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.
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AFTER SUCH KNOWLEDGE
Memory, History, and the Legacy of the Holocaust
By EVA HOFFMAN
In our small apartment, it was a chaos of emotion that emerged from my
parents' memories. Many others who had grown up in households like mine
remember the peculiar form of that speech under the pressure of pain. The
memories-no, not memories but emanations-of wartime experiences kept
erupting in flashes of imagery, in abrupt, fragmented phrases, in
repetitious, broken refrains. Beyond that, and in the lacunae between
words, there was that most private and potent of family languages-the
language of the body. The past broke through in the sounds of nightmares,
the idiom of sighs and illness, of tears and the acute aches that were the
legacy of the damp attic and the conditions my parents endured during
their hiding. In the midst of her daily round, my mother would suddenly be
overcome by a sharp, terrible image, or by tears. On other subjects, she
was robustly articulate; but when sudden recall of her loved ones
punctured her mind's protective membrane, speech came in frail phrases, in
litanies of sorrow.
There were the images she returned to again and again, the dark amulets:
how she and my father spent their days in a forest bunker, and how she
waited for him, alone, as he went out to forage or plead for food in the
night. How they later sat in a peasant's attic for two years, in wet
straw, shivering from cold in the winter and from hunger in all seasons.
How her sister-this was the heart of grief-had been murdered. She was
shot into a mass grave in Zalosce, not far from where my parents were
hiding. A witness later told my mother that the Jews rounded up for that
particular massacre had to dig the pit into which their bodies were
subsequently thrown, sometimes still quivering with remainders of life.
She was just nineteen, my mother would say about her sister, and begin to
The episodes, the talismanic litanies, were repeated but never elaborated
upon. They remained compressed, packed, sharp. I suppose the unassimilable
character of the experiences they referred to was expressed-and passed
on-through this form. For it was precisely the indigestibility of these
utterances, their fearful weight of densely packed feeling, as much as any
specific content, that I took in as a child. The fragmentary phrases
lodged themselves in my mind like shards, like the deadly needles I
remember from certain fairytales, which pricked your flesh and could never
be extracted again.
Excerpted from AFTER SUCH KNOWLEDGE
by EVA HOFFMAN Excerpted by permission.
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