When (If Ever) Do We Relinquish Memory?

In the beginning was the war. That was my childhood. 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 cause of my own birth.

Even in Cracow, where I grew up and which had escaped physical destruction, traces of war were everywhere visible: in the injured bodies of war veterans; in the orphaned children I met on our street, and whose condition seemed to me the most pitiable; in the pervasive presence and consciousness of death. Everyone I knew had lost relatives, intimates, friends. My parents lost their entire families: their own parents, sisters, brothers, cousins, uncles, and aunts. On the Jewish high holidays, when our small family went to one of Cracow’s old synagogues, we met a community in mourning. The facts of death were so ubiquitous that they seemed both to precede and to supersede the facts of life.

When I was about five, my father took me to Warsaw, a city still lying largely in ruins. We walked along stretches of smooth pavement, but all around us there was stony rubble and skeletal scaffoldings. Metal columns stuck through jagged remains of walls. Window frames gaped, revealing rooms cut in half and filled with debris. Sometimes, the pavement along which we walked gave out as well, and my father and I stumbled as we picked our way across rubble-covered streets. The greyness, the mounds and crumbling hillocks of stone, had an almost lyrical picturesqueness; but the scene was also profoundly, piercingly sad.

Along with the Renaissance architecture of Cracow and the flowering meadows and forests of the Polish countryside, the ruined cities were part of my primal landscape—as, through films and photographs, they became part of my generation’s primal iconography. Some of us grew up in or near ruined cities, some of us knew them only through tale and imagery. But all of us born in those first years came into a torn, ravaged world. It is no wonder that so many postwar artists have found fascination in abandoned sites, decayed structures, rust, rubble, peeling paint; the signs and traces of destruction. And it is no wonder that so many have been tempted to see in such subjects a kind of melancholy beauty.

War penetrated the very fabric of my childhood. It interwove itself into other, more sunny sensations with a somber poetry of its own. But it was also the heavy ground of being, the natural condition to which the world tended, and could at any moment revert. Everything else was a precarious aftermath, or maybe an interregnum. In retrospect, I can see that I spent much of my childhood waiting for the war. Waiting for it to manifest itself again, to emerge from where it lurked with its violent, ravaging claws. Waiting for danger and destruction, which were the fundamental human condition, to trample the fragile coverlet of peace. I kept anticipating, with a fearful anxiety I took as normal, the death of my parents. After all, every one of the adults who had once formed our family group, and to whom my parents so often referred, was dead. Life itself, for children born into families like mine, could seem a tenuous condition, a buffeted island in the infinite ocean of death. The Holocaust was not yet distinguished from “war” in anyone’s mind; but the intimations of mortality that followed from it were part of my earliest perceptions of the world as I transformed the felt traces of a historical event into a kind of story about the basic elements and shape of the world, a childish mythos or fable.

Born in Poland to Jewish parents who survived the Holocaust, Eva Hoffman is the author of Lost in Translation, Shtetl, and Exit into History. Her most recent book, After Such Knowledge, deals with the second generation—children of Holocaust survivors—and how they inherit their parents’ Holocaust memories and experiences. Hoffman, in honor of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) at the Taube Center for Jewish Life at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco, spoke by phone to Carolyn Slutsky, an American journalist now living in Crakow, Poland.

CS: How do you think about the connection between Jewish identity and the Holocaust today?

EH: It’s a terribly complex issue. We’ve gone through a period of fixation on the Holocaust, all on the notion of remembering. I think that carries some risks because we can substitute ritual gestures and formulae of remembrance for really thinking about the Holocaust. There are certain dangers. I think the Holocaust has been this enormous history-altering event, but it can’t be a foundation for identity. We are at an increasing distance from the Holocaust, so how do we think about it now, 60 years later? In a sense we mustn’t deceive ourselves that we’re in the direct lineage of this event and that we don’t have to make efforts to understand it. We don’t receive it as an inheritance; we need to make the effort. After a period of latency and obliviousness, the consciousness of the Holocaust and efforts to honor it have been very important, a solace to survivors who felt their experiences had been greeted with indifference in earlier decades. Ail together we need to process our relationship to this event, which has changed history and Jewish history, and which continues in the suffering of its victims.

Initially there was this period when in broader public consciousness it was an unspoken subject. Of course the way that it’s been considered has differed from country to country. In Poland, issues of public consciousness have been possible only since ’89; elsewhere there was a tremendous shift from public silence to public awareness and vicarious fascination. The public consciousness has been important, we need to recognize it’s important for the victims to have recognition of the atrocities. The only thing I have more ambivalent feelings about is this kind of false relationship with the Holocaust we have, a sense of moral entitlement.

CS: Is there a different way men and women deal with memory, specifically Holocaust memory?

EH: My first intuition is to say no, there isn’t. In my family there was a division which may have been seen as a gender division: my mother remembered the moments of great suffering, my father remembered the moments of great adventure, when he was escaping the Germans, which he did brilliantly. Perhaps there are more daughters who remain in a very close, protective relationship with their parents, though I’ve known men like that as well. Women have a sense of personal obligation and solacing their parents, [being responsible for] their parents’ well-being.

CS: You speak of women’s obligations. Do you see yourself as a woman writer?

EH: The short answer is no. In a sense I’m a good example of how identities are not writ in stone. I started by writing about immigration, and that was my main identity, that was the problem of my life. I came to questions of Jewishness, which were very powerful, later, and I’ve come to questions of gender later still. Different problems were [in the foreground] at different times; you write out of what nags at you, out of what was a problem.

CS: You have written about different aspects of your own life in each book. How did you choose what to reflect on in this one?

EH: I was combining a chronology of the second generation with more abstract issues. This last book was very difficult to structure, because I was combining a thread of personal narrative—which I felt I needed to show the more subjective processes involved in all this—with a broader historical context. At some point the writing starts talking back to you.