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Summer 2023 articles

Turning Sorrow into Song: Silence, Absence and Unreadability in Elizabeth Rosner’s Gravity

Laura Miñano Mañero


This article explores Elizabeth Rosner’s second-generation poetic rendition of the Holocaust, Gravity (2014), offering an insightful framework to further scholarship on the intergenerational transmission of trauma, examined through the lens of postmemorial poetry. I specifically concentrate on Rosner’s poetry of remembrance as it dwells on the role of language and silence in representing the vicarious experience of the Shoah. Through a sustained exploration of the traces of an inherited trauma that renders the past inaccessible, simultaneously present and occluded, the poet endows the motif of silence with unique meaning. Surrendering to the compulsions of verse, attempting to restore to language what is lost, without ever succeeding, and integrating the legacy of the Old into the New World, I contend that Rosner reaches a form of posttraumatic growth that is only made possible through poetic engagement.

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1. Introduction

1Elizabeth Rosner is an American poet, novelist and essayist, born in Schenectady, New York, to Holocaust survivors. Her father, originally from Hamburg, was deported to Buchenwald concentration camp, whereas her mother, of Polish origin, survived by hiding in the countryside. Rosner’s literary production merges her imagination with the fragmented stories and the silences that shaped her sense of self growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust, offering a sustained exploration of the reverberations of the Shoah, the inherited wound and grief, and the highly fractured nature of belated memory. Her latest work and first non-fiction book, Survivor Café (2017) has been praised by the critic, being declared Best Book of the Year by The San Francisco Chronicle. Survivor Café’s narrative is constructed around the three visits that she undertook with her father to Buchenwald, each one several decades apart. Not only does she delve into personal history, remembrance and memorialization, but she also imbues Survivor Café with a quality of exemplary memory, in Tzvetan Todorov’s terms (31), as she inquiries into the aftermath of other analogous inherited traumata, echoing, for instance, the voices of descendants of Cambodian survivors and African-American slaves.

2Rosner’s comprehensive and thorough enquiry has served as a foundation for scholars conducting recent investigations on the posttraumatic experience and the intergenerational coping with trauma. Katarina Možina and Katarina Kompan Erzan have relied on her insights in Survivor Café to investigate how second and third generation survivors evolve from post-traumatic stress disorder to posttraumatic growth (12-14). Rosner’s extended treatment of her genealogical inheritance has also been found useful for research within the discipline of sociology: Diane Wolf has turned to Rosner’s book to re-conceptualize Holocaust survivors and their descendants through the lens of agency and victimization (25). Her prose fiction has also awoken scholarly interest. The Speed of Light (2001) has been examined by Rebekah Slodounik to illustrate the process of re-witnessing. Each time that Paula, the novel’s protagonist, retells her father’s concentration camp experience, she expands the scope of postmemory, demonstrating that the transmission of the memory of the Shoah is both multidirectional and dynamic. This re-witnessing taking place in second-generation literature, in turn, engenders witnessing itself and produces new testimony (Slodounik 76). Rosner’s nonfiction and fiction prose have proved valuable to foster scholarship on postmemory. However, her poetic production remains yet to be examined in depth: this article seeks to expand knowledge in this area.

3Gravity (2014), the author’s most renowned poetry collection, explores the complexities and tensions of belated memory and inherited trauma, delving into her growing up in the United States as a second-generation survivor. Rosner’s poetic universe extends chronologically over decades, as the poet recreates her ancestors’ suffering during the Shoah, her parents’ migration after the war, her own childhood in a somehow alien country, and her process of maturing into an adulthood that is irrevocably shaped by the legacy of memory. This collection proves thus optimal to examine the characteristic phenomena and tropes of postmemorial Holocaust poetry, which seeks to unearth the past so as to explore the nature of an open wound through the passing of time. Through her highly aestheticized style, engaging in a serene and complex versification that stands out for its figurative diction, evocative tropes and vivid imagery, the poet creates a means of articulating the aftermath of the catastrophe and its profoundly shaping effect. She poetically explores her vicarious experience of the Holocaust with a sense of ownership and agency, striving to come to terms with the remains of an unlived and fractured narrative, whose absence she feels nonetheless.

4The poems are accompanied by illustrations, shaping the volume as an intersemiotic work insomuch as verbal and non-verbal codes of signification become intertwined and dependent on each to convey both message and aesthetics. The art is authored by Lola Fraknoi, a Peruvian-born artist, based in California, and a second-generation survivor of Romanian heritage. The synergic connection between visual art and verses epitomizes the poet’s struggle to defy the paradox of unrepresentability that is inherent to the Holocaust, an event that the poet nonetheless needs to write and experience. Fraknoi’s monoprints, etchings and drawings belong to the collection Responses to the Holocaust: Memories and Transformations, her own rendition of the legacy of trauma. She draws upon her multicultural legacy; upon oral tradition and history; nature and exotic landscapes. Colored in shades of light yellow, grey and salmon, her art turns to layering textures and superposed writing to symbolize the tension engendered by the encounter of the Old and the New World, conveyed through motifs of misplaced keys, crumbling paper, old recipe books, unfinished stories, see-through drawers (Rosner, Gravity 112).

5Though my analysis will be devoted to Rosner’s poems, Fraknoi’s art will also be considered so as to support the discussion and draw connections between different forms of expression of the legacy of trauma. Indeed, the past is something that both artists embody. In its extremely fractured condition, manifest in constant ruptures, latent fragmentation and radical breaks, such past endows the themes of absence and silence in this volume with unique significance. Hence, in what follows, I will critically examine Rosner’s poetry of remembrance as it dwells on the role of poetic language and silence in representing the vicarious experience of the Holocaust. More specifically, I will concentrate on the poet’s exploration of the traces of an inherited trauma that renders the past unreadable. I delve into silence and absence from three distinct, but interrelated perspectives which shed light on the imprint of European roots and heritage on the new American identity: I begin by examining the problem of multilingualism and polyphony through the idea of visual and linguistic interruption (Rosen 170); next, I turn to Jessica Lang’s notion of unreadability (58-61), elaborating on the void left by the unavailable, unarchivable and lost narrative; finally, I explore the literary gaps in the poems through the phenomenology of photography as a medium of postmemory (Gubar 99-103; Hirsch, “The Generation of Postmemory” 107-108). I contend that Rosner’s poetic reflection on an unlived narrative allows her to arrive at a wider understanding of her own identity as a second-generation survivor, while she acknowledges the potential of healing in the act of composing poetry.

2. The Legacy of the Second Generation: Postmemorial

6Referring to the children of Holocaust survivors as the “second generation” derives from the groundbreaking contribution made by a team of Montreal-based psychologists in the early 1970s, who pioneeringly examined the effect of Holocaust trauma on survivors’ descendants (Sigal et al. 320). The term achieved extensive visibility due to Helen Epstein’s Children of the Holocaust (1979), a celebrated collection of interviews and essays in which sons and daughters of survivors reflected upon the impact of their parents’ past. Alan Berger brought the term into the realm of literature and criticism, when he discerningly claimed that the literary works of this generation “bore witness to the presence of an absence,” bequeathing to the reader a birthright that was “both constantly present and continually elusive” (2-3). In order to understand second-generation writing and its strong connection to the tropes of silence, void and absence, it is essential to understand how the trauma is intergenerationally transferred. Indeed, research shows that the Holocaust is not perceived as a finite event, but as an ongoing one which continues to affect the generation born after the war, whose members overidentify with their post-traumatic parents, internalizing their psychological burdens and often unspoken suffering in a way that reverberates throughout their whole lives (Nir 2).

7Growing up in the shadow of the Shoah, the second generation constructs their world of representations by assimilating their parents’ erratic behaviors, which were characterized by profound mistrust in society, apprehensions, and reluctance to speak about their war experiences (Nir 5-6). Haunted by a traumatic, fragmented past that was simultaneously present and absent, palpable but invisible, those children seemed “to share an anguished collective memory of the Holocaust in both their dreams and fantasies, reflective of recurrent references to their parents’ traumatic experiences” (Barocas 820-821). When they mature into adulthood, they usually exhibit self-punishing types of behavior and feelings of guiltiness directed to the inner self, resulting from the sense of not doing enough and not being a good enough replacement for those who were annihilated (Gangi et al. 698). As a way of dealing with depression and anxiety, adult members of the second generation show a heightened tendency to search for purpose in their existences, which may explain, precisely, their turning to artistic expression and creative writing (Aviad-Wilcheck and Cohenca 51). More significantly, as suggested by Kellerman, second-generation authors may perceive the inherited trauma as a form of legacy that evolves into a source of artistic inspiration (263).

8Through literature, the second generation endeavors to salvage the endangered family memory, to fill in and work through a narrative that not only is being occluded by their parents’ reluctance to speak, but that defies reconstruction and comprehension itself. Following Marianne Hirsch, writers engage in this way in the work of postmemory, which reflects the relationship that children of survivors bear to the Holocaust, an event that they access through the evocative images, incomplete stories, and behaviors that shaped their childhood. Yet, this experience is so profoundly and affectively transmitted to them that it seems to create recollections in their own right (“The Generation of Postmemory” 106). Eva Hoffman connects the paradoxes of such mediated and indirect knowledge to her determination to pursue writing: “in the beginning was the war, and the Holocaust was the ontological basis of my universe” (278). Like Hoffman, as second-generation authors strive to constitute the postmemories of which their parents’ silence has deprived them, their connection to the past is not mediated by recall, but rather by projection, imagination, and fabulation (Hirsch, “The Generation of Postmemory” 107). Thus, the tropes that most effectively activate postmemorial literature are “often based on silence rather than speech, on the invisible rather than the visible,” and in this process of creative investment resides the strength of second-generation writing to echo with the aftermath of trauma (Hirsch, “Surviving Images” 9). Postmemorial authors resort to aesthetic language to confront the impossibility of fully comprehending the Shoah, rendering fragments of a story that remains unfinished, as they examine the ways in which this vicarious reexperiencing leaves an indelible imprint upon their identities.

9Hirsch’s approach to postmemory is conducted from a perspective firmly rooted in the analysis of photography, particularly in connection to its role in the transmission of the memory of the Holocaust. The belief in referentiality that photography engenders connects survivors to the subsequent generations, since it promises “to offer an access to the event itself, and its easy assumption of iconic and symbolic power makes it a uniquely powerful medium for the transmission of events that remain unimaginable” (Hirsch, “The Generation of Postmemory” 107-108). As a medium of postmemory, the use of familial photographic images informs an embodied and affective connection to the past which can “solidify the tenuous bonds that are shaped by need, desire, and narrative projection,” reinvesting the inaccessible events with resonant forms of aesthetic expression (Hirsch, “The Generation of Postmemory” 111). How is it possible to address the fact that some postmemorial authors, like Rosner, decide not to show those photographs, but are instead passionately devoted to describing them? My analysis of Gravity will place emphasis on the poet’s ekphrastic descriptions of her familial images. I will specifically draw upon Susan Gubar’s concept of antimorphosis, the aesthetic maneuver employed when photography is described but not exhibited in Holocaust verse, constituting “an occlusion or skewing of the visual that cannot be rectified by an alternative vantage or device” (100). Poets of antimorphosis highlight the ironic insufficiencies of crucially significant photography and critique ocular authority, suggesting that a realistic view of the Holocaust eludes us (Gubar 100-101). In this line, I will examine ekphrasis in Gravity in connection to the tropes of silence and absence.

10Drawing her attention to the act of reading, Jessica Lang theorizes about the ways in which the indirect and fragmentary nature of postmemory imposes limits on the reading experience that inform the conception of textuality in second-generation narratives (62). Lang suggests that a quality of unreadability is inherent to Holocaust literature, manifest in a form of illegibility, blankness, and inaccessibility that surfaces in certain moments of “non-illumination in the reading process—aspects of the text that simply cannot be opened, accessed, interpreted, or decoded” (3). The reader must thus learn to unread such texts, acknowledging the illegible and silent, and respecting “that which resists being told, narrated, or represented and, consequently, that which resists being read” (Lang 28). This notion of unreadability signals to readers what may and may not be available for interpretation and imaginative recourse, inscribing a space for the experience and memory that can be read and accessed alongside that which cannot (Lang 57). Whereas postmemorial authors seem to acknowledge these boundaries—this language that subverts understanding whenever they endeavor to approach their parents’ narratives—, a longing emerges to fill those silences and empty spaces functioning as an ontological marker for their generation (Lang 61-62). Lang suggests that, while these authors “recognize that the text embodying the experience is a victim, bearing the marks of a trauma that renders it unreadable,” they precisely dwell on this missing text, attempting to reformulate it, without ever succeeding, but illuminating in this process the nature of their conflicted sense of self through imaginative investment (61). Drawing upon Lang’s conceptualization of unreadability, I will delve into Gravity to analyze how Rosner addresses and integrates aspects of the unreadable in her sustained poetic reflection on the missing text, a leitmotiv in the volume.

11Further complicating the sense of incompleteness and dispossession that characterizes the work of postmemory is the authors’ awareness of the linguistic voids stretching the unbridgeable distance between them and their parents. If language itself is insufficient to convey the Holocaust trauma, the implications of mediating this legacy through a language that is foreign to the original events, as in the case of postmemorial authors writing in English, makes their endeavor even more complex and multilayered. Alan Rosen has examined the problem of multilingualism in second-generation narratives, particularly focusing on the position of English, and its foreignness, as the language of testimony, in relation to aesthetics (170). When postmemorial authors display the aesthetic commitment to reflect their parents’ accents, their unmastered English, epitomizing in this uniquely broken medium the authority of testimony, they force English to become a foreign language, whose quality of foreignness and oddness allows it become a language of testimony which articulates the incommensurability between the past and the present (Rosen 170-174). In the same line, Lang conceives interruption as a productive narrative tool connecting pre and post war experience and identity: incorporating moments of interruption, such as “a pause in time, a space where storytelling is suspended, where text is unavailable, where language becomes distorted” (65), postmemorial authors delineate the border between readable and unreadable. In Gravity, Elizabeth Rosner dwells precisely on the role of languages in representing past, unlived events. She specifically addresses the impact of her parents’ polyglotism on her identity as an English-speaking American citizen, forbidden to access her birthright in her ancestors’ mother tongues. Turning to Rosen and Lang, I will explore the complexities of multilingualism through the idea of visual and linguistic interruption, and the silence engendered by these.

12The role of verse in representing the Holocaust and preserving memory through generations has been discussed in depth in Susan Gubar’s Poetry after Auschwitz (2003), who argues that art, and poetry in particular, allows second-generation authors to bridge over the gulf of discontinuity separating them from their parents (29). Poets of proxy-witnessing, as Gubar calls them, use their imagination so as to turn factual material, fragmented testimony, and documentary accounts into art, paradoxically making the past events, to which they only bear witness indirectly, “more palpably real,” rendering their legacy “sharper than they received it” (150). Some of the aesthetic tropes and discursive strategies that characterize second-generation poetry, which can be located in Rosner’s work, are the “deliberate placement of words in lines that do not necessarily accord with syntactic breaks; the use of rhythm or rhyme; the compression of a plethora of details into fewer and therefore more charged terms and images; the reaching for analogies, albeit inadequate ones; the suppression of logical, narrative links” (Gubar 149). For Gubar, poetry is the most suitable form of expression for children of survivors to approach the Shoah because it abrogates narrative coherence and closure, signaling the quality of discontinuity and indirectness defining postmemory. Furthermore, the poignancy, vibrancy and rhetorical impact engendered in lyricism creates a sense of immediacy and intimacy to the evoked events, offering images that at the same time testify to their truth as well as their incomprehensibility (Gubar 8-9).

13In ways both symbolically and analytically significant, second-generation poets strive to come to terms with the very nature of the language in which the traumatic events are addressed, a process that allows memory, remembrance and identity to be cathartically “worked through” into art (Eaglestone 28). Because their struggle is “to put something into language that had already happened, and that was both being made present and occluded in its after-effects” (Eaglestone 29), I will argue that authors, like Rosner, leave room for spaces that constantly reclaim the significance of silence in order to accommodate the unattainable representation of trauma. According to Erin McGlothlin, absence becomes inscribed into the second generation as an empty sign, a deeply sensed signifier marking the presence of a wound for which there is no content to be revealed, remaining thus unknown and inaccessible (7-8). Through imaginative recourse, postmemorial poets seek to negotiate this crisis of signification, addressing by means of creative language an unlived and inaccessible event that is nevertheless felt in its absence (McGlothlin 10). In the following section, I will delve into Gravity so as to examine Rosner’s poetic reflection on her severed relationship to the Shoah, which is made manifest in the tropes of silence, absence and unreadability. I argue that her sustained exploration of the role of language and its opposite, silence, to approach a vicarious narrative that refuses to adjust to coherence or understanding allows her, paradoxically, to come to terms with her belated and mediated memory of the Holocaust. Surrendering to the rebellious compulsions of verse, turning a figurative language that simultaneously unveils and conceals the trauma and its aftermath, that dwells on the mystery of poetry, on the feelings of absence and on the missing narrative, that integrates the legacy of the Old into the New World, I will contend that the poet achieves a form of posttraumatic growth that only through poetic engagement becomes possible.

3. Silence, Absence, and Unreadability in Gravity

14Rosner’s rapidly shifting style, merging verse and prose with fluidity, epitomizes the sense of rupture and dispossession that characterizes belated memory. Some of her poems resort to staccato, abrupt, and disjointed diction, suppressing narrative and logical links: “There are no / portraits / of ancestors / hanging on / my walls / no heirlooms / in velvet-lined / boxes” (Gravity 19). The constant enjambment imbues such compositions with a frantic and hasty rhythm, while free verse releases her from strict rhyme and metric constraints. These stylistic decisions allow the poet to convey the extreme and fragmented nature of the vicarious Holocaust experience, as it echoes in postmemorial writing. Instead, other poems display longer, serener, more polished verses, with a clearer division of stanzas and more natural syntactic breaks and prosody, hence delivering a paused and lingering rhythm. Her versification is imbued with expressive, emotionally layered images, shaping a deeply figurative poetic rendition. The first poem in the collection, “An Offering” (Gravity 17), highly illustrative of Rosner’s eloquent and refined voice, introduces the themes of absence and silence, the underlying leitmotifs in the book:

Here are my bones.

Pierced by a beam of light,
transparent, a map of fragments,
that touch but don’t connect.
That’s the point: to expose,
turn inside out, reveal
every broken place, fissure, crack
these are the stories of my life,
luminous pieces of my secret architecture
a puzzle spilled from the box.

15Rosner significantly begins her poetic rendition by acknowledging the impenetrable chasm separating her from her parents, the unsurmountable “principle of discontinuity” operating whenever she tries to approach and assimilate her traumatic past (Langer 14). The poet recognizes the profoundly fragmented nature of her legacy, as well as its impact on her identity, perceived as fissural and incomplete. Accepting that her story refuses to settle into coherence because of the missing pieces, Rosner warns the reader of the absence that both shapes and drives her writing: this is, precisely, her most sincere offering.

16Gravity becomes even more complex because of its nonchronological nature and its problematic lyrical personae. The narrative evolves, on an external layer, along an apparently coherent chronology; i.e., main events unfold in their natural order: her parents’ Holocaust past lays the foundations for her childhood experiences, which in turn lead to adulthood. However, other events are constantly being intercalated throughout this narrative, breaking linearity in a deeper sense, in an inexorable going back and forth in time which pushes the boundaries of linearity and contributes to the quality of fragmentation and incompleteness that is inherent to postmemorial literature. Other poems seem to exist in a sort of timeless and ethereal dimension—one with no reference to time or reality, nor an apparent immediate connection to the Holocaust, one dimension that gravitates over the others, as the book’s title suggests. These three distinct but intertwined levels embody the author’s vicarious reexperience of trauma: as a psychological and artistic process that allows no closure, legacy, kin, and events are forever bound and unbound, connected and disconnected, in this inextricable triple layer of meaning which makes absence a prominent motif.

17Polyphony further complicates the study of Rosner’s work. Most of the time, the poet assumes the lyrical voice, her poetic persona expanding from a disobedient child into an empowered adult who reaches posttraumatic growth and embraces trauma as legacy. Yet, on occasions, Rosner’s lyrical voice gives way to other personae. For instance, her voice mingles with her father’s in poems related to deportation, such as “What Matters” (Gravity 38), in which father and daughter engage in a poetic dialogue about roll call in Buchenwald: “We stood sometimes for hours, being counted, / going numb from the cold. People died standing up. / Once, a prisoner caught trying to escape / was hanged in front of everyone,” he says. She replies: “I try to imagine living / one hour at a time, one foot / in front of the other, and someone else / holding you up at times, / leading you by the elbow or keeping you from collapsing.” The poet signals the different personae by placing in italics her father’s words—an illustration of the kind of visual and linguistic interruption that will be subsequently examined. Speakers are chronologically and ontologically separated, and Rosner conjures up her father’s memories triggered by a visit to the city aquarium, by the sighting of a captive great white shark endlessly circling and bumping against the glass cylinder: “The shark was released, in the end, / but still I bump against the glass / with my air, my words. // In your dreams, / are you moving, are you holding still?” Not only do these verses hint at the pervasiveness of trauma, but they also epitomize the unanswered and unanswerable questions that haunt the second generation beyond their parents’ testimony or lack thereof.

18In the same line, “Rachel’s Journey” is thoroughly conveyed through the voice of Rosner’s grandmother, who envisions her flight into exile, while directly addressing the poet: “Tell me my sons survive this journey, that all three grow up and marry to have children of their own. That you will remember my story” (Gravity 27-28). Through this process of reimagining, Rosner is indeed accomplishing Rachel’s desires: by writing, she is living proof that her grandmother’s children did survive and raise their own children; at the same time, the poet is reminiscing, retelling and reexperiencing her story. These significant facts—surviving and having descendants who inherit this legacy and give voice to them—imply the triumph over Nazism that can only be achieved through postmemorial literature. By daring to assume others’ voices, the poet reclaims their trauma as her own, becoming a co-participant and co-owner of her relatives’ experiences by means of creative investment, showing an intergenerational bond that remains unbreakable in spite of the unbridgeable voids and gaps. It is precisely the determination and entitlement to fill in such silences that resounds in the text’s polyphonic quality. As McGlothlin suggests, the second generation’s simultaneous struggle to displace, absorb, conceal and uncover their legacy of the Shoah derives in a “narrative crisis in which narrative voice fractures, protagonists multiply in a compulsion to repeat, temporality is suspended and generic conventions are transgressed” (12). These scars engraved on the literary text embody the author’s attempts to face the crisis of signification, which surfaces in multiple manifestations connected to voice, silence, and agency.

19In Rosner’s poetry, polyphony is reshaped and further complicated by the complexities of multilingualism. Though the poet may dare to assume her ancestors’ lyrical voices in order to reclaim her ownership of the trauma, she explores the unavoidable space of silence defying her attempts of appropriation and representation by reflecting on an undecipherable European heritage that is epitomized in her parents’ multilingualism. “Foreign Tongues” (Gravity 20) embodies this conflict through the idea of linguistic interruption: “My mother speaks seven languages. / Three she shares with my father, / memorized on their way to America. / Swedish is still the one they use for secrets… / For years I listened to that melody float / above my head, as familiar as elusive / as the taste of snow.” The poet recalls her childhood puzzled by a silence that paradoxically crystallized in language: and not in just one, but in a myriad of them. Swedish, the language of the country where her parents met, remains inaccessible to her and is simultaneously perceived as familiar and elusive, echoing the essence of the inherited trauma itself. Even when her parents speak English, the only language shared with their daughter, absence manifests in a sense of dispossession, estrangement and otherness:

I was seven when someone told me my parents
had accents. Suddenly I noticed the way
my father said ‘sree’ instead of ‘three,’
the way my mother said ‘you’ll pass with
swinging colors,’ or ‘it’s a doggy dog day.’

They were foreigners for the first time, strange
even to me. (Gravity 20)

20Due to the insufficiency of language to represent, the poet needs to interrupt and disrupt language to precisely denote its failure. By reflecting her parent’s unmastered English, mirroring their foreign accents as well as their phraseological errors, the poet “adds cultural and linguistic difference to the existing discrepancy between the occurrence of an event and its telling” (Grimwood 114). Reverberating in its singular otherness and foreignness, her parents’ English becomes the language of authority and testimony, echoing the sense of oddness and foreignness that any attempt of representing the Holocaust entails. Following Rosen, this repositioning of English defies the expectations of the American reader—which includes the poet herself, in her endeavor to read through her parents’ spoken and unspoken narrative,—“asking them, asking us, to question the fantasy… that English can know and master everything, even the Holocaust” (174). This realization drives the adult poet to try to decipher the other languages used by her parents: “old enough to take flight, I travelled / to the places they had lived / gathering small handfuls of words / that I was too shy to use,” but these languages resist her in spite of every effort, like the Shoah resists representation; “instead, my stubborn mouth held / only one vocabulary, as if the others kept / refusing to leap across nations, across oceans” (Gravity 20).

21Rosner’s conflict with languages is further explored in “The Trip” a long narrative poem reconstructing her visits with her father to Germany, each one several decades apart: “My father is a German who will speak no German, and I, forbidden to learn it in school, studied Spanish instead,” she confesses in the initial verses (Gravity 43). In Hamburg, the first time she ever hears him speak his mother tongue, she feels “mute and uncomprehending” (Gravity 44), lamenting that she was not allowed to acquire it as a child, conveying the double-edged feeling of outsiderness and belonging: “I also heard in his voice the language of his incarceration in a concentration camp, and the language of the invaders whose presence in my mother’s native Poland forced her into hiding.” In the German she both mourns and rejects, in this language that she cannot understand, the poet hears nevertheless “the sounds of suffering and, somehow, of survival” (Rosner, “Turning Sorrow” 406). Even though Rosner’s “stubborn mouth held / only one vocabulary” (Gravity 20), the presence of so many other languages and possibilities left an imprint as soon as she began to write poetry: “I tried to listen carefully for the sound of my own voice, increasingly aware that it had to emerge from the rich sea of melodies I’d heard all my life. I wrote about secrets and absences” (“Turning Sorrow” 406). Her poetic voice indeed integrates the vibrant yet mysterious melodies of her childhood, offering a poignant reflection on the function of language and silence in testimony and on the specific complexities that multilingualism poses when English-speaking postmemorial authors attempt to render their own belatedness through poetry.

  • 1 Fraknoi’s collection Responses to the Holocaust: Memories and Transformations, including the prints (...)

22Multilingualism, linguistic disruption and interruption is connected in Rosner’s poetic universe with the visual interruption embodied in Fraknoi’s illustrations1. Though silence is generally conceived as an aural phenomenon, its tangible and visual counterparts are of paramount importance. Physical gaps, absences, and blanks in text may not only be significant and voluntary, but also extremely active, unexpected, and triggering, identified by readers as remarkable spaces which are as contributive to the meaning as the words (Grant-Davies 5-6). Holocaust verse thrives on the mystery of words and spaces that are deliberately placed and carefully selected by the poet, allowing for the condition of blankness that belated memory requires. Fraknoi’s artwork, interspersed among the poems, forces the reader to pause further, to halt their reading experience, drawing their attention to other codes of signification employed by the second generation to come to terms with their grievous past. Poetry and illustration are analogous in that they both paint vivid images that resonate in the reader’s mind, and they require time, fortitude, and cognitive effort to be processed. More specifically, Fraknoi’s representations of the legacy of the Shoah are directly connected to the subject of multilingualism because they tend to include repeated, superposed writing in Spanish, echoing the tension that generates from the encounter of the Old and the New World in a way that recalls Rosner’s treatment of languages.

23On the one hand, both Rosner and Fraknoi resort to tongues that are outsiders to the original events, English and Spanish respectively, emphasizing their singularly foreign nature in relation to the Holocaust but turning to them because, precisely in this oddness, they reach the representation of the unrepresentable. On the other hand, they claim their bond to these languages that, while outsider to the Shoah, remain inherent to their identities as second-generation survivors born and raised in another continent. “Cuaderno” (Gravity 1) and “Dos Cuadernos” (Gravity 105), the two mirror drawings chosen to open and close Rosner’s poetry collection, illustrate the strong connection between linguistic and visual interruption operating in the work of postmemory. The first one displays the back of an upside-down recipe book that seems just thrown across, abandoned, neglected. We are positioned to gaze only at its old, black, crumbling cover, next to which there are blurry reddish stains, as if it were bleeding. In the background, “qué vas a comer?”—‘what are you going to eat?’—appears written in Spanish, repeated over and over. Fraknoi’s art draws attention to the inaccessible nature of her family’s Holocaust narrative, a bleeding story growing each time more fragile, blurry and distant. The hunger that hovers over the drawing as a mantra not only reflects the literal starvation that victims suffered, but also the insatiable hunger for knowledge that haunts the second generation. “Dos Cuadernos,” bringing the poetry collection to an end, shows this time two bleeding recipe books, joined by the spine cover, whose background reads “tienes que comer”—“you have to eat!”—in a blurry Spanish, handwritten over and over, as a perpetual mantra. That bringing closure to Holocaust trauma is simply not possible becomes manifest in this piece of artwork, which suggests that there is no end to the hunger.

24While Fraknoi’s artwork allows for the connection between linguistic and visual interruption in postmemorial attempts to approach trauma, it also epitomizes the void left by the unavailable, unarchivable and missing narrative, which fall under Lang’s notion of unreadability (58-61). Fraknoi’s persistence on physical objects like old family recipe books and diaries, whose pages disintegrate before her eyes, articulate moments where the narrative is suspended, “where text and language are lost and unavailable, a blank that serves as the inscrutable story. They speak to an interrupted memory and an interrupted history, one that cannot be recovered or read” (Lang 64). In coherence with Fraknoi, Rosner offers a poetic rendition of these same issues, recognizing the absence of the crucial text, acknowledging that the text personifying the traumatic experience is itself a victim. As a postmemorial author, she creates a poetic rendition that concentrates on the missing text of her life so much that it attempts to reformulate this lost narrative, without ever succeeding, but paradoxically producing a text that conforms with all measures of readability (Lang 61). The missing narrative justifies the creation of a text that can be read, “one that tells an intertwined narrative between parent and child and through various means points to the cost of survival… and the role that trauma exerts years or even decades after it has been experienced (Lang 61). Rosner mourns her lost family narrative and history by poetically reflecting her mother’s and grandmother’s deaths.

25The poet delves into her mother’s cancer diagnosis, the development of her illness and, finally, her passing. “Instructions” (Gravity 84), written as directions addressed to herself, reconstructs the poet’s visit to her deathbed, her passing and interment: “in the room with all the people, read the words you’ve written for her, then lose the pages on the way to the cemetery. Maybe she’s taken them with her.... Let them go.” When her mother dies, not only does her text vanish with her, leaving an unfinished story, but so does, in a way, the poet’s own narrative. Losing her pages, the poet understands that certain parts of the story, inaccessible and unarchivable, she needs to surrender. Yet, because she is writing—or perhaps more precisely, because we are reading—Gravity, there is no doubt that the missing text of her life, paradoxically, drives her to create her own rendition of the past, one that can only be grasped through imagined terms.

26Highlighting the absence of the crucial text, Rosner brings the poetry collection to an end by evoking her grandmother’s death, in a poem that shares the book’s title: “I think of my grandmother’s / sweet hand, the weight / of it as she stroked my hair / to say goodbye, giving me / comfort because she was / the one leaving” (Gravity 108). This image transports the poet to that childhood disrupted by the unspoken trauma, and, by bidding farewell to her grandmother, she is also acknowledging the part of their story that disappears with her, coming to terms with that “deep memory beyond individual recall, which will defy any attempts to give it meaning,” that will emerge once all survivors have disappeared (Friedlander 41). The truth that trauma’s boundaries flow back and forth in time with no possible closure is symbolized in the poem’s lack of final punctuation mark, bringing the volume to an end that is no end and that, besides, connects the final poem with the book’s title, building a sort of endlessly circling, open structure that the reader can only perceive when they are just about to close the book.

27I believe that it is this story disintegrating before her eyes when her mother and grandmother die what drives the poet to the process of creative writing that engenders Gravity. Significantly, Fraknoi’s pieces of artwork chosen to illustrate the collection also explore the idea of a memory and history that becomes definitively unavailable when survivors pass away: “Gabardine Coat” (Gravity 26) and “Camisa Blanca” (Gravity 53) seem to represent the artist’s parents as they adapt to a new land, dressed in nice clothes, yet completely faceless, as if their inaccessible memory were slowly vanishing. The phenomenology of photography as a medium of postmemory, in fact, acquires deep significance in Gravity. Hirsch suggests that familial images solidify intergenerational bonds insomuch as they promise the second generation an access to their Holocaust past that is perceived as legitimate and untampered due to the belief in referentiality that photography engenders (“The Generation of Postmemory” 107-108). When postmemorial authors include such images in Holocaust literature, thus, they reinvest the unimaginable events with resonant forms of aesthetic expression, rendering an embodied and affective connection to the past (Hirsch, “The Generation of Postmemory” 111). That photography is of paramount importance in Rosner’s poetic rendition is palpable in the initial compositions. In “Birthright” (Gravity 19), she laments the loss of family photographs: “there are no / portraits / of ancestors / hanging on / my walls… // my legacy / is in my bones / in the grief I /wear beneath / my skin // a secret that / never goes away” (Gravity 19). Anticipating the significance of this subject, she connects the lack of portraits, of familial faces to gaze at, to the veil of silence and secrecy shrouding this birthright that she struggles to work through in Gravity.

28The value of visual culture as a medium of postmemory articulates the poet’s exploration of her relationship with her father. However, disengaging from those members of the second generation who find referentiality in photography and include them in their works to assert an emotional and embodied connection to the past, Rosner defies this very paradigm, I suggest, by countering with the idea that photographic images signal the blankness and unreadability inherent to the Holocaust. While she chooses not to show or include her father’s photographs, she persistently offers verse descriptions and responses to them, shifting thus the focus from the tangible object or source of memory to her own perception of it, mediated through emotion, imaginative recourse, and projection. As a poet of antimorphosis (Gubar 100), who describes but does not exhibit images, Rosner emphasizes the paradoxical insufficiencies of crucially important Holocaust photographs and challenges the belief in ocular authority, implying that an undistorted view of the Shoah eludes us, even if we endeavor to reach it through photography, because both the Holocaust and its ongoing aftermath are simply unrepresentable. According to Gubar, this aesthetic maneuver demonstrates how poets reconcile, on the one hand, the urgent need for documentary photographs of the Shoah and, on the other, the urgent need to acknowledge the boundaries of their value (100).

29In “My Father’s Souvenirs,” Rosner turns to ekphrasis to describe the surviving evidences that bear witness to her father’s ordeal: “One. / …a pale yellow file card with a / small, passport-size ‘mug shot’ / of a fifteen-year-old boy with newly shaved hair / and protruding ears, mouth held tightly closed / and wide, wide dark eyes” (Gravity 31). In itself, this Nazi visual document, originally created by the perpetrator to dehumanize and, eventually, annihilate her father, allows the poet to see and touch the past, “to reanimate it by undoing the finality of the photographic ‘take’. The retrospective irony of every photograph consists precisely in the simultaneity of this effort and the consciousness of its impossibility” (Hirsch, “The Generation of Postmemory” 36-37). This impossible effort highlighted by Hirsch, and the space of void and silence it engenders, becomes more complex when a postmemorial author, like Rosner, decides not to exhibit such a document, but instead to engage with it employing antimorphosis. Refusing to display this repressive Holocaust image while forcing the reader to keep in their mind’s eye what cannot be seen, the poet emphasizes that “the visible not only hides the unseen and promulgates a morally problematic distancing but also generates factitious, duplicitous testimonies that artists of antimorphosis set out to sabotage” (Gubar 129). Because her father’s mug shot was taken by the Nazi perpetrator to demonize him, to rob him of his individuality, and, above all, because it cannot show the invisible anguish of suffering, Rosner refuses to show it.

30Instead, her ekphrastic description forces the reader to a halt, to an unstable position in which, no matter what apparatus is applied, the past remains incomprehensible due to its indiscernible nature. Paradoxically, by keeping this image only obliquely in sight, she engraves it somehow in the mind, beyond the boundaries of representation. In relation to the motifs of absence and silence, by examining her not-there souvenir, she illuminates the impossibility of documenting the unrepresentable, and the resulting “need to put in its place merely belated, fractured, indecipherable version of an often enigmatic reality” (Gubar 102), documenting her own belatedness, her own dependence on the eyewitness-survivor and her fear of what will happen when all survivors pass. In “The Trip” (Gravity 49), reconstructing her visit to Buchenwald with her father in the 1980s, father and daughter examine the museum’s collections, the objects that once belonged to the deportees. When they reach the archive of personal file cards, each with a small photo, the poet inescapably returns to her father’s souvenir: “I think of that disintegrating paper, wings of a moth turning to dust between my fingertips.” Indeed, these lines connect the missing photographs-inside-verses with the idea of unreadability and lost narrative examined in previous pages, the subject that is so poignantly exemplified in Fraknoi’s drawings of crumbling paper. Through the exploration of the inescapable chasm engendered by multilingualism, the victimized text embodying the traumatic experience, and the limitations of representation that constraint visual images, both the poet and the visual artist construct an underlying layer of meaning placing silence, absence, and unreadability at the heart of Gravity. Furthermore, their own sense of belatedness haunts them as they realize that the passing away of survivors will definitively disintegrate the remnants of a grievous past that, regardless of their efforts, remains illegible.

31Artistic expression allows both Rosner and Fraknoi to come to terms with their belated, fragmented, undiscernible inheritance, through an aesthetic reflection on unreadability that allows them to reach posttraumatic growth. Children of survivors face the truth that “to be dominated by narratives that preceded one’s birth or one’s consciousness, is to risk having one’s own stories and experiences displaced, even evacuated, by those of a previous generation” (Hirsch, “The Generation of Postmemory” 106). Defying this paradigm, second-generation artists like Rosner and Fraknoi, shaped by events that exceed narrative reconstruction and comprehension, paradoxically turn silence into art, ascertaining in this process that their postmemorial renditions are also their own stories. Quite literally, Fraknoi finds artistic inspiration in the secrecy that defined her childhood: her etching “Shhh” (Gravity 93) represents the lower part of a face with a finger placed on the lips, in a gesture that asks for silence. Rosner, on the other hand, reflects on the capacity of poetic language to assemble the fragments, to endow silence with meaning: “I wanted to make something out of nothing, / out of air, words” (Gravity 38). More specifically, in “Words Under Skin” (Gravity 97), she explores the pursue of her own voice, an overwhelming longing that is finally achieved, how she yearned to “lift my voice into the air / and hear the stories and mysteries // fly beautifully from my throat. / Now poems spread / across the dining room table // like a map of the stars.” In “Your Kindness is Unfolding Me” (Gravity 102), she finally establishes the direct connection between composing verses and reaching posttraumatic growth: “The cure for insomnia / is poetry.”

4. Conclusions

32Rosner’s poetry of remembrance dwells on the ability of poetic language to convey the vicarious experience of the Holocaust, its profoundly shaping effect, and its ongoing aftermath. To confront the highly fractured nature of the past, manifest in rupture, fragmentation and radical breaks, as well as her own sense of belatedness, the poet endows the themes of absence and silence with unique significance. I suggest that, through a sustained, poetic exploration of the traces of this trauma that renders the past unreadable, that is simultaneously occluded and present, the poet achieves posttraumatic growth by precisely channeling both the feelings of absence and the secrecy that shrouded her childhood into poetry. Because she is able to cathartically turn silence into art, she can embrace her grievous past as a form of empowering legacy, demonstrating her ownership of the story that has only been vicariously experienced, even if it resists narrative reconstruction and exceeds understanding. As a poet who grew up in a somehow new land, overwhelmed by the transferred trauma, her discussion on absence and unreadability seems connected to the conflicted imprint that European roots and heritage leave on her American identity.

33The encounter of the Old and the New World, and the voids it engenders, deepens the distance between the poet and her past. As I have suggested, Rosner explores this chasm through the complexities of multilingualism. Her childhood is marked by the silence that her parents’ undecipherable languages created. Even when they spoke English, the only language they shared with her, the poet recalls a sense of dispossession and estrangement. As she mourns and rejects German, her father’s mother tongue and also the perpetrator’s, Rosner’s work exemplifies the unique challenges faced by English-speaking postmemorial authors. Choosing to illustrate her collection with Fraknoi’s artwork implies a bond between the members of the second generation, which is, in fact, straightforwardly stated in the acknowledgements: “thank you to the many sons of daughters of Holocaust survivors I have encountered over the years, whose stories and memories have deepened and clarified my own” (Gravity 111). So visually and semiotically different from the typed poems, Fraknoi’s illustrations halt the progress of reading, recognizing void, pause and silence as central to the postmemorial experience. Her inclusion of text in Spanish, on the other hand, suggests that languages which are unrelated to the original events, in their unavoidable outsiderness, can echo the foreignness of the Holocaust and are thus suitable to convey the conflict of belated memory.

34Furthermore, linguistic and visual disruptions intertwine with the idea of an unfillable void left by the unavailable, lost narrative, emphasizing the absence of the crucial text. She presents the text embodying the traumatic experience as a victim, which fades away as her mother and grandmother die. With them, she understands that certain parts of the story, inaccessible and unreadable, need to be surrendered. Yet, I argue that it is precisely this realization what drives her to poetry, attempting to reformulate and fill in the missing narrative, without ever succeeding, but in this process creating her own rendition of the past, one that can only be grasped through imaginative investment and projection, one that approaches the Holocaust through the lens of postmemory, placing silence and absence at the heart of this post-text. Besides, further underscoring the blankness and unreadability that are inherent to the Shoah, Rosner also reflects on the boundaries of visual documentation, shedding light on the impossibility of documenting the unrepresentable. While she chooses not to show her father’s photographs, taken by the Nazi perpetrator, she persistently describes them, shifting the focus from the object or source of memory towards her own response to it, which is mediated through emotion and imagination. Rosner refuses to exhibit a photograph that cannot show the invisible anguish of suffering. Paradoxically, while her ekphrastic rendition keeps this image only obliquely in sight, it engraves something about this unseen pain in the mind’s eye, beyond the boundaries of representation.

35I suggest that Gravity is shaped through an underlying layer of meaning that places silence, absence, and unreadability at the heart of postmemory. Rosner’s poetry thrives on the mystery that is triggered by a very small number of words and spaces, painstakingly chosen, deliberately placed, which leave room for the unreadable condition that defines belated memory. The silence that may raise among a multiplicity of languages, the secrets that are lost forever when paper crumbles and text disintegrates, the unseen pain that escapes the fleeting instant captured by a camera… Rosner’s concerns about ineffability, unrepresentability, and unreadability in relation to the Holocaust are ironically explored through language. Precisely, poetic discourse allows her to work through the nature of the language that is used to address the events—to acknowledge its boundaries, but also to recognize its cathartic potential: “Poems slowly helped me learn to trust that my material lay amid the stories of my experience as a daughter of Holocaust survivors, that my role as a writer was to express all three of the forms of mourning Hasidic teaching describes: tears, silence, and the turning of sorrow into song” (Rosner, “Turning Sorrow” 406). Indeed, tears, silence and sorrow coalesce into the poet’s song, one that allows her to embrace her legacy and give voice to her otherwise unspeakable sense of belatedness and otherness, and to come to terms with it. Paradoxically, her exploration of silence leads her to discover her genuine voice and agency.

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1 Fraknoi’s collection Responses to the Holocaust: Memories and Transformations, including the prints chosen to illustrate Gravity, is displayed and available for sale at

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Electronic reference

Laura Miñano Mañero, Turning Sorrow into Song: Silence, Absence and Unreadability in Elizabeth Rosner’s GravityEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 18-2 | 2023, Online since 03 July 2023, connection on 19 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Laura Miñano Mañero

Laura Miñano Mañero holds a PhD in Sociolinguistics from the University of Valencia, Spain. She has recently joined the Department of English and German Philology at the University of Zaragoza as an assistant professor. Her research focuses on language contact, translation and interpretation in extreme contexts, postmemory and intergenerational transmission of trauma, specially focusing on second-generation Holocaust survivors, and Holocaust and gender literary studies.

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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