After Such Knowledge

Memory, History, and the Legacy of the Holocaust

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As the Holocaust recedes in time, the guardianship of its legacy is being passed on from its survivors and witnesses to the next generation. How should they, in turn, convey its knowledge to others? What are the effects of a traumatic past on its inheritors? And what are the second-generation’s responsibilities to its received memories?

In this meditation on the long aftermath of atrocity, Eva Hoffman — a child of Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust with the help of neighbors, but whose entire families perished — probes these questions through personal reflections, and through broader explorations of the historical, psychological, and moral implications of the second-generation experience. She examines the subterranean processes through which private memories of suffering are transmitted, and the more willful stratagems of collective memory. She traces the “second generation’s” trajectory from childhood intimations of horror, through its struggles between allegiance and autonomy, and its complex transactions with children of perpetrators. As she guides us through the poignant juncture at which living memory must be relinquished, she asks what insights can be carried from the past to the newly problematic present, and urges us to transform potent family stories into a fully informed understanding of a forbidding history.


Praise For After Such Knowledge
"[An] extraordinarily clear-eyed and unsentimental meditation . . . Not only has [Hoffman] 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."
—New York Times Book Review
"An ambitious book that seeks to bring together . . . both the psychocultural and sociopolitical aspects of [the Holocaust] . . . deeply felt and effectively conveyed experiences and insightful analysis."
Los Angeles Times
"[A] ferocious meditation . . . masterly essays on ethics and political science . . . [Hoffman] has smart things to say about eroticism and cruelty in the camps, hysterical blindness among Cambodian refugees, Zygmunt Bauman and 'the production of distance,' W.G. Sebald and Binjamin Wilkomirski, Zionism and Armenians."
"[Eva Hoffman is] the wisest and most sensitive writer about the Polish background to the Shoah . . . [a] wonderful memoir."
Financial Times
"This dazzling blend of the personal and the political, unsettling sentiment and unyielding cultural examination marks Hoffman's book—and her earlier work—as groundbreaking . . . One of the profound pleasures of Hoffman's work, and After Such Knowledge in particular, is her ability to carefully stake out new, intellectually risky ground."
Publishers Weekly
"Hoffman believes in supplanting moral passion with moral thought, which means incorporating memory into our consciousness of the world. Her graceful and honorific book is the sincere expression of that belief."
The Guardian [UK]
"An elegant and moving 'meditation' on being . . . related to the Holocaust . . . [Hoffman's] deft, sometimes even rhythmic prose is at once modest and challenging, humane and unromantic . . . An evening or two spent thinking along with her in these pages is time well spent."
Chicago Tribune
"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 relationships between parents who have endured a world-devouring catastrophe and their offspring who know it vicariously . . . Hoffman is at her keenest when she probes the difference between tragedy and trauma."
Washington Post Book World
"Superb . . . Hoffman is both an excellent writer . . . and a deep thinker."
The Houston Jewish Herald-Voice
"[An] impressive meditation . . . [Hoffman's] insights are intense, wise, and brilliantly expressed . . . [her] words not only convey passion and power; they bestow authority."
Jerusalem Post
"Hoffman makes an experienced guide . . . the book covers an impressive array of topics . . . her discussion of the troubled, often-overshadowed relationship between Jews and Poles is intriguing."
The Forward
"Refreshingly clear-eyed . . . Hoffman asks many questions, bringing a voice of reason to the irrational, reaching out for reconciliation."
Sunday Times (UK)
"Thoughtful . . . Hoffman, the daughter of survivors, asks meaningful questions about the nature of memory as the distance to the events of the Holocaust stretches on."
Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles
"Hoffman's use of language, her depth of feeling, the profundity of her perceptions, astound. She has read widely and effortlessly weaves histories, psychological studies and memoirs into her own writing. She is at once hard-minded and tenderhearted, poet and dialectician . . . After Such Knowledge is a powerful and important book to be read with love and remembered with pain."
"Literate . . . essays on the world—intellectual, cultural, and emotional—of the Holocaust's 'second generation.' . . . A commendable contribution."
Kirkus Reviews

Eva Hoffman was born in Cracow, Poland, and emigrated to the United States at the age of thirteen. She is the author of three highly acclaimed works of nonfiction, Lost in Translation, Exit into History, and Shtetl, and one novel, The Secret. She divides her time between London and Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she is a visiting professor at MIT.

To my sister Alina, fellow inheritor of the legacy.
Rafael (Felek) Scharf,
who knew how to transmit knowledge.

And so, after all, the Holocaust.
Sixty years after the Holocaust took place, our reckoning with this defining event is far from over. Indeed, as this immense catastrophe recedes from us in time, our preoccupation with it seems only to increase. We are ever more intent to penetrate its dark lessons, to excavate every datum concerning its origins and execution, to try to rectify, however belatedly, some of its injustices.
At the same time, even as our fascination intensifies, we inevitably contemplate the Shoah from an ever-growing distance—temporal, geographical, cultural—with all the risks of simplification implicit in such remoteness. It has become routine to speak of the "memory" of the Holocaust and to give this putative faculty privileged status; but most of us, of course, do not have memories of the Shoah, nor, often, sufficient means for apprehending that event. How should we, then, from our distance, apprehend it? What meanings does the Holocaust hold for us today—and how are we going to pass on those meanings to subsequent generations?
I had grown up with a consciousness of the Shoah from the beginning. My parents had emerged from its crucible shortly before my birth. They had survived, in what was then the Polish part of the Ukraine, with the help of Polish and Ukrainian neighbors; but their entire families perished. Those were the inescapable facts—the inescapable knowledge—I had come into. But the knowledge had not always been equally active, nor did I always want to make the inheritance defining.
Indeed, it was not until I started writing about it in my first book, Lost in Translation, that I began discerning, amidst other threads, the Holocaust strand of my history. I had carried this part of my psychic past within me all my life; but it was only now, as I began pondering it from a longer distance and through the clarifying process of writing, that what had been an inchoate, obscure knowledge appeared to me as a powerful theme and influence in my life. Until then, it had not occurred to me that I was in effect a receptacle of a historical legacy, or that its burden had a significance and weight that needed to be acknowledged. Now, personal memory appeared to me clearly linked to larger history, and the heavy dimensions of this inheritance started becoming fully apparent.
Several developments led me to feel that I wanted to return to and foreground further this aspect of my own and my generational history. Some of the recent manifestations, and proliferations, of the "memory cult" have left me uneasy. At the same time, my parents died; the survivors as a group were reaching the end of their natural life span. I had listened to their stories throughout my life. Now, I felt more and more palpably that the legacy of the Shoah was being passed on to us, its symbolic descendants and next of kin. We were the closest to its memories; we had touched upon its horror and its human scars. If I did not want the "memory" of the Holocaust to be flattened out through distance or ignorance, if I wanted to preserve some of the pulsing complexity I had felt in survivors' own perceptions, then it was up to me.
At the same time, it seemed to me that if I wanted to understand the significance of the Holocaust inheritance for those who come after, then I needed to reflect on my own and my peers' link to that legacy, to excavate our generational story from under its weight and shadow—to retrieve it from that "secondariness" which many of us have felt in relation to a formidable and forbidding past. In a sense, I needed to address frontally what I had thought about obliquely: the profound effects of a traumatic history, and its paradoxical richness; the kinds of knowledge which the Shoah has bequeathed to us, and the knowledge we might derive from it.
Within the larger history of postwar responses to the Holocaust, the direct descendants of survivors—the so-called second generation—form a particular subset and story. The existence of the "second generation" was probably announced in 1979 with the publication of Helen Epstein's seminal book Children of the Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors. All of Epstein's interlocutors had been deeply affected by their parents' experiences, whether these were spoken about or not. But for many of the book's subjects, the interviews were the first time they had looked at the post-Holocaust aspect of their stories as something distinct and significant, or had articulated the impact of their parents' histories on the parents themselves, the family dynamics, or their own inner and outer lives.
Since then, however, the "second generation" has crystallized into a recognized entity, and a self-conscious "identity." Children of survivors by now comprise a defined, if hybrid, collectivity which holds international meetings and conferences and which has given rise to a growing body of writing, ranging from highly personal to highly theoretical.
This book is emphatically not a sociological study, nor a work of specialist scholarship. I have not tried to encompass all the aspects of the second-generation phenomenon, nor have I conducted systematic interviews. Nevertheless, it seemed to me that the second generation's story is a strong case study in the deep and long-lasting impact of atrocity; and that children of survivors' very personal transactions with the past are a strong clue to the problems we must grapple with if we would grasp the meanings and consequences of historical horror. In their mediated but immediate relation to the Holocaust, children of survivors have had to live out and struggle with some of the defining issues that follow from atrocity: the internal impact of gratuitous violence and the transmission of traumatic experience across generations; the emotional intricacies of dealing with victims of persecution and the moral quandaries implicit in dialogues with perpetrators; the difficulties of witnessing the pain of others and of thinking about tragic pasts; and the relationship of private memory to a broader understanding of history.
The text which follows is an extended essay, or a series of reflections on such themes, informed by long-standing personal and intellectual engagement and composed of several interwoven motifs. On one level, I use the thread of my own and my family's story to probe and convey the subjective aftereffects of the Holocaust, the impact of its transferred legacy, and that legacy's later vicissitudes. At the same time, this book has grown out of continuous readings (and occasional writings) on the Holocaust and its aftermath: the growing body of personal testimony, memoirs, and fiction produced by children of survivors, as well as survivors themselves; psychoanalytic case studies, historical documentation, and the hefty corpus of cultural theory and philosophical speculation which continues to accumulate in this area. In my explorations of the subject, I draw on disparate disciplines and forms of literature to explore the broader psychological, moral, and philosophical implications of the "second-generation" story.
Indeed, it is part of my aim in this book to attempt a kind of informal synthesis, to bring the various approaches to this vast subject into dynamic interaction. Most scholarly works on the impact of the Holocaust and its "reception" in the postwar world emphasize either the psychocultural or the sociopolitical aspects of the problem. I wanted to bring them together under the roof of one book, partly because it seems to me that, while such categories of explanation may exist separately on our maps of ideas, they are not easily distinguishable as forms of experience. Morality is not separable from affect, or politics from psyche—at least not in relation to experiences as potent and raveled as those following from the Holocaust.
In another vein, I wanted to introduce, insofar as possible, a comparative perspective to a subject which is usually treated, in effect, from a monocultural vantage point. Whether the Holocaust is or is not unique is not here the issue. Like all historyshattering events, the Shoah needs to be understood first of all in its full factuality and specificity. But the very extremity of this paradigmatic catastrophe and the depth at which it has been examined means that it can, and has, served as a template for thinking about other tragic events. At the same time, the question is whether insight into other modes of atrocity, or a cross-cultural understanding of, say, ethnic conflict, or reactions to human catastrophe, can illuminate the broader sources and patterns of such events.
Finally, this book is also the result of conversations I have had over many years with survivors and second-generation peers, with Poles and Germans of all ages, and with yet others who have brought insights into violent events in other parts of the world. It may be that a cross-cultural, or cross-situational, understanding here, too, may be illuminating; and that the testimony and study of the post-Holocaust "second generation" may be useful to second generations elsewhere, and emerging from other difficult histories.
After Such Knowledge is divided into seven short sections, roughly corresponding to the chronological trajectory of the second generation and postwar response to the Holocaust. At the same time, the sections delineate the stages of understanding, or the modalities of knowledge, which children of survivors move through as they struggle with the burden of a powerful psychic inheritance and which are available to all of us as we try to unpack the daunting burden of meanings bequeathed to us by the Holocaust. Throughout the text, I use the terms "Holocaust" (meaning, approximately, "burnt offering") and the Hebrew "Shoah" (meaning "calamity") interchangeably, as they have come to be used in both colloquial and scholarly discourse.
The title of this book is taken from a line in a poem by T. S. Eliot: "After such knowledge, what forgiveness?" The poem is "Gerontion," and it is marred by anti-Semitic overtones. Nevertheless, the line, and even the verse to which it belongs, seemed exactly appropriate for my theme; and it may be that the inclusion of disturbing anti-Semitic or other prejudicial elements in an otherwise beautiful and masterly work is part of the knowledge with which we have to contend.
The guardianship of the Holocaust is being passed on to us. The second generation is the hinge generation in which received, transferred knowledge of events is transmuted into history, or into myth. It is also the generation in which we can think about certain questions arising from the Shoah with a sense of a living connection. This is one person's meditation on such questions, and on a long reckoning with the long aftermath of atrocity.

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.
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.
My parents endured the terrible years in the small town of Załośce, situated about two hundred miles east of Lvóv (now Lviv), in what was before the war the Polish part of the Ukraine. That was where they had both grown up, in their still Orthodox, premodern shtetl families; and that was where they remained, through the war and the annihilation of their families and community. They survived with the help of local Ukrainian and Polish people, and by eluding the hostility of others. During much of the war, they were hidden in the attic of a primitive cottage belonging to Ukrainian peasants who were risking their own lives in order to shelter my parents. Their survival was wrested from the most improbable odds. The statistics of extermination in their region of Europe were among the worst. When the war ended and Załośce, with all of Polish-Ukrainian territory, was declared to be part of the Soviet Union, my parents made the wise decision to head for the nearest Polish city, which happened to be Cracow. They had just gone through an inferno of hiding and hunger, of fear and hairsbreadth escapes, of hearing regular, devastating news about the murders of their closest and most loved relatives. I was born several months later.
It is no exaggeration to say that I have spent much of my life struggling with this compressed cluster of facts. They were transmitted to me as my first knowledge, a sort of supercondensed pellet of primal information—the kind from which everything else grows, or explodes, or follows, and which it takes a lifetime to unpack and decode. The facts seemed to be such an inescapable part of my inner world as to belong to me, to my own experience. But of course, they didn't; and in that elision, that caesura, much of the postgeneration's problematic can be found.
The Holocaust, in my first, childish reception, was a deeply internalized but strangely unknown past. It has become routine to speak of the "memory" of the Holocaust, and to adduce to this faculty a moral, even a spiritual value. But it is important to be precise: We who came after do not have memories of the Holocaust. Even from my most intimate proximity I could not form "memories" of the Shoah or take my parents' memories as my own. Rather, I took in that first information as a sort of fairy tale deriving not so much from another world as from the center of the cosmos: an enigmatic but real fable.
Nor was it exactly memories that were expressed at first by the survivors themselves. Rather, it was something both more potent and less lucid; something closer to enactment of experience, to emanations or sometimes nearly embodiments of psychic matter—of material too awful to be processed and assimilated into the stream of consciousness, or memory, or intelligible feeling.
Not that my parents or others within the war-ravaged community wanted to dwell on the recent past. The war—it was not yet the Holocaust—was not my parents' or their friends' main theme or conscious focus. Their energies, their efforts, were pointed towards the present. That mix of carpe diem energy and carpe diem cynicism that was the characteristic postwar mood was reflected in particular personalities, and I think that many of us second-generation children were awed by our elders' vitality in those postwar years. After emerging from their hidden hells, after making their epic treks and their escapes, the survivors wanted to snatch experience somehow and anyhow, to live and create new lives. People who lost families started new ones. Those who lost homes found new places of habitation. From my childhood, I remember the merriment of conversation when my parents got together with their Jewish friends, the zest with which they talked of books and clothes (so scarce and valued in Poland of that time), and the films they had seen. To those who had lived through the war, the difference between life and death must have seemed extremely well marked just then—even as it seemed very liminal to those of us who had just come into the world.
In the world at large, one could also sense a dynamism—perhaps the sheer surge of a collective life-instinct coming through after so much death—that coexisted with the sadness so closely as to be braided into it. In Poland, as in all of Eastern Europe, there was also a kind of official optimism, a sense of hardship overcome, and of triumphant, Soviet-sponsored victory. On the fifteen-minute newsreels shown before the movies we went to on Sunday mornings, the ruined skeletons of buildings were replaced by images of buildings going up, filmed against sunny skies, with teams of purposeful and thick-muscled workers placing brick upon brick with euphoric, Stakhanovite speed, and sometimes straightening up to look far into the horizon, masculine hand put up against the brow to shield the eyes from the promise of the sun. Rebuilding, reconstruction: the mood, or idea, that governed much of the postwar world, though not everywhere as tendentiously, as cynically in fact, as in Eastern Europe. Much of the globe, after all, had just emerged from an orgy of killing and was ready to start again with a strange, almost euphoric vitality.
But there were also—the postwar mood was potently complex—images of brute mute tanks on the newsreels, making their slow progress between enfilades of cheering people; and there was footage of soldiers on parade, marching to the accompaniment of the peculiarly energetic tones of that period's news commentary, voices whose theatrical decisiveness suggested that the times called for vigilance and iron resolve. Armies were still very much with us, and the fear of war, it seemed to me, was always in the air, although the adults often tried to reassure us children that nobody would go to war so soon after the cataclysm had ended; that people had suffered too much from its evils; that perhaps, after what had happened, no one would go to war ever again.
A charged, mixed atmosphere, then, a determined turn to life despite and against all other evidence. But for those who had actually endured the Shoah, the ghastly evidence could not be fully suppressed, the affirmation (or was it a denial?) could be sustained only so far. The overwhelming experiences, still raw, still palpably present, kept breaking through into the ordinary day. It is increasingly clear that the myth of survivors' muteness, of a blank, blanket silence, was largely a misconception. A few survivors were determined never to talk about what they had lived through; but others wanted to give expression to the horror, or perhaps couldn't help doing so. Whether the world wanted to listen was another question. Much of it didn't; and so, survivors, or at least those among them who were willing to touch on their experiences in words, tended to talk among those from whom they could hope for some understanding—fellow survivors, or others whom they could trust.

On Sale
Aug 2, 2011
Page Count
320 pages