Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 9, 23 August 1999

A new generation of Central European Jewish authors is emerging I D E N T I T Y:
Confronting Jewishness
Part II - Generating a Generation

Peter Krasztev

Jewish identity for those in Central Europe who are grandchildren of the survivors of the Second World War 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 emigration. However, a group of young intellectuals from this "third generation" after the Holocaust are currently challenging this view. In this, the second of three parts, we will look at how these authors view their Jewishness and how they came to this consciousness.

A generation?

It is doubtful whether this "third generation" can really be said to exist at all as a coherent collection of individuals with common attitudes and senses of identity - except within the minds of a number of intellectuals who know each other largely through hearsay, or perhaps on the basis of one another's writings. However, it is not unusual for generations, movements or trends to be designated or "discovered" without their representatives ever hearing about it until after the fact, if indeed at all.

In what follows, we will be talking about declared identities only: about an image which nine Central and Eastern European Jewish creative intellects have endeavoured to build around themselves, as well as a myth which they have tried to make acceptable to their contemporaries. Each of them has written about how they dealt with their own Jewishness,and what it was that prompted them to identify themselves as Jewish writers, despite being brought up in a secular environment and not having endured the "shared experience" of the Shoah.

The formation of this third generation has been an example of the "snowball effect" - the more it rolls down the hill the larger it grows. These writers have documented their own thoughts and feelings on Jewishness and in doing so they claim to be interpreting and commenting on society. However, at the same time they are arousing interest in these feelings and inviting poeple to identify with them. Therefore, by raising these issues, the authors are not just neutrally describing this social snowball, but also adding another layer of snow to it. What is interesting in this case is that these texts transmit feelings and moods to a generation which was rumoured not to exist , or to have at best a purely physical existence, the last reserves of the spirit having been exhausted to the point where it would be senseless to say this generation even had "opinions" to "generate".

An unignorable enthusiasm

The whole story began when I co-organised a symposium at the Central European University with the aim of deciding whether such a generation really exists and if so, what are its defining features. Not a single one of the authors we invited turned us down - although only three of them actually turned up. The question thus remained unresolved: we each remained faithful to our own original opinions. Then - without any further encouragement - the invitees began to contact us one by one with their contributions and essays. From their enthusiasm, it was clear that we were moving into uncharted territory, where the concepts were at least as difficult to map out as any other relating to either Central and Eastern Europe or Jewishness in general.

The only sure things in the midst of these doubts was that there were still Jews in the area, that creative intellectuals and writers existed among them, and young ones at that. Our term for them, the "third generation" was not without ambiguity however: two of the nine chosen witnesses - Victor Neumann from Timisoara and David Albahari from Belgrade - were over forty. They contrast with the general collection of authors who thought of their Jewish identity in terms of child-survivor-grandchild, a theme which receives full treatment in texts which approach the subject from the point of view of psychology (Thalassa, 1994, 1-2).

Age-group and generation, however, don't necessarily fall into the same bracket: not only did the older members enthusiastically send us their essays (and therefore consider themselves to be members of the "third generation"), but their paths to acheiving their respective senses of identity bore similarities to those of the younger authors. Such perceptions of self were the result more of a series of conscious childhood decisions which arose along with an awareness of the possibility of identity choices in society, even if it was a closed one. As such, identity was only an indirect continuation of the traditions learned at home.

At the same time, the third generation came into being without external provocation and as a psychological reaction to the absence of a "canonical order". This generational consciousness didn't necessarily manifest itself in opposition to the generation that had come before it. It would be more accurate to say that the hidden behavioural patterns of the previous two generations brought it to the surface. The fact of the existence of generations does not, therefore, conceal a single inter-generational conflict - rather the whole of society confronts the Jews with its "generational unconscious". This is most likely what nourishes the "consciousness of social norms" of those of the third generation.

Reacting to the threat of extinction

The Jewish consciousness of some of the young writers was first awakened when they perceived the possibility of disappearance. David Albahari remembers his old teacher's incomprehension when he realised his pupil's surname was unmistakably Jewish: "How is it possible? ... I thought that there were no more of you Jews left around". Victor Neumann was determined to stay Jewish and "stave off the extinction of Jewishness" when his parents advised him as a child that he could better pursue a career with a Christian name. Milos Ziak compared the trauma of violent assimilation he lived through in Slovakia in the 1960s and 70s directly to the Holocaust: the possibility of disappearance awoke in him a consciousness of being Jewish. Konstanty Gebert of Warsaw thinks that Jewish consciousness in Poland arose in his generation as a response to the dread aroused by an anti-Semitic propaganda campaign of 1968 which resulted in the emigration of 20,000 Jews: "Oh, I had always known that I was 'of Jewish origin', but that had been irrelevant as Poland was supposed to be an internationalist socialist society, in which nation, religion and race did not matter any more. 1968 had changed all that."

The community of the disappeared and the emigrated gradually began to turn up and club together, like the assembly of survivors at the dedication of a monument in Mihaly Korniss's novel Sunbook: "You guys are Jews too, aren't you? It doesn't mean a thing - your children will grow out of it. What is it you want - you're the lucky ones!" Only the children didn't grow out of it. In fact, if anything, they grew into it, turning into a very different generation than that of their parents.

The first argument for the failure of generational consciousness to emerge in Central and Eastern Europe was that in the absence of a sense of historical continuity there can be no generations (see last week's article). However, the historical consciousness of the Jewry of the region is not identical with the consciousness of the majority. No Jew, for example, could say that they had lost or won the Second World War, unlike most of the population. Maxim Biller, a child of Russian parents raised in Prague and currently living as a Jewish writer in Germany,writes:

I have suddenly come to understand that as a German writer you don't necessarily need history or a sense of history - at least not to define yourself, to understand yourself both as something quite special and as an individual encompassed by the whole. Knowing with certainty that one day you will be buried in the earth on which you have walked all your life, being absolutely certain of as permanent home, is more than enough to provide intellectual peace of mind... But for a Jew who is always conscious that he is not truly bound to any place in this world - either out of necessity or amusement - the history of his people is the only permanent home he has.

Apart from its unusual degree of pathos, this assertion of Biller's could probably be applied to all the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe.

The school of identity

The memory of the shared experience of the Shoah is kept alive involuntarily in the continuity of history, but above and beyond that, through the kind of attitude described by Korniss. And that is the second reason why generations existed within the Jewish diaspora. Whereas for a long time an independent discourse, which one or another generation could regard as their own, failed to appear around the events following the war, the Shoah did not allow for competing discourses. Nor could any self-respecting state apparatus allow itself to alter the Holocaust story to the extent they did the histories of the 1956 and 1968 revolutions for example.

The accounts of the psychoanalysts who examined and treated the off-spring of Holocaust survivors in the region (Thalassa, 1994 1-2) testify that what is at issue here is a continuously sustained discourse, and not some kind of mystified "national spirit." In one of her papers, Judith Kestenberg distinguished three generations: the survivors, their children and the third generation. She concludes that the children of survivors tend to treat the Shoah secret as their own, and feel they have to hide it from their own children, yet they unwittingly bequeath it to the third generation. The transmission takes place through slips and silences and spontaneous outbursts (what psychologists term "acting out") - with the aid of the entire artillery of meta-communication.

From inadvertent fragments such as these, the identity of the third generation came into being: from an event which they can remember without ever having experienced it; the unconscious behaviour of one generation generating a conscious identity in the next. Emmy Barouh of Sofia devotes a large section of her essay to what she terms the "will" of memory - that is, the "selective memory" of the Jews - in which, for example, every Passover repeats the story of the exodus from Egypt, while a deep silence surrounds the lived experience of the Holocaust. The creative artist wishes to remember everything, leaving no part of the past uncovered, and it is from this will that she draws her identity of otherness. Maxim Biller, who writes exclusively about Jews, asserts that for him it's not so much the Holocaust itself that supplies his theme, but what it did to the survivors and their off-spring, or rather exactly those shifts in conscious and unconscious behaviour which made his own identity just so. He replaces actual memory with aestheticized renderings of "acted out" moments and the other phenomena of meta-communication.

A small age of fear

Milos Ziak, in whose family Jewishness was never mentioned, was christened by each of his grandmothers separately, because "if another Hitler comes along and the authorities don't let you into one village, well, you can go to the other". The twice-christened Milos Ziak then lived through the "pseudo-Holocaust" of Czechoslovak assimilation policy. This exaggeration illustrates the extent of his identification, as though he himself had become a participant in the story of his ancestors.

This is even clearer in the case of David Albahari who performs the same identification; the memory of the Holocaust, according to him, obliging the writer to stand up against every kind of horror. Albahari's reference here is to the 1992-95 Yugoslavian war; Elma Softic-Kaunitz from Sarajevo puts it more directly - in Sarajevo they survived a second Holocaust, which goes to show that humankind has not improved in the least since the Shoah. Victor Neumann, Konstaty Gebert and Milos Ziak don't put a name to it, but they write about Communism as an unmistakably similar "small age of fear", which further broadens the already wide shared experience of the Jews of the region with yet another oppressive experience.

When it comes to the Jews, my earlier treatise on the absence of the dynamics of modernity is only moderately true. No amount of state propaganda could have convinced all these people, who carry within themselves the memory of a shared experience, that their sense of belonging together was mere deviance. The propaganda could not counter the fact that everyone knew that "Jewish consciousness" had provided the dynamic that modernised an internationally recognised Jewish state. It is a separate issue that the image of Israel in the popular imagination of the time was so obviously idealised -a sort of vision of Canaan, since whatever was actually happening overthere could only be guessed at from the vague rumours that reached us.

However, it is still not clear if a distinct Jewish identity can emerge in the total absence of tradition, however much there might be common consciousness and ways of interpreting experiences. In forming a new Jewish identity, Central and East Europeans are faced with the problems of resolving their own internal identity, which should demand their own specific traditions, against the traditions held by Jews outside of Central and Eastern Europe. Next week, in the final installment of this series. I will look at this conflict of traditions.

Peter Krasztev, 23 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.




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