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Chasing Ghosts: History, Memoir and the Third Generation

Tue, December 18, 2:30 to 4:00pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Cityview 1 Ballroom


Memoirs of the Third Generation have appeared more frequently in recent years, and have been matched by a growing body of scholarship examining the topic. Such scholarship explores how traumatic memories are filtered through the grandchildren of survivors, and the ways in which those grandchildren relate to and absorb their grandparents’ suffering into their own identity. Scholars are increasingly recognizing the distinctive experience of grandchildren seeking to make sense of their grandparents’ turbulent pasts.

In this paper I will discuss my forthcoming scholarly memoir, CHASING GHOSTS, and the challenges it has posed to me as an historian. My book tells the story of my grandfather’s escape from Nazi-occupied Poland in November 1939, his deportation to the far-reaches of Siberia, the loss of his wife and two sons, and his journey to rebuild his life in Australia. It examines the lasting impact of the loss of his family, both on him and on subsequent generations. Drawing on my background as an historian, this memoir blends a scholarly approach, grounding the story of my grandfather and father in the broader context of the twentieth century and the various backdrops in which the story takes place: Czarist Russia, World War I-era and interwar Poland, the Soviet Union during World War II, post-war Europe, and ultimately Australia. It is a story about the relationship between fathers and sons, relationships with loss, absence and trauma hovering constantly in the background. Because it was my own family’s story, it was both easier and more difficult in ways that illuminate the historical function of memoirs and the process of their writing.

Throughout my paper, I will explore the challenges of writing narrative history, or writing the self into the story, and in balancing the scholarly voice, the voices of the stories’ protagonists, and my own voice as participant in the narrative. I will situate my memoir in the growing field of third generation memoirs, and show that trauma has its way of shaping families generations beyond the initial experiences of violence and loss.


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