Memory, History, and the Legacy of the Holocaust.

by Eva Hoffman

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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

"After Such Knowledge: Memory, History and the Legacy of the Holocaust" by Eva Hoffman, Secker Warburg, 301 pages, $25

In his office, Major General Eliezer Shkedi hung a photograph that he brought with him when he took over as the new commander of the Israel Air Force: a fly-by salute by three Israeli F-15 warplanes over Auschwitz. In an interview with journalist Alex Fishman, Shkedi explained: "My father's stories, not even the verbal ones, consciously and unconsciously influenced what happened to me over the years." Shkedi placed great emphasis on the existential threats Israel faces and the need to thwart them. This, then, is the lesson of the Holocaust that was internalized by a survivor's son, who rose through the ranks of the Israel Defense Forces to a very senior position.

Eva Hoffman's new book presents reflections and attitudes that are related to the fact that she is the daughter of survivors from Poland who immigrated to Canada. The personal and cultural worlds of Hoffman and Shkedi are very different, but at the same time, the Holocaust experience of their parents largely shaped their identities, albeit in different ways. Despite the criticism that is sometimes voiced about the use of the term "second generation," it has gradually entered into widespread use since the 1980s and has been discussed in numerous studies, mainly in the realms of psychology and literature. Hoffman proposes that we refer to the second generation as such as an "imagined community," which is characterized by a common system of symbols and meanings deriving from the Holocaust past of their parents.

The author was born in 1945, in Krakow, to parents who came from a town in eastern Galicia. Their entire families were slaughtered in the town and they themselves survived with the help of Poles and Ukrainians. For years, Hoffman, like many members of the second generation, suppressed the Holocaust as a conscious and formative experience of her life. It was only while writing her first book, "Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language," in the late 1980s, that she took notice of this aspect of her existence. In time, she began to examine her family's specific story within broader historical contexts. Indeed, nearly all her books deal with those contexts in one way or another. Her book "Shtetl" traces the history of Polish Jewry through the annals of one particular town.

In her present book, Hoffman emphasizes the need to locate the intimate family stories relating to the Holocaust within a historical framework and not only contemplate the fates of the near and dear, but also to consider the nature of comprehensive developments and structures that fashioned those fates. Thus, in her opinion, if we want to understand the Holocaust better, we need to study not only the history of anti-Semitism but also the patterns of religious and ethnic hostility in general, and the causes of violence between neighbors. Her book, for example, devotes a relatively large amount of space to her reactions and reflections in the wake of the uncovering of the Jedwabne episode, involving the murder of Jews in a town by their Polish neighbors.

Return to origins

The desire to remember the family past, especially the period of the war and the Holocaust, is reflected in the phenomenon of returning to one's place of origin. The collapse of the communist regimes across Eastern Europe made possible a heightened physical and mental return to concrete sites, which until then may have seemed to be on the dark side of the moon. I myself underwent this experience, returning after many years to the town of my birth, which lies not far from the birthplace of Hoffman's parents.

Hoffman is not enthusiastic about the organized and stylized mass returns such as the "March of the Living." She prefers the private, intimate return within the family framework. Indeed, she herself recently went on such a journey with her younger sister. In her parents' town, southeast of Lvov, she meets aged men and women who remember her parents and their families well, among them members of a family that helped her parents. In the wake of their recall of "those days," the author becomes more sensitive to those "others" who once formed the close surroundings of her parents. In her view, despite the formal acknowledgment of "righteous gentiles" and the few studies in this sphere, we lack sufficient insight into the acts of rescue. As Jews, the ultimate victims of the Nazi evil, we are incapable of standing in the shoes of those Polish and Ukrainian neighbors.

Hoffman devotes a major place to the attitude of the second generation toward their survivor-parents. She remembers vividly her own childhood years in Krakow, which she described at length in her first book. She was especially impressed by the tenacious clinging to life demonstrated by her parents and by other survivors in the immediate postwar years. Talk about the Holocaust was confined to the close circle of survivor friends. The story was transmitted to the children in the form of fragmentary flashes, in what Hoffman terms the "family language," more rich and more cruel than the official external language.

Hoffman draws a distinction between the direct memory of the Holocaust on the part of adults who are capable of situating the traumatic past on the time continuum that preceded the war, in the normal years - whose events they are capable of understanding - and the second generation, the children, who lack conceptual ability and for whom the Holocaust is largely a frightening legend accompanied by emotional power.

`Holocaust heroes'

As for the public status of Holocaust survivors (which became increasingly and concretely clear to me, as a survivor, during my life in Israel), they were transformed from lepers into Brahmins, in the author's terms. With time, those whose wartime past had been almost totally ignored became "Holocaust heroes." However, within that idealization of the survivor, Hoffman cautions, lurks the danger of turning the horrific into the fashionable. In my opinion, this phenomenon is particularly visible in American society, which tends to superlatives and exaggerations.

A different type of perception and insight touches on the losses that were caused in the wake of the postwar mass migration. The consequences of this phenomenon for the lives of the survivors and the second generation have not been sufficiently discussed, Hoffman says. In comparison to the events of the Holocaust, the geographic and cultural transition which followed it is perceived as being of secondary significance. The new beginnings, whether in North America or Israel, were usually considered positive and characterized by hope. In fact, the author argues, these processes were accompanied by loss of landscape, language and culture. She described this dimension cogently in her first book, which she divided into three sections: paradise (the happy childhood years in Krakow after the war), exile (the first years in distant and foreign Canada), and the new world (in which the Jewish-Polish girl constructs her new identity and situates it in the Anglo-American language, literature and culture).

Hoffman's life and her intellectual and cultural existence completed a certain circle when she moved to London, closer to her old homeland. Her ties and contacts with Poland became more intensive than they had been. She feels a closeness and empathy for Israel, but is not sufficiently knowledgeable about life in this country. In Israel, she writes, the total separation between Diaspora history and Israeli national history, and the fact that large sections of the population do not share the Holocaust past, means that the Holocaust could not become a cornerstone of the national myth. Yet anyone who is acquainted with day-to-day life in Israel knows that the very opposite is true.

In the introduction Hoffman describes her book as an extensive essay on the Holocaust, in which her personal history and that of her family are examined within a broad context of reading and writing about the Holocaust. The discussion is based on historical, psychological and literary approaches. The book is an attempt to observe the traumatic past of the Holocaust from both private and general angles alike. Even though it is spread over too many spheres, it merits perusal by everyone who is interested in the Holocaust and its consequences.