Some books are meant to be re-read, and it seems that for me the time was now to reread Eva Hoffman’s After Such Knowledge: Where Memory of the Holocaust Ends and History Begins. With everything going on in the world today, with global politics tipping right and an election bearing down on us, reading it again was a poignant reminder of that old trope, we must remember and understand history or we are destined to repeat it.
In her last book, Lost in Translation, Eva Hoffman showed us what it was like to experience the self-absorbed me-generation of 1960s America as an adolescent emigrant from war-torn Krakow, Poland. In After Such Knowledge, Hoffman reveals her outsider’s perspective once more, only this time as a second generation Holocaust survivor.
Hoffman asks fellow survivors, readers and herself, “What meanings does the Holocaust hold for us today—and how are we going to pass on those meanings to subsequent generations?” As the age of living memory nears its end, sixty years after the Shoah, the legacy—and the responsibility for passing on its moral, historical and psychological implications—is being handed down to the second generation.
Hoffman’s parents survived the Holocaust in what was then the Polish part of the Ukraine with the help of neighbors, but their entire families perished. One of the most poignant moments in the book is when the author finally meets the family who saved her parents’ lives.
Hoffman’s meditation is a dense narrative that interweaves Freudian thought, theories on the transmission of trauma, historical accounts of the Holocaust and other genocides, with her personal stories of loss, restoration and forgiveness. In order to grieve and move on, she says reflecting back Freudian theory, “you have to know what you have lost.” And “transferred loss” is what the children of survivors inherit.
At the end of the book, Hoffman answers her initial question, by saying, “If we do not want to betray the past—if we want to remain ethical beings and honor our covenant with those who suffered—then moral passion needs to be supplanted by moral thought, by an incorporation of memory into our consciousness of the world.” And it is this final thought that makes this book exigent among not only Holocaust literature, but all of literature, for it addresses the extensive implications of atrocity.