Memory, History, and the Legacy of the Holocaust.

by Eva Hoffman






Born July 1, Cracow


Exit into History: A Journey through the New Eastern Europe


Emigrated to Vancouver, Canada


Taught Creative Writing at University of East Anglia, Britain


BA at Rice University, Texas; PhD Harvard (1974)


Shtetl: The History of a Small Town and an Extinguished World


Worked in New York Times dept.


First Novel: The Secret: A Fable for our Time


Publishes Lost in Transation


Biennial Visiting Professor in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.





Out of the Abyss
The author of "Lost in Translation" considers the Holocaust.

Reviewed by Melvin Jules Bukiet
Sunday, February 1, 2004; Page BW12


Memory, History, and the Legacy of the Holocaust

By Eva Hoffman. Public Affairs. 301 pp. $25

History may be the stuff of the past, yet it shapes the present and affects the future. Sometimes the effect is subtle, sometimes overt; sometimes beneficial, sometimes detrimental; sometimes physical, sometimes psychological. In the case of the Holocaust, it's all of the above.

After Jews were liberated from concentration camps or emerged from hiding, the immediate threat to their existence might have been gone, but genocide isn't forgotten once a treaty is signed. Even people who weren't alive during those years don't forget. In her new book, After Such Knowledge, Eva Hoffman investigates the curious phenomenon of the so-called Second Generation, children of survivors who in some intuitive way feel that they "remember" what they never experienced.

Meandering from personal anecdotes to social, cultural and national observations, Hoffman covers the vast terrain of Holocaust recollection within a human "receptacle of a historical legacy." Sometimes she speaks with persuasive intimacy while limning the relations between parents who have endured a world-devouring catastrophe and their offspring who know it vicariously, but frequently she lapses into psychological jargon that tends to obfuscate rather than illuminate her perceptions. According to her, the dynamic inevitably creates "impossible attachments, impossible enmeshments" that can lead to "excessive identification" or "violent counter-identification."

Hoffman is at her keenest when she probes the differences between tragedy and trauma. For example, she points out that the shell shock attributed to veterans of World War I was virtually nonexistent among veterans of World War II. Why? Hoffman suggests that the difference in the veterans' respective experiences was one not of magnitude but of kind. Doughboys who spent years in trenches, swapping inches with enemies, sensed no value in their daily slaughter, whereas Allied soldiers dying in waves at D-Day understood the necessity of their sacrifice. By this principle, the sheer meaninglessness of the Holocaust may have been as intolerable to its victims as their actual pain and suffering.

Elsewhere, the one genuine addition of Hoffman's book to "the most documented event in history" is her description of the secondary problem of the survivors' post-liberation exile from their devastated homelands. Hoffman's family was one of the few that remained at length in Eastern Europe. They left Poland during a resurgence of anti-Semitism in the late 1950s when she was a teenager, so her thoughts about this episode are not inherited but firsthand. "For me," she says, "it was emigration itself that was the seismic quake."

The literal and emotional dislocation of Hoffman's quake was exacerbated by the difficulty many non-European Jews had in facing the exiles' awful fate; later, once movies and memorials to the Holocaust became ubiquitous, this dislocation led them to avoid the Holocaust in a fit of "compassion fatigue." More disturbing, the survivors' individual and communal loss was eventually used by a multitude of causes -- good or bad makes little difference -- that include "cultural agenda[s], or ideological purposes."

Unfortunately, Hoffman seems to have her own agendas. Primary among these -- and the focus of much of her polemic -- is saving Poles from the charge of complicity in the Holocaust. Several times she denies the commonly held belief among survivors that the Germans located death camps in Poland because they could rely on the acquiescence of the local population. She condescends to the survivors who make this claim. By no means does she blame the victims, but she disdains their "shtetl traits" such as "tribal closeness . . . fearful regard for hierarchy and figures of authority, the suspicion of 'others'," barely recognizing that suspicion of others may be a natural response to centuries of the others' suspicion, oppression and blood-letting.

Hoffman's attempt to universalize Jewish loss reaches a pitch when she attends a ceremony at the site of the infamous Jedwabne massacre of several hundred village Jews by their non-Jewish neighbors. There, as the president of Poland didactically "tells us" that the massacre "was a crime not only against Jews but against Polish citizens," Hoffman feels "a sense of salutary relief" and declares that what from this perspective sounds like disingenuous pedantry is "rhetoric that comes close to a kind of poetry." Well, if those words are poetry, it is poetry written by the bleakest ironist imaginable.

Of course, enormous numbers of innocent Poles were killed during World War II. The essential difference that Hoffman simply refuses to see is that Poles were killed because of where they were while Jews were killed because of who they were.

Throughout After Such Knowledge, Hoffman's attempt "to get beyond" the nihilistic realities of history leads her to elide darker, more authentic knowledge and its concomitant emotions, such as rage. Instead, she aims "to unpack the daunting burden of meanings" of the Holocaust or to pry forth the "meanings to be extricated from our legacy" when the harsh truth is that there is no final meaning to the Final Solution. Anyone who imputes it treads perilously close to retroactive justification, or even theodicy. •

Melvin Jules Bukiet is the author or editor of nine books, most recently the story collection "A Faker's Dozen." He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.


January 18, 2004

'After Such Knowledge': A Prisoner of Memory


Memory, History, and the Legacy of the Holocaust.

By Eva Hoffman

In the beginning was the war. That was my childhood theory of origins, akin perhaps to certain childhood theories of sexuality. For me, the world as I knew it and the people in it emerged not from the womb, but from war. The theory was perhaps understandable, for I was born in Poland, in 1945, that is, on the site of the Second World War's greatest ravages; and so soon after the cataclysm as to conflate it with the causes of my own birth.'' So begins Eva Hoffman's extraordinarily cleareyed and unsentimental meditation on how she was indelibly shaped by the memory of catastrophic events she never knew directly.

Hoffman made a remarkable literary debut with her publication in 1989 of ''Lost in Translation,'' an enthralling memoir of her childhood immigration to North America in 1959. Now heralded as a classic reflection on coming-of-age between two cultures, ''Lost in Translation'' was followed by two meditations on Eastern Europe. While engaging as far as they went, neither could match the luminous prose and self-revelatory thoughtfulness of her memoir.

With ''After Such Knowledge,'' Hoffman returns to her own lived experience, not of exile this time, but of her parents' memory of the Holocaust, and how this memory has been passed down to her. Not only has she found again a psychologically attuned, intellectually compelling voice, but she has given this voice to the tangled and conflicted inner lives of a generation of children of Holocaust survivors.

As it turns out, Hoffman is a refreshingly recalcitrant daughter of survivors and so resists the too-convenient label of ''second generation.'' What common experience actually unites the children of Holocaust survivors -- a generation that has grown up in vastly different postwar cultures, in different countries and under very different political systems? She answers, ''The defining event we have in common belongs not to our allotted time on this planet, but to our prehistory.''

Hers is what she calls ''the hinge-generation'' between experience and memory of the Holocaust. As survivors have written of their experiences from memory, their children will write about memory itself. Of course, Hoffman is acutely aware of the potential for self-indulgence and even narcissism in such work. She warns others in her generation against seeing themselves as ''a victim of victims, as damaged by calamities that had been visited on somebody else.''

At the same time, she finds much that is robust and tough-minded in the works of her ''hinge-generation.'' She singles out ''Maus,'' Art Spiegelman's brilliantly interbraided comic-book depiction of his father's remembered survival during the war and the artist-son's own tortured retrieval of this memory. Like ''Maus,'' like the second generation itself, this book -- something between philosophy and memoir, spiritual autobiography and psychotherapeutic analysis -- defies easy categorization.

Hoffman is properly skeptical of the notion that actual trauma can be transmitted across the generations. ''For who, after all, wants to think of oneself as traumatized by one's very parentage, as having drunk victimhood, so to speak, with one's mother's milk?'' What then is being passed down to her generation? Not the violent events, but the condition of the survivors' wounded psyches.

She reminds us here that as paradoxical as it may seem, ''if we insist on fidelity to our childhood knowledge, we may run the risk of being unfaithful to what our parents themselves knew.'' As illustration, she cites how shocked she'd been to discover, several years after her parents' death, just how impressively coherent their stories actually were as captured in video testimony, how informed and rational -- especially when compared with her own childhood memories.

Her reflections on contemporary Germany, Poland and Israel are similarly against the grain and inflected by acute self-awareness. She notes that while the apologies from German children of perpetrators are numerous and welcome, those from the perpetrators themselves are almost nonexistent. Where are their soul-searching testimonies? Here she realizes that her only true historical counterpoints are Germans born after the war, struggling with the same past, yet from an antithetical position. The differences are instructive, of course. Instead of the sometimes excessive identification children of survivors may have with their parents, the defining gesture for German children of former Nazis is of violent counteridentification.

As she resists turning Holocaust survivors or their children into one-dimensional focus groups, she also rejects the notion of an intrinsic national character or permanent psychonational traits. All the same, she can't let go of exploring the two, often fraught and conflicted, sides of her cultural identity as Jew and Pole. Hoffman's observations come with a special poignancy and authority. As a minutely observant child growing up in Cracow, she experienced Poles discovering the calamity of their Jewish neighbors despite their own sufferings, and Jews gradually learning of the extent of Polish devastation.

Hoffman returns to Poland to check the reality of her memory against the reality of the place, to find the family that had sheltered her parents and to understand as deeply as possible what motivated rescuers, as well as what motivated the killers. These first-person reflections are the most affecting parts of her book. On being shown a large indentation in the ground, overgrown and covered by branches, she can hardly believe that this had once been the bunker her father had dug and in which he had hidden during the war.

And then something else dawns on her, an overwhelming sense of relief, when she realizes that her ''parents really did have a portion of life before the horror, and uncontaminated by its knowledge.'' Think of it, to have lived without such knowledge, to have lived blessedly, in effect, before such knowledge.

Similarly, her personal reflections on being ''in the moment'' of public commemorative rituals are intensely revealing. Attending the 60th anniversary of the massacre of Jews by their Polish neighbors in Jedwabne (told devastatingly by Jan Gross in ''Neighbors''), she is beset by self-conscious questions of decorum. How are we supposed to feel, she asks? ''Can we mourn properly for these dead who to most of us are strangers?'' And ''what does Then mean to us, now?''

She is excruciatingly aware of the public significance in every quirky individual response, from a wailing young tourist she encountered earlier at the concentration camp memorial at Majdanek, to the somber crowd at Jedwabne, where Poland's president speaks beautifully, remorsefully. ''Sixty years later,'' she writes, ''and after all that can be done has been done, it may also be time to turn away, gently, to let this go.'' Sometimes, it turns out, memory is also about letting go, about finding a way to return ourselves to the present.

This said, and despite all the received memory in her bones and the constant subliminal expectation of catastrophe such memory has instilled in her, Hoffman is shocked to discover just how ill-prepared she was for witnessing a new catastrophe in medias res. Watching the images of jetliners smashing into the World Trade Center towers on television on Sept. 11, 2001, she suddenly ''understood palpably'' what she ''had until then known only imaginatively: what it is like to have your entire world shaken at its very foundations.'' That she should feel so unprepared for such a catastrophe after so much thinking of past catastrophes is for Hoffman a signal lesson of all this memory-work: that ''after such knowledge,'' there are still no analogies, nothing in the memory of past destructions that help us make sense of new ones. What broke in her and in so many of us, despite its coming ''after such knowledge,'' was that ''veneer of civilization'' that her parents ''had found to be so thin -- and the uncovering of that irrational universe which had roiled so darkly in my childish mind.''

Only in its last pages does this book lose a bit of its vitality and force. In an attempt to summarize her meditations, Hoffman flattens some of their nuance, veiling a little too neatly the scaffolding of paradox on which so much of this wonderful book rests. Rather than being left with the book's talking points, I prefer to recall her profoundly wise concluding questions on the quotidian value such memory has for life: ''How to find richness, authenticity, depth in the temperate zones of ordinary life? How to find sources of significance that do not derive from extremity and to endow with value not only great losses but modest gains?''

James E. Young is the author, most recently, of ''At Memory's Edge'' and the chairman of Judaic and Near Eastern studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.


At arm's length

The daughter of 2 survivors makes a plea for distance in examining the Holocaust

By Peter Hayes. Peter Hayes is a professor of history and the Theodore Z. Weiss professor of Holocaust studies at Northwestern University

 February 8, 2004

After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Legacy of the Holocaust
By Eva Hoffman
Public Affairs, 301 pages, $25

Several years ago, as happens a few times annually, a Northwestern University student dropped out of my course on the history of the Holocaust after receiving a disappointing grade on the midterm exam. We had reviewed her test together and talked about ways she might improve upon it, but I could not see grounds to raise her mark. A few days later, apparently feeling the urge to lash back, she sent me an angry note. Among other things, it pointed out that she was losing nothing by withdrawing from the class. To learn about the Holocaust, she needed no teachers or books, just more conversations with her grandparents, who endured it.

Eva Hoffman, while growing up, had many such conversations with her own parents and overheard many as well. In 1944, the year before she was born, Russian troops freed the couple from years of hiding in attics and forests around the tiny village of their birth near the prewar border between Poland and Soviet Ukraine. The only remnant of their families, indeed perhaps of their town's entire Jewish population, they soon moved to Krakow, then emigrated to Vancouver in 1959, and lived on into the 1990s. Even in the early postwar period, they talked to and in front of Eva about their suffering. If she could not quite relive their fear or pain, either then or later, she knew about both, down to the details of her father's several hair's-breadth escapes from the Germans and their auxiliaries.

Yet her book, which is an elegant and moving "meditation" on being, as it were, related to the Holocaust, is also a gentle retort to those who think or behave as my hurt student did. For Hoffman, personal accounts are not the essence of understanding what Nazi Germany did to the Jews of Europe from 1939 to 1945, but the intellectual and psychological point of departure for doing so. "[T]he Holocaust past," she says, "aside from being a profound personal legacy, is also a task. It demands something from us, an understanding that is larger than just ourselves." And that understanding entails precisely what my student reflexively renounced: detachment from "a sense of the past conveyed to us through the family, or from the formulations and prejudices to which we have reduced the transferred knowledge." Instead, Hoffman calls for viewing the Holocaust "from a perspective different from that of the participants," for apprehending this and other genocides with the aid of an elusive quality that historians seek but popular culture abhors: the right degree of distance. As she warns, "Stand too close to horror, and you get fixation, paralysis, engulfment; stand too far, and you get voyeurism or forgetting. Distance matters."

But distance is a lot to ask of anyone whose life and loved ones Nazism scarred, not least because achieving it seems to entail somehow betraying them. So Hoffman structures her book as a chart of the actual "trajectory" of responses to the Holocaust since 1945, including those of the "second generation" to which she belongs, and maintains that the pattern she discerns has a therapeutic rationale. Two psychological models, in effect, undergird her plea for distance. One stresses the importance of separation from parents as part of becoming an autonomous adult. The other calls to mind the familiar litany of phases humans should pass through in order to come to terms with loss. In place of denial, grieving, acceptance and the like, Hoffman's chapters delineate "stages of understanding" in each survivor's child's encounter with the Holocaust--as family fable, psychic presence, piece of a personal narrative, crucible of morality, artifact of memory, object of historical study, and informer of present action--always insisting that intellectual maturity and mental health depend on advancing through the sequence and ultimately "letting go."

Whether this arresting framework stands up as history or psychology (her stages seem both too neat and too loose, her renditions of them too uneven and digressive, to impress many specialists) is probably less important to Hoffman than what it enables her to say. The most powerful passages come in the early chapters, which affectingly mix autobiography and gleanings from writings by and about children of survivors. Here single sentences transmit worlds of pain:

"Transferred loss, more than transferred memory, is what children of survivors inherit."

"[W]hat most troubles the imagination are scenarios of parental indignity."

"[E]migration confuses the patterns and sequences of family life, and the basic transactions and balances between the generations."

"[I]n our progress to adulthood, most children of survivors were caught on their private see-saws, oscillating between the demands of autonomy and attachment, self-sacrifice and self-interest."

Above all, Hoffman's organization allows her to raise questions in the heart of the book concerning how much memory is good for people, communities and societies, and how much should be expected of them. The problems are not only that too much memory imprisons humans in what Freud famously called "the narcissism of small differences" (see Northern Ireland or Kosovo) and provides ready-made excuses for personal failings, but also that too much memory overloads human capacities for sympathy, producing ritualization among those who want constant recall, "compassion fatigue" among everyone else.

"[H]ypermemory . . . can function as a secondary amnesia," and not only about the real events being commemorated but also about the lapses of our own forebears and the difficulties of others'. It incubates "bad faith," a recurrent phrase in the book, and underpins the continuing irritability of Polish-Jewish relations, a subject that preoccupies Hoffman and on which her comments are subtly explosive. Sometimes, she therefore thinks, memory should simply bow before the enormity of the past and make a grateful exit. Thus, while attending the Polish government's ceremony in 2001 honoring the Jews murdered by Poles in the little village of Jedwabne 60 years earlier, she finds herself unable to say what action on either her or the official representatives' part is "appropriate" or "enough" and so concludes "this is the only thing that can be done: to acknowledge, turn, bend towards the victims rather than away from them. . . . [Then] turn away, gently, to let this go."

What is to be gained today by doing so, she seems to assert in a final chapter, is more than closure, whatever that may be. Distancing brings a kind of freedom, specifically from impulses to identify with or repudiate Israeli policies or to idealize the victimized, which has unanticipated byproducts. Among these, she cites the legitimization of anti-Semitism in large parts of the world and even, in some quarters, of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, as understandable responses to imperial power. "[C]ollective suffering cannot assure collective merit," she points out, on the part of survivors or the Third World.

As those words suggest, Eva Hoffman's unusual life has forged an ironic and contrary temperament. She appreciates the capacity of righteousness not just to blind, but to boomerang. Her deft, sometimes even rhythmic prose is at once modest and challenging, humane and unromantic. If these qualities do not suffice to make her invariably persuasive, they do make her unfailingly worth attending to. An evening or two spent thinking along with her in these pages is time well spent.
I hope my former student will try it.




A life lived in observation

August 16, 2003

Eva Hoffman throws to the future for her latest novel, but her Polish-Jewish past still bears down on its themes, reports Aviva Tuffield.

When Eva Hoffman visits Australia for the first time to appear at this month's Age Melbourne Writers' Festival, she will be watching us. She decided early in life that her role was to be an "observer", and it's a habit, she tells me by phone from her home in north London, she finds hard to give up. Her powers of observation were honed when her Polish-Jewish family emigrated to Canada in 1959, from Communist Poland, to start a new life in a land whose language and culture they did not understand. "Every immigrant," Hoffman has said, "becomes a kind of amateur anthropologist."

In her outstanding memoir, Lost in Translation, Hoffman recounts her experiences of growing up in postwar Poland with Holocaust survivor parents; the shock of being wrenched from her comfortable childhood in Cracow to live in Vancouver, aged 13; and her later emigration to the US to study. Arriving in a new country without command of its language resulted in Hoffman "losing" herself. This was compounded when she and her younger sister were given new first names at school: "Our Polish names didn't refer to us; they were as surely us as our eyes or hands. These new appellations, which we ourselves can't yet pronounce, are not us . . . they make us strangers to ourselves."

Hoffman's memoir details her growing comprehension of the interrelatedness of language and culture, and her realisation that one cannot adequately translate a language without its culture.

Gradually she learnt to recreate herself in English, and adopted the various rituals of American life, especially while attending Rice University in Texas and later completing a PhD at Harvard University. She intricately dissects North American notions of individuality as only an outsider can, comparing them with Polish ones. For Americans: "Identity is the number-one national problem . . . For my Polish friends, an identity, or character, is something one simply has."

Her memoir speaks so eloquently of alienation and exile, but it must have been difficult to write about those experiences. "It was a great struggle to write," Hoffman says, "not so much the sentences, but with my sense that I wasn't entitled to write in English and questioning that I was really talking about a real subject.

"On one level the book had been germinating for years but when the question of the writing itself became less problematic was when I discovered the present tense. Before that I was writing in the past tense, in a continuous narrative style that was not right and then I somehow just hit on the present tense and that absolutely freed me to start writing. It was truer to the experience in a way and to the presentness of all those memories. It freed me to do reflections on my subject - transculturation - rather than tell my story which I did not want to do."

However, in the process of interpreting the condition of exile, Hoffman's life and psyche are placed in full view.

While Hoffman has taught in universities, she eschewed academia. "I was studying literature at a time when literary studies were very static," she says, "and I didn't have the scholarly vocation. I just wanted to be engaged in the world and in an ongoing intellectual debate and I wanted to make ideas accessible and write in a way that would be meaningful to larger audiences."

Deciding that she wanted to be a "New York intellectual", she moved to that city, undertaking freelance journalism and working at The New York Times for 10 years, before giving that up to write full-time.

After Lost in Translation, Hoffman wrote Exit into History, based on her travels across Eastern Europe after the collapse of Communism in 1989. She interviewed people about their experiences of being catapulted into the future, unveiling the human faces behind the forces of history.

Her next book was Shtetl, a nuanced analysis of Polish-Jewish relations over the centuries that complexifies the view of Poles as unremittingly anti-Semitic and uniformly complicit with the Holocaust. "In post-Holocaust memory, Poland holds an exceptional place: that was where most of the world's Jewish population lived before the war, and that was where the extermination of European Jewry took place."

But for Hoffman that depiction involves only a "partial remembering" of events. Some Jews did survive, including her parents, because of the actions of non-Jews. Moreover, two of her relatives died because they were betrayed by a fellow Jew - "a man who, in the hope of ensuring his own survival, led the Germans to a hiding place". Hoffman's work often extrapolates from her own family's experiences regarding the pain of both remembering and forgetting the past.

Hoffman's parents, who lived in a part of the Ukraine that belonged to Poland before the war, survived the Holocaust first by hiding in a forest bunker until it was discovered by some locals, and then by finding refuge with a peasant who hid them for more than a year. "My mother offers a strange picture of the peasant who was effectively their saviour - stingy, nearly mute, a hunchback. His two strapping sons belonged to the Banderowcy - a Fascist group of pro-German partisans. And yet, this glum, seemingly harsh man started showing signs of affection and attachment to my parents and found it hard, when the time came, to part with them." It is such conundrums of human behaviour, and their historical legacies, that Hoffman has devoted a lifetime to studying.

Hoffman has written about the burden of being a child of Holocaust survivors, constantly bowed beneath the weight of her parents' past, and about how their stories continued to seep through to her even when she was older. She only learnt of that betrayal of her aunt and cousin by another Jew while visiting her parents in Vancouver once she was living in New York. Later still, she met a woman who knew her parents from their Ukrainian village before the war who recounted something that she had never heard before: that when her parents had to leave to hide in the forest bunker, her mother, who had had a miscarriage, was so weak she had to be carried for kilometres through the snow on her husband's back. "Another image for me to store, another sharp black bead added to the rest," Hoffman recalls.

I ask her if this burden lightens at all now that her parents have died. "I'm just finishing a book on this very subject, so I don't have a simple answer . . . but it is a burden that we've (second-generation survivors) been given and I don't think that it's right to elude it too easily . . . With my parents no longer alive, it eases in some ways but there is a lot that has been incorporated psychologically in the meantime. I think the goal is to keep some of the responsibility for other human beings but without the intensity of the guilt." Her personal reflections on these issues, After Such Knowledge, will be published next year.

In a lecture Hoffman delivered at Oxford University as part of a series organised for Amnesty International, and recently collected in Human Rights, Human Wrongs (OUP), she speaks about the "post-generation" as a whole. By this she means the children of both the victims and the perpetrators of some of the world's worst atrocities, such as have occurred in South Africa, Rwanda, Bosnia and during the Holocaust. She urges that there be "recognition" and some kind of symbolic justice for the victims. However, she also appeals for post-conflict dialogue so that the legacy of violence is not transported into future generations. "The transmitted memories bear a great weight on the minds of the second generation but they are not ours . . . There is no reason for the inheritors of the victims to derive a kind of referred sense of rightness - which can so easily change to righteousness - from putatively belonging to the right side of history. There is no more reason for this than for collectively blaming the children of aggressors for the sins of their parents."

Hoffman argues that it is harder for the children of perpetrators to come to terms with their inherited past. "Of course, our sympathies are on the victims' side but as I think about the children of perpetrators, they are not themselves the perpetrators and if you're a person of conscience and some sensitivity then to discover that your parents have committed horrible crimes, or the worst crimes in human history, must be an absolutely terrible knowledge to live with. Maybe I say too much in saying it's harder for them, but it just seems to me like a terrible predicament for them: they feel they have to reject and hate their parents."

Hoffman has recently turned to fiction with The Secret, a futuristic tale about a girl, Iris Surrey, growing up with a "special" relationship with her mother, who will not explain to her daughter why she has no father and no contact with any relations. Shortly into the story, we discover that Iris is her mother's clone. The book goes on to examine the epistemological and ethical implications of such a situation, and Iris's struggle to come to terms with her identity, questioning whether she is even "human".

After three successful works of non-fiction, Hoffman "was ready to write fiction . . . and this was a book that really did come to me with a first paragraph and a voice". The subject matter melds perfectly with her long-running interest in identity: "I was fascinated by developments in genetic technology and how they overlapped with my themes about how our selves are shaped."

She says our notions of self are coming under pressure from technological changes such as the internet, artificial intelligence and cloning. "Our awareness of the size of the globe and its four billion people makes it harder for us to maintain our sense of a unique and exceptional individuality."

As with the dystopic visions of Margaret Atwood, there is a gendered dimension to The Secret: in its near-future world, most clones are female. "It seemed to me that the strongest instance of replication was the mother-daughter bond. The mother-daughter bond is already very intense and with male cloning there's still a female carrier, so it was the strongest example."

I suggest to Hoffman that there are a number of autobiographical aspects to her novel. "There are certain issues that I couldn't have touched on while my parents were alive, some of which perhaps I was not so aware of . . . issues of a very bonded and symbiotic relationship early . . . very early . . ." she tails off. "I leave it to you to work out the autobiographical connections."

Since 1992, Hoffman has been happily re-translated to London, where she has found "her midway point between Manhattan and Cracow, and along many cultural coordinates, not just geographically".

She admits that she moved because "there were lines of tension with American culture which I didn't always want to feel . . . tensions along human lines involving the degree of individualism and competitiveness in the US".

She finds Britain less competitive and ego-driven and it's "a hospitable milieu", yet she is still driven to work. She recognised early on that she suffers "from the classic immigrant misconception", which involves being unable to distinguish "between the normal and the strenuous road in life, between moderate and high achievement".

I ask if this need to drive herself has lessened. "Well, there is the perpetual hope, and perhaps to some extent . . . certainly the level of anxiety about the future is much tempered." In the meantime, she continues to observe and comment upon critical historical and cultural issues.





Mar. 11, 2004 11:46

The 'hinge' generation


After Such Knowledge: Where Memory of the Holocaust Ends and History Begins
by Eva Hoffman
Public Affairs
247 pp. $25

The generation of Holocaust survivors is quickly vanishing. Death diminishes their numbers daily. Age has robbed some of their memories and others of their vitality. All too soon, the last eyewitnesses will be no longer, and the Holocaust will be an event of history and no longer one of living experience.

Eva Hoffman is aware of her unique status as part of "the hinge generation, in which received, transferred knowledge of events is transmuted into history, or into myth."

Hoffman's impressive meditation on her life as the daughter of survivors reveals how one sensitive and skilled writer has grappled with the burden of memory. But this is not a work of scholarship. She has read some of the professional literature and she touches on psychology, sociology, literature, and cinema, but the insights she offers are not academic. Her wisdom was acquired through personal struggle, dialogue, and self-reflection. "Only now," she writes, "am I contemplating what had been inchoate, obscure knowledge..."

Hoffman's parents were forced to hide in the Ukraine, spirited away by ordinary peasants - and lucky enough to avoid the brutal life of the camps. Accompanied by her sister, Hoffman travels on a mission to reunite with her parents' saviors - a pilgrimage of gratitude that her parents themselves never undertook.

HOFFMAN HAS taken the requisite journey and, like Abraham as interpreted by Hassidic lore, the journey outward was also a journey inward.

Late in the book she has an epiphany - "the Holocaust cannot be the norm that defines the world." There must be something outside of it. But the more she grapples with the Holocaust, the more her insights defy her understanding. It is the norm that defines her world.

Her insights are intense, wise, and brilliantly expressed. Writing of her father's silence, Hoffman notes "the fragmentariness of speech under the pressure of pain." She writes of the "chaos of emotions from their words rather than any coherent narration," "sounds of nightmares," "idioms of sighs and illness, tears and acute aches." Of her contact with the Germans (not with the perpetrator generation, but with their children and grandchildren) she writes: "We were looking at the same horror from a similar point of view - if from opposite ends of the telescope."

She has much in common with those Germans who are wrestling with their past. In them, she finds kindred souls; the encounter is cathartic and instructive.

"Tragic struggle may entail moral agony, but it leaves the sense of identity and dignity intact."

Hoffman's comments, however interesting, are unconvincing. The major distinction is not between tragedy and trauma, but between tragedy and atrocity. In tragedy what is learned roughly or even remotely balances the price paid for such knowledge. Atrocity offers no such possibility of balance, and thus no inner space in which to bury the event. At most, it leaves those left behind searching amidst the ashes to find some meaning to an event of such magnitude that it defies our understanding. That is why we cannot find closure for the Holocaust, as Hoffman's work so amply demonstrates.

However impressed I was with Hoffman and her writing, I came away from this book with an uneasy feeling. Her knowledge base is not equal to her talent. There are a few factual mistakes that challenge the credibility of a book I was so ready to find convincing. Hitler's statement "Who remembers the Armenians?" was made on the eve of World War II regarding the Poles, not the Jews.

This statement for instance, is one of fact, not interpretation.

Hoffman can also be a bit too sure of herself.

"The uniqueness debate," she writes, "was not very useful except in the competitive politics of trauma, and somehow the very notion of comparison when it comes to events of such horror and scale begins to seem indecent."

And yet the uniqueness debate - how the Holocaust was similar to and differed from other genocides, and how the fate of the Jews was distinct from and comparable with the fate of other victims of the Nazis- did yield significant new research on all the Nazis' victims, resulting in the creation of museums that include the totality of Nazi victims without diminishing the centrality of the Jewish experience. Whether in Jerusalem or Washington, London or Montreal, all persecuted minorities are presented as victims - something that could not have happened before this debate emerged.

Hoffman's words not only convey passion and power; they bestow authority. She has taught us well how to grapple with such knowledge - but perhaps not well enough.

The writer is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute. His latest book is A Promise to Remember: The Holocaust in the Words and Voices of Its Survivors.




After Such Knowledge, by Eva Hoffman

Surviving the Shoah's shadows in silence

By Frances Spalding

31 March 2004

"In the aftermath of atrocity, the weight of history places tremendous pressure on personal story." So Eva Hoffman writes, acknowledging in this "meditation on the aftermath of the Holocaust" that its remaining survivors are nearing the end of their lives, and that our direct link with that heart of darkness will soon be severed. It is a good moment to reflect on her question: how should we think about the Shoah from our lengthening distance?

Difficult truths need to be disentangled from easy pieties. This Hoffman does, with penetrating eloquence, writing from the vantage point of the so-called "second generation": the immediate descendants of Holocaust survivors. She began her meditation in her memoir, Lost in Translation. "The pain of this", she admits there, "is where I come from, and it's useless to try to get away".

In this new book, she revisits her Polish background, the hiding of her parents from the Nazis, and the family's emigration to Canada. What is added is an enlarged comprehension of history. Hoffman draws upon disparate disciplines and forms of literature to probe the issues that haunt her generation. The crux of their difficulty, in her view, is that they have inherited not experience but its shadows. These are especially dark for those who come from Poland, the centre of the catastrophe.

Most concentration camps were on Polish soil. Many second-generation Poles, she tells us, cannot bring themselves to visit their country of origin. One of the difficult truths is that, in some cases, Poles aided the Nazis in their assault on the Jews.

Whereas problems of language were to the fore in Lost in Translation, this book touches movingly on silence. Many descendants of survivors found themselves growing up in silent homes, with parents often vacant or asleep, helpless and hopeless. In others, a cheerful façade left painful things unsaid. There was also the larger silence when, after the initial shock and recognition, the Holocaust disappeared from public discussion. Hoffman has never forgotten her mother's "acid tone" after an encounter with a Canadian acquaintance, who met her allusion to the basic facts with polite incredulity.

This book confirms that there can be no facile positioning on the Holocaust. It has been made to serve many purposes, among them gratifying gestures and abstruse debate. It has been recruited in the service of conservative Israeli politics; it has burgeoned into a cultural phenomenon which is subject, like all such, to trivialisation and distortion.

Today's teenagers access the Holocaust on the web, in curiously affectless prose; which makes one grateful for the mature insight and intelligent feeling woven into this luminous book. If we have reached, as Hoffman suggests, a moment of separation, it is on the condition that we incorporate the memory of the Holocaust into our consciousness of today's world; that we must continue to "confront the knowledge that the Shoah has brought us in perpetuity".


TLS n.º 5286 -- July 23, 2004


David Vital



A meditation on the aftermath of the Holocaust

301 pp. Secker and Warburg ISBN 0 436 20622 6

US: Public Affairs ISBN 1 5864 8046 4


 In her autobiography, Lost in Translation (1989), Eva Hoffman recounted something of how her parents escaped the great slaughter of Polish Jews, and then in greater and often quite fascinating detail, of her own post-war childhood in Poland, the family’s move to Canada, the subsequent pains of adolescence in 50 distant and different a society, and both early and full adulthood to the United States. It is a tale well told, all the more interesting for the straightforward and somewhat ironically self-examining mode adopted. Now, a decade and a half later, she offers a closer look at a topic that was less than fully developed in her earlier book: her complex and at times unhappy relations with her parents. But in After Such Knowledge the story comes nut as a further chapter of autobiography but as a springboard for a view of the condition in which the children and grandchildren of victims and survivors of the Shoah have tended to find themselves as a whole. And not that alone. Her quite particular subject purports to be a more ambitious overview of “the memory, history, and the legacy of the Holocaust” in general.

It is hard to think of many topics that are as demanding — although, to be fair, there are no obvious rules by which a work of this kind can be judged. What can be said with confidence about what has already been written on this matter is that the strongest tendency has been for authors and publishers to pull their punches; and that what marks them must specifically is a reluctance to start from the one truly indispensable point of departure, namely that. so far as the Jews are concerned, National Socialist Germany’s purposes were largely achieved. Hitler’s regime vanished, but continental Europe, from the Atlantic right up to the western borders of the old Soviet Union was successfully cleared of its Jews, some minor pockets of survivors and newcomers excepted. Cleared of the Jews themselves, that is to say, not of their memory — as the gravestones regularly defaced um overturned throughout Europe testify: 127 of them painted over with red swastikas at Herrlisheim in Alsace, a step away from the German border, earlier this year. The ghosts still hover. It is therefore a signal merit of Huffman’s new book that on this central aspect of the endless aftermath of the Shoah, she is never in doubt.

Revisiting Poland a while ago she made ii a point, she tells us, to go beyond paying mandatory attention to what is left of the German slaughterhouses, being hardly less alert to the scenes and occasions of the punishment accorded the remnants of Polish Jewry by their Roman Catholic neighbours, once the war was over and the Germans forced out. The trouble here is that the questions she poses about these miserable affairs, and the terms in which she puts the issues that they necessarily raise, tend to limit and diminish, rather than deepen and enrich her discussion.

Recounting the killing off of what was left of the Jewish population of the Jedwabne townlet by their being crowded unto a barn and set on fire, she asks what the “dynamics” of that horrible business might have been; and from what “sociopsychological soil” it sprang? To what extent, she wonders with quite extraordinary innocence, may it have been “caused — or enabled - by long-standing, home grown anti-Semitism”; or “prompted by the circumstances of the wartime years” as a “species of revenge against the Jews for their supposed support for the Red Army”; or traceable finally to nothing more than a vulgar, local excess of vodka? And generally, “how is it possible”, she asks, “that, after all of our historical experience, after international laws, unexceptionable political ideas, endless debates and diagnoses, we keep doing this to each other?” (To each other?). But, in any case, she offers no answers; and put in this form, these are less questions capable of eliciting real answers than rhetorical cris de coeur.

Hoffman, to be sure, is no sort of Hobbesian –which is what one must be, at least to some extent, if one wishes genuinely to account for the fact that both the former presence and the contemporary absence of the Jews in Poland and elsewhere in Europe continue to constitute a Problem, all these decades after the launching of what so many had hoped and believed would constitute its final solution. It is friends she searches for, nur enemies. Or to put it differently, in so far as she is prepared here and there to tackle the historical it is only lo the limited, sanitized, quasi-clinical form of “psycho-history”. And even then, nut with the actual and immediate victims of the onslaught, namely the dead, nor even the escapees and the other survivors, chiefly lo view. The terms in which she is intent on exploring her immense subject are limited with great severity to the particular, much narrower (which is not to say intrinsically unimportant) group or class or social category of which she herself now stands as a highly conscious member: the children of those who survived.

Deep tensions in families in which the young happened to be born after the War and were therefore free, um so it seemed initially, of the psychological wounds borne by their parents wounds which they, the parents were unwilling um unable to share with their children — have been remarked on and studied clinically by psychiatrists and psychologists for at least forty years. in the past twenty years um so, however, clinical attention has tended to be recast and the matter of inter-generational difficulties promoted, so to speak, by being turned into a specialist sociological and even literary subject on its own account. It is now a recognized sub-section of that ever-expanding, and in some respects always quite deeply problematic branch of Jewish historical studies in which the Shoah is the primary focus. After Such Knowledge is a well-meant contribution to this endeavour; and Hoffman’s account of her own personal experience and that of the other members of the second generation she has chosen to write about is generally shrewd, interesting and valuable. It is when she goes beyond the cameos that, as with her discussion of the “aftermath” as a whole, doubts arise.

The terms in which Hoffman affirms the distinctiveness and specificity of this second (or third) generation — indeed, the essential basis on which she holds them as constituting a clear and definable social category in the first place — are exceedingly exclusive. Features that one would think distinctly crucial to the singling out of /such a group and the formulation of a valid account of the aetiology of its condition, are ignored or dissolved: membership of the Jewish people, for example, tenuous um problematic though it may be in certain cases. A “meditation” (her publishers’ term) on the aftermath of the Shoah in which Jewry and Judaism virtually disappear from view cannot fall to be an oddity. But it helps to explain how Hoffman, led by the strict a priori basis on which she proceeds and the overriding priority she ascribes to her cho­sen category, could be moved to offer her read­ers so extravagant a notion as that the children and grandchildren of the victims of Nazi policy share common ground with the children and grandchildren of those who engineered and executed it.

So perhaps the key to her thinking on all these difficult matters is revealed in a passage that comes towards the end of her book. She is “outraged, astonished, and... angered, by the religious fanaticism and polite prejudice that makes expressions of anti-Jewishness once again possible”. She then goes co to say that it “makes me profoundly sad to think that my generation has not attained full freedom from the constrictions of Jewish history after all”. To all of which one has to search a bit for an appropriate response.

Constrictions? Well, yes, most certainly. Outrage, anger? Entirely understandable (if a certain stoicism in these circumstances is unattainable or unfashionable). But astonishment? That is a puzzle; and it leaves one to wonder whether Eva Hoffman would have been less astonished had she meditated co her chosen subject a while longer.





Wed., October 06, 2004 Tishrei 21, 5765 Israel Time: 11:38 (GMT+2)

From lepers to Brahmins

By Shimon Redlich

In the idealization of the Holocaust survivor, Hoffman cautions, lurks the danger of turning the horrific into the fashionable

Read this article, here                      



The Women's Review of Bookss



Memory and survival

After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Legacy of the Holocaust by Eva Hoffman. New York: Public Affairs, 2004, 301 pp., $25.00 hardcover.

The Jewish Women of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp by Rochelle G. Saidel. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004, 268 pp., $26.95 hardcover.

Reviewed by Rochelle G. Ruthchild

IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE HOLOCAUST, Jews, the People of the Book, have published countless works in an effort to make sense of the crimes perpetrated by those who began by burning books and ended by burning human beings, and of the courage of those who defied Nazi orders and rescued Jews. Both of these books add to our understanding of Hitler's war against the Jews and its aftermath.

Eva Hoffman is one of the most eloquent spokespeople of the second generation, the children of Holocaust survivors. Born in Poland immediately after World War II, Hoffman emigrated with her parents to Vancouver, Canada, in 1959. An accomplished writer and scholar, she has journeyed from the shadows of Poland's killing fields to the heights of the US and western European cultural establishment. She holds a Harvard PhD, has won a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, and served for most of the 1980s as editor of The New York Times Book Review. Now residing in London, she lives the life of a cosmopolitan intellectual, jetting to visiting professorships and lectures in the US and to Holocaust events in Poland and relaxing by working her way through the classical piano repertoire she learned in her youth. In previous books, she explored her childhood and the shock of emigration, the history of a Polish shtetl, and the impact of the fall of Communism in eastern Europe. She has been compared to Primo Levi, whose searing descriptions of his Auschwitz experiences remain among the best of Holocaust memoirs.

In After Such Knowledge, Hoffman reflects on the Holocaust as a particular historical event and contemplates its various meanings in today's world. As she notes, despite common references to the "memory" of the Holocaust, subsequent generations have only indirect knowledge of it, although it irrevocably changed their lives.

Refuting the idea of collective guilt is a central theme of Hoffman's work. This is no doubt directly connected to the experience of her parents, who owed their survival to Christians who risked their lives to harbor them (in German-occupied Poland, where hiding Jews was punishable by death). Hoffman's belief in the courage and decency of ordinary people in the face of the venality, brutality, and racism too often displayed by Christians during the Holocaust serves as a counterpoint to Jan Gross' account of Polish savagery in the village of Jedwabne and Daniel Goldhagen's condemnation of German complicity in Hitler's Willing Executioners (1996).

As Hoffman observes, the "characteristic postwar mood" among survivors was a "mix of carpe diem energy and carpe diem cynicism," resulting in a fixed focus on the present. She devotes a section to the psychology of the survivors and to studies of their post-genocide trauma, which she distinguishes from the "tragedy" of others who experienced the horrors of war. She discusses the concept of the "memorial candle," the one child in each survivor's family chosen as "the instrument of commemoration, devotion, and mourning." And, as she has done in other writing, she emphasizes the significance of the emigration, the "uprooting [that was] an almost intrinsic part of the Holocaust's aftermath."

Hoffman covers a wide range of topics intelligently and well, including her own and others' second generation encounters with Christian Germans and Poles (she's in favor of these, but not as trite group therapy exercises); the replacement of immediate post-war amnesia about the Holocaust with the last decade's "near-obsessive interest"; morality, memory and memorials; survivors as "the Brahmins of the trauma elites"; the Holocaust as "an empty if universal symbol"; and the necessity of "separation and containment--the two great psychoanalytic goods," in coming to terms with "the most difficult of pasts." References to psychoanalysis and its concepts recur, but while her book is intensely personal, Hoffman maintains a certain psychic distance, revealing no specifics about her own encounters with psychoanalysis.

One of the most moving sections of the book recounts Hoffman's visit with her sister to Zalosce, the scene of their parent's Holocaust agony but also of their life before the war. They meet their parent's rescuers, the Hryczkos, now in their 80s, who retain vivid memories of them, and leave Hoffman puzzling about why her parents completely lost contact with their saviors.

Turning to the present, Hoffman condemns the rise of anti-Jewish racism on both the right and the left. Islamists proclaiming a new jihad against the West have adopted the worst canards of European anti-Semitism, making as their holy book The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the old forgery concocted by the Tsarist secret police at the end of the 19th century. It is ironic that this new virulent and deadly strain of the age-old hatred has emerged among people who consider themselves opponents of everything western and Christian. Turning her critical eye leftward, Hoffman also deplores the use of anti-Jewish slogans by some peace activists. She decries equally the militarism and anti-Muslim racism directed against Islam and Islamists in general.

Although Hoffman would probably reject this characterization, part of what made her earlier work stand out in the vast body of Holocaust literature, most of it written by men, was her recounting of her experiences as a girl and a woman. Her sensitivity to the life of the Other, the quintessential mark of the Jew in the diaspora, was deepened by her experience of the otherness of being female, albeit an extraordinarily highly achieving one. In Lost in Translation, for example, she explored emigration from the vantage point of a teenager learning to wear a miniskirt, a girl passing into western sexual objectification from the relatively sheltered Communist East. But in her current book, feminist and gender issues are addressed obliquely, dismissed, or simply not mentioned. Hoffman specifically condemns the feminist motto "the personal is political" as "much too glib," even as she uses her personal experience as the basis of her arguments about the Holocaust. She omits any mention of homosexuality, although gay men and lesbians were sent to the concentration camps; identification with the Holocaust is a prominent theme in the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender world; and the second generation includes some outspoken gays and lesbians.

This is particularly perplexing because in general Hoffman is not shy about wrestling with complex contemporary issues, such as Polish complicity in the Holocaust or the recent genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda. She discusses not only the significance of Israel in the post-Holocaust world, but also Israeli invocation of the Holocaust to justify brutality against the Palestinians.

Ultimately, Hoffman advocates moving on, citing the Jewish tradition of grieving fully for the dead but placing a finite end to mourning. "Perhaps," she argues, "that moment has come, even as we must continue to ponder and confront the knowledge that the Shoah has brought us in perpetuity."

IN CONTRAST TO HOFFMAN, Rochelle G. Saidel focuses on the specifics of the Holocaust, on the forever incomplete work of preserving survivors' accounts. Although the Holocaust is the most documented genocide in history, each survivor's story is unique. Saidel's goal is to make visible a previously ignored aspect of women's Holocaust history: Jewish women's experience at the Ravensbrück concentration camp. Saidel, born in the United States in 1942, represents the generation untouched physically by the Holocaust but deeply identifying with those who experienced its horrors. She is the author of two other Holocaust-related books, one on the politics of the New York City Holocaust Museum and the other on the search for Nazi war criminals in the US.

Saidel first became involved in documenting the history of Ravensbrück after a 1980 visit to East Germany, when she was appalled to learn that, as was the practice in the Soviet bloc, Jews, who had comprised 20 percent of the camp population, were not represented in the various memorials at the site. Ravensbrück, the only Nazi concentration camp exclusively for women, was located 55 miles from Berlin. After the war, the area was part of the Communist German Democratic Republic; since 1990, it has become part of the reunified Germany. Between 1939 and 1945, 132,000 women from 23 countries were held in the camp. Besides Jews, Ravensbrück's population included political prisoners, Jehovah's Witnesses, and so-called "asocials," a category encompassing Gypsies, prostitutes, lesbians, and criminals. As was the practice in other camps, as the liberating armies neared, the relatively healthy, some 11,000, were driven from the camp by the Germans on a forced death march. Few survived. When the Soviet Army entered the camp on April 30, 1945, only 3,000 seriously ill women remained. One thousand were taken to Sweden as a result of an agreement between the Swedish Red Cross, Nazi SS head Heinrich Himmler, and a representative of the Swedish section of the World Jewish Congress.

Saidel has done a remarkable job of tracking down Ravensbrück survivors and recording their life stories. She lists 91 survivors by name as providing testimony used in her book; the total number she interviewed is even higher. Most live in the US, some in Canada and Australia; some remained in Europe and Russia.

Saidel addresses gender-related issues in a short chapter on "Gender and Women's Bodies." While not of the depth of Nehama Tec's pathbreaking Resilience and Courage: Women, Men, and the Holocaust (2003), Saidel's attention to gender strengthens the book and touches on some issues not discussed by Tec. Saidel, like Tec, emphasizes the patriarchal control reflected in the all-male Nazi power structure and in the Jewish councils set up by the Germans in occupied Europe. Women such as Gemma LaGuardia Gluck, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia's sister, and relatives of Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill, survived because of their connection to powerful men; although a few others, like Olga Benário Prestes, deported from Brazil to Germany because her husband was a Communist Party leader, became particular targets because of such connections. Women could pass more easily as Aryans because they did not have the telltale sign of circumcision. But patriarchal assumptions, such as that women were primarily responsible for children, meant that at death camps like Auschwitz, women with children were sent directly to the gas chambers, while men were "saved" to be slave laborers.

Saidel addresses in detail issues of personal hygiene, nudity, and menstruation in the camps. She also discusses subjects about which survivors are reluctant to talk, such as rape and prostitution. Despite the Nazi prohibitions against "race defilement," the situation in the camps, where men wielded absolute power over women, was a natural setting for such abuse. Saidel recounts survivors' stories about drunken SS men roaring into women's barracks on their motorcycles for a rape spree as just one example of this classic violence against women.

Other Holocaust authors have discussed bonding between women and its importance in camp survival, but Saidel is among the very few to address directly the subject of lesbianism in the Nazi camps. She notes that Nazi law declared male homosexuality illegal; the pink triangle was solely for men. Female homosexuality was not mentioned in the Nazi-adopted, Bismarck-era law code criminalizing same sex relations. Lesbians confined to Ravensbrück wore a black triangle as "asocials." Saidel's section on lesbians is brief, as her sources are limited. She acknowledges that survivors' accounts of same-sex relationships are either absent or overwhelmingly negative, reflecting both lesbian invisibility and deep-seated prejudices.

In bringing to light the experiences of the women of Ravensbrück concentration camp, Saidel adds to our knowledge of Jewish survival in the genocidal conditions created by the Nazis. Her account is valuable for its documentation of the Holocaust and serves as a reminder--as we face US brutality against Iraqi prisoners, Al Qaeda beheadings, Sudanese slavery, Israeli assassinations, and Palestinian suicide bombers--of the ease with which humans create the Other and slide so swiftly into cruelty and killing. The Shoah survivors cried "Never Again!" but the human capacity for abuse, murder, and genocide appears never ending.





Memory, History, and the Legacy of the Holocaust.

by Eva Hoffman





'After Such Knowledge'



In our small apartment, it was a chaos of emotion that emerged from my parents' memories. Many others who had grown up in households like mine remember the peculiar form of that speech under the pressure of pain. The memories-no, not memories but emanations-of wartime experiences kept erupting in flashes of imagery, in abrupt, fragmented phrases, in repetitious, broken refrains. Beyond that, and in the lacunae between words, there was that most private and potent of family languages-the language of the body. The past broke through in the sounds of nightmares, the idiom of sighs and illness, of tears and the acute aches that were the legacy of the damp attic and the conditions my parents endured during their hiding. In the midst of her daily round, my mother would suddenly be overcome by a sharp, terrible image, or by tears. On other subjects, she was robustly articulate; but when sudden recall of her loved ones punctured her mind's protective membrane, speech came in frail phrases, in litanies of sorrow.

There were the images she returned to again and again, the dark amulets: how she and my father spent their days in a forest bunker, and how she waited for him, alone, as he went out to forage or plead for food in the night. How they later sat in a peasant's attic for two years, in wet straw, shivering from cold in the winter and from hunger in all seasons. How her sister-this was the heart of grief-had been murdered. She was shot into a mass grave in Zalosce, not far from where my parents were hiding. A witness later told my mother that the Jews rounded up for that particular massacre had to dig the pit into which their bodies were subsequently thrown, sometimes still quivering with remainders of life. She was just nineteen, my mother would say about her sister, and begin to cry.

The episodes, the talismanic litanies, were repeated but never elaborated upon. They remained compressed, packed, sharp. I suppose the unassimilable character of the experiences they referred to was expressed-and passed on-through this form. For it was precisely the indigestibility of these utterances, their fearful weight of densely packed feeling, as much as any specific content, that I took in as a child. The fragmentary phrases lodged themselves in my mind like shards, like the deadly needles I remember from certain fairytales, which pricked your flesh and could never be extracted again.