Deconstructing the redemptive power of ‘bearing witness’


The experience of genocide as transmitted trauma may not be universal, according to new ethnographic research published in Current Anthropology.

In the fields of human rights and memory studies, giving testimony about one’s personal experience of genocide is believed to be both a moral duty and a psychological imperative for the wellbeing of the individual and the persecuted group to which she belongs. Accordingly, the coping strategies proposed to victims of genocide tend to be rather uniform: tell your story and do not let the violence you suffered be forgotten.

The author of this study offers two persuasive case studies that suggest that this universalizing approach to genocide is misguided. In her interviews with Jewish-Israeli children of Holocaust survivors and Cambodian-Canadians whose parents were persecuted at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, Carol Kidron found that virtually all subjects rejected the pathologizing construct of transmitted PTSD.

The author’s research reveals key differences in the genocidal legacies of Cambodian-Canadian and Jewish-Israeli trauma descendants. While the Jewish-Israeli subjects felt that they bore some emotional scars that were passed on by their parents, they opposed the idea that they have been afflicted by these inherited traces of the Holocaust. In fact, in the Jewish-Israeli cultural context, these markers of emotional difference may serve instead as an empowering way to carry on their parents’ memory. In great contrast, Cambodian-Canadians not only resist the stigma of trauma, but also insist that the genocide has not left them psycho-socially impaired in any way. Instead of remembering tragedy, the Cambodian-Canadian subjects appealed to Karma and subscribed to Buddhist forward-looking attitudes.

Despite their differences, both accounts defy the tropes of victimization and trauma that pervade scholarship on genocide and humanitarian practice. The author argues that religious worldviews and cultural values frame responses to trauma. Cultural paradigms may valorize or marginalize the importance of remembrance, and the author calls for scholars and humanitarian workers to take into account the diversity of cultural frameworks for remembrance when dealing with descendants of genocide victims.


Deconstructing the redemptive power of bearing witness

3 Responses to Deconstructing the redemptive power of ‘bearing witness’

  1. Regina Tadmor November 22, 2012 at 6:02 am #

    There are two different subjects – trauma to parents and experience (and likely suffering) of children of these traumatized parents. From the blog above, it doesn’t sound like this study examined how best victims of genocide can deal with their trauma. Rather it talks about how the children of these victims were affected by their parents trauma.

    Many victims of trauma repress the memories and don’t “work through them” in any way. Others work through their memories by talking about them either informally or in a therapeutic framework. There are also many ways of talking through traumas. Not all ways being equal. It would be interesting to compare how people who repress trauma live with it as opposed to those who work through it in various ways.

    As to how the second generation is affected that is a different question. It seems logical that how the children fare depends on how well the parents managed to deal with their trauma. Those who dealt with it “well” evidently will affect their children’s emotional life less while at the same time leaving the children in a position to carry on the memory of the events and work to prevent them happening in the future.

  2. Andrew November 21, 2012 at 3:32 pm #

    whoops – spell checker got in the way. That should have read

    Nonsense, the author is attributing the response by the survivors in isolation from the behaviour / response of the new communities they have become part of. The world has had three very different approaches to the ethnic cleansing operations in Nazi Germany, West Papua, and Cambodia. The world supported Jewish condemnation of a beaten Nazi enemy, where as ethnic cleansing of West Papua for fifty years has been and is being ignored by a world which is in business with the Indonesian & Americans responsible, and the world community knows that it belatedly condemned the killing fields that it had been told of for three or four years.

    The more the world denies an abuse, the more the victims have to try to distance themselves from their own experiences. Its a universal coping system, neither religion nor other social factors change the human fundamentals.

  3. Andrew November 21, 2012 at 3:24 pm #

    Nonsense, the author is attributing the response by the survivors in isolation from the behaviour / response of the new communities they have become part of. The world has had three very different approaches to the ethnic cleansing operations in Nazi Germany, West Papua, and Cambodia. The world supported Jewish commendation of a beaten Nazi enemy, where as ethnic cleansing of West Papua for fifty years has been and is being ignored by a world which is in business with the Indonesian & Americans responsible, and the world community knows that it belatedly commended the killing fields that it had been told of for three or four years.

    The more the world denies an abuse, the more the victims have to try to distance themselves from their own experiences. Its a universal coping system, neither religion nor other social factors change the human fundamentals.

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