Notes on: Ellis C .& Rawicki, J (2014) More than Mazel. Luck and Agency in Surviving the Holocaust. Journal of Loss and Trauma 19 (99--110). DOI: 10.1080/15325024.2012.738574

Dave Harris

This is a very interesting piece to compare with the 2006 article, because again it involved stories of survivors of tragedies, in this case the Holocaust. Interestingly, personal accounts are in conflict with academic accounts of the factors that led to survival, but Ellis and Rawicki are much less inclined to dismiss the academic accounts, even though they seem to offer classic analytic realism. [NB Rawicki is the 'Jerry' in the text, Ellis writes the piec in the first person singular] The problem is that the survivors interviewed tend to attribute their survival to factors based on 'luck', while Ellis is much more interested in what might be seen as background variables, of the kind associated with classic sociological analysis of samples of survivors. The abstract says that the conclusion merely attempts 'considering both positions in compassionate collaborative research' (99) but there are clearly familiar tensions.

In more detail, a survivor, Jerry is quoted as saying that he '"survived because of luck, pure and simple"', while Ellis wonders 'what lies beneath that statement'. In the early work, statements by survivors were taken as straightforward expressions with nothing lying beneath them. The particular survivor is part of a sample of 45 others, and the researchers used 'the process of collaborative witnessing in which we freely exchange ideas and work back and forth over an extended period to write and explore concrete stories of [their] experiences' (100). However they also wanted to explore 'the broader literature… Connecting it to Jerry's stories'. In particular, there are 'possible consequences regarding the lack as the sole explanation of survival'. Jerry's own account represents a different understanding, and must be considered in 'compassionate collaborative research'. Jerry is by no means a simple survivor, however because he has written a novel, several stories, and even 'scholarly essays and stories' (101).

Ellis says that in response to Jerry's assertion on the centrality of luck, 'there may be more'. Jerry picks out some examples of chance events in other people's stories, but Ellis is still convinced that 'other factors may have worked together with luck. That is what I'm interested in' (102). Luck avoids further explanation of experiences and 'limits our understanding of how survival took place'. It is not at all clear who she means when she says our understanding — maybe academics who have analysed survival. The point is that it is not just the personal understandings and emotions of the survivors that seem to be at stake.
 Jerry tries to persist and 'seems adamant about his position, even while he acknowledges my logic' (103) which makes Ellis wonder why it is so important to see luck 'as the all-encompassing explanation for survival'. This is an example of classic academic violence, of course. She specifies other factors including how fast people can run or how quickly they size up situations. Jerry persists that it was only luck. Ellis advances a quotation attributed to Thomas Jefferson that hard work seems to increase luck, and 'a Roman philosopher' who agrees that preparation is needed to meet opportunities. Again Jerry denies that he was better prepared. He worries that the stories might make him look like a hero and distract attention from those who died. He doesn't not want to claim any exceptional skill, or divine intervention for that matter.

Ellis cannot forget 'Kushner's admonition... that to do justice to the richness and complexity of the Holocaust we must pay attention to ordinary people's constructions of their lives', and asks herself why she wants to 'expand Jerry's point of view'. The answer is that she is 'committed as a scholar to explore the complexity of survivors memories' and wants 'to advance a more complex understanding of survival'. She realises that this risks 'invalidating the perceptions and memories of survivors' (104) and offers some multidimensional account where 'luck and agency can go hand-in-hand'.

She explores more detail of Jerry's memories. Again he resists claiming any agency, although the stories he told showed that physical health ability was important, as were linguistic talents and quick responses, including being able 'to read others correctly… [And] to act in a way that others read him in ways he intended' There are some brilliant examples of Jerry's resourcefulness, including pretending to share the anti-Semitism of Germans. His cautious skill depends on what Ellis calls '"ethnographic sensibilities"', while he calls them '"being circumspect and pragmatic"'. He acknowledges that others had helped save him. However, he denies that his actions were planned and concludes that luck was the main factor, even affecting any agentive qualities he might have had. There is a particularly interesting story summarised demonstrating this pages 106 –7, where an accident of recognition saved the day. Ellis says this is 'convincing, but also quotes another story involving considerable skill in being able to blend in with crowds, and maintaining his nerve and courage.

She went back to some of the literature about luck and survival and realised that 'Jerry's explanation fits with the canonical response of survivors' (108). That includes the accounts by Levi, and a host of others cited on p 108. She agrees that 'good fortune' was clearly involved, but suggest that luck is really 'a moral explanation' negating the idea of any superiority among survivors, a form of '"narrative humbling" — "a humbling before the dead"', avoiding any form of blame directed at victims.

This leaves Ellis with a dilemma. She does not want to downplay these accounts, or evaluate them, or imply that there was any superiority attached to survivors, but 'at the same time, I do want to consider some of the factors that may have intersected with luck' (109), insisting that this would not in any way divert from the enormity of the crimes. We should not be 'fearful to unpack "luck' and would miss aspects of the story including 'kindness, altruism, and organisation. We have to offer explanations like this to defeat the view that 'the Holocaust is mystical, unexplainable, unspeakable and beyond human reason' (109).
Some survivors even argued that '"the worst survived, the selfish, the violent… the collaborators"' [quoting Levi], and Ellis finally tackles the difficult issue of 'survivor guilt'. Levi has certainly said that some of those who survived stole from their own companions, for example. An insistence on luck would be 'a way not to condemn or judge those who survived as well as a way not to judge or condemn those who died'.

Other researchers have specified other factors, and they are summarised at length on page 110. Here, classic academic analysis seems to be valued [one at least involved a questionnaire]  Factors include various cultural conditions and resources as well as personal characteristics. There were national and geographical differences, as well as 'municipal – level factors' including the loyalties of local policeman and population. All this provided different experiences depending on context — '90% of the Jewish population were killed in Poland and Germany, while 20% were killed in Italy'. The existence of '"informal communities" (111) also seemed important, not least in providing information and a 'survival ideology of living in the moment'. Here, Ellis draws on memoirs of survivors.

Still others have talked about personal and social factors which can be 'separated into internal and external and into agentic and non-agentic categories' — age, gender, factors like determination and intelligence health skill and knowledge. Survivors sometimes give more credit to these external factors which include luck, while some did not offer an explanation for survival at all. Age was important so that 'the death rate for Jewish children was close to 90%, while it was about 67% for adults', demonstrating 'a curvilinear effect on survival'. Looking and sounding Arian also 'significantly increased survival chances' [citing another study]. Gender had  effects — male Jews who had been circumcised were more easily detected, and more often to be chosen for slave labour or death camps, while women were more able to participate in informal communities. However, women also suffered sexual violence and were sometimes singled out for execution 'as a way to prevent future generations from being born' (112).

Financial resources helped survival, for example by purchasing false documents or bribing guards. Occupational skills were helpful in survival if they were needed by the Germans, and they also were sometimes woven more into social networks. Physical health, especially when contrasted to the variety of work required was also important. Psychological profiles have also been identified, and factors here include 'realism — which means realistically assessing the situation and environment — presence of mind and the ability to make decisions instantly, and an absolute determination to live'. Other factors include 'perseverance, initiative and ingenuity… Optimism', while Lyndon specifically argues that 'survival was primarily a social process, with people depending on each other for life itself (112). Sometimes 'mental mechanisms of defence were important… Estrangement from self, psychic splits, and blocking mechanisms' survivors use various languages and mention resources or resilience, but the main focus appears to be on 'adaptive behaviours'.

Some survivors concede that these other factors might have been important — Levi for example, who seemed to refer to what looks like cultural capital, as opposed to the everyday familiarity with work that workers and peasants had.. Nevertheless Levy says that culture saved him, especially as ability to make links with the past and construct imagined academic accounts. There are also those who stress spiritual escapes. All of these mention 'the importance of "meaning making" (113). [Some used a questionnaire].

Of course we can only work with how survivors remember and tell their stories 'and [how] social scientist interpret it'. Both are going to be partial. On meeting Jerry to summarise what she had found, she asks whether or not his life was made meaningful. He says that he didn't really think much about meaning in those days. Ellis explains that '"meaning" is how social scientists and historians think and talk, not how survivors do — unless they are academics'. So she asked a different question — whether or not he thought of death. Jerry's answer reminded her of a passage in Levi. Jerry adds 'holding back tears' that they were too many other things to think about.

Suddenly Ellis can 'experience a new level of understanding' some empathy with the young boy. She can feel the emotion. She also has visual images 'from viewing Holocaust movies, documentaries, and photos'. She realises she might have been insensitive, that Gerry would have found it hard to maintain a sense of agency [certainly not in the fully entitled American sense]. He clearly realise that the skills he possessed did not save others, and that whatever they did, they faced random death. Surviving left him little time to think, so it's not surprising that he saw chance as the best explanation. She realises how difficult it is with him, and understands his preferences to opt for luck — so she 'more fully understands Jerry's position now than when I began this research' (115).

However she is still unwilling to subscribe to luck as the main factor, partly because this would reinforce the stereotype of Jews as passive and incapable, denying the forms of resistance that occurred. Jerry wants to honour all those who resisted in whatever way they could. However he still does not want to claim agency. Both try to understand the other's stance. He realises that social scientists '"have to take a holistic and analytic view"', but he insists on his own experience. Jerry 'hears the cries of his dead relatives', while Ellis can 'hear the voices of research scholars, and I want to offer them complex explanations using the vocabulary we share, such as meaning making and agency. Our positions resist simplification' but indicate instead complexity. There seems to be no anxieties about social science being too 'aloof' or oppressive.

She wants to honour and celebrate Jerry, but his 'explanation of luck seemed to camouflage so many important details' [She has decided whjat is important]. She must accept that Jerry does not want to be a hero, but he is also not any more cowardly and unscrupulous than others.

Note 3 addresses an obvious problem, that the participants might be using the word 'luck' differently. There are different meanings with different stresses — some emphasise the power of an outside force rather than chance. There is a problem of 'conflation of categories in various studies'. There are differences 'in philosophical usage' so that fate refers to inevitable events, good fortune something good happens to you, and luck 'something that happens to you against the odds'. (116). Chance is more impersonal, and carries no obligation to be grateful. Other meanings can be differentiated. For Jerry, mystical happenings are mentioned, but primarily he calls on 'luck and chance', with no sense of an outside power choosing him: other survivors find themselves having to answer why God might have saved one and not another. Ellis is not just working with how the participant defines things then.

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