It is April 1959, I’m standing at the railing of the Batory’s upper deck, and I feel that my life is ending. I’m looking out at the crowd that has gathered on the shore to see the ship’s departure from Gdynia – a crowd that, all of a sudden, is irrevocably on the other side – and I want to break out, run back, run toward the familiar excitement, the waving hands, the exclamations. We can’t be leaving all this behind – but we are. I am thirteen years old, and we are emigrating. It’s a notion of such crushing, definitive finality that to me it might as well mean the end of the world. … I’m filled to the brim with what I’m about to lose – images of Cracow, which I loved as one loves a person, … of conversations and escapades with friends. Looking ahead, I come across an enormous, cold blankness – a darkening, an erasure, of the imagination, as if a camera eye has snapped shut, or as if a heavy curtain has been pulled over the future. …
Many years later, at a stylish party in New York, I met a woman who told me that she had had an enchanted childhood. Her father was a highly positioned diplomat in an Asian country, and she had lived surrounded by sumptuous elegance, the courtesy of servants, and the delicate advances of older men. No wonder, she said, that when this part of her life came to an end, at age thirteen, she felt she had been exiled from paradise, and had been searching for it ever since.
No wonder. But the wonder is what you can make a paradise out of. I told her that I grew up in a lumpen apartment in Cracow, squeezed into three rudimentary rooms with four other people, surrounded by squabbles, dark political rumblings, memories of wartime suffering, and daily struggle for existence. And yet, when it came time to leave, I, too, felt I was being pushed out of the happy, safe enclosures of Eden.
Excerpts from Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation, 1989