Eva Hoffman Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Between Memory and History: A Writer's Voice: Conversation with Eva Hoffman, author, 10/5/00 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 4 of 5

Being Polish and Jewish

Time passes and you decide on the kinds of things that you're going to write. One of the central concerns that you have in your work is the dichotomy between your identity as a Polish person and your identity as a Jewish person -- the problem of reconciling those two identities. Talk a little about that and how you distanced yourself from your parents in this regard.

I grew up in postwar Poland. I went to Polish schools. I grew up in a Poland in which the Jewish culture had been decimated, although there was a Jewish community in Cracow still. And certainly this was one of the gifts that my parents gave me, that they taught me never to camouflage or hide the fact of my Jewishness and, in fact, to claim it with a sense of pride. So I certainly fully identified as a Jewish person, a secular Jewish person, but fully a Jewish person. In a poor section of Warsaw, called Praga, in 1990. At the same time, I was going to Polish schools. I was being formed by Polish culture. I had Polish friends. I lived in Poland. In a sense, it did not seem so difficult to synthesize the two when I was there. What I sometimes say when people ask me, "Are you Polish or are you Jewish?" is what a great Polish-Jewish interwar poet kept saying, Alexander Wat (who, in fact, lived in California for quite a few years of his life). He was a great interwar poet, writing in Polish; Jewish. And when people kept asking him, "Are you Polish or are you Jewish?" his answer was, "I'm Polish-Polish and Jewish-Jewish." And, you know, this seemed entirely possible when I was growing up in Poland. It probably would have become a lot more problematized later as the political situation changed and there was an expulsion of Jews in 1968, but it was not so difficult to do. There were many other people in my situation, and I think we rather easily felt ourselves to be Polish and Jewish. To some extent, my parents already did, too, although their sense of Jewishness had much more primacy. For me, they were perhaps about equal. I think the split comes much more in immigration and from a distance.

You write in your book, "I find that the Polish and Jewish parts of my history, my identity, my loyalties refuse either to separate or to reconcile. At the very moments my attachment to Poland, my admiration for all that is powerful in its culture is strongest, I upbraid myself for insufficient vigilance on behalf of those who suffered here, on behalf, really, of my parents who survived the Holocaust and awful circumstances. Every time I hear Poland described reductively as an anti-Semitic country, I bridle in revolt, for that I know that reality is far more tangled than that."

Yes. As I say, the split, the division between these two parts of my and many other people's identity became exacerbated when I came to Canada and to the States, where the two are assumed to be very separate and very irreconcilable. So that very often I have found myself in a situation of wanting to defend Poland and Polishness, and then feeling a bit guilty that I was not, in fact, upholding the legacy of Jewishness enough. I think for Polish Jews who are still in Poland, the conversation is a little bit different and the understanding of the very inextricable complexity of it is much more taken for granted.

One of the things you've been talking about while you're here at Berkeley is this problem of memory and history. You wrote recently in the New York Review of Books of "disentangling the easy pieties of memory from history's difficult and complex truths." book cover In Shtetl, which is the story of the relationship of the Jews and the Poles living side by side in Poland, you write in the introduction: "From memory, to be part of a process of growth and maturation, there must be active understanding." You go on elsewhere to speak of the need "to remember strenuously, to explore, decode, and deepen the terrain of memory." With that vision, what did you try to achieve in that book, and why was that book so important to you?

It was important to me precisely because I felt that the understanding of Polish-Jewish history and of the Polish-Jewish relationship has become so reductive in the West. From the distance, it is so much easier to see it in stark and very reductive terms. And I thought that this was very unjust to that history and to the richness of that history. It was a long and very fascinating and a very rich relationship, which I could talk about at length. But the notion that Poland is kind of a quintessentially anti-Semitic country was one of the most deeply entrenched sorts of stereotypes and prejudices, and somehow a stereotype which was allowed to remain in its very unrevised form.

We should remind our audience that in the Holocaust many of the people were killed in Poland. It is that history and the memory of those events that I think you're saying in your book obscures a long history of different relations between Poles and Jews.

Yes.

... where the relationships took very different forms. But it's really that burden of the Holocaust that distorts this long view.

Yes. Our vision of the longer history. Yes, absolutely. Poland was occupied. Nazi-occupied Poland was the very center of the catastrophe, because most of the world's Jewish population was in Poland. It should be remembered that this did not happen for accidental reasons. Most of the world's Jewish population was in Poland because Poland, over various periods, was very hospitable to Jews. But then this great destruction, this great catastrophe came, and, of course understandably, the shadow of that overwhelmed our perceptions of the longer history. But we need now to start to excavate and to understand that previous very long period of coexistence.

This is a history going back hundreds of years, in which the Jewish community enjoyed some of the most secure autonomy and rights that they ever found anywhere in the world in the diaspora.

Yes. It was an absolutely fascinating sort of cross-ethnic, cross-religious relationship, because, yes, the Jews were given a great deal of autonomy. They were not pressed to assimilate. And at the same time they were not threatened with expulsion, ever. And this was actually very exceptional in European history. [The Poles] had allowed a great Jewish culture to develop and thrive there.

In the book Shtetl, you focus on the history of one town.

Bransk.

What surprised you the most in doing that research and telling the story?

I think what surprised me was the degree of cultural and spiritual separation which obtained in these little towns, in these shtetls, between the Poles and the Jews, until the interwar period. A spiritual and cultural separation which coexisted with daily human contact, daily commercial contact. The degree of that separation, I suppose, surprised me. As I say, it was breaking down in the interwar period. During the period of the war, there was a great spectrum of behavior. And I was, of course, very disturbed by the instances of very virulent anti-Semitism. On the other hand, there were instances, equally numerous, of very heroic behavior, of rescuing Jews.

You tell the story of a young Polish woman who was a pharmacist who was presented with a situation where the previous pharmacist, a Jewish fellow, brought his family there after the Nazis had occupied the town, and she hid them.

Yes.

And saved their lives. Tell us that story and what you found in her courage. What was the basis for her taking this courageous act?

In her case, the decision to take in these Jewish people and to shelter them, which, you know, carried enormous risks -- the penalty for helping Jews at that point was death; people were executed in the town of Bransk, Polish people, for helping Jews -- in her case, the decision was very much a reflex. photo caption below: Zalozce She was young; she perhaps didn't have a full consciousness of the risks, although she had some. It was a reflex; it was a kind of human reflex, and it was a reflex in her case actually informed by her Christian religiousness. You know: one helps people in those situations. One simply helps people. And so she took them in and then, with the help of a local priest, found them a safer shelter. So that was that particular instance. There were other people who took these kinds of risks with a much fuller cognizance of the enormous hazards that they carried. They took them over a longer period -- people who sheltered Jewish people for a year or two or longer. But in her case, it was just a sense that this is what one does. One does not turn away a person in danger.

We interviewed Philip Gourevitch here, and he found similar cases in the Rwandan situation.

Yes, I'm sure.

One particular case, a hotel manager who began acting in the same kind of courageous way that you're describing. photo caption below: Bezkrovainy Now, your parents were the beneficiaries of such human kindnesses when they fled from the Holocaust ...

Yes.

... and were in hiding.

When they were in hiding, yes. I think my initial sense of the great complexity of this situation came from knowing their stories during the war, which I will come back to in a minute, but also from growing up in the war-ravaged Poland, in which it should be said three million Poles lost their lives as well, so I had a palpable sense of a very encompassing tragedy, a tragedy which included Poles as well as Jews. But, yes, indeed, my parents survived those years in their own shtetl, which was in the Ukraine, as I said, in the Polish part of the Ukraine in which the population was very much divided between Polish Jews and Ukrainians. I think perhaps almost equally. And they were saved and sheltered particularly by two Ukrainian families, and helped by others as well. They felt endangered by other people. But, yes, they were sheltered. In the case of one family, initially, they gave them a few things. I mean, there was a kind of payment for this. Eventually they ran out of things to give them, but by that time the family simply got very attached to them. And, again, at the risk of enormous danger to their lives, kept them until the end of the war.

What do you think is the key ingredient for our common survival in this world of multi-ethnic tensions? What lessons do you draw? At one point, when you're visiting Eastern Europe after the fall of the Wall, you say, "treating others with affection, but without sentimentality, because they are all equally subject to certain common expectations, to certain ideas of what is required from themselves and each other. Perhaps it is some sense of a shared dignity." Again and again you seem to be saying that in acquiring your own dignity, you respect the dignity of others. Is that one of the key ingredients here of avoiding the kinds of Yugoslav situations which we're seeing all over the world now?

I think so. I very much think so. I think that if you think of your history or yourself only defensively and only in victimological terms, then you're very likely to project onto others a certain sense of threat. Of course, it goes in the other direction as well. If you adduce to yourself too much of a sense of power and centrality and triumphalism and normativeness, you also project onto others a sense of their insufficient humanity. But I think one very much needs a sense of one's dignity as an agent in the world. And also, I think we very much need common political spheres on which we can meet in an honest dialogue, because that honest dialogue and having these spheres, these forums, in which we can talk across differences and across barriers lessens the possibility of this projection, of somehow attributing qualities to others which are so radically different from yours.

In your book on the shtetl, you're walking us through this history of relations which are surprising at two levels. One is the way the Poles and the Jews existed side by side. But the second thing that's really surprising is the extent to which this earlier period is not in our consciousness. One cause for the breakdown seems to be the change in the economic situation.

Yes.

And the other seems to be a breakdown in the physical security of Poland, as one Great Power after another intervenes, which then leads the principals, the Jews in particular, to sometimes side with the outsider.

Yes, yes.

So, in a way, history enters here, right?

Yes.

In understanding this broader framework in which you get the breakdown....

Absolutely, yes. There are circumstances in which conflicts become exacerbated, because it should be said that for many decades or for many centuries the coexistence between Poles and Jews was perfectly peaceable. There were moments when, yes, the Poles themselves started feeling much more defensive and when there were real conflicts of loyalties and interests, as at the beginning of the war, when the Jews of Eastern Poland, for very understandable reasons for their own part, sided with the invading Soviets, who were, of course, Poland's traditional enemy. So, of course, there was an exacerbation of conflict. And I think, indeed, that if there had been more shared political Polish-Jewish forums, perhaps this could have been avoided to some extent. But I don't want to stress only the separateness, either. The cultural and spiritual separateness did exist in the shtetls, combined with completely peaceable and tolerant coexistence for long, long periods of time. Even in the shtetls that was changing in the inter-war period. But in the big cities, aside from the parts of the population which were separate, there was also a lot of inter-cultural interaction. There were very interesting episodes in which there were Jewish legions which participated in Polish uprisings against the Russians in the nineteenth century. Something that is very much forgotten, that there were Jewish legions and Jewish generals, and Polish leaders would make rousing speeches in which they would refer to ancient Jewish uprisings against the Romans, for example, as prototypes for their own uprisings against the Russians. So there were moments and spheres of great cooperation.

Next page: Finding a Voice: History and Memory

© Copyright 2000, Regents of the University of California

See the story of Rwandan Paul Rusesabagina in the Philip Gourevitch interview: Reporting the Story of a Genocide [p. 4]


Photo captions

Zalozce: "In 1998, Eva Hoffman and her sister, Alina Wydra, went for the first time to the town in which their parents grew up -- Zalozce, in the Ukraine (formerly Poland). They found various people who knew their parents and their families; among them, two members of a family -- brother and sister -- which sheltered their parents during the war and saved their lives. Here, Eva and Alina sit with the sister in front of an outbuilding where their parents sometimes hid."

Bezkrovainy: "This man, Hryczko Bezkrovainy, was instrumental in helping Eva Hoffman's parents survive the Holocaust. He is the older brother mentioned in the caption of the previous photo."