Hoffman, Eva 1945-
HOFFMAN, Eva 1945-
PERSONAL: Original given name, Ewa; born July 1, 1945, in Krakow, Poland; immigrated to Canada, 1959; immigrated to the United States, 1963; daughter of Boris (in business) and Maria (a homemaker; maiden name, Burg) Wydra; married Barry Hoffman, 1971 (divorced, 1976). Education: Rice University, B.A., 1967; graduate study at Yale University, 1967–68; Harvard University, Ph.D., 1974. Politics: "Progressive, but not conventionally leftist." Religion: "Jewish (formally; not religious personally)."
ADDRESSES: Office—Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 77 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02139. Agent—Georges Borchardt, 136 E. 57th St., New York, NY 10022. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Writer, educator, and public speaker. University of New Hampshire, Durham, assistant professor of literature, 1975–76; Tufts University, Medford, MA, assistant professor of literature, 1976–77; New York Times, New York, NY, "Week in Review" editor, 1980–82, "Arts and Leisure" deputy editor, 1982–85; New York Times Book Review, New York, NY, editor, 1987–89; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, visiting professor.
MEMBER: PEN, Authors Guild.
AWARDS, HONORS: Woodrow Wilson fellowship, 1967; fellowships from Danforth Foundation, 1968–74, Carnegie Mellon Foundation, 1977, and American Council of Learned Societies, 1985; Jean Stein Award for nonfiction, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1990; Guggenheim fellowship; Whiting Award.
Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language (autobiography), Dutton (New York, NY), 1989.
Exit into History: A Journey through the New Eastern Europe, Viking (New York, NY), 1993.
Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1997.
The Secret: A Fable for Our Time (novel), Secker & Warburg (London, England), 2001.
After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Legacy of the Holocaust, Public Affairs (New York, NY), 2004.
SIDELIGHTS: Eva Hoffman is a former New York Times Book Review editor whose autobiographical Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language describes the effect of having spent her early years in Poland, her adolescence in Canada, and her adult years in America. The book's title, as Ron Grossman of Tribune Books observed, reflects the fact that learning a new language and culture as a young adult was not only difficult, but that "for a long time, Hoffman couldn't shake the painful feeling that somewhere on that trans-Atlantic voyage, her life had been 'Lost in Translation.'" To Hoffman, words in English seemed hollow and did not resonate with meaning as did Polish words. And while Hoffman's Canadian teenage classmates were forging new adult identities, Hoffman felt a loss of identity that was reinforced on the first day of school when a teacher changed her name from "Ewa" to "Eva." But, as one deeply interested in language, Hoffman grew conversant in English, studied literature at such American universities as Yale and Harvard, and became a literature professor before settling in New York as a book reviewer.
Lost in Translation also presents Hoffman's European perspective on North American life. One significant difference between cultures Hoffman found was in temperament. In a New York Times review, Eva Figes quoted Hoffman describing a girlfriend who was "bafflingly cheerful and sensible." "Where are her moods," Hoffman wondered, "her intensities, the invisible, shadowy part of her personality? I can't penetrate all that transparency." Hoffman concludes that while the Cold War accustomed Europeans to outward deception, Americans' insistence upon cheerfulness makes them vulnerable to self-deception.
Reviewers enjoyed Lost in Translation, praising especially Hoffman's insight and grace with language. Jonathan Kirsch, for example, wrote in the Los Angeles Times that "Hoffman's voice is rich and melodic; her recollections are intimate, vivid, poignant…. Hoffman is a masterful storyteller with a compelling story to tell." Saying she has "never read a finer, more meticulous account of what it is like to be translated from one country to another," Figes judged Lost in Translation to be "a marvelously thoughtful book, telling in its detail, meticulous in its use of words and in self-analysis. And insofar as we are all exiles of Eden, and alienation is rooted in the human condition now, it is not just about emigrants and refugees. It is about us all."
Other of Hoffman's works are concerned with issues related to the Holocaust and its effects on Jewish families in Poland, America, and elsewhere. A child of Holocaust survivors who were hidden from the Nazis by Christians in German-occupied Poland, Hoffman has direct experience with many of the concepts she writes about. "Eva Hoffman is one of the most eloquent spokespeople of the second generation, the children of Holocaust survivors," commented Rochelle G. Ruthchild in the Women's Review of Books.
Hoffman analyzes in depth the relationship between Poland and Polish Jews in Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews. The focus of her inquiry is the small Polish town, or shtetl, of Bransk, where more than 4,600 people lived during the World War II era. She traces the origins of the many hundreds of Jews who lived there—more than half the town's population before the war was Jewish—and contrasts it with the fact that there are no more Jews there at all today. Among her concerns are the treatment of Jews in Bransk during the war and how it was possible for nearly half the small town's residents to turn on the others. She searches for social, economic, and political reasons, and concludes that the tragic outcome was possible because the populations of Poles and Jews coexisted, but remained separated from each other. Nation reviewer Eunice Lipton called Shtetl a "daring and generous book, measured in style, passionate in intent." The book is "written with tremendous clarity of mind and language," commented George Cohen in Booklist. Library Journal contributor Barbara Hoffert concluded: "Both thoughtful and thought-provoking, this slim work adds immeasurably to our understanding of the Holocaust."
In After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Legacy of the Holocaust, Hoffman explores a relatively unmined theme related to the effects of the Holocaust on family. She "investigates a different type of family dynamic: how knowledge about the Holocaust is transmitted and remembered by the second generation," noted Frederic Krome in the Library Journal. In a book that combines memoir and social analysis, Hoffman considers the implications of the Holocaust as a historical event and its numerous meanings that have evolved in modern times. She discusses the psychology of survivors, and about how in the aftermath they maintained a steady focus on the present, avoiding recalling the experiences they endured. She describes how she was selected as the family's "memorial candle," the child in the family who is charged with learning and maintaining family history, thus becoming the linchpin for transferring memories and history to the next generation and for keeping those memories intact and unadulterated. She tells how she and her sister traveled to Poland to meet the family that had saved her parents during the war, but wonders why her parents have totally lost touch with their saviors. Hoffman points out modern areas in which Jews and Holocaust memories still suffer, including Islamist anti-Semitism and the use and abuse of Holocaust imagery in contemporary politics. The book is "a commendable contribution," stated a Kirkus Reviews contributor. "Ultimately, Hoffman advocates moving on," Ruthchild noted,"citing the Jewish tradition of grieving fully for the dead but placing a finite end to mourning."
The Secret: A Fable for Our Time, Hoffman's debut novel, explores ideas of cloning and what it means to the concept of being human. "Can a clone contain a new human soul or just a photocopy?," asked a Publishers Weekly contributor. That contributor added that "Hoffman brilliantly meditates on this mystery in her auspicious fiction debut" about Iris and Elizabeth Surrey, a mother and daughter whose bond is closer than even that afforded by traditional genetics. The relationship between the two is unusually close, and Iris, age seventeen, is virtually identical to her mother in looks and mannerisms. An attempt to find her father reveals the startling truth: Iris is a clone, and her search for an identity infuses the bulk of the novel. The knowledge of her origins is difficult for Iris to accept, and she is unrelentingly harsh on herself. She leaves her home and looks for answers in the outside world, a place that still finds clones difficult to accept, and where they are more often shunned as freaks of science. Relatives are unhelpful, even hostile, but an understanding young man may offer more answers than anyone in her chromosomal lineage. Library Journal reviewer Beth E. Andersen called the book a "thoughtful, philosophical treatment of the devastating effects a wholly fatherless state can trigger." Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, named the book an "elegant, smart, and unsettling tale" in which "Hoffman succeeds brilliantly in creating a provocative, cautionary coming-of-age story."
Hoffman once told CA: "I have been driven to writing by the condition of exile, and by the intense relation-ship to the English language which resulted from it—a relationship which has involved both an alienation from language and a desire to possess it. As an immigrant, I became a sort of amateur anthropologist within American culture: I have observed it and tried to understand it with something approaching obsessiveness, and on every issue—from the largest to the smallest—I've been aware of having a vantage point slightly outside the received categories. This is good for criticism and for writing."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Hoffman, Eva, Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language, Dutton, 1989.
Booklist, December 15, 1993, Anne Gendeler, review of Exit into History: A Journey through the New Eastern Europe, p. 735; September 15, 1997, George Cohen, review of Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews, p. 205; December 1, 2002, review of The Secret: A Fable for Our Time, p. 646.
Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2002, review of The Secret, p. 1061; November 15, 2003, review of After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Legacy of the Holocaust, p. 1350.
Library Journal, September 15, 1997, Barbara Hoffert, review of Shtetl, p. 87; September 15, 2002, Beth E. Anderson, review of The Secret, p. 91; February 15, 2004, Frederic Krome, review of After Such Knowledge, p. 140.
Los Angeles Times, March 22, 1989, Jonathan Kirsch, review of Lost in Translation.
Nation, November 3, 1997, Eunice Lipton, review of Shtetl, p. 26.
New Republic, December 5, 1994, Anne Applebaum, review of Exit into History, p. 46.
New York Times, January 11, 1989, Eva Figes, review of Lost in Translation, p. B4.
New York Times Book Review, January 15, 1989, Peter Conrad, review of Lost in Translation, p. 1.
Publishers Weekly, September 23, 2002, review of The Secret, p. 47.
Times Literary Supplement, November 17, 1989, Carol Rumens, review of Lost in Translation, p. 1263.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), February 1, 1989, Ron Grossman, review of Lost in Translation.
Washington Monthly, December, 1993, Halle Shilling, review of Exit into History, p. 56.
Women's Review of Books, September, 2004, Rochelle G. Ruthchild, review of After Such Knowledge, p. 24.
PEN American Center Web Site, http://www.pen.org/ (September 17, 2005), biography of Eva Hoffman.