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the memory monster

28 june 2021

"There was a monster that killed people," the (unnamed) narrator of Yishai Sarid's novel tells his young son. "And you fight the monster?" the boy asks. "It's already dead," his father answers. "It's a memory monster" (72).

In this brief book, the monster of the Holocaust merges with the narrator himself. He explains that he wandered into studying the Holocaust because there are so few jobs for Israeli historians in any other fields. There aren't many academic jobs even for the Holocaust historians, but the narrator makes a better living as a tour guide than he could as a university teacher.

The narrator couldn't have chosen a better thesis topic to qualify himself for Holocaust tourist guide, or a worse for keeping his sanity: he becomes a leading expert on the techniques of extermination practiced at the death camps, with special attention to the social-psychological aspects of delegating the killing and concealing the purpose of the camps till it was too late for new arrivals to rebel.

But it is not just the rehearsal of the past that depresses the narrator; it's also the the people he exposes to the memory monster. Nearly all are Israeli; many are kids; most are bored and won't stop scrolling down their phones as they traipse through Auschwitz. A routine feature of the tours, as the narrator describes them, consists of kids wrapping themselves in Israeli flags and singing songs, a way of triumphing. But the narrator wonders if they're learning the right lessons. The Nazis were brutal but effective; to survive as a nation, don't you have to be brutal and effective? The narrator sees his charges come to admire the Nazis for their very ruthlessness, and reserve their real-time hatred for Poles and Arabs. He becomes very unsure of what he should think or what he's contributing to.

Things go from bad to worse, and I won't spoil the book by summarizing them; the plot is not the important thing, and lasts only 169 small pages. The Memory Monster is most significant for questioning the whole enterprise of Holocaust tourism, which has also been critiqued by survivor memoirists including Boris Pahor and the late Ruth Kluger. Pahor in Pilgrim Among the Shadows is wryly tolerant of uncomprehending fellow visitors to the Struthof camp; Kluger, in Still Alive, more scathing about camps as theme parks. Both, like Sarid, wonder what lessons are being drawn, what contributions made to making sure future Holocausts don't happen. Sometimes precisely opposite contributions to those that are needed?

Isn't preservation of sites, including documentation, excavation, and continued research, crucial for both memory and understanding? That may not be clear either. When Sarid's narrator participates in an archeological project at Sobibor, one of the camps most thoroughly obliterated by the departing Nazis, he scrabbles in the ground to find shards of inscrutable objects that seem more the focus of obsession than meaningful elements of knowledge. At one point he finds a key, which seems emblematically promising, but:

I looked at the key from every angle, searching for a hint or a mark so that I wouldn't have to try every door in Europe in search of the appropriate lock. (86)
Beyond some point there is nothing more that can be known.

Sarid, Yishai. The Memory Monster. [Mifletzet Ha-Zikaron, 2017.] Translated by Yardenne Greenspan. Brooklyn: Restless, 2020.