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Dec 2004 Journal

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The hinge generation (book review)

After Such Knowledge: Where Memory of the Holocaust Ends and History Begins
by Eva Hoffman
Secker and Warburg 2004, £16.99, 280 pp.

Whereas Hoffman's Lost in Translation recounted her own struggle with her Holocaust inheritance, After Such Knowledge embraces the collective narrative. Hoffman uses her wide reading and experience, including her own narrative and those of others, to construct a narrative of the Holocaust in the collective consciousness.

Her thesis is encapsulated in the chapter headings that indicate the collective post-Holocaust progression from Event to Fable, to Psyche, to Narrative, to Morality, to Memory, to separating from the Past and finally to assessing the Present.

History is lived contemporarily; historiography, or the 'history' that is passed on to future generations, can be constructed only after the event. Cynically, we can define 'recorded history' as an account of something that didn't happen by someone who wasn't there. The aptness of this definition is apparent if we think of its extremes - accounts written by Holocaust deniers, Armenian Genocide deniers and others of their ilk. Hoffman notes that the era of living memory of the Holocaust is ending and the Holocaust is passing into virtual memory. The documents 'speak for themselves' but they cannot enter into a discourse with historiographers of the future who may interpret them with an erroneous mindset.

Hoffman describes eloquently the experiences that children of the 'second generation' know so well. She points out that they are the 'hinge generation', meaning that through them either 'the meanings of awful events can remain arrested and fixed at the point of trauma' or they can be processed to a new understanding. Many of the first-generation survivors were too traumatised to work through to resolution or, in some cases, even to begin the work of mourning. The second generation has a second chance to do this processing. An essential part of this work for both the offspring of survivors and perpetrators is coming to terms with Germanness and with each other. The Shoah seems to demand something of the second generation as if a 'trusteeship' has been thrust upon them.

Hoffman provides fascinating descriptions of inappropriate responses to the Holocaust at both personal and collective levels: pseudo-identification, contortions and distortions to dis-burden the self, self-indulgence, indulging for 'thrills' and recruiting the Holocaust for political purposes or personal gain. She explores the spectrum from disavowal (denial and forgetfulness) to avowal (making it a sacred obsession and voyeurism) and from trivialisation to 'expanding the Holocaust into emptiness'.

The demise of the Soviet bloc opened up the possibility for many more survivors and their progeny to visit the 'Old Country', which, for the second generation, had been a powerful but virtual image. The importance, even in our globalised modern world, of 'roots' breaks through all barriers of resistance. The reality often proved surprisingly different to the fantasised image. The section Hoffman devotes to exploring the commemoration of the massacre at Jedwabne, in a part of Poland that had been under Soviet control, is unbearably moving. It is crucial to her later theme of the 'return of the repressed', with increased urgency the longer it is suppressed and denied. As she says, only public recognition before the world can bring relief to the survivors and their children. Due to the time-lag in facing Holocaust knowledge, this usually has to be done on behalf of the perpetrators by the government that has inherited the terrible history and in the presence of mostly second and third generations of the survivors.

Hoffman points out how 'the balm of recognition' has been possible to some extent through 'symbolic justice' created out of dialogue between first-generation perpetrators and survivors in the aftermath of some post-Holocaust atrocities and genocide, for example in South Africa, Bosnia and Rwanda. Such dialogue is vitally important to short-circuit new cycles of vengeful violence. What Hoffman does not mention is that we carry in our collective psyche the unhealed wounds of countless pre-Holocaust atrocities that have not been fully acknowledged in the public arena. For example, the Armenian Genocide is still denied by Turkish representatives and historians through wilful misinterpretations. As long as there is no acknowledgement by the inheritors of the perpetrators, mourning cannot proceed to resolution. The final stage of genocide is the wiping out of all memory of those murdered in the genocide. For the generations of the survivors this means their ancestors are wiped out as if they had never existed and the possibility of reclaiming roots, with all that implies, is lost.

This final stage of public acknowledgement has probably been achieved as fully as possible with regard to the Holocaust. Personally, I feel that Jews are in the best position to claim this on behalf of the progeny of the survivors of not-yet-acknowledged genocides. If we have learned nothing else about the Holocaust, Hoffman makes very clear the importance of bearing to know the truth of what actually happened and acknowledging it publicly. We need to apply this 'lesson' retrospectively as well as currently if we are to be able to contain the causal elements that Hoffman delineates so masterfully in relation to the Holocaust.
Ruth Barnett

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