Exit Into History

The apparent demise of Communism in 1989 gave Eva Hoffman all the reason she needed to revisit the land she had left in the late 1950s when she was just thirteen. Born to Jewish parents in Cracow in 1946, she returned to Poland, and from there went on to Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, first in the summer of 1990 and again one year later. EXIT INTO HISTORY is her record of those visits. Hoffman covers much the same geographical area as Timothy Garton Ash, surely the most engaged, illuminating, and accessible of the historians specializing in Eastern Europe, but she covers it in a different and more personal way. Her journey, though based upon her extensive knowledge of the history and culture—especially the literature—of the area, emphasizes her impressions and recounts at length the stories of the people she met.

Avoiding the Intercontinentals, she stays either in local hotels or, more often, in borrowed flats or with friends or their families. She talks with writers, filmmakers, artists, journalists, teachers, psychiatrists, former Party members, their often anticommunist children, penurious aristocrats, wealthy entrepreneurs, priests, Gypsies, taxi drivers, and political figures both local and national. She visits cities and villages, writers unions, government and editorial offices, hospitals, universities, cafes, and public baths. She finds that there is no single, definable Eastern Europe; that the revolution of 1989 has affected the five countries in various ways and to varying degrees; that in at least three of the five, political freedom marches hand in hand with a free-market economy that has brought with it new kinds of injustice and censorship based on commercial viability rather than political correctness.

Throughout EXIT INTO HISTORY Hoffman proves knowledgeable, accessible, stimulating, and fair-minded, especially when dealing with the vexing relationship between Eastern Europeans and Jews. It is because she is so good a guide that readers might begrudge Hoffman her unwillingness to make any large pronouncements, even in her all too brief afterword. Instead, she emphasizes the uncertainty of Eastern Europe’s future. Although deeply troubled that the cultural values which have enabled these five countries to survive their modern histories may well be lost in the rush to westernize, she ends her book with the hope that Eastern Europe may discover some “third way” that might make it possible to combine capitalist political freedom with communist social responsibility, but she is persuasive, unpretentious, and eloquent.