Why do good neighbours become sworn enemies?

March 9, 2001

Jewish writer Eva Hoffman strives to understand the uneasy complexities of human rights and wrongs. Jennifer Wallace met her before her Amnesty lecture.

Nobody is on one side or the other permanently. There are no intrinsically good or bad groups and there are no intrinsically inevitable conflicts between groups," says the Polish-American-Jewish writer Eva Hoffman. The problem with popular memory is that it often becomes "very reductive and oversimplified", particularly for Holocaust survivors living in the United States. "The more stark and more extreme formulations become more possible from a distance."

In an age of journalistic soundbites and one-dimensional identity politics, Hoffman is anything but reductive or oversimplified. Described by Oxford professor Malcolm Bowie as "formidable for her moral intellect", she stands apart from current trends in her refusal to resort to easy answers and in her determination to understand the most troubling and complex issues of postwar life: atrocity, trauma, forced emigration and exile.

We meet at her house in North London, where she is preparing to give the final Oxford University Amnesty International lecture. It is an oasis of culture. A Steinway grand (Hoffman is a fine pianist), dramatic murals by friends, the latest literary magazines. Having emigrated from Poland to Canada at the age of 13, Hoffman has lived in New York for most of her adult life, coming to England just eight years ago. She still moves between North London, the Upper West Side and Warsaw, and home is really "certain types of literary, intellectual communities who move back and forth so easily".

Her lecture, on "Human Rights, Human Wrongs", tackles how great wrongs - genocide, political oppression, systematic torture - are confronted and redressed by society and how later generations are haunted by or released from the horrors of the past. The second generation, or in other words the children of the original victims, play a crucial role in the healing process. At worst, the children of survivors hang on to the bitter memories handed down to them by their parents and prolong the conflict. At best, they can arrive at a more objective perspective on the past and distance themselves usefully from it. "Just to say remember, honour, commemorate, identify with the victim is not sufficient," Hoffman explains. "One does need to have an understanding of causality."

One form of understanding can be reached through a dialogue with the second generation of the other side. The children of the perpetrators of violence often feel guilt about their parents' actions and a sense of moral confusion about whether to condemn the violence or honour their families. And the Polish Jewish example teaches Hoffman that second generation survivors are also confused. "Even the victim's side has to understand its own implicatedness. A sheer defence of the purity of the victim's side is not enough." The dialogue, between traditional enemies, which has constituted a central part of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is an inspiring model of what can be achieved.

Both sides of conflict - survivors and perpetrators - need to replace the popular memory of violence with history. Memories are partial and simplifying; history is collective and complex. "History is less tribally identified," Hoffman says. It involves an understanding of causes, consequences, ambivalence. One of the problems in the former Yugoslavia, she points out, is that there has not been a rich tradition of history writing because of the constraints of communism. It is vital that new histories are written there, that address the complexities of ethnic conflict, and that school education is revised so that children do not grow up imbibing the same structures of hostility.

Writing about the Holocaust and memory has become a big industry in recent years. There have been some notorious interventions. Binjamin Wilkomirski's prize-winning 1995 book Fragments , a memoir of his miraculous survival of Auschwitz, was later found to be a fake. Wilkomirski spent the war in Switzerland and was not even Jewish. The book angered Hoffman. "It points out the danger of a kind of pseudo-identification, a kind of heroisation of pathological memory. At the same time, it was just incredibly upsetting and exploitative."

Last year, Norman Finkelstein argued that the Holocaust had been exaggerated out of all proportion and should now be laid to rest. Hoffman was upset by his book too. "In some places, I would be in sympathy with him, in trying to get away from exclusively tribal memory. But he gets his numbers wrong. He claims that there were only 100,000 Holocaust survivors, but there were a lot more. He counts only strictly concentration camp survivors as survivors and he thinks those who survived the war in hiding, like most Polish Jews, were not Holocaust survivors."

Hoffman wants a more ambivalent idea of what it means to be implicated in violence, both as victims and as perpetrators. She is very influenced by her parents' experience in Poland. The population of their home town, Lvov, was equally divided between Poles, Jews and Ukrainians. During the war, her parents were hidden in an attic and twice her father escaped capture, once leaping from a Ukrainian's grasp to hide in a frozen river. After the war, her parents moved to Cracow and continued to be friends with non-Jewish neighbours. Hoffman was not brought up to think much about her Jewish identity; the Holocaust was not mentioned much by her parents and the family only emigrated to Canada in 1959.

Living in Poland allowed Hoffman to understand the complexity of the problem. "And then I saw how very simplified these things could become from a distance," she says, recalling her experience in Canada and subsequently the US. Her best-known book, Lost in Translation , reflects on what she sees as the simplicity and straightforwardness of America and her sense of divorce from the complication and ambiguity of Europe.

In recent years, Hoffman has returned to Eastern Europe to reach a greater understanding of the deeply entrenched conflicts of the past. The trips have produced two books: Exit Into History in 1993, and Shtetl: The History Of A Small Town and an Extinguished World in 1997, an account of the good Polish-Jewish relations before the Holocaust split the two communities.

With her grasp of the ambivalence of conflicts, how does Hoffman reconcile herself with the aims of Amnesty International? Since she writes, in Lost In Translation , of the differences between cultures and the way in which our understanding is constructed by language and environment, can she subscribe to Amnesty's belief in universal human rights? "I think that we are formed culturally very deeply but that there are certain transcultural features of human nature we should recognise. Being abused is something that is universally recognised," she says. While she thinks, for example, that international action should not be taken against Croatians implicated in war crimes because Croatians themselves do not support it - "there are grounds for leaving them to resolve their own issues" - she believes the intervention in Yugoslavia was absolutely justified: "I couldn't see how it could be seen as the moral high ground not to intervene."

Hoffman can lighten up occasionally. She has just finished a novel, out in September, that is set in the future. And she is planning to spend the summer, during a visiting fellowship in Cambridge, writing a second novel. But mostly she is driven by the need not to shy away from the serious and the painful.

At her home, she confesses to feeling "daunted by the gravity of the subject matter" of her lecture. But in Oxford, she comes out, beautiful and fearless, to speak of Bosnia, Rwanda and South Africa. As she reads out a transcript of one excruciating Truth and Reconciliation hearing, during which a torture victim forced his torturer to admit his brutality, a palpable awed silence holds her audience. A moral intellect indeed.

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