Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 8, 16 August 1999

Generating a Generation I D E N T I T Y:
Confronting Jewishness
Part I - How the idea of generation died

Peter Krasztev

For those in Central Europe who are grandchildren of the survivors of the Second World War, Jewish identity has long been 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. Somewhere between these two poles, the concept of generations died. However, a group of young intellectuals from this post-Holocaust "third generation" are currently challenging this view. In the first part of this series of articles, we shall examine the reaffirmation of Jewish identity. This issue's installment will look at how the concept of generations died in Central and Eastern Europe during the period of Communism, necessitating its reinvention with the revolutions of 1989.

No generations, no gaps

De Tocqueville's remark that "among democratic nations each generation is a new people" - applies in reverse to totalitarian states. Thus, in Central and Eastern Europe - with the possible exception of Hungary and Poland and maybe pre-1968 Czechoslovakia - up until the mid-1980s, the issue of generations was a physiological rather than a philosophical or sociological question. In the interests of "social stability" - as social stasis was termed at the time - every (non-state)organisation had to become official, if it wished to survive. This led to an exchange of leadership elites with no pretensions of adjusting to changing circumstances and no resulting generational shift.

De Tocqueville's above-quoted remark referred to America in the first half of the last century, and as usual he was prescient: 20th-century American history could be described as a ferocious fight between the GIs and the "boomers," and then between these and the "thirteeners," with the committed assistance of the "silent generation." The "thirteeners" generation can be justifiably compared to the "lost generation" of the First World War, and two witty and knowledgeable American writers do just that in the greatest imaginable detail (Howe-Strauss, 1992, pp 67-89). However, this argument would come off as familiar to an Eastern European as, say, the debate of the Sunnis and Shi'ites about the correct interpretation of the Koran.

A sequence of generations can only exist in the presence of history. In a state which is designed for eternity (stasis), which necessitated and created an unassailable value system, and which had the last word in all matters of good and evil - us and them, body and soul - the possibility for change and the continuity of history came to a halt. That is to say, time stood still. Central and East European prose written in the 1970s and 80s (and it is instructive to read them from today's perspective) expresses this complete absence of time.

An absence of history

Of course, an absence of history doesn't mean an absence of events. A second reason that generations failed to appear in the region is that events themselves are in vain if the absence of a public arena neutralises their transformation into history. Arthur Danto tells us that "to exist historically is to perceive the events one lives through as part of a story later to be told" (Danto, 1985, p 342). Events remained unutterable up to the mid-1980s, and so the discourse necessary for their assimilation failed to appear. The various groups and generations who would finally constitute history had no interpretation of the events that led them there.

The best example of this repression is the Hungarian revolution of 1956. Up until the mid-1980s, the idea of a 1956 generation was plausible, and then it suddenly became clear that only individual interpretations and experiences, with virtually no points of contact between them, had survived all those years of silence.

The "great generation" of 1968 remained a fiction for the same reason - for a decade there was no open discourse within the country about the events. In Hungary, the reconstruction of events and the "generational memory" began picking up at the end of the 1980s: documents believed to be lost were published, annotated and interpreted; eye-witnesses were interviewed; and memoirs sought.

Imported modernism

The third reason why there were no generations in Central and Eastern Europe is that ideas, fads and events which defined generations in the West appeared here merely as imported copies, rather than as end products of organic processes. Ferenc Feher and Agnes Heller refer to this as an absence of the "dynamism of modernity" (Feher + Heller, 1993, p 13). In the 1960s, the first inter-generational conflicts erupted in Western Europe. This period is now known as the third stage of modernity, the age of the disintegration of modernity - the beginning of the post-modern era.

According to Richard Toulmin, during this stage, an ideal of stability and unity was replaced by an ideal of diversity and adaptability: art movements and fashion trends came to exist in parallel rather than in series, and the convergence of left and right robbed classical politics of meaning. Toulmin considers the term "generation gap" dubious, because it conceals the real issue: "The highly visible counter-culture of the 1960s was essentially not a youth culture: the intellectual, psychological and artistic material for the new movement had been there for 50 years, waiting for a generation to see the point and seize the day." (Toulmin, 1990, 161)

There was none of this continuity, this inheritance, in Central and Eastern Europe (although in this regard, too, Hungary and Poland were exceptional to some extent). Rock and roll, punk, neo-avant-garde performers, experimental filmmakers, alternative communities, hippies and hobos all came and went, but as mere copies modelled on Western forms. Since the whole point of the regime was the creation of a homogeneous, well-ordered society in which any kind of group identity could only be conceivedof as deviance from the norm, in most countries these movements were barely publicised and their proponents ended up in mental asylums or isolated communities. A certain amount of diversity did exist between those of the same rank, but no generations arose. The relatively tolerant social atmosphere, achieved in the West through the internal dynamics of modernity, could not take root.

History as a permanent home

In his outstanding meditation on cosmopolitanism, there is a plaintive sentence in which Pascal Bruckner asserts that the disappearance of Jewish communities from Central and Eastern Europe remains an unprecedented spiritual disaster, because they took with them the unblinkered perspective of the outsider, an indispensable weapon for exposing societal lies (Bruckner, 1996, 3). Bruckner's general sense is, of course, right, except that Jews have not categorically disappeared from the region.

A few years ago, I visited Chernovic, Ukraine, a former spiritual centre for Central and East European Jewry. It happened to be Rosh Hashanah - the Jewish New Year - and I was amazed to see that several hundred of the celebrants were under 30. Ira Boyka, the headmistress of the local Jewish school told me that she wasn't quite sure herself what all this meant, since as far as everybody in the town knew, the Jews had all emigrated. Since 1990, several thousand had "appeared," as if multiplying by cell-division. It is always possible to find an "ancestor," perhaps some distant uncle, who can act as a justification of the "revival" of a Jewish identity.

I find this story emblematic for the Jewry of the whole region. Not only have the Jews, who were believed to have disappeared, reappeared, they have even preserved their generational consciousness. In next week's issue, I will look at a group of nine Central and East European intellectuals who fervently consider themselves to be third generation Jews. I will examine what this could mean, considering that they were brought up in a secular manner and did not endure the "shared experience" of the Holocaust.

Peter Krasztev, 16 August 1999

Translated by Stephen Humphreys


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

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

Howe, Neil and 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.





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