Thursday, April 8, 2010

Lost in Translation: Life in a New Language by Eva Hoffman 1989

"She doesn't shut off any side of her. Most people who are Polish-Jewish decide to be one or the other. She has decided to be both." Michael Ignatieff, historian, Canadian politician and long-time friend of Eva Hoffman

In 1959, at the age of thirteen, Ewa (Eva) Wydra arrived in America from Cracow and settled with her parents and younger sister in Vancouver, Canada. The author divides this memoir into three sections: Paradise, Exile, and The New World. In telling her story she paints a complex portrait of herself as an immigrant adolescent moving into adulthood in a culture she is trying to negotiate and absorb.

In the first section, Paradise, Eva Hoffman describes her childhood in Cracow, a city she loved. She was a post-war baby, totally integrated into post-war life in Cracow, with close friends and a serious interest in becoming a pianist. Hoffman describes in loving detail the geography of the city as well as its cultural life. But her parents, who originally lived in Zalosce and who lived out the war in hiding in Ukraine and miraculously survived when many of their family members were rounded up and killed, saw post-war anti-Semitism as a serious threat and watched as most of their Jewish friends left Poland. So Eva must leave behind all she treasures and move to a country where she knows no one and doesn’t speak the language.

In the section called Exile, Hoffman focuses on the “Lost in Translation” of the title: the difficulty she had as a teenage immigrant, how lost she felt in trying to make sense of the new, of recalibrating her identity, translating– idioms, geography, fashion, culture. As the daughter of immigrants, Holocaust survivors, she focused on achieving.

In the last section, The New World, we follow Hoffman through her years of college and university study and her early professional life as a writer. She met with great success at every level, but never felt totally of the New World. Having settled into the life of an intellectual in New York City, Hoffman end her memoir by describing two trips: one back to Poland eighteen years after she left to see Cracow and her old friends, including her piano teacher. The second trip was to Vancouver to visit her aging parents (in what she calls the shtetl-on-the-Pacific). Both visits helped her take stock and to come to terms with who she is, a product of two worlds, two distinct cultures.

To listen to a webcast with Eva Hoffman conducted at the University of California at Berkeley in 2000 as part of their Conversations with History Series click here.

Eva Hoffman has also written Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews (1997) which focuses on the town of Bransk. More recently she has written After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Legacy of the Holocaust (2004), about the Holocaust and memory from the perspective of the children of survivors.

Ewa (Eva) Wydra - author
Alina (Elaine) Wydra – her sister
Berg family – son Marek a good friend of author

Family friends:
Rotenberg, Taube, Leitner, Berenstein
Rosenberg, daughter Diane
Stefan and Rosa Steiner
    Elizabeth and Laurie – their daughters

Cracow, Poland
Zalosce, Poland
Vancouver, Canada


  1. hi... this brief about lost in traslation of eva hoffman is very good but can you publish more information about Eva Hoffman´s family: her grandparents, her sons, her uncles and aunts, please I need this information....

  2. I'm sorry, but I don't know any more about her family than what she mentions in the memoir. Since her publisher in Penguin, you might consider writing to her and sending it to Penguin and see if they'll forward it. Or you could e-mail Penguin and ask them how to go about contacting her. I hope you are successful.