Looking for connectedness to exiled past

„I cannot deny that history left its mark on my experiences and on development of my personality, as the most characteristic feature of 20th century history is its negation of human being and human’s personality. How then relationship can be found between my personality that is shaped by experiences and history that with its every step negates or destroys my personality? Those that were able to survive at least one of 20th century totalitarianisms, whether the Nazi one, or the other under the sign of hammer and sickle, will easily be able to identify the troubles that are the result of the above dilemma.”
– Imre Kertesz, „The Language in Exile”

Imre Kertesz (2) words are intuitively recognized here in Poland, where the history of two totalitarianisms is so similar. He refers to the experiences of those that survived, now, further in time, I am thinking about the experiences of those that are their descendants, the next generations after the violent events of 20th century, and again the question risen by Kertesz comes back – how the relationship between history and personality can be found? And, maybe more importantly for the generation of „postmemory” I belong to – how to look for it, what attitude would allow not to negate the experiences of the past and present once again?


Marci Shore (3), whom I mentioned in one of my previous posts, writes in a Tastes of Ashes about the historians dilemma coming from writing about post-traumatic reality. She quotes Margaret Attwood’s (1) dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale where „in the novel’s final chapter, set long after gruesome events, historians sit calmly in a conference room, earnestly trying to understand a totalitarian hell that has by then long passed”. They study discovered manuscripts, aware that their sources are partial, aware of conflicting motives and specific for culture conditions. They want to remain objective, and as Shore comments, although they are doing nothing wrong, the reader feels something chilling in their scholars detachment.


Looking for relationship to the past is always marked with those dilemmas. The identification with emotions coming from the past can come easy and inevitably will lead to one-sided attitude. The scientific distance brings detachment, which itself becomes a rationalistic defense against possible transformation of the painful areas of experience. The official version of historical narration creates additional pressure, especially when it is the source of alive discussions and split reactions within the culture. The language shaped by cultural myths and haunted by historical suffering sometimes fails to embrace deeper levels of experiences that keep on influencing our current lives.


Don’t be mislaid by this general descriptions. „All historical drama is acted through the lives of individuals” says Shore  and I would add here that it is so not only through lives but also thorough the attitudes we carry sometimes even without knowing about them. The historical drama can be acted out long after it ended and although we struggle to remain objective, which is especially important where history become the tool of political manipulation, at the same time there is no way to relate to the history as meaningful without a personal attitude, it is always there, whether obvious or hidden.


Looking for understanding of how my attitude as the third generation after 2WW has been shaped I myself learned the most important lesson about history from some conversation I had with the woman of my parents age (which means she was born shortly after the end of 2nd WW and spent the adult life under communist regime). In our conversation about history of Poland she said:


„There were times, when I couldn’t stand watching again films about war and still I watch them very rarely. I think I am lost in history. In fact, my whole generation is lost in history. Many people of my generation identify with what this or that political party says. I don’t identify with any of that. Many parts of the history concerning the Polish past were absent when I was learning it, others were told quite differently than these days. And now it is too late for me, I am not able to read all this now, so I don’t and won’t know the whole picture. This makes me feel lost in the history.”


These words are of great importance. They refer to the history of generation that was born out of traumatized parents, and lived their lives in the times when tragedy was endemic, when „no decisions were innocent one, in which all significant action was a betrayal of someone or something, in which all possible choices caused suffering. Nonetheless one had to choose” (4). Ewa Lipska in the poem quoted earlier describes it as the generation with which „birth honour was given to the dead”, the generation that carries „the memory that has been shot through”. Psychologically we could say that it is the generation that carries the memory of trauma, but their traumatic memory (own or inherited from their parents as a unconscious deposit) often keeps on haunting them in their health problems, general attitudes, anxiety and depressive states, for this has been simply to much to remember.


Looking back at those times is easy now. We have access to the files we’ve never thought we will be able to read. We can read historical books that present contradictory points of view, and we can write openly about our opinions. Last week I found a picture on the web that listed Poland among not so many countries in the world that have a very good situation when it comes to freedom of press. But still there is this question for my generation born out of the parents who „where not heard in the noise of the beginning” and who lived in the times when „no decisions were innocent one”: how much we are able to relate to a haunting past while simultaneously acting in the present (4), and whether the past can receive its „freedom of press”. Relating to past, which is often the source of anxiety when defensively delegated to the unconscious, can sometimes bring astonishing discoveries when the experience and language cease to be exiled.


Malgorzata Kalinowska



1). Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale

2). Imre Kertesz – A Language in Exile

3). Marci Shore – The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe

4). Schwab, G. – Haunting Legacies: Violent Histories and Transgenerational Trauma.

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