Originally appeared in The Boston Book Review.
. . . Several decades after the Holocaust, there is a danger, for those of us who did not live through it, of a kind of automatism of Jewish memory; of reiterating narratives of tragedy without any longer bothering to think about them; of identifying with martyrdom without having earned the right to it; of remaining fixated on the most awful moment so that we don't have to look back to the more ambiguous past -- or forward to the troublingly uncertain future.
HB: What led you to write "Shtetl"?
EH: Many things. It was initially commissioned as a sort of companion book to the television documentary, "Shtetl." But, of course, I took it on because I had my very personal and quite impassioned interest in the subject.
At the same time, in the West, I have often encountered such reductive views of Poland.
HB: Among Jews.
EH: Particularly among Jews, who have a tendency to conflate Poland with Germany -- almost, sometimes, to transfer the bitterness against Germany into bitterness against Poland. That is psychologically understandable since Poland was the homeland, the place where the Holocaust happened. There is a psychic association. That tendency was not helped by the Iron Curtain and a postwar situation in which Poland became increasingly distanced from actual contact, increasingly seen as the Other. And possibly the realm of savagery.
HB: Which is how the West is prone to construe the Slavic world, isn't it? On the one side, civilization, on the other, barbarism.
EH: Indeed. Claude Lanzman said in an interview I conducted with him that the West is human, the East is not. There is that kind of barrier in the imagination --╩or has been. The barriers are coming down along with the borders.
HB: The book seems aimed especially at Jews, at introducing complexity and ambiguity into Jewish thinking.
EH: I am telling the part of the story which has been forgotten. Certainly, when I'm in Poland I feel it absolutely incumbent upon myself to answer whatever suggestion of anti-Semitism I encounter. But here it seems to be the other part of the story which has been suppressed. Not literally suppressed but repressed, perhaps, and forgotten.
HB: There is a sense in which "Shtetl" is a continuation of "Lost in Translation." "Lost in Translation" reconciles your being both Polish and American. "Shtetl" attempts to reconcile your being Polish and Jewish.
EH: Yes. It has been a painful matter to me that these parts of my identity are thought to be incompatible, that one has to somehow chose one side or the other. I recently saw a reference to an interview with Alexander Wat, one of the famous inter-war Polish poets who was Jewish, and a great friend of Milosz. In fact, "My Century," an absolutely wonderful book, came out of conversations between Wat and Milosz.
People kept asking Wat, are you Polish or are you Jewish? And his answer was, "I'm Polish Polish, and Jewish Jewish."
HB: You are in a tradition of Poles who have taken up English as their literary language. It's a pretty grand tradition, including Conrad, Kosinski, and Malinowski.
EH: Though you compliment me too much by putting me in that tradition, it is true there have been a number of Polish writers who have taken on the English language, partly because there's been such a long history of exile, emigration and exile in this direction.
HB: Coming here as a teenager, you had no choice. You had to learn the language. Of course, Jerzy Kosinski, too, as an immigrant, had no choice.
EH: He had some choices. There are people, even today, who write in Polish and get themselves translated, but of course one is better off if one can take on English.
HB: Yiddish was not a language of yours, was it?
EH: No, it wasn't.
HB: You refer to it, as used in your family, as "the language of money and secrets."
EH: In fact, I was recently at a Yiddish festival where I realized I understand half of Yiddish.
HB: Which half?
EH: The Polish half.
HB: In "Lost in Translation," you describe the anguish you experienced leaving Poland, where it felt as though the rivers spoke to you in a warm and familiar tongue. In "Shtetl," you describe one forest, for instance, as "the source of poems and legends, the home of bison, hermits, and conspiracies." In the United States, things felt cold and remote, difficult to get hold of in words. But you are part of a generation, the generation that came to consciousness in the sixties, that was defined by alienation. In a sense, coming from afar, you had an advantage. You were able to track your alienation rather than getting lost in it.
EH: It was a discovery I made after writing "Lost in Translation" that it did seem to reflect the feelings of a generation. Of course, I suppose on some level most humankind feels exiled in one way or another, exiled from sort of true home, some sort of plenitude, some sort of community, some sort of idea of belonging. Particularly in our time, exile and migration are becoming more and more the normative condition. So I suppose my situation did help me have a vantage point.
This is the great advantage -- for writing. Less of an advantage for living. It gives you a bit of detachment. It places you at a kind of oblique angle.
HB: You learned English by writing in your diary.
EH: I made my way into English through writing. This is how I began to compose some sort of new identity which made sense.
HB: You write that this new, English-speaking self was more comfortable "in the abstract sphere of thoughts and observations than in the world. For a while, this impersonal self, this cultural negative capability, becomes the truest thing about me."
EH: I was in an abstract relation to my new environment. I was learning it a little like some fledgling anthropologist.
HB: Do you still have those diaries?
EH: I do! They're written in very tiny letters.
HB: Were you trying to hide them from yourself even as you wrote them?
HB: You make a lovely observation at the end of "Lost in Translation" about how a double consciousness, a bi-cultural self, is already in some ways a multicultural self: "The apertures of perception have widened because they were once pried apart. Just as they number "2" implies all other number, so a bivalent consciousness is necessarily a multivalent consciousness."
EH: Once you learn a second culture from within -- once you understand the importance of culture, how much it structures us, how much it is inscribed in our psyche -- you grasp the deep meaning of cultural difference; you understand something about cultural possibility.
HB: You return constantly, in "Shtetl," to the theme of multi-culturalism. You write that Poland was, for a period of its history, a model of multi-culturalism.
EH: The book came, in part, from my observations of multi-culturalism in America, problems of cross-ethnic and cross-racial relationships, and was addressed to these problems.
It might be surprising to many readers but in fact, yes, Poland has a very multi-cultural history. At its peak, Poland prided itself on toleration, and had a genuine history of toleration -- until a certain point.
HB: That point being?
EH: When Polish society begins to fall apart and decline -- partly because of invasions from various sides, partly from internal contradictions -- when it begins to fall apart economically and in other ways, then, yes, xenophobia, a very defensive sense of ethnic and national identity begins to reassert itself.
One of the general lessons in studying this history was the great influence, the great power, of economic and political circumstance. I don't think that people are quintessentially loving of their neighbors or quintessentially prejudiced or anti-Semitic. The instinct of natural tolerance is very much present in ordinary life. Conflict needs to be inflamed in order for prejudice to become very acute. But it can be inflamed and is inflamed repeatedly.
HB: Are universalistic hopes luxuries? Can they survive times when the heat is turned up?
EH: It is a very good question. The hope is to build very strong structures and institutions to preserve the universalistic aspect of our identities, and the common parts of our society. Without those structures, the more antagonistic impulses can be inflamed.
We need structures that allow us to meet as members of the same society, and know we are working with and trying to nurture the same terrain. I don't have a blueprint. But I do think part of the problem of Polish-Jewish relations in the inter-war period, when nationalism was ascendant, is that there wasn't enough articulation of common interest on either side. There was growing anti-Semitism and growing defensive nationalism on the Polish part, and on the Jewish side, a sense of being beleaguered and having to look out for their own interests.
HB: What is the response to the book, and to the PBS documentary, "Shtetl," in Poland?
EH: The introduction to my book will be printed in one of the main newspapers in Poland, so I might have some responses then. The film has provoked enormous controversy. Two kinds of discussion go on in Poland now. One is a scenario in which the two participants in the dialogue hurl escalating accusations at each other. The Poles felt the film placed them in a terrible light. They thought their national character was impugned. Another part of the discussion of Jewish matters in Poland is much better, more thoughtful and self-reflective. It asks, what do we Poles need to know about our participation, our part of the responsibility for what happened to Jews in Poland during the Holocaust? There's been a lot of conscience searching, a lot of debate and rethinking of certain historical episodes.
HB: The movie did not seem unduly accusatory to me.
EH: This is where interpretations of history diverge.
HB: It's depressing that with a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of Polish Jews remaining, the status of Polish Jews is still something Poles need to argue about.
EH: There is a great Jewish revival going on in Poland as well.
HB: I understand that revival to be taking place both among Jews and among Poles who are taking on a kind of Yiddishkeit.
EH: Definitely. The whole post-war period did not help because it really was a period of silence and repression. In a sense, public discussion of these matters in Poland is behind that of other countries; all these questions were on ice. So there is a leftover rhetoric that I and some of my Jewish friends feel is a very troubling kind of speech, certainly, but without real consequences. It is a kind of rhetoric without much basis.
Don't forget, Warsaw was one third or more Jewish, and in these little towns often half the population or more was Jewish. This is in fact one way in which Polish-Jewish history is exceptional. The Jews were a large minority in Poland, as they weren't in Germany. They are missed, as a part of landscape, as a part of life.
HB: You write that, "Sometimes villagers go to pray at the graves of *tzaddiks* and rabbis, in the belief that these places and their spirit possess magic powers."
Your recapitulation of Polish history reminds me of the kinds of things David Biale, who you cite, asserts in "Power and Powerlessness in Jewish history." He argues that Jews did not survive in Europe for so long without some political power. That they had no political power is an illusion beginning with the Haskalah [Jewish Enlightenment] in the 19th century, and carried over to Zionism.
EH: It's a damaging self-conception, a damaging mystification to think of the whole of Jewish history in terms of victimization, a case of nothing but extremely powerful oppressors and extremely powerless victims.
HB: "Shtetl" also points to another mystification, that Jews have always been a united and organic whole. "Shtetl" shows that in Bransk in the 1930s Jews spent a fair amount of time fighting each other, often physically, over political differences.
EH: But there was some sense in which the main conflict could be externalized, always put in relation to the Other.
I've just been reading a fascinating and provocative essay by A.B. Yehoshua called "Exile is a Neurotic Solution," in which he points out something very simple that never occurred to me, which is that during the 1800 years of the Jewish Diaspora it would have been just as easy for Jews to live in Palestine as in the countries they did live in, maybe even easier, and that Palestine was the one place they avoided consistently, and always.
His interpretation is that exile was a neurotic solution, a way of avoiding internal conflicts, such as the split between secular and religious authority coming to the fore now in Israel. He's writing in anger about emigration from Israel and insufficient immigration to it. He says if the Jews had only loved Palestine as much as they loved Babylon or Poland . . .
HB: I like Yehoshua a lot, both his politics and his fiction, without sharing his view that Israel is the one and only answer to being Jewish.
EH: But it was a very eye-opening observation that Palestine was a possibility all that time. There are cases: Kafka dreaming about Palestine but never going, Walter Benjamin dreaming about it and never going. Wanting to maintain paradise as a dream -- that's an important part of this whole structure. The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, could have gone to Palestine. His brother went and kept saying, why don't you come?
HB: The end of "Lost in Translation" places you in the midst of New York's literary society. Having started with a bitter alienation from American culture, you wind up at one its centers, and work for a while as editor at The New York Times Book Review, as a kind of cultural arbiter or decision-maker.
EH: A gate-keeper. A fascination with culture and with language makes for a sense of engagement, eventually. It may start with detachment but it ends in engagement. Perhaps there is some useful or productive point that one attains.
HB: And why, after all this fusion and synthesis, do you wind up living in London?
EH: My not completely frivolous answer is that it's my perfect midway point between Manhattan and Cracow.
HB: An escape from both?
EH: The third point on a triangle