Ahead of the September release of her fifth book, “Survivor Cafe," best-selling author Elizabeth Rosner will visit the central branch of the Schenectady County Library.
The Berkeley, California resident grew up in Niskayuna. Her parents both survived the Holocaust, and upon her return from her third trip to Buchenwald, the concentration camp her father, Carl Rosner, survived, her editor urged her to stop working on another novel to write "Survivor Cafe."
The book explores historic trauma and its aftermath, as experienced by subsequent generations. It is Rosner and her family’s personal story of surviving the Holocaust alongside other historic atrocities, like the Cambodian Killing Fields and the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“There was this sense that you’ve got to write this book now, while the survivors are still among us,” said Rosner. “That was the motivation to work deeply but rapidly because we’re at this historical threshold. The firsthand witnesses ... are passing away, so my question throughout the book is: how do we all take responsibility for keeping that history known? I wanted my father to hold this book in his hands.”
While the sense of urgency caused her to finish the book in two years, a relatively short time for Rosner, she writes in the book’s preface that she has been working on it all of her life, drawing on autobiographical material for her fiction and poetry. For this work of nonfiction, she conducted and incorporated research into science, sociology and the history of genocide and the intergenerational aftermath of violence and atrocity.
Elizabeth Rosner, left, and her father Carl Rosner with her new book, "Survivor Cafe." (Photos provided)
“I understood much more deeply how many different historical events reverberated over time and how much we have in common,” Rosner said. She also had to force herself to limit the scope of the book and her study.
“When writing a novel, there’s a pretty clear place where the story closes and comes to a resting place,” Rosner said. “I had to force myself to stop searching for parallels.”
Her research included many interviews, including some with Pulitzer Prize-winning author and chair of the English department at University of Southern California Viet Thanh Nguyen. He came to the United States in 1975 as a refugee from Vietnam.
“I learned a tremendous amount from him,” Rosner said. “He wrestled with the same questions about history and identity and belonging and alienation and how you’re perceived by others and when do you get to be the owner of your own story.”
Nguyen read Rosner’s book and called it “breathtaking.”
In addition to traveling to Buchenwald in 2015, Rosner made two other trips to the former concentration camp — the first with her father in 1983. It was a trip she called “harrowing,” but also one that “opened a doorway into recognizing something needed to be transmitted.”
Then in 1995, Rosner returned with her father, mother and two siblings for the 50th anniversary of the camp's liberation.
During the third and most recent trip, her nephew accompanied Rosner and her father and was fascinated by the way the descendents of survivors and descendents of the Nazis interacted.
“This third generation, were taking on a kind of shared legacy and representing a way of history they recognize binds them together. The obligation to remember is shared,” Rosner said. That shared legacy is not necessarily to be construed as some kind of “time heals all wounds” scenario.
“Healing is not simplistic,” said Rosner. “It’s extremely nuanced. Perpetrators need to see, hear and absorb the consequences. Healing can take generations and a form of healing can be acknowledging that something can’t be healed. It’s a process, not an outcome.”
A scan of Carl Rosner's file card from Buchenwald.
It is not just in history that inhumanity appears. Schenectady County Library director Karen Bradley called the book timely, considering recent white supremacist rallies and the seeming proliferation of hate and violence in our time and in our own country.
“The United States in its own history hasn’t really adequately addressed our history of violence and dehumanization,” Rosner said, referring to treatment of Native Americans, the keeping of slaves and the abuse of immigrants. “We’re seeing that the aftermath continues, and if you don’t name it and look at it directly, face the painful truth of cause and effect, the aftermath gets worse.”
Rosner said there is hope, and by pursuing historic truth, speaking and listening, we can work through trauma and violence.
“I would love if my readers feel inspired to learn more about their individual family stories and recognize the individual and collective responsibility to history,” Rosner said. “What do we all need do to address it together to transform the future?”
Elizabeth Rosner will be in the McChesney Room at the Central Branch of the Schenectady County Library at 6:30 p.m. Thursday. To pre-order a copy of “Survivor Cafe,” call the Open Door Bookstore, 518-346-2719. For more information about Rosner’s visit, call the library at 518-388-4511.