After Such Knowledge, by Eva Hoffman

Surviving the Shoah's shadows in silence
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The Independent Culture

"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".