Filling Life With Nostalgia Eva Hoffman

Throughout this telling autobiography ‘Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language’, Eva Hoffman goes through a lot of emotions ranging from hope to fear, rage, denial, and acceptance. In her abnormal immigrant experience the author shows how exile and nostalgia fill her life and the compelling story about how Polish Eva became American Eva, and all that such a change entailed.

In her non-fiction book ‘Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language’, Eva Hoffman recounts her life from childhood to mid-thirties.

Her story is divided in three sections portraying different times of her life. “Paradise” is the first part and revolves around the author’s early years in Poland, being among the small remnant of Jews in Poland after World War II. With descriptions of the beautiful landscape and lives of those around her family, she paints a picture of the lifestyle in Poland in 1949 when she was only 4 years old. Nevertheless, life is difficult for all Polish people and Eva Hoffman describes how the society had been impacted by the war, which ended two months before the author’s birth.

In the second part we she first touches on the topic of exile and the part is conveniently named Exile. It details the family’s journey of leaving Poland and immigrating to Canada. The author is bewildered and confused by the foreign land, culture, language and the different ways she has to adapt to that. The tone of this part is one of confusion and fear as it includes stories about all the obstacles that immigrants, not well prepared to settle in a new world, had to face.

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The language barrier and customs are the main struggles they face as well as getting used to work ethic and explaining the behavior of other people. The third part is named The New World and begins when the author receives a scholarship from Rice University in Houston, Texas, where she majored in literature. While there she will become more accustom to the “American way”, even her memories being in English “I begin to trust English to speak my childhood self as well, to say what has so long been hidden.” She also meets some old acquaintances as well as her future husband. The tale explores her love for music and desire to pursue a career in that field, but after receiving a doctorate in literature from Harvard she would change her mind and become a journalist. While reading, one can feel a great deal of fear and dissatisfaction regarding her immigrant status and the role she had been forced to play.

Soon after the end of World War II a large number of Jews began to exit Poland thanks to the repatriation agreement with the USSR and often due to more than one reasons. Eva Hoffman’s family was part of that relocation of Jews as after 1957 any Jew was automatically eligible to get permission to emigrate. Her family had two choices, going back to Israel where a war was still raging or traveling across the ocean to North America. They choose safety and immigrated to Canada.

As Czeslaw Milosz in his book “On Exile” state that exile is “A loss of harmony with the surrounding space, the inability to feel at home in the world…” which is exactly what Eva Hoffman has experienced with her immigration to Canada. She had become a “stranger” in the new world she had been left in. When her family arrives, she is now suddenly the outsider in the society and needs to learn the new culture she had set foot in. The author states that ‘To remain outside such common agreements is to remain outside reality itself’ (211) as even though she adapted to American culture she remains on the outside and sort of ‘resident alien’ (221). Her identity was also questioned as Eva’s and her sister names were changed: ‘Our Polish names didn’t refer to us; they were as surely us as our eyes or hands’ (105). This compromised their personas and she describe how she feels like as if she is ‘in a fog’, ‘and the rules, for now, don’t hold’ (91). Another big obstacle for her is the language and as she learns English her native language starts to lose significance and forces her to ask the question ‘What has happened to me in this new world? … I’m not filled with language anymore, and I have only a memory of fullness to anguish me with the knowledge that, in this dark and empty state, I don’t really exist’ (108). The reader is invited to recognize the author’s struggles between two distinct cultures and two distinct dialects as she starts to lose the dialect, culture and persona she had formed before moving abroad. Not feeling ‘part of’ and her acknowledging that her destiny is to reside ‘in-between’ are key parts in the theme of exile in this book.

Another major theme in this work is the one of nostalgia. As Svetlana Boym states “Nostalgia is something of a bad word, an affectionate insult at best” (xiv), but for the Polish emigrant it is a very personal emotion. As her family endured the worst terrors of the Holocaust only to escape new forms of anti-Semitism after World War II by moving to Canada one would think that speaking of nostalgia is impossible. This is not the case though and even though the theme emerges most prominently in the second section of this book, we can see it established on the beginning of the book. The story doesn’t begin as one might expect from a typical immigrant autobiography with arrival to a new scene but starts with departure. Already away from home Eva hears the Polish anthem and is “pierced by a youthful sorrow so powerful” and tries to “hold still against the pain” (4).

She already misses her old lifestyle and all the small details that composed it. The first sentence of this book describes her feeling that her “life is ending” and she concludes “to me it might as well mean the end of the world” (3). While some might think she is just a kid exaggerating what she feels a passage later on in the first part clearly shows is that Eva is well aware of her feelings. She recalls walking home from school in Krakow:” But, suddenly, time pierces me with its sadness. This moment will now last; With every step I take, a sliver of time vanishes” (16) and she goes on: “How many moments do I have in life? I hear my own breathing: with every breath, I am closer to death” (17). This passage shows is her experience and awareness that this memory would not last forever an as if in this current moment she lives in a memory. A nostalgic desire for those moments to last forever fills the author, however she clearly understands that time only passes and could not be brought back.

Eva Hoffman’s story sounds like a typical tale of immigrant success on the surface, however looking more deeply into her autobiography shows the everlasting division between “Polish Eva” and “English Eva” and uncertainty of where she belongs. Along with that theme of exile the author mourns her childhood memories and showcases nostalgia from the beginning of the book.

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Filling Life With Nostalgia Eva Hoffman. (2022, Feb 12). Retrieved from

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