Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 29, 2009

After Such Knowledge, by Eva Hoffman

David Malouf, writing in On Experience reminds us that there are some events in world history that change the way we think about things irrevocably.   The Holocaust, also known as the Shoah, is one such event.  It is still unthinkable that a sophisticated modern nation in the 20th century should commit itself to the extermination of a group of its own citizens; to institutionalise that hatred in law; to invent a complex and highly efficient system to achieve the genocide; and to so inure its citizens to the malevolent and routine humiliation and oppression of the group that they become indifferent to this crime against humanity and not only allow it to happen, but participate in it either directly or indirectly.   Unthinkable, yet Germany did it.

My parents grew up in a world without knowledge of the Holocaust; I did not.  I lived in many places as a child, but my teenage years were spent a world away from Europe, in Caulfield here in Melbourne, at the time when it was in the process of becoming a Jewish enclave.   Many of my neighbours and the people in the local shopping centre bore that infamous tattoo recording their time in a German concentration camp, places dedicated to the mistreatment, starvation, slave labour, torture and murder of the Jews.  I think I was about eleven when my mother explained why our neighbours’  houses had such a bland, tidy decorating style: why they did not have grainy old family photos or daggy ornaments received as gifts from kindly relations with bad taste.  Yet I saw at first hand the resilience of these people and their determination to make a new life, and I admired their courage in dealing with experiences I could not fathom.  I did not realise then that this dynamic determination was sometimes a frantic or hysterical response to their trauma – wanting to rebuild a family and community, to re-establish family traditions, and to protect fragments of their pre-Shoah history, tradition and culture: everything from poetry and literature to recipes and song as well as the rituals for birth, marriage and death.   I had no conception that in the privacy of their family life, there was a pervasive melancholy which affected everyone in it.

Since then I’ve read a bit of Holocaust literature, and now I’m reading After Such Knowledge, a wise and thoughtful book by Eva Hoffman which meditates on the Holocaust.  Hoffman is of the ‘second generation’, the child of Holocaust survivors, and this makes her a member of a unique group in human history.  She traces how in childhood, this second generation became aware of what had happened almost as a fable, and how it affects the psyche of the child.  She reminds us about what it was like to grow up in the ‘pervasive presence and consciousness of death [where everyone had] lost relatives, intimates, friends’ and with parents who ‘lost their entire families: their own parents, sisters, brothers, cousins, uncles and aunts‘ (p3).   She also writes about how sometimes one child in particular is ‘chosen as a “memorial candle” – that is, the instrument of commemoration, devotion, and mourning’ (p64), a symbolic role conferred on the progeny which imposes on them a self dedicated to family members who perished.  Lily Brett, Mark Raphael Baker and Peter Singer also write movingly and with clarity about the burdens they bear as children of survivors: guilt; parental expectations, and a sense of their own triviality because no suffering could ever compare with what their parents lived through.

Hoffman makes it clear that what makes the Holocaust so distinctive in human history is the uniquely unredeemable and dehumanising character of genocide:

‘Violence directed not to the ends of battle or of victory but purely to the identity and existence of the targeted group. Such aggression is driven not by self-interest or even greed for power but by the gratuitous and nihilistic desire to destroy the personhood as well as the lives of a community or tribe, to negate a group’s ethos, tradition, cultural subjectivity.  That is why projects of genocide, along the way to extermination, are accompanied by seemingly extraneous and sometimes even costly practices of sadism and humiliation. (p42)

It is this grotesque sadism and humiliation which – along with losses so profound we cannot imagine them – poisoned the lives of the survivors: they were traumatised by the humiliation of having submitted to degrading treatment.  Primo Levi writes about this too.  Their sense of integrity was forever violated by being forced into passive acceptance, when they were ‘assaulted not for reasons of state, or as enemy combatants, but simply because of who they were.’ (p44)  They were stigmatised forever by the experience, and in the beginning this was not understood, not by the survivors themselves, not by the community at large, and certainly not by their children.

However, what I take from this book is a new sense of admiration for those in the helping professions who confronted a new phenomenon and had to deal with it as best they could.  This happens surprisingly often, and in a culture of scornful suspicion towards the professions, it’s worth considering a few examples.  Teachers in post war Australia, for example,  were suddenly confronted with huge numbers of non English speaking children, but knew nothing about their culture, the effects of migration and family dislocation, or how to teach English as a Second Language.   They had no training, no mentors, and no guidance in this situation, but learned on the job, making mistakes on the way.  In the process they crafted the skills of teaching immigrant children which has led to the successful multicultural society we enjoy here in Australia ( a feat acknowledged by Bill Clinton on a recent visit here, but not ever by any of our own local politicians).  The professionals who counselled the victims of 9/11 dealt with the immediate aftermath of a unimaginable event of malice.  The professionals helping the victims of Black Saturday 2009 had to succour people in the greatest peacetime loss of life in Australia.  The 2004 Tsunami which killed 300,000 people affected not only the immediate victims and their families but also those who came to help afterwards.  There’s nothing in the text book or training that helps these extreme situations, but professionals just have to cope and do their best.

In the immediate years after the Holocaust, there was no recognition of its uniquely horrible legacy.  Witnesses and observers did not initially recognise that the Holocaust was different from other aspects of the war.  Early psychiatrists failed to diagnose the profound damage done to survivors and did not perceive a difference between the violence of battle and genocidal violence.   Although the shell shock of veterans from World War 1 had been recognised, it wasn’t understood that ‘having an understanding of the reasons for one’s sacrifice and a belief in the justice of one’s actions can keep the mind intact even as the body is shrapneled.’ (p38)  The difference between tragedy and trauma was yet to be identified.

Tragedy, of course, involves a conflict … between opposing principles and agents. Trauma is produced by persecution of subjects to whom all agency and principle have been denied.  Tragic struggle may involve moral agony, but it leaves the sense of identity and dignity intact.  Violent abuse can lead to a deeper penetration and fragmentation of the pyshic cells, of the victim’s self and soul. (p41)

There are grandchildren and great-grandchildren now living with the legacy of the Holocaust, and yet I felt the need to hyperlink the first reference to it in my first paragraph above, to Wikipedia.  Although it is unimaginable that anyone of my age would not know about it, we now live in an age where Prince Harry could wear a Swastika at a party in apparent ignorance that it would cause offence.  I am not sure that I believe this, and so I am asserting the importance of ensuring that the lessons of the German atrocity are not forgotten or brushed aside.

I would also highly recommend Inga Clendinnen‘s Reading the Holocaust as essential reading on this topic.

Author: Eva Hoffman
Title: After Such Knowledge, a Meditation on the Aftermath of the Holocaust
Publisher: Vintage 2005
ISBN: 9780099464723
Source: Kingston Library


  1. Sounds like a great book Lisa. I also met quite a few Holocaust survivors in my teens and early 20s – not living near them but, as customers of my dad’s bank. We attended several bar-mitzvahs, weddings and parties they held and I was always astonished (and impressed) at their resilience and determination to enjoy life but, in many there was, as you say, an underlying sadness. I met many of their children over those years (of course – they were the ones having the bar-mitzvahs and weddings!) but I never knew them well enough to know what exactly life was like for them at home.


    • Hoffman says that initially she found it confronting to be labelled ‘second generation’ but she recognised herself as having things in common with the group and now she’s gone on to write this remarkable book. What a loss it would have been had Britain not stood up to Germany (and battled on alone for so long) to defeat them and their genocidal plans!


  2. […] of whom lived a life of exile during and after the War.  As Hoffman explains so eloquently in After Such Knowledge, many of those who escaped the Nazi regime could not bring themselves to return  to Germany […]


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