Viewing Jewish history through a multicultural lens
Eva Hoffman (London) grew up in Krakow, Poland. After emigrating to
Canada in her teens, she went on to study in the United States and
received a Ph.D. in English and American literature from Harvard
University. Subsequently, she worked as senior editor and writer on
several sections of the New York Times, serving for a while as one of
its regular literary critics. She has also taught literature and
creative writing at various universities in the US. and Britain. She
is the author of 'Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language',
'Exit Into History: A Journey Through the New Eastern Europe',
'Shtetl: The History of a Small Town and an Extinguished World'. Her
first novel, 'The Secret', was published in 2001.
Eva Hoffman's work has been translated into several languages and she
has received numerous grants and awards, including a Guggenheim
Fellowship, a prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and
a Whiting Award for Writing. She has written and lectured widely in
America, Britain and other European countries on cultural and social
issues. She holds a regular appointment as Visiting Professor at the
Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at MIT.
Session III: Europe's multicultural landscape: Where do
Jewish themes fit in?
Between Cracow, London and Manhattan: Viewing Jewish
history through a multicultural lens
Eva Hoffman, writer, London
The Jewish experience in diaspora - particularly the European diaspora
-- has often been interpreted as a unique history and fate. This was
partly because until recently, and particularly within European
nation-states, there was not much of a comparative framework within
which to place the experience of a significant, and significantly
different, minority. In my talk, I would like to suggest that just as
the Jewish diasporic experience can serve as an interesting template
for the understanding of contemporary multicultural societies, so the
experience of modern multiculturalism can throw an interesting light
on Jewish history -- and possibly modify our sense of Jewish
In my studies of Polish-Jewish history, I found that the long,
variously hostile, neutral or even amicable relationship between the
two groups prefigured many of the problems found in today's
multi-ethnic, multi-religious societies; and that some of the
intellectual debates, institutional experiments and political
solutions attempted during that long coexistence are still relevant
today. At the same time, my experience of living in America and
Britain, and my observations of the tensions and conflicts that obtain
even in these most determinedly tolerant of societies as they try to
negotiate questions of "difference" and "identity," brought a very
useful perspective to my explorations of the highly contested
Polish-Jewish past. In the light of these immediate observations, it
seemed evident to me that at least some of the antagonisms between
Poles and Jews could be more fruitfully, and accurately seen in terms
of cross-ethnic, or majority-minority tensions, rather than as a
function of anti-Semitism in its specific and strong form.
Antisemitism, of course, was a strong strain of attitude directed
towards Jews, and sometimes, its manifestations were unacceptable and
unforgivable. But at other times, conflicts between the two groups
arose from genuine clashes of interest, from ideological disagreements
and - I believe - excessive and mutually embraced separatism.
The problems faced by contemporary multicultural societies challenge
us to rethink questions of how best to negotiate sharp differences
within a single society. How much is owed to one's tribe, and how much
to society as a whole? How can sharp cultural and spiritual
differences be contained without exploding into overt hostilities?
What are the virtues of preserving one's separate identity, and what
of acculturation? On all such issues, I believe, the Jewish minority
in Poland faced decisions which are confronted by other minority
groups elsewhere; and on all of them, the choices are complex and the
answers not evident even today
Eva, welcome to Berkeley.
Tell us about your parents' immigration to Canada when you were
thirteen. How did it impact your life?
I would say this was the formative experience of my life, from which
much of my writing and other things followed. First of all, I should
say that the immigration took place at a particular time and in
particular political circumstances. It was in 1959, so not in the
worst Stalinist years, but still during the Cold War years. So the
assumption was that we would never go back.
It was not my decision to emigrate. I was having what I considered a
happy and satisfactory childhood and young adolescence. So for me
there was a great sense of rupture about it. And, also, at that time,
the differences between Eastern Europe and the West, the differences
between Cracow, where I grew up, and Vancouver, where we came to, were
enormous, so the sense of culture shock was enormous. There was a real
sense of shock and perhaps something like a cultural trauma in those
first stages of immigration.
You write a lot about your parents. I'm curious as to how they shaped
your character. In asking that question, I want to quote something you
say in your book, Exit Into History: "Parents often pass on to their
offspring not what they are but how ideally they imagine themselves."
When I was born my parents had just emerged from the war and from the
Holocaust, and there was a double sense, within their character but
also within Poland as a whole, of a very recent tragedy. At the same
time, there was a sense that my parents had a tremendous will to live,
a tremendous life energy and joie de vivre, which I imbibed from them.
They were also largely self-educated but great readers. They certainly
passed on a very natural, very intimate love of books, of reading, to
As for their ideal sense, I don't know whether they had an ideal sense
of themselves, and that, in itself, was interesting. They did not have
what the English call any "side" to them. They did not have any sort
of affectation. I felt that I saw human nature in a very intimate way
in them and in its many facets, including the life energy that I
talked about and also the sense of suffering that was a very powerful
pull on them after the war. So I can say I never had a strong sense of
a generation gap that I found [in others] when I came to America. I
felt there was a great deal of intimacy and that they didn't
camouflage certain things or have Puritanical ideas of selfhood that I
needed to rebel against later.
It's important to tell our audience here that you and your parents
were both Polish and Jewish.
Your family was emigrating because of the hostility to Jews emerging
during this phase of Communist rule in Poland. Did they leave Poland
with a greater ambivalence than you about the Polish part of their
Yes. They had a much stronger sense of Jewish identity than I did.
They came from a small town, from a shtetl, in the Ukraine, in the
part of the Ukraine which was Polish before the war and then reverted
to Soviet hands. My parents had a very strong sense of Jewish identity
and a sense of Polish anti-Semitism. In 1956 the ban on emigration for
Jews from Poland was lifted. This was quite exceptional. Poland had
been a country from which you could not emigrate, so this was an
exceptional moment. Much of the Jewish population took the opportunity
of that moment to leave. It should be said that a lot of other people
might have wanted to emigrate. Poland at that point was a war-ravaged,
impoverished country. So I would say that the reasons for emigration
were various and certainly this sense that there were strong strains
of anti-Semitism were among those reasons. I was very much formed
within Polish culture.
You mentioned the importance of reading in your family, and one of
the many beautiful passages in your book is a description of the
visits of you and your mother to the library to check out books. So
very early, the world of books and writing became very important to
Absolutely, yes. We were not a household which had its own library.
But, indeed, my mother took me to the libraries regularly. And this
particular library was a little bit like a magic cave. It was in one
of the old Renaissance Cracow buildings and went inward through a long
darkening corridor. I had a sense that these wonderful, magical
objects were being brought out for me, and I would take them home and
read them quite voraciously.
Music also was important to you, and one of the formative mentors that
you had as a young person was a piano teacher. Tell us about her and
why you speak of the moral education provided by your music teacher.
She herself was a wonderful, very gentle, very thoughtful person, who
taught me in the most gentle of ways.
And her name was?
Mrs. Witeszczak. First of all, playing requires a great honesty of
craft. It is not something in which you can get away with fudging
things. So there is a basic honesty of skill and craft that you learn.
But also what I learned from music was that it required a kind of
emotional integrity. That if I did not feel [the emotions] the music
was trying to express, it would not come out well. Playing music
required a kind of emotional self-examination, or at least knowing
exactly what your internal life is in relation to the music. That was
a valuable moral education. Also in the sense of discipline. Music
just requires a great deal of discipline.
In your book, the virtues that you ascribe in addition to discipline
are physical strength -- the strength of the fingers -- and total
devotion. And you speak of the Polish word, polot -- inspiration and
flying. So all of these came together in that music.
Yes, all of them came together in the music. Music, I think, really is
the most expressive of the arts. And it was very much valued in the
Polish culture also, I should say. So that was a kind of great
encouragement as well. But, yes, polot was very important. Polot: this
sense of spark and inspiration, of flight -- a kind of disciplined
spontaneity, and an expression of the wholeness of personality. And
the wholeness of the repertory of feeling which is so possible in