Eva Hoffman Essay - Critical Essays

Hoffman, Eva


Eva Hoffman 1945-

(Born Ewa Wydra) Polish-born American autobiographer, novelist, travel writer, essayist, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Hoffman's career through 2003.

Hoffman is best known for her autobiography, Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language (1989), which articulates her experiences as a Polish immigrant caught between divergent cultures and languages. Much of Hoffman's writing is concerned with her immigrant past and with the historical and political conflicts in Eastern Europe. In Exit into History: A Journey through the New Eastern Europe (1993), Hoffman examines the fall of state-sponsored communism in Eastern Europe and its impact on working-class citizens throughout Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Her subsequent works evince a preoccupation with how history influences the present, exploring the legacy of European anti-Semitism, the oppression of women under communism, and the Holocaust.

Biographical Information

Hoffman was born in Krakow, Poland, on July 1, 1945, to Boris and Maria Wydra. Her parents were Holocaust survivors who escaped persecution with the help of fellow Poles who hid them from the Nazis. Disillusioned with the anti-Semitism prevalent in postwar Poland, the Wydras decided to immigrate to Canada, moving to Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1959. Before leaving Poland, Hoffman was a skilled pianist and considered pursuing a professional career. In Canada, however, she did not find the same encouragement for her talent and chose to study literature. She immigrated to the United States in 1963 to attend Rice University, where she received a B.A. in 1967. Hoffman took graduate courses in literature at Yale University from 1967 to 1968 before entering Harvard University, where she received a Ph.D. in literature in 1974. In 1971 she married Barry Hoffman, whom she later divorced. Hoffman held teaching positions as an assistant professor of literature at the University of New Hampshire, Durham, from 1975 to 1976, and at Tufts University from 1976 to 1977. In 1982 she began working for the New York Times, serving as the “Week in Review” editor and “Arts and Leisure” deputy editor until eventually becoming an editor for the New York Times Book Review in 1987. Hoffman has also contributed articles and essays to such publications as Atlantic Monthly and Yale Review, among others. She has won several awards for her work, including fellowships from the Danforth Foundation, the Carnegie Mellon Foundation, and the American Council of Learned Societies, as well as the Jean Stein Award for nonfiction in 1990.

Major Works

Lost in Translation traces Hoffman's maturation through her childhood in Poland, her adolescence in Canada, and her adulthood in America. During her attempts at cultural assimilation, Hoffman was consumed with feelings of alienation, largely due to her difficulties with language. Though she felt inarticulate and clumsy in her second language, English, she also found her ability to speak Polish diminishing because of disuse. Even after Hoffman mastered the technical aspects of English, she experienced a continuing sense of disjunction between the words and the emotions and experiences behind them. Hoffman wrote Exit into History after traveling through six newly liberated Eastern European nations—Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria—during 1990 and 1991. After the fall of eastern bloc communism in 1989, each of these countries experienced radical economic, political, and social upheaval. Hoffman creates her narrative through hundreds of conversations with average, working-class citizens, encouraging them to speak openly about their hopes and fears for the future. A number of recurring themes emerge throughout her discussions, including the effect of free-market economies on the newly-emerging democracies and the now-diminished role of the Communist Party. In Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews (1997), Hoffman explores the controversial topic of Polish anti-Semitism and Poland's alleged complicity in the Holocaust. Using both documented and anecdotal evidence, she traces the historical relationship between Poles and Jews from 1648 until World War II, concluding that if the two societies had been more fully integrated, the Poles might have felt more of a compulsion to assist the Jews. Hoffman uses the town of Bransk, the site of a former Jewish settlement, as a representation of Polish opinions during World War II and finds that the citizens have widely divergent reactions to the fate of their former Jewish neighbors. In 2001 Hoffman published her first fictional work, The Secret, a science fiction novel set in the year 2020. The plot revolves around a girl named Iris Surrey who has a very close relationship with her mother, Elizabeth. After her mother's boyfriend leaves, disturbed by the pair's unnatural closeness, Iris discovers that she is not really Elizabeth's daughter, but rather a clone created from Elizabeth's DNA. After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Aftermath of the Holocaust (2004) continues Hoffman's examination of the legacy of the Holocaust, focusing on the troubles faced by the children of Holocaust survivors. The work combines Hoffman's own experiences with broad psychoanalytic insights to create a portrait of how post-war emigration, racism, and feelings of victimhood and responsibility all have a profound impact on this “second generation” of Holocaust victims.

Critical Reception

Much of the critical commentary regarding Lost in Translation has concerned its relationship to the overall body of American immigrant literature. Several reviewers have noted a distinct similarity between Hoffman's work and Mary Antin's 1912 autobiography The Promised Land. Lost in Translation has been generally praised for its stirring portrayal of the immigrant experience, with many applauding Hoffman's skillful and unique portrayal of cross-cultural alienation. Commentators have noted that Hoffman's preoccupation with language has resulted in the development of her own unique and lyrical prose style. Ivan Sanders has stated that, “Eva Hoffman's obsession with words has paid off handsomely. Her language is crisp and precise when summing up essential experience, and richly evocative when lingering on detail. She guides her narrative with the sure hand of a complete writer, alternating between essayistic meditations, recollection and sharply etched description.” However, some critics have faulted Lost in Translation, arguing that Hoffman's remembrances are overly sentimental and nostalgic. Andrew Clifford has commented that, “there is little in the book which lives up to its title's promised ideological mediation and flux.” Exit into History has received a more mixed critical assessment, with some noting that Hoffman's position as an American outsider makes it difficult for her to understand or articulate the politics of Eastern Europe. However, several reviewers have lauded Hoffman's courage in tackling the controversial subject matter of Shtetl, commending her well-researched and balanced presentation. Eunice Lipton has asserted that, “Shtetl is a daring and generous book, measured in style, passionate in intent.”

Principal Works

Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language (autobiography) 1989

Exit into History: A Journey through the New Eastern Europe (travel writing) 1993

Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews (nonfiction) 1997

The Secret: A Novel (novel) 2001

After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Aftermath of the Holocaust (essays) 2004


Genevieve Stuttaford (review date 9 December 1988)

SOURCE: Stuttaford, Genevieve. Review of Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language, by Eva Hoffman. Publishers Weekly 234, no. 24 (9 December 1988): 54.

[In the following review, Stuttaford notes that an immigrant's assimilation into a new culture is the dominant theme in Hoffman's Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language.]

Daughter of Holocaust survivors, the author [Eva Hoffman], a New York Times Book Review editor, lost her sense of place and belonging when she emigrated with her family from Poland to Vancouver in 1959 at the age of 13. Although she works within a familiar genre in Lost in Translation, Hoffman's is a penetrating,...

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Stanislaw Baranczak (review date 6 February 1989)

SOURCE: Baranczak, Stanislaw. “The Confusion of Tongues.” New Leader 72, no. 3 (6 February 1989): 16-18.

[In the following review, Baranczak discusses the importance of language to the immigrant experience as related in Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language.]

Emigré, exile, expatriate—there may be more synonyms for these in Roget's Thesaurus, most of them probably beginning with an “e-” or “ex-,” those sad prefixes of exclusion. But the excluding “e-” has its antonymous companion, “in-,” as in inclusion or immigration. I suppose just about anybody who has ever crossed the frontier line between “e-” and “in-” has at least...

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William A. Proefriedt (essay date spring 1989)

SOURCE: Proefriedt, William A. “The Immigrant or ‘Outsider’ Experience as Metaphor for Becoming an Educated Person in the Modern World: Mary Antin, Richard Wright, and Eva Hoffman.” MELUS 16, no. 2 (spring 1989): 77-89.

[In the following essay, Proefriedt examines the educational aspects of the immigrant experience, focusing on the work of Hoffman, Mary Antin, and Richard Wright.]

A great deal of thinking about educating people who move from one culture to another has gone on in this country in the twentieth century. At its best, this thinking has focused on the ways in which equality of opportunity could be enhanced for an immigrant population through...

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Andrew Clifford (review date 15 December 1989)

SOURCE: Clifford, Andrew. “Teach Yourself American.” New Statesman and Society 2, no. 80 (15 December 1989): 38-9.

[In the following review, Clifford argues that Hoffman's language in Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language is too Americanized to adequately articulate the division between her Polish heritage and American upbringing.]

Immigrants arriving in their new country make similar choices to those made by the indigenous children who are growing up in it. They have to decide, principally, what to accept, reject and rework in their new adult or foreign culture. While the young take up their options to some extent unconsciously, a typical immigrant...

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Philip Marsden (review date 4 December 1993)

SOURCE: Marsden, Philip. “Sweet are the Uses of Diversity.” Spectator 271, no. 8630 (4 December 1993): 44.

[In the following review, Marsden offers a positive assessment of Exit into History: A Journey through the New Eastern Europe, calling the work “profound and provocative.”]

The re-emergence of Eastern Europe used to be such a simple issue. The communists were gone, and everyone was free to be like us. Accustomed to seeing those beyond the Iron Curtain as somehow homogenous, we expected them to become free uniformly as well.

But they haven't. Difference has become the antidote to ideology. For comprehension we must now wade through...

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Merilyn Oniszczuk Jackson (review date spring 1994)

SOURCE: Jackson, Merilyn Oniszczuk. “Pictures in Dissolving Frames.” Belles Lettres 9, no. 3 (spring 1994): 59.

[In the following review, Jackson argues that Hoffman's attempts to bring a journalistic perspective to her travels through Eastern Europe in Exit into History conflict with the rest of the work's “lyrical” and “personal” tone.]

From her solitary travels during 1990-91 through five newly liberated Eastern European countries, Eva Hoffman compiled Exit into History: A Journey through the New Eastern Europe. In it she portrays the diverse people she encountered as they struggle to catch up to free world economies. Hoffman, a former...

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Anne Applebaum (review date 5 December 1994)

SOURCE: Applebaum, Anne. “A Gathering of Dissidents.” New Republic 211, no. 23 (5 December 1994): 46-9.

[In the following review of Exit into History: A Journey through the New Eastern Europe, Applebaum contends that Hoffman's position as an American outsider in Eastern Europe makes it difficult for her to understand the subtleties of the region's political situations.]

About halfway through her journey across the six nations of Central Europe chronicled in Exit into History, Eva Hoffman has an odd experience. She is in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, and she is sitting in a wine bar, drinking the potent white wine for which the Slovaks are...

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Danuta Zadworna Fjellestad (essay date summer 1995)

SOURCE: Fjellestad, Danuta Zadworna. “‘The Insertion of the Self into the Space of Borderless Possibility’: Eva Hoffman's Exiled Body.” MELUS 20, no. 2 (summer 1995): 133-47.

[In the following essay, Fjellestad explores the marginalization of Central European American literature by focusing on how Hoffman's Lost in Translation portrays the immigrant writer's experience.]

For the European, even today, America represents something akin to exile, a phantasy of emigration and, therefore, a form of interiorization of his or her own culture.

—Jean Baudrillard, America


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Publishers Weekly (review date 25 August 1997)

SOURCE: Review of Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews, by Eva Hoffman. Publishers Weekly 244, no. 35 (25 August 1997): 53.

[In the following review, the critic lauds Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews as objective and well-researched.]

Anticipating controversy like that engendered by Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners, Hoffman sets out to determine Poland's complicity in the Holocaust in Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews. Although her Jewish parents had been harbored for two years during the war by a Polish peasant,...

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Jaroslaw Anders (review date 12 October 1997)

SOURCE: Anders, Jaroslaw. “Poles Apart.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (12 October 1997): 10.

[In the following review, Anders discusses Hoffman's theories about the roots of Polish anti-Semitism in Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews.]

[Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews] was conceived as a companion volume to a documentary of the same title made by Marian Marzynski that aired on the PBS news show Frontline in April 1996. It has become much more than that three-hour film; Shtetl is a thoroughly researched and powerfully written guidebook to one of the most contested areas...

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Eunice Lipton (review date 3 November 1997)

SOURCE: Lipton, Eunice. “Unknowing Neighbors.” Nation 265, no. 14 (3 November 1997): 26-7.

[In the following review, Lipton praises Hoffman for her unique approach to the question of Polish anti-Semitism and complicity in the Holocaust in Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews.]

Shtetl is a daring and generous book, measured in style, passionate in intent. It was, I do believe, written for love. Not for the love of a person or a country, but for some configuration of home, for a laying bare of mysterious and destructive ancient mechanisms that, once understood—one hopes, one prays—may bring warring partners, even a...

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Andro Linklater (review date 14 February 1998)

SOURCE: Linklater, Andro. “Poles Together—And Apart.” Spectator 280, no. 8845 (14 February 1998): 32.

[In the following review, Linklater examines the central argument in Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews, praising Hoffman's “provocative thesis.”]

Laziness can kill. When a peasant in the market-place of Bransk, a small town in Poland 100 miles from the Russian border, tells Eva Hoffman how he helped dispose of Jews who had been murdered by the Nazis, carrying so many corpses in his cart to a mass grave that he had to wash the blood off in the river, the story triggers a chain of associations. Poland after all was...

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Sarah Phillips Casteel (essay date winter 2001)

SOURCE: Casteel, Sarah Phillips. “Eva Hoffman's Double Emigration: Canada as the Site of Exile in Lost in Translation.Biography 25, no. 1 (winter 2001): 288-301.

[In the following essay, Casteel evaluates how Hoffman portrays the social and physical landscapes of Canada in Lost in Translation.]

Lost in Translation, Eva Hoffman's 1989 account of her family's difficult emigration from Poland to Canada and her own subsequent immigration to the United States, is described in the back cover blurb as “A classically American chronicle of upward mobility and assimilation” (emphasis added). Ignoring the fact that almost a third of Lost in...

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Petra Fachinger (essay date summer 2001)

SOURCE: Fachinger, Petra. “Lost in Nostalgia: The Autobiographies of Eva Hoffman and Richard Rodriguez.” MELUS 26, no. 2 (summer 2001): 111-27.

[In the following essay, Fachinger compares and contrasts the work of Hoffman and Richard Rodriguez, exploring how the two writers articulate their own unique immigrant experiences in America.]

In “The Plural Self: The Politicization of Memory and Form in Three American Ethnic Autobiographies,” in which she compares N. Scott Momaday's The Names, Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera, and Audre Lorde's Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez concludes,


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Publishers Weekly (review date 23 September 2002)

SOURCE: Review of The Secret, by Eva Hoffman. Publishers Weekly 249, no. 38 (23 September 2002): 47.

[In the following review, the critic commends the “philosophical” subtext in The Secret.]

Can a clone contain a new human soul or just a photocopy? Hoffman brilliantly meditates on this mystery in her auspicious fiction debut [The Secret] as she examines the bond between Iris and Elizabeth Surrey, which gives new meaning to the well-worn term “my mother myself.” Iris's search for identity begins when the teen discovers her birth in 2005 was achieved via cloning. Iris's single mom, Elizabeth, fled Manhattan to the Midwest to rear Iris after becoming...

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Anita Desai (review date 19 December 2002)

SOURCE: Desai, Anita. “Cards of Identity.” New York Review of Books 49, no. 20 (19 December 2002): 70-2.

[In the following review, Desai praises Hoffman's prose in The Secret, noting that Hoffman's experience as a nonfiction author contributes to the novel's realistic and “affecting” tone.]

Eva Hoffman's previous books have been piercingly specific about time and place—a Polish shtetl, the Holocaust, the New World as experienced by a new immigrant. In her first novel, The Secret, she abandons that grounding in the historical moment and space and goes the whole fictional length into an imagined world set in an imagined future.


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Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 November 2003)

SOURCE: Review of After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Aftermath of the Holocaust, by Eva Hoffman. Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 22 (15 November 2003): 1350.

[In the following review, the critic calls After Such Knowledge a “commendable contribution” to Holocaust studies, noting Hoffman's engaging representation of the challenges faced by the children of Holocaust survivors.]

[After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Aftermath of the Holocaust, l]iterate if sometimes arid essays on the world—intellectual, cultural, and emotional—of the Holocaust's “second generation.”

Memoirist Hoffman (Shtetl, 1997,...

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Publishers Weekly (review date 24 November 2003)

SOURCE: Review of After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Aftermath of the Holocaust, by Eva Hoffman. Publishers Weekly 250, no. 47 (24 November 2003): 54-5.

[In the following review, the critic lauds Hoffman's essays in After Such Knowledge, praising the collection as a “beautifully wrought, deftly argued examination of how we might attempt to understand the Holocaust.”]

“Sixty years after the Holocaust took place … [and] this immense catastrophe recedes from us in time, our preoccupation with it seems only to increase,” writes Hoffman in [After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Aftermath of the Holocaust,] this beautifully...

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Further Reading


Besemeres, Mary. “Language and Self in Cross-Cultural Autobiography: Eva Hoffman's Lost in Translation.Canadian Slavonic Papers 40, nos. 3-4 (September-December 1998): 327-29.

Besemeres discusses the connections that Hoffman makes between the use of language and the creation of self in Lost in Translation.

Gordon, Neil. “Her Mother's Daughter.” New York Times Book Review (10 November 2002): section 7, p. 18.

Gordon offers a generally positive assessment of The Secret but notes that the novel is not as strong as Hoffman's nonfiction works.

Reynolds, Susan Salter....

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