Sarid, Yishai. “The Memory Monster”, translated by Yardenne Greenspan, Restless Books, 2020.
Back to Poland
Yishai Sarid invites us to journey back to Poland with a doctor of Holocaust history and a travel guide. The doctor becomes overpowered with “the monster of memory” as he reflects on the past. He questions the resistance to fate and in doing so, he adopts his own Holocaust character and is reminded of Israeli society as a culture based on the admiration of power, militarism and what he calls “herding”. Yishai Sarid writes about with the darkness in the heart of Israeli society making this a parable of how we deal with human horror and the memory of the Holocaust.
Our unnamed narrator suffers with his own undoing. As a young historian, he became a leading expert on Nazi methods of extermination at concentration camps in Poland during World War II and he now guides tours through the sites for students and visiting dignitaries. He hungrily devours every detail of life and death in the camps and takes pride in being able to recreate for his audience the excruciating last moments of the victims’ lives.
His job is both a mission and an obsession. He spends so much time immersed in death that he loses his connections with the living. He resents the students who are preoccupied with their iPhones who are not sufficiently outraged at the genocide of the Nazis. He even begins to discover that in the students and he. himself, have a bit of admiration for the murderers and their efficiency, audacity, and determination. He feels that the only way to deal with force is by force, itself, and that we must all be prepared to kill. We soon confront very hard questions on how to deal with brutality, how sides are chosen in a conflict, and how the memory of horror is dealt with it without our being consumed by it.
On his last assignment, he is to take a German director who wantsto make a film about “Auschwitz” to the Polish camp. He explains how the trips to the former camps have weighed heavily on him and how he sees his students, how he dealt with the Poles, how the separations from his wife and child hurt his family. He soon realizes that these trips have forced him into a bitterness that did not stop at his own people, his own people and his own religious community. He describes how the Holocaust has increasingly become a kind of label from which everyone can derive the position that is appropriate for himself. He also admits that he himself has not only become a wearer of this label, since his travels have given him a good income but that he has become dependent on his employer – the Yad Vashem memorial. Here he found the recognition he wanted, he who never wanted to become a historian of the Shoah. He became a good narrator of the horror that he did not have to experience but which is also a narrative for him, that is made up of pages of knowledge.
Our narrator reports on his experiences in first-person as he investigates historical questions. He knew that the Allies knew about the concentration camps, but did not bomb any rail tracks to prevent the transports and probably because the Allies did not particularly like Jews. The hatred of young Israelis for Poles, but not for Germans, was a new idea for me. Again and again, he advises the young people that the Holocaust was initiated by Germans, not Poles. However, the camps were built in Poland. He is an expert who is confronted with horror over and over again.
Sarid brings us all the horror of the subject of Holocaust remembrance and its impact on a society and a people and this is frightening. It demonstrates how focusing on the contents of the atrocities and the technical details of the extermination, in fact, poisons our souls, while we are unwilling to face the real lessons that will require us to behave completely differently in the world and within us. His mind is shaken as he is required to refrain from talking about the really painful and important topics and messages, and so he focuses his guidance on matters that are easier to digest. Discovering that the details of the atrocities are much easier for his listeners than the dilemmas and moral questions that arise as a result of Holocaust research, he is forced to choose. The need to moderate his words eats at him causing him to understand that it is much harder for us to hate the Germans than to take out the frustrations of not being able to resist, fight back or deal with our Holocaust-era cooperation. Sarid uses sophisticated literary tricks to share his sharp and important insights into what is happening to us here and now.
What we have here is a consideration of memory and its risks, and a critique of Israel’s use of the Holocaust to shape national identity.
Many writers have asked the question of where, or if, humanity can be found within the profoundly inhumane, and we see here that preoccupation and obsession with the inhumane can take a toll on one’s own humanity. In a sense, he offers an indictment of memorializing the Holocaust and a consideration of its layered politics. He does not apologize for Jewish rage and condemns the forms it sometimes takes. He explores the banality of evil and the nature of revenge as this is certainly a controversial look at the past.
This is an imaginative novel that is so based on the reality of our lives and breaks up the collective soul.