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That Precarious Moment When Individual Memories Join the Collective Mind

Laura Brahm is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

After Such Knowledge:

Memory, History, and the Aftermath of the Holocaust

By Eva Hoffman

PublicAffairs Books, 288 pages, $25.

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Several years ago, writer Eva Hoffman sat in a dreary New York restaurant with an elderly man she’d never met before. He’d sought her out to tell her the long, anguished tale of his survival during the Holocaust. As she listened, she expected some reason for their meeting to emerge: a request, a revelation, a lesson. He offered none. Eventually, Hoffman, herself the child of survivors, realized that the only thing he wished to — or could — convey was his story.

That precarious moment, when first-hand knowledge of the Holocaust is passed on to subsequent generations, when memories cease to belong to any particular person and enter “collective memory,” is the subject of Hoffman’s latest book. What is the appropriate response of those who come “after” (in particular, the “second generation,” or children of survivors)? “After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Aftermath of the Holocaust” offers a series of meditations on the “long and difficult reckoning — with our parents’ past and its deep impact on us; with our obligations to that past, and the conclusions we can derive from it for the present.”

The second generation is, in Hoffman’s words, the “hinge generation,” whose nightmarish inherited memories can be transformed into concrete historical understanding and action. The author of three nonfiction books on Jewish life before and after the Shoah, Hoffman makes an experienced guide to the stages of that transformation. In “After Such Knowledge,” she aims to create “a kind of informal synthesis, to bring the various approaches” — personal narrative, psychology, history, philosophy — “into dynamic interaction.”

The result is perhaps too informal and not quite dynamic enough. Although the book covers an impressive array of topics, it rarely alights upon one long enough to explore it in sufficient depth. Thoughtful reflections on contemporary shibboleths such as “trauma,” “memory” and the “second generation” identity give way to glosses on comparative Soviet and Cambodian experiences of mass murder. A passage recounting the recent controversy over the morality of the Allied bombing of German civilians, in part fueled by W.G. Sebald’s “On the Natural History of Destruction,” offers the commendable if uninspired observations: “I feel a knot of ambivalence when I read about such events,” and “I balk at the idea of moral equivalence between the two kinds of violence.”

Though her treatment of the frequently examined relationship between contemporary Jews and Germans reveals little that is new, her discussion of the troubled, often-overshadowed relationship between Jews and Poles is intriguing. While Germans and Jews can agree broadly on the past — on the identity of the victims and the nature of the crime — Poles and Jews lack such a shared understanding. Because Poles, too, remember themselves as victims during World War II, dialogue between the two groups often resembles a “head-on clash between two martyrological memories.” Hoffman’s parents survived the war with the help of non-Jewish Poles, and after the war her family lived in Krakow until the late 1950s, making Hoffman in some senses the living embodiment of that complicated past. She makes an articulate plea for the “post-generation” to “unfreez[e] myths which have been left intact on both sides,” and admit “the prohibited perspective of the other into the area of permissible thought.”

Hoffman’s moving account of a 2001 commemoration ceremony at Jedwabne (scene of the 1941 massacre of Jews by their Polish “neighbors”) makes for a striking penultimate chapter. What can we expect of others, and ourselves, in the face of this horrific crime? Reflection, acknowledgment and remorse from the descendants of the perpetrators, of course, but Jews also must “recognize the recognition” when it is genuinely offered. Hoffman quietly adds the intriguing suggestion: “Sixty years later, and after all that can be done has been done, it may also be time to turn away, gently, to let this go.”

One can’t help but wonder, however, to what extent Hoffman herself is capable of “letting go” of her own inherited demons. All too often the prose reads with the bland solemnity of a “whither-Holocaust-memory?” keynote address. And, indeed, portions of the book originated as annual lectures delivered at various institutions. Reading it made me yearn for more thoughts that did not seem measured and balanced, for a reaction that seemed unpredictable, even slightly irrational.

This is more than just an aesthetic complaint. “Pious edgelessness,” as the writer Joan Acocella recently noted, threatens to erode Holocaust memory by failing to make it compelling and meaningful to subsequent generations. The “first generation” did not lack for compelling and original writers, a fact that undoubtedly has contributed to the event’s resonance across cultures, borders and time. Although the second generation has a very different story to tell than did their parents, they still need to tell it in all its mordant detail. Melvin Jules Bukiet offers an illustrative example. The title alone of his anthology of second-generation literature, “Nothing Makes You Free,” indicates the irreverence, pathos and fury for which this material fairly begs. Call him a member of the “unhinged generation.” As Bukiet has observed, only the first generation possesses actual memory of the event; those who come after must rely upon imagination.

“The best we can ask for, as we contemplate the Shoah from our lengthening distance, is that we distinguish authentic from inauthentic response, genuine perception from varieties of bad faith,” Hoffman writes. “Until we can speak genuinely, we should remain silent.” The relative dearth of such incisive statements suggests that the task of speaking genuinely may demand taking greater intellectual and emotional risks. After all, as the old man in the restaurant showed Hoffman, all we have is our story. We’d better make it a good one.

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