Life & Culture

Crossing continents made me a writer

How does migration affect a child's development? Writer Eva Hoffman looks back on her childhood transition from Poland to Canada


THEREFORE THE LORD GOD sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.”

Thus Genesis, on humankind’s first exiles. Since then, is there anyone who has not felt, on some level, expelled — from childhood, from our first homes and landscapes, from an ideal state of belonging, from our authentic self? The tree of life is barred from us by a flaming sword, and it is one of our tasks to approach it closer.

Cross-border movements come — as we are all aware these days — in different forms, reflected in the various designations we use for those who leave one country for another. There are immigrants and guest workers, refugees and political exiles, émigrés and expatriates — terms that point to distinct kinds of social, but also perhaps socio-psychological, experience. The different circumstances surrounding individual migration and the wider political or social contexts within which it takes place can have enormous practical and psychic repercussions.

It matters greatly, for starters, whether you choose to leave or were forced to; it matters whether you’re coming to a new land unprotected and unprovided for, or whether you can expect, or transport, some kind of safety net.

Our small nuclear family (my parents, younger sister and I) emigrated from Poland during the Cold War, though not in the worst Stalinist years. In 1956, the general ban on emigration was lifted for the Jewish part of the population, for mixed reasons in which antisemitism was a definite element.

Great numbers of people took advantage of this opening — not least, because Soviet-bloc countries at that time were harsh places to live in. My parents were among those who chose to leave at the end of that window, in 1959 — although that choice was so overdetermined that it could hardly have been called free. And, like all Cold War emigrants, we assumed that we could never return to Poland, that our departure was final and irrevocable.

This, of course, created an extremely sharp sense of rupture. Poland and everything I knew was abruptly sundered from me by an unbridgeable gap; it was suddenly elsewhere and utterly unreachable.

Geography, as well as history, fuelled the sense of rift. The place we were emigrating to was Vancouver, Canada — the very antipode of Cracow, where I grew up. It is perhaps hard to imagine any longer a contrast as stark as that which obtained between these two cities — a divergence also partly created by the historical realities of the Cold War.

Poland was a country ravaged by war, impoverished and stifled by an oppressive regime. Among my most vivid childhood memories are images of ruined cities, of whole streets lying in rubble and gaping windowless buildings with the epidermis of exterior walls torn off and exposed interiors filled with broken stones. (Images of Aleppo in ruins today, which I have watched with

a sense of terrible poignancy and rage, have now been superimposed on those early sights of Warsaw.)

Cracow itself had not been destroyed during the Second World War, for reasons which are not entirely clear, and remained a beautiful city, with layers of medieval, renaissance and baroque architecture. But the human losses were everywhere evident: in the history of my parents, whose entire families were killed during the Holocaust; in the presence in the streets of the war-wounded and the orphaned children, whose faces emanated a great sadness.

The presence of the past, in those post-War years, far outweighed any forward momentum. Vancouver, on the other hand, was all future and no past — a new, raw boomtown, riding on a wave of material expansion and quite innocent of history, or collective tragedy.

Exile — even if it is partly chosen, and even if it involves the exchange of hardship for more comfortable circumstances — is a difficult and often painful experience. But for most Cold War emigrants the impossibility of return also created the incentive and the need to locate one’s life in the place of one’s arrival, to commit oneself to the country which has accepted you, and to make oneself at home in one’s new society and world.

For me, in my half-moulded adolescent state, this turned out to entail nothing less than a kind of self-translation — transposing my very self into the idiom of the new language and culture. I was too young when we emigrated to have anything like an ideology; but the first, formative lessons of my transplantation were in the inseparability of these large and supra-personal entities from our most inward and intimate selves.

For a while, I was in effect without language, as Polish went deep underground from its sheer inapplicability to my new circumstances, and English remained a baffling terra incognita. But what I felt even more saliently was that I was without an internal language in which to talk to myself. This was a brief but very radical and informative state, for it made me realise to what extent language constructs us, shapes our interior lives, is indeed the very medium of our selves; how much our perceptions and understanding, as well as our sense of presence and even life — aliveness — depend on having a living speech within us.

In that interval of being without language I found that when we don’t have words with which to name our inner experiences, those experiences recede from us into an inner darkness. Perhaps most vitally, I’d lost the conduit to myself, to those inchoate and penumbral sensations and impressions which are the first register of experience, and which don’t quite cohere into full experience without being, in some way, described.

As with language, so with culture: what that first period of radical dislocation brought home to me was how much we are creatures of culture, and how much incoherence we risk if we fall out of its matrix. I mean “culture” in the broadest sense, of course, as a system of symbolic meanings which to some extent delineate and shape the world for us.

On the most ostensible level of culture shock, there were, for my family, painful alterations in our social situation. There was the social demotion and the fact that suddenly we were very poor. And there were, in addition, the different meanings which attached to these conditions. As it happened, in post-War Poland impoverishment was widely shared, and therefore not in itself a stigma — which is not to say that Polish society did not have its own markers of social hierarchy and exclusion.

Whereas in North America, with its legacy of the puritan ethic, being poor was seen as a symptom of weakness or moral failure, and was often accompanied by a great sense of shame or guilt.

I can truthfully say that my own writing — the impetus and the driving need to write — came out of that first moment of extreme rupture and loss, and the attempts to make myself at home in my new language and culture which followed.

Of course, there is great enrichment in such a journey. There are great gains, especially perhaps for a writer, in undergoing the seismic shift of culture change. Being deframed, so to speak, from everything familiar, gives one new ways of observing and seeing, and brings you up against certain questions that otherwise remain unasked and quiescent. It places you at an oblique angle to your world, and gives you a perspective, a vantage point.

For a writer, this is a perceptual and a formal bonus. The perspective of distance can be a great impetus to thought and creativity, which is surely why so many artists have actively chosen expatriation and exile: Joyce, with his motto “Silence, exile, and cunning”; Samuel Beckett, with his decision to write in French — precisely, I think for the advantages of defamiliarisation

But since my first emigration, the Iron Curtain was lifted, and the Berlin Wall has fallen. The age of exile, at least in Europe, is over; and other forms of border crossings have come to define our time and affect our polities. Among these, “free movement’ has brought an undoubted extension of personal freedom for many. Still, I wonder if there aren’t losses in the new circumstances as well; if in our world of travelling light, we don’t risk what Milan Kundera has called “the unbearable lightness of being”— the condition of being unanchored in any stable structures or attachments, or a kind of permanent existential suspension.

The literary critic James Wood, in a wonderful essay called On not going home coined the term “homelooseness”— a state of neither belonging nor homelessness but of being betwixt and between, and somehow learning to live with both the poignant nostalgia for the country left and the slight estrangement, or at least detachment, from the country where one actually lives.

These are not the heart-breaking dilemmas faced by people fleeing deadly danger; but the problems posed by mass-scale migrations — including free movement— for the countries entry as well as of exit — need to be addressed rather than evaded, if we are to create real spheres of solidarity in our multicultural democracies. As for the less visible consequences of such journeys, the choices and ambiguities they create, the changes in the formation of self they bring about — these are the sphere of literature, which will undoubtedly continue to bring us insights into the inner, as well as collective landscapes of our complex, ever-changing, old-new world.


This is an edited extract from an essay by Eva Hoffman in ‘Brave New Words: The Power of Writing Now’ edited by Susheila Nasta (Myriad.)


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