Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 10, 30 August 1999

Confronting Jewishness I D E N T I T Y:
Confronting Jewishness
Part III - Tradition and normality

Peter Krasztev

(Read part one and part two of this series.)

Jewish identity for those in Central Europe who are grandchildren of the survivors of the Second World War has long rumoured to be a largely unconscious affair, if not completely extinct. In post-war Central Europe, identity was torn between the twin temptations of assimilation and emmigration. However, a group of young intellectuals from this "third generation" after the Holocaust are currently challenging this view. In this, the final part of this series, we will look at how these authors view the concepts of tradition and normality.

The third generation came to consciousness in the mid-1980s, in the era of the "revival of history", and immediately began searching for a tradition for its own peculiar, fragmented Jewishness, a Jewishness which was patched together from the haberdashery of meta-communication. The return to tradition has always proved a secure "modernisation strategy" in periods overburdened with history, or, as Mircea Eliade puts it in his Myth of Eternal Return, the return to tradition is elicited by an instinctive opposition to history (Eliade, 1993, 212-222). This generation freely chose the possibility (or rather the obligation) of a "revival of history" as their identity, but on the other hand they undoubtedly moved to replace their "instinctive" Judaism with "conscious" Judaism as quickly as possible, because they blanched at the uncertainty that accompanied the changes.

Importing traditions

The most obvious solution seemed to be the "importation of tradition" and in this too Israel stepped in immediately with the "nationalist innovation" - to use Eric Hobsbawn's term - of tradition (Hobsbawm, 1983, 13-14). In 1989, Israel had several hundred young people - myself among them - flown out to the Jewish state, for a taster of the promised land as guests of the nation, to witness both the ancient and the four-decade-old traditions, the ideology, the kibbutzim etc. This was the first time most of the young Central and Eastern Europeans had ever seen Jews doing physical labour - but then this was the first time any of the Israelis had ever met Jews who were not fanatical about the ideology of the nation-state.

The missionary fervour of the Jewish Agency has subsided significantly since then, although I once met an Orthodox Jew in Chernovic (Ukraine) who was leading kids in a dance to fake Israeli folk songs, and in Prague I saw young people in kipot booing the newly elected Netanyahu with all the zeal of the neophyte, when in the course of his speech he alluded to a pursuit of the peace process.

The writers of the third generation unanimously acknowledged that imported Israeli tradition could not bring spiritual inspiration to this region. They agreed that Israel is the place where the others emigrated to, so the possibility doesn't even arise. "Irreconcilable motivations, customs, memories", is how Emmy Barouh answers when asked what it is the sabra (Jew born in Israel) likes to recall; he who would happily strike from his "selective memory" the grandfather who, without a word of complaint, enlisted for the concentration camps. At the same time, as it transpired from the essays, the same memory could be the keystone to a modern Central European Jewish intellectual's identity. It was once again left to Maxim Biller to express it most succinctly "a young Jew is more scared of his first visit to Israel than of brain-surgery."

Liasons in Utopia

Their consent to being Jewish does not manifest itself in allusions and hidden signs but in conscious self-reflection, which leads each writer to a unique conclusion. The revival of history put the spark of heterogeneity back into Jewish intellectual life. Nobody writes about a return to tradition - nor to Israel nor to anything else, but then again it wouldn't be Central and Eastern Europe if the writers - with a few exceptions -couldn't find a comparatively "golden era" onto which to project their ideals as a kind of "retrospective Utopia"

For Victor Neumann the multicultural mix of the pre-war Banat region of Romania, where liberal Jews lived together with other peoples in "multiple liaisons" is one such. Elma Softic-Kaunitz indicates a similar, if today clearly unreachable idyll: a Sarajevo which is not inhabited by Bosnians, Croats, Serbs, Jews and the rest, but by townspeople living "in multiple liaisons", who - as she writes - "are killed for being from Sarajevo, not because they're the enemy."

Through the example of her own father, Pinkas, Emmy Barouh introduces the tranquil idyll of pre-war Bulgaria, and how Jews were saved in their thousands by a Bulgarian friend and neighbour who they had voted into the pre-war parliament. Laszlo Marton was probably the first of his generation to start searching for his own place, or the place of the Jews, in the midst of the new societal relations: in 1988 he formulated a theory of the "Hungarian-Jewish community of fate" where he envisaged the sort of process of gradual assimilation, or "assimilation to one another" which had been interrupted by the Hungarians. Here the "golden era" is the beginning of a process, whose task is the completion of the "assimilation of consciousness" of the two peoples, which is undertaken by the writer's thought-experiment.

Normality and its vicissitudes

"Humanity, human brotherhood, liberalism, democratic spirit,internationalism, the respect of reason, intellectualism, the will to continue human culture" - these are the spiritual imperatives of the Central and Eastern European "Jewish being", as formulated by Andras Komor six decades ago and quoted by Gabor T Szanto in his essay. If anyone were to plea for a return to these traditions today, it would not be considered particularly "Jewish", but simply an expression of normal human aspirations.

In fact normality occupies a central position in almost all of the essays and generally emerges in the same context. They, the representatives of the third generation, are "normal" because their predecessors whom they remember (selectively) and with whom they identify were, as victims, the only moral victors of the Holocaust. "Normal" because their parents or they themselves stayed in their place in Central and Eastern Europe; they were taken in neither by the ancient myths of tradition (original home, promised land, etc), nor by the pseudo-traditions of the new-age Israelis; and they had only one tradition, which they themselves unearthed, nourished and maintained - the regional tradition of rational, liberal and cosmopolitan Jewishness. "Normal" because they resolved and untangled the dilemmas and complexes of their parents; because their generation was already immune to the idiocy of Communism; because the consciousness of generation - the sense of historical continuity- survived in them; because they - like any normal individual - chose their own identities.

And the question obviously arises: what about the rest? Are they all "abnormal" - all those who had no sympathy whatever in those days, who left them and their predecessors to their own devices, who endlessly cajoled them to assimilate. Can we judge them differently now than then? In a general sense, the answer is no but that doesn't alter the fact that their place is also here in Central and Eastern Europe, living in the same place, albeit in isolation from one another.

"The Hungarian Jews committed treason (in good faith) against their own Jewishness. Later the Hungarian people committed treason (in bad faith) against the Hungarianness of their Hungarian Jews" - so runs Laszlo Marton's "assimilationist" argument. Maxim Biller is much more ruthless with the Germans: "We live with them, we work with them, we laugh with them, but we remain parted forever." In a 1995 interview, Konstanty Gebert declared that "two chosen peoples cannot live in the same land" - recognising a situation in which two peoples have lived together for so long that neither one of them can understand themselves without the other, and as long as the notion of being chosen applies to both, reconciliation is forever over the horizon.

In the optimism of the intoxication immediately following the "change of system", Laszlo Marton conceived his Hungarian-Jewish "community of fate" very differently. He thought that secularism could be resolved by a mutual recognition of co-dependence - that some sudden and unbelievable wave of empathy would inundate each individual and strip them of their centuries old prejudices. Gabor T Szanto is infinitely more down to earth: "The ghetto is us, we live in it and it lives in us. Even if we threw open the gates and integrate with the host society there's no shame in it: we owe our existence to the ghetto."

Multiple identities

Sympathetic or otherwise, the third generation Jewish intellectuals feel a calling to keep a moral vigil over the spiritual ascension of the majority in the name of normality, in other words that which Pascal Bruckner felt to be lacking is materialising. This is what Gabor T Szanto euphemistically calls "a certain critical attitude to society" - the rest speak openly about normality. Elma Softic-Kaunitz explains unambiguously that she deliberately stayed in wartime Sarajevo and even gave birth to a child in those merciless times because her disappearance would have significantly reduced the number of "normal" people: "Considering the number of people who hate each other," she writes "and for the sole reason that they belong to a certain race or people, you can't assert that they aren't normal. There are too many of them. So many that I often used to wonder whether it wasn't me that was on the far side of normality. Because I don't hate."

In a text composed in less extreme circumstances, Maxim Biller writes frankly that the reason German contemporary literature is boring and flat is that to this day Germans are afraid to face the part their parents played in the war: "they are unwilling to tap the collective memory of their people." In Victor Neumann's trans-historical perspective, the shared inheritance of Hungarian, Czechoslovak, Polish and Romanian Jews is precisely the fact of having a "multiple identity", which he considers to be the only rational response in a multi-ethnic state.

Konstanty Gebert finishes his essay with the idea that, in the end, they got what they were struggling for before 1989, during the period of their identity formation: a small and banal Jewish community has come into existence, which is no better or worse than anywhere else on the planet, that is, a "normal state" has been resumed.

Laszlo Marton's unrealisable "community of fate" was also written from a starting point of historical reconciliation, which is utter normality. Emmy Barouh too, who shares a certain kindred spirit with him, quotes Hannah Arendt in the name of universal normality, who asserts that "Europe is the home of the Jews" and that's why they are battling against the idea of "Schengen-Europe", because it deprives them - together with the Bulgarians, with whom she claims a genuine community of fate - of the pleasure of their shared fatherland.

In last week's article, I said that that the very existence of the generation I wanted to talk about is doubtful. It is possible that even now the existence of a new generation of Central and Eastern European writers is obvious only to me. To the extent that the intellectuals of an era can be regarded as the expression of a generational "world-view", it can also be said of the third generation in general that they are those who are not concerned about leaving and staying, forgiveness and revenge, repression and sublimation. They wish, by means of self-reflection, to bring order to the mind and soul, and to complete the task shifted over to them, whether consciously or through absent-minded procrastination, by the second generation.

Just as it is true that traditions are created, generations too can be created - through meeting, through the publication of a shared anthology, or even through the writing of an overview such as this. If such a generation ever really arrives at self-knowledge, then it will also be to their credit that the most authoritative texts on future generations of Central and Eastern European Jews will not have been written by psychologists.

Peter Krasztev, 30 August 1999

Translated by Stephen Humphreys


Quoted Essays

Albahari, David (Belgrade-Calgary): "The Burden of Mimicry".

Barouh, Emmy (Sofia): "Fragments About the Conflicts and Cultural Adaptation of the Wondering Jew".

Biller, Maxim (Prague-Cologne): "Writing History".

Gebert, Konstanty (Warsaw): "Dial-a-Jew".

Neumann,Victor (Timisoara): "Central-East European Jews and the Intercultural Idea".

Marton, Laszlo (Budapest): The Chosen Ones and the Mingled Ones

Szanto, Gabor T (Budapest): "To Be a (Hungarian-) Jewish Writer".

Softic-Kaunitz, Elma (Sarajevo): "A Few Sentences about the Rhythm of Crime".

Ziak, Milos (Bratislava): "We Want the Messiah Now"



Bruckner, Pascal: "On Cosmopolitism", Magyar Lettre International, 1996/2.

Danto, Arthur: Narration and Knowledge, New York, 1985

Eliade, Mircea: Az orok visszateres mitosza (The Myth of Eternal Return), Budapest, 1989.

Feher, Ferenc + Heller, Agnes: "A modernitas ingaja" (The Pendulum of Modernity) in A modernitas ingaja, Budapest, 1993.

Hobsbawn, Erik: "Inventing Traditions" in The Invention of Traditions, (Ed. by:) E Hobsbawn and T Ranger (Eds), Cambridge, 1983.

Howe, Neil - Strauss, William: "The New Generation Gap", The Atlantic Monthly, 1992 December

Kestenberg, Judith: "A tulelok gyermekei es a gyermek tulelok" (The Children of Survivals and Survived Children), Thalassa, 1994/1-2.

Toulmin, Richard: Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity, Chicago, 1990.




Left and Right

Too Wide a Spectrum

Czech Republic:
No Spectrum at All

Receive Central Europe Review
free via e-mail
every week.


Jan Culik:
UK Rejects Central Europeans

Vaclav Pinkava:

Sam Vaknin:
Balkan Intellectuals

Readers' Choice:
The most popular article last week

The Generation Gap in Czech Society


Czech Nationalism Defeating European Dream

Polish Agricultural Reform



Contact CER to find out more about our Virtual Internship Programme


Jan Hrebejk's

Roman Vavra's
Co chytnes v zite

Everything there is to know about Central and East European FILM.


A Lovely Tale of Photography

A New Generation of Jewish Writers
(part 3)

Book Shop


Music Shop


Central European
Culture in the UK


Transitions Online


One Year after Major Central European Elections

with your comments
and suggestions.

Receive Central Europe Review
free via e-mail
every week.


Copyright (c) 1999 - Central Europe Review and Internet servis, a.s.
All Rights Reserved