Digital Trauma Processing in Social Media Groups: Transgenerational Holocaust Trauma on Facebook
University of Amsterdam
In recent years, more and more social media (Facebook) groups have been created dealing with memories of the Holocaust in Hungary. In this article, I analyze and compare two groups, “The Holocaust and My Family” and “The Descendants of the Victims and Survivors of the Holocaust” in the framework of my research project on the concept of digital trauma processing, entitled “Trauma Studies in the Digital Age: The Impact of Social Media on Trauma Processing in Life Narratives and Trauma Literature: the Case of Hungary.” I show how the concept of trauma and trauma processing itself are changing in the digital age as a consequence of the element of sharing (in posts and comments in digital media) gains more importance and thus counteracts the element of silence, which was considered the most important element of trauma on several levels. How does digital sharing of memories of traumas help unblock previously blocked avenues to the past, and how does it contribute to the processing of collective historical traumas and consequently to the mobilization of memories, modernization, and the transformation of identities? I examine how the given characteristics of the different types of Facebook groups, public or closed, influence the ways in which people communicate about a collective historical trauma. I touch upon the issue of research ethics in connection with the handling of sensitive data in social media research. I examine the book The Holocaust and My Family, a collection of posts from the group, and analyze as a case study a post and the related comments, in which a descendant of a perpetrator comes out in the group.
Keywords: collective historical trauma, Holocaust, digital trauma studies, social media, Facebook groups, social media research ethics
“This is tough. It took my breath away.
The first Hungarian to apologise for
the crimes of his/her grandfather.”
(Facebook group post, Commenter ‘7’)
“This is not a website of tales. These are the dreadful stories of the dead.”
(Facebook group post, Commenter ‘3’)
How does the framework of a social media group influence the ways in which people communicate about a collective historical trauma? What is the impact of digital and social media on trauma processing on the personal and on the collective and transgenerational level? Much as the ways of remembering changed because of the mediating presence of the digital environment, online communities such as blogs and social media groups have provided a radically novel context for both personal and collective trauma processing.1 In this article, I analyze two Facebook groups which were established to commemorate the Holocaust on the micro level. I consider these groups as examples of the ways in which social media are contributing to changes in the concept of trauma in the digital age.
Following the emergence of the concept of digital memories, the perception of trauma changed within cultural trauma studies. The now classic but at the time pioneering works of cultural trauma studies were published in the 1990s, after Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was classified as a disease in 1980 by the American Psychiatric Association.2 Research fell back on early twentieth-century concepts of hysteria and combat neurosis (Freud, Janet) and on recent neuro-biological studies that analyzed the state of the brain in the moments of trauma and over the long term in order to identify enduring effects (van der Kolk), although later some psychoanalytically oriented theories called into question the legitimacy of this kind of neuro-biological approach (Leys). In the first phase, cultural and historically oriented trauma studies examined testimonies collected for the growing Holocaust archives for research on collective memory. Notions and ideas such as “postmemory” (Marianne Hirsch3), “re-traumatization” (Jörn Rüsen4), and the possibility of transmitting trauma by reading (Felman, Laub)5 induced a boom of trauma studies in the 2000s, prompting gender-oriented studies and interpretations of testimonies and life-writing. The field of (digital) memory studies has more recently become a site of increasing research, and, especially in Europe, this development coincided with a growing academic interest in the recent history of Eastern Europe. The volume Save As… Digital Memories launched digital memories as a new scholarly field that takes the influence of new media into account, particularly memory mediation and mobile forms of memory. The collection Memory, Conflict and New Media: Web Wars in Post-Socialist States further expanded the field by examining post-totalitarian digital memory practices, highlighting their differences from Western European approaches. The former tend to counteract official practices of “collective cultural forgetting” of the traumatic past in post-socialist states.6
In order to map the impact of the digital environment and digital media on understandings of trauma, I will examine the role of silence, one of the central concepts of cultural trauma studies. The three phases of recovery from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as generally defined in the psychological field since the 1990s are the following: 1. reconstituting the survivor’s feeling of security; 2. reconstructing the trauma narrative; 3. reestablishing the relationships of the survivor and integrating him/her into the community.7 Until recently, the second phase was of interest for literary and cultural trauma studies. In other words, these studies tended to focus on interpretations of texts produced during trauma processing and recovery and the investigation of (adequate) reading strategies. The digital era has brought the third phase into greater prominence in the public sphere, with the instant responses and, hence, dialogues made possible through social media. The practice of sharing traumatic experiences online (in blogs, social networking groups) and reacting to them (in comments and chats) eliminates the element of silence thought to be inherent in trauma on the one hand as its basic characteristic feature (meaning the victim is unable to speak about it) and on the other as a cause of secondary traumatization, when others do not or are not able to listen to the victim, and even on a third level as an official oppressive or tabooing practice (by a totalitarian regime). As silence has been considered a crucial element in most definitions of trauma, this change in focus has the potential to redefine trauma in connection with practices of sharing in digital media.
In contrast with the earlier conception of trauma as fixed in time and space, unspeakable, and beyond representation and mediation, trauma in the digital age is considered multiply configured and represented, multidimensional, diverse, and shared in the digital space (see Figure 1).8
This article was written as part of my larger research project entitled “Trauma Studies in the Digital Age: The Impact of Social Media on Trauma Processing in Life Narratives and Trauma Literature: The Case of Hungary.” The project introduces, defines, and develops the new field of digital trauma studies, which investigates the impact of social media on trauma processing, among other themes. One of the initial hypotheses of the research project is the concept of “frozen currents” or “blocked avenues,” metaphors which refer to certain unresolved collective traumas, a series of events in the twentieth century (World War I and Trianon Peace Treaty, World War II and the Holocaust, the totalitarian dictatorship and the socialist regime and its fall) which hindered modernization in Hungary and Eastern Europe.9 I argue that there are sociological forces that can be mobilized in order to further efforts to overcome traumatic retellings of the historical memory of the twentieth century.
As a consequence of the aforementioned change in the ways in which trauma is perceived in the digital age, digitally mediated trauma processing could be a way to “thaw” “frozen currents” or at least to allow the existence of parallel or multiple versions of traumatic history: official, rigid versions, determined by oppressive ideologies of the past and present, as opposed to other versions, created by communities, civil society, and artists. The latter versions are versatile, mobile, emotionally active, and capable of prompting responses that encourage and facilitate the processing of traumas. One still current example is the now famous living monument on Budapest’s Liberty Square, a collection of letters, photographs, books, personal effects which belonged to victims of the Holocaust in Hungary, and an array of other items. The monument is a poignant response to and quiet rebuke of a monument erected hastily by the state in 2014. The official monument is a statue of an eagle swooping down on a statue of the archangel Gabriel. The eagle represents Germany, and the archangel Gabriel represents Hungary. The implication of the official monument is that Hungary was an innocent victim of German occupation in March 1944, rather than a willing accomplice of Nazi Germany, both in the war effort against the Soviet Union and in the deportation of the Hungarian Jewry. I analyze the relationship between the state’s “Monument to the Victims of the German Occupation” (this is the text at the base of a tympanum above the two statues) and the Living Memorial and the corresponding Facebook group created by protesting civilians in another paper.10 Both studies aim to show that digital trauma processing could be a means to clear officially and ideologically blocked avenues to the traumatic past and induce social and cultural change.
Over the course of the past few years, more and more Facebook groups have been created as forums for the sharing of memories of the Holocaust in Hungary (and in other countries).11 Characteristic examples include the groups named “The Holocaust and My Family,” “The Roma Holocaust and My Family,” “The Living Memorial,” and “The Descendants of the Victims and Survivors of the Holocaust.” Online support groups are powerful examples of the linking capacity of social media. The experiences I gained as a member of two such groups, “The Holocaust and My Family” and “The Descendants of the Victims and Survivors of the Holocaust,” are very important for me. I joined the groups initially out of personal interest, but soon realized their importance in connection with my research, and I came to have a sense of the potential new insights that could be gained from observing these groups, so since then, I have been participating in the role of a “digital participant observer,” i.e. as an anthropologist doing digital fieldwork.12 By participating, I was able to read previously unshared family stories and see pictures of lost family members of people in the group and pictures of family documents, including false identity cards. I have seen how group members were able to connect with one another by discovering connections to a shared past which had hitherto been unknown to them. They established links to the family members or acquaintances of the same victims. Connections were often built upon spaces and locations which had been shared by victims, such as ghettos, labor camps, the yellow star houses of Budapest (designated buildings in Budapest into which, in the summer of 1944, Jews of the city where compelled to move), the deportation journeys, and spaces within the concentration camps.
It was emotionally burdensome to watch people use ordinary measures to establish connections when in fact what had prompted them to do so was the deaths of many loved ones. It was equally moving to see that the establishment of contacts provided some comfort for them. Members felt supported in their shared search for links based on evocations of memories of those who “have not returned” (a phrase frequently used to refer to those who were deported to and perished in concentration camps). Communities have been established, communities which have become places to share, and which had not been able to emerge over the course of decades because of the silence surrounding the collective trauma on all three (aforementioned) levels and its manifold impact on several generations.
The two Facebook groups in question seem very similar at a first glance, especially because their memberships overlap. However, in spite of the fact that members discuss more or less the same themes and the intersections or parallels occur even on the individual narrative level, there are significant differences between the groups. I will describe the differences and similarities, and I will try to account for them in connection with the differing rules of their media platform: the different types of social media groups.
Facebook, the most visited social media site in the world with its 1.86 billion monthly active users (in the fourth quarter of 2016),13 has provided the digital era with many concepts, practices, and functions that have not remained within the boundaries of a digital medium, but have had an influence on our non-digital lives. Liking, friending, and unfriending have gathered weight in the identity formation processes of digital/post-digital generations, as has the constant urge to share information about ourselves and gain approval as measured by the number of likes we have received.14 The Facebook lifestyle expects members to post and share in order to have more catching material on their timelines, with life stories organized in a linear way. This expectation often clashes with the needs for privacy protection, not least because sharing is also a marketing tool for Facebook. Companies and individuals with Facebook pages are willing to pay to get more likes and shares. Commercially or politically aimed sharing differs from sharing private information and sensitive data within a supportive Facebook group, yet both types of sharing are fundamentally digital in nature and constitute the two far ends of the sharing scale, with many variants within the world of social media.
Consequently, for any research on the role of sharing within social media groups in trauma processing it is interesting to consider the extent to which the Facebook framework can determine the nature of interaction within the groups. The main difference between the types of Facebook groups, due to their different privacy settings, is that in the case of public groups anyone can see what members post, whereas in the case of closed groups only members can see the posts and any other mention of the stories posted in the group.15 The second difference is that anyone can join a public group or be added or invited by a member, whereas anyone can ask to join a closed group or to be added or invited by a member. In the case of both public and closed groups, anyone can see the group’s name, its description, its tags, and the list of the members, and anyone can find it via search. (The third type of Facebook group is secret groups, which cannot be seen, noticed, or visited without an invitation from the admins. Membership, furthermore, requires an invitation from a member and the approval of an admin, and only current and former members can see the group’s name, description, and tags or find it in search. Finally, only current members can see other members and read posts and stories about the group.)16
Thus public Facebook group members are aware of the fact that their posts might reach anyone. Closed Facebook group members allow only other group members to see what they post. With reference to the very new area of social media research ethics in a humanities context, posts posted in closed Facebook groups constitute sensitive data which need privacy protection, whereas posts in open Facebook groups belong more to the domain of copyright issues, thus different types of Facebook groups need different research approaches with regards to copyright and protection of personal data.17 Consequently, in the course of my research, I will cite posts that were posted in closed groups only anonymously and with the explicit and informed consent of the members.
The Facebook group called “The Holocaust and my Family” (https://www.facebook.com/groups/holokauszt.csaladom/) is a public group that has approximately 7,200 members (as of September 27, 2016). This group was founded by Mátyás Eörsi in 2014, the year which the Hungarian government made an official Holocaust memorial year. Disagreements, disputes, debates, and protests surrounded the government’s controversial commemoration plans, especially the aforementioned Memorial to the Victims of the German Occupation, which was erected after prolonged protests secretly, as if in a night raid, on July 20, 2014.18 Civilian protesters organized their responses through a Facebook group called “Living Memorial” [Eleven emlékmű], and this led to the founding of other groups, such as “The Holocaust and My Family.” As is stated in the description of the latter group on Facebook, “‘thanks to’ the memory politics of the government, more and more stories have come to light recently, stories that had been kept in silence or secret within families, stories which should not be forgotten.” Another predecessor of this group was the Facebook page of the Open Society Archives project entitled “Yellow Star Houses,” which attracted 4,000 people in the first three days of its existence in 2014. 2,000 apartment buildings were marked with a yellow star in June 1944 in Budapest, and Jewish people were gathered and forced to make their residences in these buildings. Within the framework of the “Yellow Star Houses” project, around 1,600 of these buildings were marked with a yellow star sticker in 2014, and a map with background material was made available online.19 People started to comment on the project’s Facebook page, and then the Holocaust Facebook groups were set up.
The choice of the group type within Facebook’s framework, i.e. that this group is a public one, had several implications. In the description of the group, the founding admin clearly states the reasons for their decision, which are connected to their long-term aims with respect to the legacy of the Holocaust in Hungary:
This is going to be a public group. We have made this decision after long debates. Although we understand fears, we opted for the public group because one of our aims is to break with the culture of silence. Our parents and grandparents tried to hide their Jewishness, did not talk about their sufferings, and we could and still can see what this attitude had led to. We cannot accept that the descendants of victims keep their silence whereas the descendants of perpetrators are loud. That is why we will not change our minds about the public nature of this group. We understand those who are unwilling to participate because of this, and we are sorry. If they wish, they can have me post their stories anonymously.
The openness of the public group determines ways of communication within the group: the general atmosphere among members, their rules, and also the group’s outputs that do not remain within the digital sphere. This group has clearly set rules of referencing and quoting which basically are the same as academic citation methods, in accordance with copyright law.
On April 22, 2015, admin Zsuzsa Hetényi posted the group’s rules concerning the practice of citing posts, and she informed group members that she had previously consulted Artisjus, the Hungarian copyright agency/collecting society and asked for a legal recommendation concerning the practice of citing the group’s posts. She indicated that Artisjus advised the group that the texts posted in a public Facebook group have a status similar to the legal and copyright status of a book. Copyright and authors’ rights of posts and comments belong to their authors and to the admins (as editors). Consequently, one needs the consent of the authors in order to publish these materials partially or fully. However, short excerpts of the posts can be freely cited for research purposes with the appropriate reference method: with the name of the author of the post, the date it was posted, and the Facebook group, in this case Hetényi and Eörsi, eds., “The Holocaust and My Family.”
The group reached out to the general non-digital public in several ways: they organized a Marathon reading in Central Theatre in Budapest on May 13, 2014, during which guests were able to enter anytime to listen to stories, light a candle, and remember, as well as a Remembrance Day on May 4, 2014 in Budapest’s Rumbach Sebestyén street Synagogue, with readings based on the posts.
Saving the posts outside Facebook and archiving stories that had not been made public before or had been kept secret within families the members of which had not talked about their past and their Jewish roots became one of the most important goals of the group very early after its creation. On February 10, 2014, Kriszta Bíró posted the question, “SOMEONE is archiving what is going on here, aren’t they?” It turned out that arrangements had already been made, and several members, led by academic György C. Kálmán, had already started saving data from the posts into archives.20
A collection of selected posts and comments were published, together with essays analyzing the group and its impact on Holocaust memory in Hungary, in a book entitled The Holocaust and My Family.21 The editors grouped selected posts in thematic blocks in nine chapters representing the most common topics. The chapters are “Survivors,” “Second Generation,” “Grandchildren,” “Jews in Rural Hungary,” “Jews in Budapest,” “Women,” “Mixed Families,” “Gentiles,” and “Rescuers.” An introductory chapter, serving as a kind of motto, entitled “The 70th Anniversary – If Only Zuckerberg Knew,” consists of a post followed by a long thread of comments. (In a somewhat paradoxical way, the last chapter actually endorses the narrative embodied by the Memorial to the Victims of the German Occupation on Liberty Square, as it suggests that the Holocaust in Hungary only started after the occupation of the country by the Wehrmacht in March 1944. It thus ignores the massacre of Kamianets-Podilskyi in August 1941 during which approximately 23,600 Jews were killed. While for the members of the Facebook group 2014 certainly marked the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust, it needs to be highlighted that anti-Semitic atrocities in Hungary had started before the German occupation of the country.)22
This thread is a characteristic example of the way in which digital media/social media allows for new ways of communication, and it calls attention to the impact Facebook can have on collective ways of processing trauma by establishing contacts and networks and furthering recognition. It is also significant that the thread begins with an anecdote which serves as a focal point for a whole web of interconnected ideas, associations, and memories. Vera Surányi posted an anecdote about a Jewish doctor, who, after having returned to his home town from Theresienstadt, is called to see a patient in his home. To the patient’s anxious relatives he says, “Don’t worry, he will recover, but the bed he is lying in is mine.” Another member of the group, István Békés, recognized the doctor in the anecdote as his father. Békés’ family members noticed the post and also commented on it. Then the discussion continued about “lost and found” pieces of furniture. Then, people who had lived in the same neighborhood as children exchanged posts about how these furniture-cases were connected to the silence about the Holocaust and the taboos on Jewish identities. András J. Surányi added that while he did not know about his family being Jewish, he knew his friend’s family was a Jewish family. They then mention a famous actor who also lived in the same neighborhood as a child. He was the son of a housekeeper family and has by now become a prominent theater director and a radical right-wing personality. This is how the topic, which had prompted comments which were not devoid of innuendo (housekeepers of big blocks of flats were in many instances connected to the Arrow Cross party in 1944 and/or were notorious for taking possession of belongings left behind by Jewish people when they were taken to the ghettos or the concentration camps), arrives at the issue of the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust and, in connection with that, the topic of the current political situation in Hungary. The thread ends with a post by Eszter Babarczy, who says “this is the most wonderful comment thread I have ever read, if only Zuckerberg knew.” The whole thread is not published in the book, i.e. on Facebook it continues after Babarczy’s comment. It can be looked up in the group (it was posted on March 20, 2014, and it has 136 comments). The associations and interconnections continue and develop new sub-threads, such as the topic of the varying extents to which members of different social classes were attached to furniture, and how it was easier for families who belonged to certain social classes, such as the intelligentsia, to leave their belongings behind and escape, “carrying” their main capital, i.e. their knowledge and experience, with them. A commenter named Balázs Láng has suggested that such comment threads form a new genre, the “comment-novel,” similar to the epistolary novel; then literary works are mentioned which are in some way connected to the topic of returning from the camps; then writers who died in the Holocaust are remembered; then the topic of whether Jews can be recognized by their “Jewish” appearance, or whether a Jewish person can know if someone else is also Jewish because of some kind of subtle connection to a shared past. This post is a characteristic example of the associative-wandering-multi-focused manners of communication through comments in a social media group, with sharing as a key element in digital trauma processing (see Figure 1).
The group has been significantly less active since the publication of the book and the events connected to it (such as the Marathon reading): it seems that the group has reached its aim. In a certain sense, the activities and the achievements of this group are pointing outside the group, and towards the close of an era: the era of silence surrounding the Holocaust in Hungary, as it was expressed in the initial description of the group cited above. The “Holocaust and My Family” Facebook group works essentially from digital toward/back to(?) the non-digital, linking achievements gained in the virtual space to reality. Katalin Fenyves, the editor of the book The Holocaust and My Family, characterized the book as an “imprint of collective memory,” and a narrative of “the common history of a community.”23 This group talks about the past and links memories to the present in order to create a community in which it becomes possible to tell a story, and telling the story makes it possible to acknowledge and process the traumatic past within the Jewish community and raise awareness among the larger non-Jewish public.
One of the questions that can be asked is how people as members of an online community remember and evoke the memory of historical trauma, and how they remember the stories behind the trauma that might or might not have been passed on to them. According to Aleida Assmann, “remembering trauma evolves between the extremes of keeping the wound open on the one hand and looking for closure on the other.”24 She differentiates between four ways of “dealing with the traumatic past,” among which “remembering in order to forget” describes best the Facebook group “The Holocaust and My Family”: remembering in such cases is a “therapeutic tool to cleanse, to purge, to heal, to reconcile.” Assmann links this practice to transitions from dictatorship to democracy in a South African context on a state level, stressing that the confrontation with traumatic history has the specific goal of “creat[ing] a shared moral consensus.”25 A similar goal of working through the legacy of silence is present in the Facebook group “The Holocaust and My Family.” In this digital community, remembering is a tool with which to mobilize memories in order to build a host forum which makes it possible to share memories. The group aims to further the sharing of memories within the community and form a shared communal identity. The name of the group, which includes the word “family,” is expressive of the intention to deal with the past on a family/community memory level. This is a gesture of inclusion via family history, accepting macro history via micro-history, in order to gain access to the micro-histories of others so as to interlink members and develop a network which can collectively approach a past which had been closed off from them by silence and tabooing. The result is a multi-perspective, multi-centered, shared story with common elements as nodal points which is easier to access and accept for the members of the community. This story offers the reassurance of understanding, which may help victims of trauma find some closure to the painful past and further efforts to work through trauma. The decrease in the level of activity after the publication of the book of the stories collected from the posts confirms the hypothesis that the group was heading for a certain closure, and the outcome of this quest found form in a book which represents the community, overcomes transgenerational taboos, and addresses the public.
In the group, “The Descendants of the Victims and Survivors of the Holocaust” the main tendencies and the general atmosphere are different. It is a closed group with around 3,760 members (as of September 27, 2016). In this group, disagreements, debates, emotionally loaded posts, comments, and even outbursts are more common, and frequently the disagreements concern the group itself: its way of working and its rules, the position and role of members within the group, and the ways in which they interact. As opposed to the other group, this group does not have the clear-cut aim of framing, telling, and interlinking stories of families. It is more concerned with individual and transgenerational identity issues: the identity of the members as descendants of Holocaust victims and survivors, the problems raised by their legacies, and identity on the group level. While “The Holocaust and My Family” collects stories and shares them publicly, and thus deals with the past so as to free the present from its long-term negative impact by incorporating the stories as finalized by the multi-perspective narration, the “The Descendants of the Victims and Survivors of the Holocaust” focuses on the present as defined by the past and on the ways in which traumas have shaped present identities. According to the description of the group, it deals with: “everything about our mothers/fathers/grandparents in this topic, and the related individual or social second-generation and third-generation traumas, the ways in which they find form, and consequences.”
This group does not provide rules for referencing and citing posts. As it is a closed group, keeping in mind the necessity of informed consent and the protection of privacy and sensitive data, I talked to one of the admins on the phone about my research aims, and we agreed that I would seek the consent of the group members to analyze and quote their posts and comments anonymously. I posted a request for consent, described my research, provided contact information, and promised to contact individually the members whose posts I intended to cite, but who would not have given their consent in a comment to my post. Many people indicated in their comments that they welcomed my research, and some of them asked to be informed as to which of their comments I would use.
When analyzing specific comments, I will refer to group members by numbers, and I will not give the dates of the posts in order to ensure the protection of sensitive data. I will refer to each commenter as “(s)he,” “her/him,” and “their” so as not to reveal their gender. The original posts were in Hungarian. All translations and paraphrases are mine. Some of the posts have since been deleted from the group. Raw data collected from the posts is archived according to the Data Management Plan of my research project. It can be shared upon request, after careful consideration of individual requests and only for research purposes.
With regards to reconnecting to the offline mode of relations, as opposed to the public readings organized by the other group, members of this group meet informally and focus on personal connections. On the level of the social media framework, the closed Facebook group is a good fit for this purpose, as well as for the main theme of the group, which seems to be sharing in connection with inclusion and exclusion and group identity. The theme is observable as a general ambivalence and in the oscillation between the need for secrecy and the need for publicity. It is also pertinent to the one specific—and not typical—story thread, the confession of the grandchild of a perpetrator, which I will analyze in detail.
The question of “who has a place in the group” was raised several times by Member 3. (S)he wished to have recommendations for new commenters, adding that everyone was welcome, but (s)he was somewhat mistrustful. Secondly, as the level of distrust grew, (s)he expressed discomfort over many members “disappearing,” and (s)he asked new members to indicate in their posts why they had joined the group. As (s)he explained, “I wouldn’t like some people being interested in our stories in order to read crime stories.” It is interesting to note the use of the word “disappear” in this context: pointing, on the one hand, to unfamiliarity with the workings of an online group, where members come and go, are active or remain passive as they wish, and may well be “fakes,” i.e. people who have been dishonest (possibly entirely so) in their profiles. On the other hand, the increasing anxiety in the posts derives from the traumatic memories of past persecutions which are being triggered by the insecurity felt at not being able to control who has access to members’ painful and sensitive stories. Such anxieties were mentioned in the introductory description of the other group “The Holocaust and My Family,” which opted to be public, regardless of these kinds of fears. It seems that even the framework of the closed group is problematic with respect to fears deriving from the long-term impact of past traumas. Consequently, when Commenter 3 posted for the third time about the wish to identify members, the issue of the potential clash of the religious identity of posting members and silent onlookers came up, and, even though the remark is tinted with self-reflexive, self-doubting tones, the strong sense of feeling threatened connected to victim/survivor vs group identity based on religious differences is unmistakable: “Maybe I am a maniac, but I am asking yet again our Christian friends who joined us to explain why they are with us. We have revealed many things about ourselves, but don’t know anything about those who are not survivors or descendants. I am interested!” As a reaction to this post, many members introduced themselves, but only a fraction of the whole membership. Some people were offended. They did not wish to be checked up on, as they felt that this kind of inquiry constituted an unwelcome inspection which a Jewish community against segregation and racism in particular should not practice. Thus, debates followed, with some people leaving the group and later returning, including the original poster.
The “us” and “them” dichotomy, which is part of universal identity formation processes, is also linked to the legacies of the traumatic past in Hungary. Group identities are often shaped by “chosen traumas” (Vamik Volkan) and the legacies of traumatic experiences in society.26 The “us” and “them” dichotomy is internalized by Hungarian children as early as elementary school, and it is prevalent in everyday identity discourses, in which members of the out-group (“them”) are often presented as unaccountable or unknown aliens or hostile and even vindictive strangers. The pervasiveness of this dichotomy is reflected in the tendency to rely on personal contacts through societal interactions, in order to remain within the boundaries of the in-group (“us”). The Facebook group discussed above represents these kinds of identification processes: the acceptance of new members—i. e. allowing them to become one of “us’”—is now being done via personal recommendations, according to a decision made by the group admins almost two years after the issue was first raised.
The theme of inclusion and exclusion was central to the instance when a grandchild of a perpetrator confessed in the group (Commenter 1). In fact, (s)he had done so in the other group, “The Holocaust and My Family,” some months earlier, in a comment on somebody else’s post about why people kept silent during the Holocaust and why they were silent later. (S)he said that (s)he felt guilty and responsible. The group accepted the confession calmly and offered encouragement. Commenter 1 mentioned that (s)he would understand if (s)he were to be excluded from the group, but others said that exclusion was not a solution, and they thanked him/her for his/her confession. In the group “The Descendants of the Victims and Survivors of the Holocaust” the same confession generated different, emotionally loaded reactions. The confession was the following:
I am not the descendant of victims or survivors. I am the grandchild of a perpetrator: my grandfather took part in the deportation of Jews from Pécs. As an officer, he was supposed to bring food to the around 5,000 Jews huddled together in the Lakits barrack. He did not do so, he sold the food instead. Because of what he did, some of the people waiting in the barrack did not survive the transport: they starved to death. Among the victims there were four children. After the war he was not called to account, he lost his captaincy only due to his activities in 1956. He died of a stroke in 1967.
His death was not peaceful: somebody shuffled a Bible to him and hid a plastic skeleton dummy in the pages. I remember only this, I was 8 years old at the time. My mother died when I was 37. That’s when I got his letters. That’s when I learned who my grandfather really was.
Obviously I won’t be able to ask for forgiveness for unforgiveable sins. I only would like the souls of murderers and victims to rest in peace until the Last Judgement. And if you now have me excluded from this group I will understand.
In an interesting remark added later as a comment to the original post, the poster mentions the group “The Holocaust and My Family” in the context of inclusion-exclusion. The person posting suggests that the person who posted the confession must have been “removed” from “The Holocaust and My Family.” Later, however, in another comment, the poster confirms that the person who made the confession is still a member of “The Holocaust and My Family.”
The confession of the original poster was followed by a long discussion consisting of hundreds of comments which touched on many dimensions of the long-term impact of the transgenerational Holocaust trauma. I will cite a few examples as part of this case study focusing on the themes of sharing the burden of the past, inclusion-exclusion, and group identity. (Phrases referring to the themes are underlined.)
Well, there is no forgiveness and no peace between murderers and victims in any way. I will not sign such a peace treaty at the expense of the victims, and I don’t agree with it at all. I reject even the intention of mentioning innocent victims together with hangmen. Thus, if you want to get into this group with this intention then you are not in the right place. My victims will never reunite with the souls of hangmen, not even via the mediation of the holy spirit. (Commenter 2)
Hi! Gosh! I never would have thought that I would read such a text and that someone would dare [post it] and, moreover, to this group! For a minute I was dumb… I am also a grandchild, although my gran survived, but her little boy did not! He starved. It is difficult to speak, to write anything as a reply to your post, there isn’t a single day when I don’t think of that little boy, and those awful people who did that to my family. But, as we know, it is never too late, I wouldn’t say that you have a place in our group, but the fact that someone has told this story is something. Everyone will be punished in their own way sooner or later, just like your grandfather before his death. (Commenter 5)
[The poster] is obviously not responsible for the sins of his/her grandfather. I appreciate that (s)he doesn’t want to excuse and falsify the past! (Our present government is not responsible for the sins of the Horthy regime. So they should not falsify the past either…) [The poster] has this heavy bequest from his/her ancestors: the guilt that (s)he should not be feeling. We have a different inheritance: the inheritance of suffering and painful absence. And here we meet at this point, in this place, in virtual space. And the descendants can see the human being in the other from both sides. (What [The poster’s] grandfather did not see, did not sense.) It is an unsettling, strange situation… (Commenter 6)
This is tough. It took my breath away. The first Hungarian to apologize for the crimes of his/her grandfather. (Commenter 7)
I am greeting the first Hungarian convert shakenly but with pleasure and with the respect that courage deserves. I am requesting her/him to stay, to endure patiently and without anger if (s)he is attacked here. There isn’t anybody else whom those in deep pain could stone. We, who are able to do so, can be friends. (Commenter 8)
I understand this, but I state clearly that we are here only because of our own dead, not for others, and we do not wish to allow perpetrators to get close to them even in their death. (Commenter 2)
If you exclude him/her, I will understand, but I will leave the group as well. Nobody is born to be a sinner. I shouldn’t be explaining this to Jewish people. (Commenter 8)
Perpetrators are victims as well, if someone doesn’t understand this, they shouldn’t engage in this subject. (Commenter 9)
The original poster offered the following response in a second post:
I asked to join this group to learn about the wrongs suffered by the descendants of victims. Many say that I am not responsible for the deeds of my grandfather. I don’t agree. (…) I carried this burden from 1996 till last year, that is, for 18 years. And I did not talk about it. (…) I am responsible, and my children are responsible, and my grandchildren will be, too. (….)(Commenter 1)
This thread of posts shows how online support groups predominantly work on resolving trauma on the secondary/tertiary level, i.e. trauma which originally was the consequence of the failure to recognize or acknowledge the sufferings of victims and survivors, including non-emphatic reactions of individuals at the time, as well as the silence and tabooing of the decades of the communist era. Historical trauma did not conclude in collective processing. Rather, it was pushed back to the individual level, with everyone carrying their own burden and passing it on as a legacy of post-traumatic symptoms, guilt, mourning, and loneliness to their offspring. But this unintentional bequeathal included not only the descendants of victims, but also the descendants of perpetrators, witnesses, and bystanders. As time passes, boundaries of identities become less clear-cut, resulting in the “trans-generational intersections of identities,” which is a new term I have coined in my research referring to the processes of identity changes and identity intersections related to the roles traditionally listed in the so-called trauma grid.27 Several studies—and also the thread of posts above—show that the descendants of perpetrators are also affected by traumatization.28 In one of the comments in the above cited thread of posts a commenter draws attention to the digital sphere as a meeting place. In this case, the group takes one step further: they meet and integrate a descendant of a perpetrator into the “carrier group”29 of the collective trauma.
Sharing traumatic experiences online in a support group means that there are others “listening,” i.e. the second and third stages of recovery (reconstruction of the trauma narrative, reintegration in a community)30 can be reached at the same time. A study by Michaelle Indian Rachel and Grieve published in 2014 shows that “socially anxious individuals” prefer online support groups to face-to-face meetings.31 One of the reasons for this, in addition to the opportunity to remain anonymous and the ability to withdraw anytime from contact without consequences, is that there is usually a large number of people “around,” and thus in all (mathematical) likelihood posts will be met with at least some emphatic responses. Those unable to comment on or recognize the traumas of the other will remain silent, but this will not be noticeable online, thus their silence will not become un-recognition, and it will not constitute a wall of indifference or lead to secondary traumatization (although the lack of secondary traumatization might be considered illusory, as keeping silent might be a way of shirking the ethical call to respond and thus allowing the silent party to avoid either confronting or denying the trauma of the other). In an article about the transformation of Jewish identity in Hungary in relation to the “strategy of silence” over the Holocaust and Jewish roots and identity practiced by survivors and the remaining Jewish community in communist Hungary, the authors (Erős et al.) cite a respondent who remembers his father, a survivor, as “not existing inside.” The respondent felt the burden of inherited trauma in the “inhibitions within internal family life.” “In a certain sense,” the respondent commented, “this made my family dead.”32 It is a common practice in online support groups, especially closed and secret Facebook groups, to call the group a “family” or a “hive” (“mamahives” are very common), and members often come to regard the group as an extended family. As we have seen in the examples of the Facebook groups discussed here, in a certain sense online group communication can function as a substitute for lost “internal” family life. The group “The Holocaust and My Family” enables its members to accept their family as/even though they are lost. By sharing their loss, they become members of a new, digital family of people who have suffered a loss, and this fact becomes part of their identity. The concept of family is reinterpreted in this process, so that in its new sense it can become the receptive environment for recognition of transgenerational intersections of identities, enabling dialogue among the descendants of the different groups affected by the trauma of the past.
One of the members in the group “The Descendants of the Victims and Survivors of the Holocaust” sent me a private message welcoming my research, in particular because she feels that she cannot process the trauma related to her Holocaust survivor grandparents, whom she did not even know. When she attempts to confront this trauma, she only becomes upset and cries over and over again, even though she is a member of several groups. Further research is needed to investigate whether the digital environment can offer solutions to such problems, and whether trauma processing in online support groups on the collective level can be directed back to the individual level.
2G Second Generation Holocaust Survivors website. Accessed August 22, 2017. https://www.facebook.com/groups/2GSecongGeneration/; Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors, https://www.facebook.com/3GsWorldwide/
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 3rd edition. Washington: American Psychological Press, 1980.
Arthur, Paul. “Trauma Online: Public Exposure of Personal Grief and Suffering.” Traumatology 15, no. 4 (2009): 65–75.
Arthur, Paul, “Memory and Commemoration in the Digital Present.” In Contemporary Approaches to Literary Trauma Theory, edited by Michelle Balaev, 152–75. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
Assmann, Aleida. “From Collective Violence to a Common Future: Four Models For Dealing With the Traumatic Past.” In Justice and Memory: Confronting Traumatic Pasts. An International Comparison, edited by Ruth Wodack, Gertraud Auer, and Borea d’Olmo, 31–48.Vienna: Passagen, 2009.
Bar-On, Dan. Legacy of Silence: Encounters with Children of the Third Reich. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.
Bibó, István. “Eltorzult magyar alkat, zsákutcás magyar történelem” [Distorted Hungarian disposition, dead-end Hungarian history]. In idem. Összegyűjtott munkái I. [Collected works I.], 255–86. Bern: Európai Protestáns Magyar Szabadegyetem, 1981.
Braham, Randolph. “Hungary: The Assault on the Historical Memory of the Holocaust.” In The Holocaust in Hungary: Seventy Years Later, edited by Randolph L. Braham and András Kovács, 261–309. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2016.
Dijck, José van. The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Erős, Ferenc, Júlia Vajda, and Éva Kovács. “Intergenerational Responses to Social and Political Changes: Transformation of Jewish Identity in Hungary.” In International Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma, edited by Yael Danieli, 315–24. New York: Plenum Press, 1998.
Facebook’s settings page. Accessed August 23, 2017. https://www.facebook.com/help/220336891328465.
Felman, Shoshana, and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Fenyves, Katalin, and Marianne Szalay, eds. A Holokauszt és a családom [The Holocaust and my family]. Budapest: Park, 2015.
Garde-Hansen, Joanne, Andrew Hoskins, and Anna Reading, eds. Save As… Digital Memories. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009.
Giesen, Bernhard. Triumph and Trauma. Boulder: Paradigm, 2004.
Gyáni, Gábor. “Hungarian Memory of the Holocaust in Hungary.” In The Holocaust in Hungary: Seventy Years Later, edited by Randolph L. Braham and András Kovács, 215–30. Budapest: CEU Press, 2016.
Herman, Judith Lewis. Trauma and Recovery: From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. London: Pandora, 1992.
Hirsch, Marianne. “Surviving Images: Holocaust Photographs and the Work of Postmemory.” The Yale Journal of Criticism 14, no. 1 (2001): 5–37.
Indian, Michelle, and Rachel Grieve. “When Facebook is Easier Than Face-to-Face: Social Support Derived from Facebook in Socially Anxious Individuals.” Personality and Individual Differences 59 (2014): 102–06.
Ivacs, Gabriella. “Digital Trauma Archives: The Yellow Star Houses project.” In Routledge International Handbook of Memory Studies, edited by Anna Lisa Tota and Trever Hagen, 205–18. London: Routledge, 2016.
Johnson, David Read, and Hadar Lubin. Principles and Techniques of Trauma–Centered Psychotherapy. Washington: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2015.
Kálmán, György C. ”A Holokauszt-csoport mint Facebook-esemény.” In A Holokauszt és a családom [The Holocaust and my family.], edited by Katalin Fenyves and Marianne Szalay, 13–21. Budapest: Park, 2015.
Markham, Annette. “Fieldwork in Social Media: What Would Malinowski Do?” Journal of Qualitative Communication Research 2, no. 4. (2013): 434–46.
Menyhért, Anna. “The Image of ‘Maimed Hungary’ in 20th Century Cultural Memory and the 21st Century Consequences of an Unresolved Collective Trauma: The Impact of the Treaty of Trianon.” Environment, Space, Place 8, no. 2 (2016): 69–97.
Menyhért, Anna. “Stone vs Debris: Offical Ideology vs Civilians and Social Media: The Dialogue of Memorials in Budapest Freedom (Szabadság) Square. Presented at the conference: Confronting Violent Pasts and Historical (In)Justice.” The 6th Annual conference of the Historical Dialogues, Justice, and Memory Network, University of Amsterdam. December 2016.
Neiger, M., O. Meyers, and E. Zandberg, eds. On Media Memory: Collective Memory in a New Media Age. New York: Palgrave, 2011.
Ónody-Molnár, Dóra. “A holokauszt és a családom – a kollektív emlékezet könyves lenyomata.” www.zsido.com. November 17, 2015. Accessed December 4, 2016. http://zsido.com/holokauszt-es-csaladom-kollektiv-emlekezet-konyves-lenyomata/.
Rosenthal, Gabriele, ed. The Holocaust in Three Generations. Families of Victims and Perpetrators of the Nazi Regime. London: Cassell.
Rüsen, Jörn. “Trauma and Mourning in Historical Thinking.” Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies in History and Archaeology 1, no. 1 (2004): 31–43.
Rutten, Ellen. “Why Digital Memory Wars Should Not Overlook Eastern Europe’s Web Wars.” In Memory and Theory in Eastern Europe, edited by Uilleam Blacker, Aleksandr Etkind, and Julie Fedor, 219–31. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Ryan, Marie–Laure, Lori Emerson, and Benjamin Robertson, eds. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media. Baltimore: The John Hopins University Press, 2013.
Statista.com. Accessed August 24, 2017. https://www.statista.com/statistics/264810/number-of-monthly-active-facebook-users-worldwide/.
Volkan, Vamik. “Transgenerational Transmissions and Chosen Traumas: An Aspect of Large-Group Identity.” Group Analysis 34, no. 1 (2001): 79–97.
1 Garde-Hansen, Hoskins, and Reading, Save As… Digital Memories; Neiger, Meyers, and Zandberg, On Media Memory.
2 American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
3 Hirsch, “Surviving Images.”
4 Rüsen, “Trauma and Mourning.”
5 Felman and Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature.
6 Rutten, “Why Digital Memory Wars.”
7 Herman, Trauma and Recovery.
8 Arthur, “Trauma Online;” Idem, “Memory and Commemoration.”
9 Menyhért, “The Image of ‘Maimed Hungary’.”
10 Menyhért, “Stone vs Debris.”
11 See for example: Facebook groups of 2G Second Generation Holocaust Survivors and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors.
12 Markham, Fieldwork in Social Media.
13 Statista.com website.
14 van Dijck, The Culture of Connectivity.
15 See Facebook’s settings page.
16 According to privacy settings of Facebook as of December 10, 2016.
17 Ryan, Emerson, and Robertson, The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media.
18 Braham, “Hungary: The Assault on the Historical Memory of the Holocaust.”
19 Ivacs, “Digital Trauma Archives.”
20 Kálmán, “A Holokauszt-csoport mint Facebook-esemény.”
21 Fenyves and Szalay, A Holokauszt és a családom.
22 I would like to thank Thomas Cooper for this observation.
23 Ónody-Molnár, “A holokauszt és a családom.”
24 Assmann, “From Collective Violence to a Common Future,” 39–40.
25 Ibid., 37, 39, 40.
26 Bibó, “Eltorzult magyar alkat, zsákutcás magyar történelem;” Volkan, “Transgenerational Transmissions and Chosen Traumas.”
27 Johnson and Lubin, Principles and Techniques.
28 Rosenthal, The Holocaust in Three Generations; Bar-On, “Holocaust Perpetrators and Their Children.”
29 Giesen, Triumph and Trauma.
30 Herman, Trauma and Recovery.
31 Indian and Grieve, “When Facebook is Easier than Face-to-face.”
32 Erős, Vajda, and Kovács, “Intergenerational Responses,” 319.
Figure 1. Definitions of Trauma 1990s–2010s