March 12 2004
The ‘hinge’ generation
By MICHAEL BERENBAUM
After Such Knowledge: Where Memory of the Holocaust Ends and History
by Eva Hoffman
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
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
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