Cover Image
PART I From Event to Fable
PART II From Fable to Psyche
PART III From Psyche to Narrative
PART IV From Narrative to Morality
PART V From Morality to Memory
PART VI From Memory to the Past
PART VII From the Past to the Present

As the Holocaust recedes from us in time, the guardianship of its legacy is being passed on from its survivors and witnesses to the generation after. How should we, in turn, convey its knowledge to others? What are the effects of a traumatic past on its inheritors, and the second generation’s responsibilities to its received memories?
Eva Hoffman 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 wilful stratagems of collective memory. 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, and urges the need to transform potent family stories into a fully-informed understanding of a forbidding history.

Eva Hoffman was born in Cracow, Poland, and emigrated to America at the age of thirteen. The recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Whiting Award and an award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, she currently lives in London. She is the author of Lost in Translation, Exit into History, Shtetl, and the novel The Secret.
Lost in Translation
Exit into History
The Secret
To my sister Alina, fellow inheritor of the legacy.
Rafael (Felek) Scharf,
who knew how to transmit knowledge.

Eva Hoffman


A Meditation on the

Aftermath of the



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 history-shattering 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.
But they also spoke—how could they help it?—to their immediate intimates, to spouses and siblings, and yes, to their children. There, they spoke in the language of family—a form of expression that is both more direct and more ruthless than social or public speech. I do not know what form my parents’ wartime stories took in conversation with their friends. But in our small apartment, it was a chaos of emotion that emerged from their words rather than any coherent narration. Or rather, the emotion, direct and tormented, was enacted through the words, the form of their utterances. The memories—no, not memories but emanations—of wartime experiences kept erupting in flashes of imagery; in abrupt, fragmented phrases; in repetitious, broken refrains. They kept manifesting themselves with a frightening immediacy in that most private and potent of family languages—the language of the body. In my home, as in so many others, 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 of 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 Załośce, 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 cry.
On the most painful matters, my father was silent. The moments he could bear to remember, or to articulate, presented themselves as episodes in an ultimate adventure, a game literally of life and death. There was the time when he was arraigned by two strong Ukrainian peasants on a bridge at night, and was being dragged by them undoubtedly to the local Gestapo station. Instead, with all his strength—my father always made a violent gesture with his powerful arms when he told this story—he threw the two youths against the railing of the bridge and then jumped into the icy river; there he stayed until he could be sure that the danger had passed, under the cover of watery darkness, ice floes floating around him. There was the crucial night when he made his hairsbreadth escape from a German convoy truck transporting their Jewish “catch” to a nearby concentration camp. After making his way through the snowy forest, my father found himself, in the early dawn, near the same concentration camp for which he had been destined. He knocked on the door of a peasant’s hut. He was too tired to go on, even if what the hut held was death. But he was lucky. He was let in and sheltered.
Many others who grew up in households like mine remember the torn, incoherent character of those first communications about the Holocaust, the speech broken under the pressure of pain. The episodes, the talismanic litanies, were repeated but never elaborated upon. They remained compressed, packed, sharp. I suppose the inassimilable 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 fairy tales, which pricked your flesh and could never be extracted again.
Indeed, in my childish mind, the hypervivid moments summoned by my parents registered themselves as half awful reality, half wondrous fairy tale. A peasant’s hut, holding the riddle of life or death; a snowy forest, which confounds the senses and sense of direction. A hayloft in which one sits, awaiting fate, while a stranger downstairs, who is really a good fairy in disguise, is fending off that fate by muttering invocations under her breath and bringing to the hiding place a bowl of soup. The sister, young, innocent, and loved, standing naked above a pit that is soon to become her own mass grave . . . Brutal-faced Germans with large vicious dogs. Humiliating orders shouted in a harsh language. (“You should have seen their faces,” my mother said. “They were not really human.”) The pursuit of powerless people, bent silhouettes running desperately through an exposed landscape, trying to make it into the bordering woods. (“We were hunted from all sides. There was nowhere to escape to.”) Fields, trenches, pits of death. For others, barbed wire, skeletal figures, smoke, intimations of mass death. Every survivor’s child has such images available right behind the eyelids. Later, through literature and film, through memoirs and oral testimony, these components of horror became part of a whole generation’s store of imagery and narration, the icons and sagas of the post-Holocaust world. In retrospect, and as knowledge about the Holocaust has grown, we can see that every survivor has lived through a mythic trial, an epic, an odyssey.
But at first, these were not epics. They were humble, homely, disconnected units of narration, the most dread-inducing of family stories, a fable or myth about the beginnings or foundations of the world. As I decode it in retrospect, the mythology passed on in this way conveyed a universe of absolute forces and absolute unreason, a world in which ultimate things happened without cause or motive, where life was saved or lost routinely and through reflex movement, and where the border between life and death was dangerously permeable. Irrational as the world that my parents endured had been, I made of it something more utterly irrational still.
Beyond the suction hole of unreason, beyond the threshold of the war, there seemed to be no reality and no past. It was true of my parents, as it was of many survivors, that they did not talk much about their prewar lives. Perhaps the impact of the subsequent events overwhelmed and deleted everything else. Or perhaps to remember the world before would have made the losses even more piercing. In my own family, the cut from the past was complete. There was one frayed photograph with an indistinct image of my mother’s sister that somehow made it from one universe to the other. But no objects had managed to travel across the time gap and, of course, no persons. When my parents did allude to their lives in Załośce, it was as if they were talking about a very remote, quaint world seen through a diminishing telescope. The six years of the war had created a geological fissure in time and removed the world before to another era. There was nothing to help me imagine time extending backwards. The cut reinforced the conviction that the war, the Holocaust, was the dark root from which the world sprang.
The mythology had its implicit morality within which the good was closely equated with suffering. Or rather, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the early awareness of suffering created an unconscious, or preconscious, ethics, and that in this system, just as war was the ground of being, so pain was the ground of personhood. The presence of suffering was powerful enough so that it had to be absorbed; but there was also an imperative to remain loyal to it, to make up for it, to provide solace. This was clear to me from the beginning, as it must have been to those many children of survivors who later testified to their need to protect their parents. Perhaps there is something in us, an antidote to the selfish gene, that respects a creature in pain. Or perhaps I understood the sacredness of suffering, its untouchable, dark delicacy, because, with a childish receptivity, I absorbed my parents’ unhappiness through channels that seemed nearly physical. The pain of their psyches reverberated in my body almost as if it were mine. Whatever the cause, I certainly understood in the marrow of my bones that, no matter how I might want to hurt my parents, or how much I felt they hurt me, I couldn’t touch them in the wounded places; I couldn’t violate by the slightest indelicacy their mourning and their deep, embodied anguish.
The other side of these primitive (or nascent) ethics was the equation of evil with brutal power, and a choked, breathless hatred of “the Germans,” an almost physical urgency of rage accompanied by the pressing need not only to discard everything they stood for but to proclaim the utter wrongness of their vile work. “The Germans” were the demonic force in the universe, and the duty to abhor them was almost as strong and as morally tinctured as the obligation to respect those on whom their cruelties were inflicted.
Perhaps these twinned imperatives of loyalty and hate were not disconnected from the difficulty of comprehending the structure of parental stories. The loyalty meant that the moments, the images, the phrases bequeathed to me through my parents’ utterances demanded to be preserved in their unaltered integrity. There was a deeply internalized duty not to let diffusion, or forgetfulness, or imaginative transformation, dilute the condensed communications. After all, I was the designated carrier for the cargo of awesome knowledge transferred to me by my parents, and its burden had to be transported carefully, with all the iterated accounts literally intact. Moreover, there was a kind of prohibition on the very quality of coherence. To make a sequential narrative of what happened would have been to make indecently rational what had been obscenely irrational. It would have been to normalize through familiar form an utterly aberrant content. One was not to make a nice story out of loathsome cruelty and of piercing, causeless hurt.
That everybody died; that my parents survived by dint of my father’s resourcefulness and my mother’s fatalistic fearlessness; that there were people in whose hands one could place one’s life, and others who set vicious dogs on humans: Those were the givens. More than for our parents, the Holocaust, for us, was the paradoxical fundament. Dan Bar-On, an Israeli psychoanalyst who has written about the effect of the Holocaust on three generations, puts this succinctly: “My parents’ generation grew up in a world without a Holocaust,” he writes, “but for us there could be no such world.”
To start with the Holocaust as the foundation was, potentially, a premise for a nihilistic or a wholly unillusioned philosophy; and perhaps the Shoah is the hidden basis for the metaphysics of nullity and absence, for the urge to deconstruct all meanings and reach a vacuous center, so salient in postwar visions of the world. But in childhood, the awareness of loss and death was not yet philosophy. Instead, like all children, I took the character of the recent past entirely for granted; that is, I took the conditions of the war and the Holocaust as a kind of mythology and the norm.
It was, however, an irony attendant on this that, although we postwar children were the closest to wartime events in time and in primal feeling, we were the furthest removed from their grounded, worldly—that is, political, social, historical—meanings. This, I think, is a crucial distinction: that whereas adults who live through violence and atrocity can understand what happens to them as actuality—no matter how awful its terms—the generation after receives its first knowledge of the terrible events with only childish instruments of perception, and as a kind of fable.
It was not that the mythical vision of the world I had put together from scraps of story and imagery was untrue. The mythology, after all, derived from reality. It was just that I knew it as mythology and had no way of grasping it as actuality. It would take me a long time to discover and put its real-world components together. But as I was growing up, I had no comprehension of the background to the war or its course, of the circumstances visited upon Poland during the cataclysm, or the contemporaneous situation within which our lives unfolded in postwar Cracow.
In this respect, the postgeneration’s trajectory is the opposite of the more general trajectory of response to events. For while the adult world asks first “what happened,” and from there follows its uncertain and sometimes resistant route towards the inward meaning of the facts, those who are born after calamity sense its most inward meanings first and have to work their way outwards toward the facts and the worldly shape of events.
Initially, I had no way of knowing that Poland had been, uniquely among European nations, the site of two catastrophes. One was the Nazi war of conquest against the Polish nation and the policy of widespread murder and eventual enslavement of the Poles. The other was the campaign of extermination directed against all Jews of Europe, but executed mostly on Polish territory. Most of the concentration camps were situated on Polish soil, and it has often been assumed that the Germans had placed them there because they counted on the collusion of the Poles in their annihilationist project. This has been repeatedly shown to be untrue. The camps were most probably constructed in Poland because it was a fully conquered country and because that is where the overwhelming majority of European Jews—3.5 million people—resided. And, even in the face of recent revelations about the awful massacres in the towns of Radziłów and Jedwabne, in which Poles, with German permission or perhaps inspiration, murdered their Jewish neighbors, it can still be said that the actions of individual Poles during the cataclysm showed all the variations of human character and behavior. They ranged from the extraordinary heroism it took to save Jewish lives at the risk of one’s own, to betrayal and aggression, which amounted to collusion with the Nazis, to indifference which probably characterized most of the population, concerned as it was about its own calamity and survival.
Within Europe, Poland was the country that mounted the largest resistance against the Nazi occupation in the face of the most defeating odds. It was also the country that had been most bitterly betrayed at every step of the conflict: first by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of nonaggression, signed by the Germans and Soviets to enable them to march into Poland from east and west with impunity; then by the Soviet armies, which waited on one side of the Vistula River while the Nazi armies ruthlessly put down the Warsaw Uprising, in which 250,000 people died in the course of six weeks; and finally at Yalta, where the postwar order was established and Poland was delivered into the Soviet sphere.
Later—much later—these events would become my meaningful history, the history it is urgent to know because it belongs to one’s life, because it shapes ancestral fate and one’s own sensibility. But it took me many years to begin discerning the structure of those events; as, indeed, it took a while for the adult world to learn the full facts, to sort out various kinds of violence from each other, to put together a comparative picture of conditions and responses to Nazi aggression in various countries within occupied Europe.
Neither could I be aware, as I was growing up, of the continuing conflicts that consumed Poland in the years immediately after the war. Those years, with their pan-European turbulence and chaos, constitute a kind of prehistory of the postwar era, a quickly forgotten, murky time that is only now being again historically reconstructed and decoded. In Poland, the short interregnum between 1945 and 1948, which preceded the establishment of the Cold War order and Soviet control, witnessed a virtual civil war as non-Communist partisans continued to be killed by the victorious Communists, Poles and Ukrainians continued to murder each other in the east, and in the western territories, horrific acts of collective revenge were perpetrated upon ethnic Germans even as they were being expelled from Polish soil.
On the official plane, this was a period of collective punishments, directed at Polish gentry and other “class enemies” (who were often deported to Siberia); but also, at the non-Communist resistance movement. People who had struggled honorably against the Nazis were put in prison, and sometimes executed, in a grotesque perversion of truth and justice. (It is not for nothing that Jan Kott, a brilliant literary critic—himself a Jewish Communist who by the mid–1950s had decided that his faith had been mistaken, or betrayed—was later to write that Poland, as a result of its history, was the central site of the grotesque in the twentieth century.)
Unofficially, there were outbreaks of violence and other kinds of ugliness directed at the small percentage of Polish Jews who had survived the cataclysm. In the small villages to which some of them tried to return, there was rejection, hostility, and worse: expressions of pleasure at their diminished numbers, refusals to return property entrusted to Polish neighbors or seized by them, and, sometimes, murders. In Cracow, in 1945, just a few weeks after my parents’ advent there, there were anti-Semitic incidents in which several people were killed. Throughout Poland, more than one thousand Jews were murdered in those lawless years, most infamously at Kielce, where more than forty people coming back from the Soviet territories were brutally attacked by an enraged mob. The Kielce episode, however, was untypical in being politically provoked. Mostly, the murders were spontaneous and committed out of sheer greed, petty vendettas, or pure anti-Semitism—an old prejudice turned vicious through the permissive demoralization of war. For the woebegone remnants who had just lived through torment and loss, the renewal of hatred must have been psychically insupportable, and many Jews left Poland as soon as they could.
How were such events absorbed into Polish consciousness, how was the fate of the Jews—amidst other horrors of the war—understood? This would also later become important knowledge, not only for those of us to whom it was personal but for the world at large. In retrospect, it has become customary to divide the history of public reactions to the Holocaust into several stages, beginning with a period of denial and forgetfulness. But this is not quite accurate: This history has its own prehistory as well. The instances of postwar violence were of course utterly unacceptable. But there was also, initially, discussion, shock, a kind of acknowledgment of what had happened to the Jews under the Nazis’ reign. The distinctions between the Holocaust and the wider conflict were not fully intelligible in the chaos of those first postwar years. But neither was a veil drawn over events. After all, everyone in Poland had lived through the war, had seen, heard, or done something in relation to their Jewish neighbors. These things were not yet the subject of memory or forgetting, but of raw emotion, information gathering, and first-level documentary investigation. Before the so-called latency period, before the repressions of the psyche and the active suppressions of Communist censorship, there was, in relation to the Holocaust, as to other aspects of the war, an interval of first, horrified realization, and even some attempts at a reckoning.
Immediately after the war (I learned much later), systematic documentation of what happened to the Jews of Poland was undertaken by both Jewish and non-Jewish institutions. The Central Jewish Historical Committee attempted to register names of all Jewish survivors in Poland (although some chose to retain their assumed “Aryan” names and identities, which had helped them survive, and, they must have hoped, would continue to keep them from lesser kinds of harm). Both Jewish and Polish institutions collected information and personal accounts of Jewish survival and of perishing. The Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes pursued testimony from victims and perpetrators. The amazing project of oral, collective history that eventuated in Yizkor Books (Books of Memory)—humbly written tomes recording communal memories of the Polish shtetls that suddenly were no more—was undertaken shortly after the war. A monument to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, conceived in a heroic, somber style that was the esthetic of the time, was erected on the ghetto’s site in 1948.
In the course of the widespread postwar trials, a number of Nazi perpetrators were transferred to Poland by the Allied powers to be tried by Polish courts. More surprisingly, Polish crimes against Jews were, to some extent, acknowledged and punished by the Polish authorities. There were trials of Poles responsible for informing or perpetrating acts of violence directed against Jews. Twelve of the perpetrators involved in the horrific Jedwabne massacre were tried in 1949 and 1953. Although most verdicts in such trials were relatively lenient, there were some death sentences among them.
At the same time, Polish writers and artists were beginning to grapple with the horror, sometimes with great sensitivity to particular kinds of prejudice and persecution suffered by Jews. Amazingly enough, some of the artistic responses came even as the Holocaust was being executed. Czesław Miłosz, the Nobel laureate who spent the war years in Warsaw, wrote some of his greatest poems after witnessing the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto. In “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto,” Miłosz prophetically imagines “a guardian mole . . . with a small red lamp fastened to his forehead” and “swollen lids like a Patriarch,” who, despite the anonymous destruction of bodies, carries on an underground work of identifying the dead, of distinguishing “human ashes by their luminous vapor, / The ashes of each man by a different part of the spectrum.”
The poem ends in a cry of impotence and guilt:
What will I tell him, I, a Jew of the New Testament,
Waiting two thousand years for the second coming of Jesus?
My broken body will deliver me to his sight
And he will count me among the helpers of death:
The uncircumcised.
Miłosz’s poems are exceptional in their full realization of the Jewish tragedy and in the depth of the poet’s reckoning with his own and, by implication, collective Polish (and Christian) conscience. But in most of the creative responses, even the most humane and compassionate, the Holocaust, in those early stages, was not yet perceived as a discrete event, separate from the rest of the war. In her brief, unforgettable book Medallions (published in 1946), Zofia Nałkowska, a prominent writer who gathered much of her material from the harrowing testimonies she heard as member of the Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes, places Jewish and non-Jewish stories side by side without comment. At the same time, the ethnic identity of each voice, in her spare, seemingly neutral and nearly unbearable vignettes, is clear; the character of Jewish suffering remarked. This is also true in films such as The Last Stage, an account of life in the women’s barracks at Auschwitz, made on the site of the camp by two women filmmakers (one of them Jewish, the other most probably not) who had been its inmates. Last Stage was made in 1948 and already shows marks of a Sovietizing style and of Communist censorship; but while the heroic figures in the narrative are mostly Communists, there is a tacit acknowledgment in the film that most of those slated for extermination were Jews.
Later, there were other novels, films, poems, and plays, by both Jewish and non-Jewish artists, some of them marked by deep guilt, others by an absurdist nihilism. One need only think of the fiercely bitter stories in This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski (a non-Jewish Pole who was interned in Auschwitz and committed suicide several years after the war), with their uncompromising depictions of life and death in Auschwitz, the belief-defying brutalities and the struggles among the inmates for a piece of bread and an inch up in the camp’s ghastly hierarchy. (“The first duty of Auschwitzers is to make clear just what a camp is,” Borowski was to write later. “But let them not forget that the reader will unfailingly ask: But how did it happen that you survived? . .