Sarid, Yishai (2020)
“The Memory Monster”, by Yishai Sarid (Tel Aviv, 1965) was originally published in Hebrew in 2017 and has been published in several languages since 2019. The English, Catalan and Spanish versions all came out in 2020.
David González, University of Barcelona
Project manager at the EUROM
In this novel, the author analyses, criticizes and denounces a key feature of his own social reality: the trivialization of the Holocaust through its spaces of memory, and through the various mechanisms of memorial transmission, both in his homeland, Israel, and abroad. This trivialization takes the form of a memory monster.
The book’s early pages clearly presage the problems that will emerge as the plot develops. Our protagonist, a Holocaust historian who works as a guide in Poland, chooses his speciality not due to any sense of vocation but for purely practical reasons. He would have liked to study some other period of history, but, in order to find work, he finds himself obliged to specialize in a productive field. Thus, from the start of the book, the Holocaust is depicted as a powerful cultural industry offering tempting job opportunities in the field of historical dissemination. Thus, through his connections with the Yad Vashem Memorial, the protagonist qualifies as a tour guide and begins to work accompanying groups, mostly Israeli teenagers on school trips, through the Holocaust spaces of memory in Poland.
The continuous contact with adolescents presents him with a dilemma. As a committed historian, he concentrates his efforts on helping his charges to understand what happened, but the attitudes of the groups he takes around the sites eventually make him loathe his work. Sometimes it is their behaviour he despises: for instance, the adolescents’ use and abuse of social networks during visits, or the mindless way that some of them take photographs, selfies included. In many other cases, though, a much deeper issue is at stake, which is to do with the education they have received inside the Israeli national educational system. Our protagonist senses an excess of patriotic fanaticism in which he sees himself as a cog in a great industrial machine.
We should see this latter point as a criticism of the way in which the duty of memory is managed, the way in which the indispensable task of analysing and understanding the past becomes merely part of an obligatory curriculum. Our protagonist struggles with the contradiction that obliges him to act as a guide in front of an audience of schoolchildren whose motivation is zero and who hardly ever provide any response that would help him feel that his work was worthwhile. Sometimes he hears pernicious comments about how Israel should learn from the Germans in order to fight the Arabs, or how weak the Ashkenazi Jews were to allow themselves to be treated in such a way by the Nazis.
The monster of memory forces our protagonist to take part in this trivialization of the Holocaust, to put up with these adolescents and their disrespectful behaviour. In fact, though, none of the groups he shows round, however select and elevated, are free of blame. When he accompanies a senior Israeli official, the minister of transport, on a tour, he realizes that his guest is far more concerned about the chance for a photo session than about the visit itself. Piotr Ciwinsky, director of the AuschwitzBirkenau memorial museum, recently warned of this misuse of the places of memory of the Holocaust by the political class for propaganda purposes; if politicians see their visits as photo opportunities, he noted ironically, how can we expect adolescents not to take selfies at the camps, especially when these photos are an essential part of their audiovisual code of communication?
Through the reflections of the protagonist, Sarid bravely poses some complex questions that, in a way, point to the heart of the contradictions of the State of Israel itself. Among the examples are the reaction of a group of adolescents visiting the camps who call for a tougher stance from Israel towards the Arabs, or the comment of a pupil after the visit that one has to be a “bit Nazi” to survive, justifying violence against innocents on the grounds that “the children of today are the terrorists of tomorrow”.
The monster of memory is created by the contradictions that the protagonist must endure inside the global framework of the commercialization of the Holocaust. It is to be found in the forced adaptation of places of memory to the tourist industry, and in many other instances in the book. The monster of memory makes an appearance when a video company uses human suffering as the main selling-point for one of its video games, or when the Israeli army prepares the recreation of the liberation of a concentration camp, or when a film director prepares a kitsch product on the history of the camps. The monster of memory embraces any practice or discourse that is likely to trivialize the real history of the Holocaust.
Sarid stresses the need to criticize the use and abuse of the Holocaust; perhaps more importantly given his nationality, he stresses how important it is that Israelis should criticize it, especially its exploitation for commercial purposes. Just as Peter Novick (2000) warned us of the dangers of the Americanization of the Holocaust story, or Tim Cole (1999) and the always controversial Norman Finkelstein (2000) reminded us of the need to dissociate the historical event (the systematic murder of six million Jews) from the excessive mythologization of the commercialized narrative of the Holocaust, Sarid argues that a misuse of the memory of the Holocaust can indirectly promote the growth of the extreme right. Cole (1999) himself came to the same conclusion in noting how the recreation of non-real spaces of the Holocaust for tourist consumption was an effective argument for denialist discourses.
All these implicit criticisms make Yishai Sarid’s “The Memory Monster” an important book today, especially at a time when the market for novels set in the context of the Holocaust has reached saturation point. It is particularly significant because this is not a novel about the Holocaust but about the memory of the Holocaust.
Cole, Tim (1999). Selling the Holocaust: From Auschwitz to Schindler. How history is bought, packaged and sold. New York – London: Routledge.
Finkelstein, Norman (2000). The Holocaust industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering. New York – London: Verso.
Novick, Peter (2000). The Holocaust in American life. Boston – New York: Mariner Books.