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Living with the beast

A review of Potwór pamięci (The Memory Monster). By: Yishai Sarid. Published in Polish by the Jan Nowak-Jeziorański College of Eastern Europe in Wrocław, Poland, 2021.

April 11, 2021 - Maciej Makulski - Books and ReviewsIssue 3 2021Magazine

We, the generations that have fortunately not experienced the Second World War or the Holocaust, are morally obliged to remember those who lost their lives in those events. But what if a memory of a past event imperceptibly takes control of us, like a monster who refuses to let us escape? That is what happened to the protagonist of Yishai Sarid’s book, The Memory Monster. It is something that could happen to any of us.

The book has a report-like form. It is a report of an employee to his supervisor – the Chairman of Yad Vashem, an institution established in 1953 in Jerusalem that aims to preserve the memory of the victims of the Holocaust. The employee’s main task is to guide school groups, businessmen, and sometimes political dignitaries from Israel around the places of remembrance to the Nazi concentration and death camps located on the territory of Poland under German occupation.

Knowns and unknowns

In his report, the guide describes an incident he caused during one of the tours organised for a German film director who wanted to collect material for his new production. The plot of the book provides us with little information about the main character himself. We only learn about his career development at Yad Vashem. We do not even learn his name, but we know he has a wife and child – both of whom he spends long periods being away from when he is guiding groups in Poland. Nevertheless, the way this Yad Vashem employee provides clarifications to his boss proves he highly respects his employer and carries out his duties with dedication. At the same time, we learn he was involved in the profession rather accidentally. He had considered becoming a historian at an academy. 

The report, however, goes far beyond the barren description of events. It has become a vivisection on the process of how memory gained control of the reporter. He might be perceived as an extreme case, however. Besides working as a guide, he completed a PhD and quickly became a specialist on how the mechanisms of killing in Nazi camps worked. He possessed detailed knowledge of how Germans organised the whole process of mass killing. Due to this knowledge of the ins and outs, he is aware of all similarities and differences that existed in each death camp, not to say anything about the exact numbers of victims. He has made attempts to visualise himself on how the last walk of Jews from the train ramp to a “bathhouse” in a death camp, where they were finally gassed, could look like. He pondered how small German crews could have been able to manage the process of annihilating entire communities over which they were often outnumbered. There were periods when one delegation from Israel was coming after another so often that he used to live in Poland without returning home to his family for several weeks or months. During those periods, speaking about death was his daily routine. After a few years, he became an expert on the subject. His expertise was used by the Israeli army and a video game developer. Not all of us are exposed to such deep reconstructing and reliving tragedies again and again. In short, the book’s protagonist went deep into this cruel past.

 “It has a personal meaning for me,” Sarid tells me when I asked him about his motivation behind the book. “As for the majority of Israelis,” he added. However, for me, a person who has no direct, individual bond with the tragedy of the Shoah, the book has brought reflections about how all of us are exposed to the memory monster. Every person, community, and nation has its own historical context and own tragedies that feed that monster. The history of every mature community provides enough nourishment for the monster’s long life. The hidden message of the book might be that all of us are prone to be captured by a memory monster. The monster is always there, and we are caught between an obligation to remember events of the past and being obsessed with memory. The threshold of obsession is lower than we expect – this is what I read between the words of Sarid’s novel. It is more a matter of crossing the thin line in our minds than our choices we can get under control. 

The monster’s legacy

Sarid’s book can also be seen as a literary attempt to present the state of the post-Holocaust debate that continues in Israel. The characters appearing in the Yad Vashem employee’s report represent various ways of argumentation, which probably appear with different intensity in the public discourse. A part of this story is also the protagonist’s observation about the attitudes that visitors present towards what they see and how interested they are by what they experience. Very often their interest is superficial. Should we blame teenagers for their indifference during such trips? I have no answer, but I see tension between how we want to talk about memory and how often memory does not lend itself to our intentions.

The question then arises: what are our chances in the struggle against the memory monster? One of the answers comes from the conclusion a student made after a visit to death camps: “To survive you have to be a bit of a Nazi”. It met the expectation of the guide even if it caused consternation among some of the student’s peers. When I asked Sarid about the meaning of this statement, he told me: “It’s an issue of how you defend yourself and how you live in this cruel world. After such a trauma your first instinct is: I have to be very strong, not let it happen again. And that’s very natural and justified. But to what extent do you go with this instinct and what measures you allow yourself to take to defend yourself? And that’s an issue we face in Israel daily; how much force can we use against our neighbours, against our enemies, what kind of risk can we take? And you cannot wipe out the Second World War and the Holocaust. You cannot delete it. It’s there to stay. And some people tell them, tell, you know, and write about it in Israel.”

Presumably, the defence strategy against the memory monster presented in the above passage is not the only one in Israel. My guess is there is a sizeable group of people for whom memory after the Holocaust does not keep them awake. As Sarid explained to me his book provoked more discussions abroad than in Israel, while Yad Vashem did not show much interest in the book. The message of his book corresponds with the thought expressed by the historian Timothy Snyder in the prologue to his Black Earth. The Holocaust as history and warning, to which I returned after reading The Memory Monster and which I (hopefully) understand better: “is it justified to be certain that after the Holocaust we have any worthy the future? … The story of the Holocaust is not over. It is an eternal precedent from which we have not yet drawn the right conclusions”.

Sarid’s book leaves the reader with a feeling of powerlessness when it comes to facing the memory monster. On the one hand, the desire to defend one’s nation and not let anything tragic happen again to the community is understandable. On the other hand, this desire makes us prisoners of memory, especially if we go deep into trying to comprehend what happened. Yet, I wonder if after reading the book, that being a prisoner of memory is the price we have to pay to prevent similar, tragic events from happening in the future. This is the task of the post-Holocaust generations. After all, it is not an exorbitant price. Perhaps what Sarid is telling us is that we cannot defeat the memory monster. Our only task is to acknowledge its existence and try to not go crazy. 

A conversation with the author Yishai Sarid was recently featured on the Talk Eastern Europe podcast. You can find all episodes at: www.neweasterneurope.eu/talkeasterneurope

Maciej Makulski is a contributor editor with New Eastern Europe and co-host of the Talk Eastern Europe podcast.

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