meaning in Polish. Translated to German it would be both Nachhalle and Nach-Stimme, to English: reverberations, as well as post-voices. M. Buko, Pogłosy. Dzieci więźniów niemieckich obozów koncentracyjnych, Warszawa 2020. https://ksiegarnia.dsh.waw.pl/pl/p/Maria-Buko-Poglosy.-Dzieci-wiezniow-niemieckich-obozow-koncentracyjnych/334
 A. Assmann, Erinnerungsräume. Formen und Wandlungen des kulturellen Gedächtnisses, München 1999, p. 190.
 A. Dauksza, “Doświadczenie bez nazwy. „Oświęcim” ≠ Auschwitz”, Teksty Drugie [Online], 6 | 2016, Online since 15 November 2016, connection on 23 October 2022. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/td/1656
 An anonymous interview in author’s collection.
 An anonymous interview in author’s collection.