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Grandchildren of the second World War

March 30, 2012

I’m reading the not-quite-memoirs of István Hargittai at the moment. There are two main themes to the book: chemistry and the Holocaust. No, not the chemistry of the Holocaust. The themes are connected only through the lives of the people portrayed. Hargittai, himself professor of chemistry and a concentration camp survivor, tells stories of himself and his family, as well as of famous scientists he interacted with. For nearly all those chemists and physicists, what they did during the second World War is given equal weight as their research contributions. At one point, Hargittai writes that whenever he meets a German scientist, he has to mention the War to at least get an acknowledgment that it happened, and only then can he move on to discuss science freely. At another point, he mentions that he only had one German friend who did not feel uncomfortable around him. Hmm…

I consider it a great credit to Hargittai’s communication skills, that despite so much talk about the Nazi atrocities, and despite him pushing the opinion that “this must never be forgotten”, he hasn’t turned me away from reading. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t deny that the Holocaust happened, or that it was a terrible thing. I just find that there is way too much awareness of it, I hate the way Germans born forty years afterwards are still required to apologize, and I generally think that it is high time humanity forget and move on. Move it out of everyday life and into the history books. Hargittai thinks moving it to the history books would be horrible in itself, a “second death” of the victims. I think it would be a natural consequence of the passage of time and generations.

And this is where I would like to bring in the grandchildren. I assume that everybody is familiar with the Christian expression “God’s children”. Well, in Swedish Christian circles, “God’s grandchildren” is also a known concept. To the best of my knowledge, it was coined by the author Sam Lidman, and it refers to the rebelling, non-believing children of deeply religious parents.

You see, it was like this: After the government of Sweden had granted partial religious freedom* in 1873, there was a great religious revival, and many people switched over to the new “free churches”. The members of this revival movement abstained from alcohol, “worldly” music and dancing, card games, and probably a few other things that I don’t know about. The movement kept going strong for about two generations, and then in the nineteenthirties and -forties, most of the young people left. Sam Lidman was one of them.

Many years ago I read a newspaper article trying to explain the phenomenon. The author claimed that a better (if more unwieldy) name might be “God’s great grandchildren”. In the first generation we have people who are actually God’s children, the way Christians mean it – they have a personal connection with God, and they are striving towards Him with all their might. To live out their religious beliefs and experiences, they form habits of praying regularly, and avoid things that they percieve will separate them from God. Their children, even if they don’t form their own personal relationship with God, at least have experienced the parent’s devotion. They know that something good was the driving force behind all those rules and habits, and so preserve the outer forms of religiousness.

Their children, having never seen the deep personal experiences that lay behind what are now family habits, rebel and defect. They don’t see why they should be any different from the majority society. They start doing all the things that their grandparents avoided out of devotion and their parents out of respect.

I would like to claim the label “grandchild of the second World War”. People like István Hargittai have personal experiences. The War and the Holocaust shaped that generation’s life. The children of people who lived through the war, they have seen how deeply it affected their parents. I’m a grandchild. To me, the Holocaust is history. I refuse to actively live its memory, because I have no memories of it either first or second hand.

Yes, it was horrible. So was the Atlantic triangular slave trade. So were the get-baptised-or-die Crusades. So were the mass crucifixions of the Roman empire.

Everything becomes a page in a history book, eventually.

* Everybody still had to belong to a religious organization approved by the government, but there was suddenly a procedure for approving new organizations, rather than requiring everybody to be a member of the Swedish Lutheran church.

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