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How the past catches up with you

The memory of the Holocaust haunts my family to this day.

The invocation is zachor – remember. But memory is often less a question of what you hold on to than of what will let you go. I know this: on one side, I am the grandchild of Polish Jews who lost their entire family in the Holocaust. On the other, I’m the daughter of a psychiatrist.

Growing up, I didn’t think much about my maternal grandparents’ experience. My grandfather had died before I was born and his widow was an unhappy, uncommunicative old lady, in marked contrast to my warm, nurturing paternal grandparents. She got on badly with my mother and my mother got on badly with me. All my family had fled eastern European anti-Semitism and settled in Australia but my father’s parents had left much earlier. The horror, for them, was at one remove.

If I thought about Safta (it’s Hebrew for grandmother; she never spoke Polish again), I presumed her situation was the same. All her family were killed – but she was in Australia by then, with two children in her immediate future. I never considered that this escape might be damaging.

Despite growing up in a house humming with therapy-speak and feeling, like most Jews, that I didn’t so much learn about the Holocaust as leave the womb with that knowledge already implanted, I didn’t ponder its impact on my family. If my mother was different from my friends’ mothers – unpredictable, unempathetic, disengaged – well, she just was. By the time I was 15, she had literally disengaged: seven years after my parents’ divorce, she left and my father moved back in to raise my sister and me.

Years later, I talked to my cousin, a documentary-maker who filmed the Australian testimony for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation. The survivors, she said, were open and welcoming and had come to terms with their past. It was their children who were a mess.

Troubled inheritance

I started reading up on what some experts refer to as the intergenerational transmission of trauma. (Others deny that trauma can be transmitted. Hey, we’re Jews: unanimity is even more treyfe to us than pork.) I found my mother everywhere in the testimonies of second-generation survivors.

They were overprotected, they said, by anxious parents who had suffered inconceivable losses but they were also given short shrift: how could they call anything they experienced a problem, compared to what the generation before had gone through? They were not secure; it could happen again. But they were expected to make sense of the incomprehensible, to do well in order to justify their parents’ survival. And they were pulverised with inherited guilt.

They became adults who were determined to distance their own children from their troubled inheritance. We are back to zachor, remembrance, only some forms of which are voluntary. My mother didn’t talk about the war; she refused to teach me Yiddish, the language of her childhood.

But you cannot pass on what you never had – proper nurturing, for instance. And sometimes you transmit things you never intended. This, too, is zachor.

It seems a harsh irony, given Judaism’s focus on family, that our sense of it has been warped by actions perpetrated against us because we are Jewish. Family, says one grandchild of survivors, has a sadness to it; the past feels like a big hole. The tapestry was rent and two generations are insufficient to repair it.

I knew my mother’s childhood was unhappy but she had told me very little. Now I asked. Her father never spoke about the war, she said; her mother never stopped talking about it. I had known she was overprotected, forbidden to visit friends’ houses. I had not realised that negative feelings were also forbidden: “We were lucky to have food and a roof over our heads. We weren’t supposed to complain.”

At this year’s Jewish Book Week in London, a French novelist, Fabrice Humbert, claimed that the second generation had felt unable to discuss what their parents went through but that “the third generation is free and we can speak”. I disagree. (Of course I do. See above.)

We can speak, yes: how could a psychiatrist’s daughter not believe in a talking cure? There are memories that fester if not aired and surely the legacy of genocidal hatred counts among them. The survivors were silent for 40 years, with few exceptions; once they started talking, though, they couldn’t stop. Thanks to a multitude of books, films and testimonies, they never will have to. But their descendants, too, have a lot to deal with, if the Holocaust is ever to be neutralised. Note: I don’t mean forgotten, but positioned in our history, something we remember as and when we choose, as we do, say, the Spanish Inquisition or the destruction of the temple.

I am not a victim; I have received many wonderful gifts, genetic and otherwise, from both my parents. But am I, as Humbert suggests, free? Oh no, I don’t think so. Not yet

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who speaks for British Jews?

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.