Published a year ago, The Memory Monster (Restless Books) is Yishai Sarid’s fourth book, after two crime novels and a novel set in a futuristic dystopia. This penultimate novel, The Third, imagined the destruction of Tel Aviv and Haifa, an endeavor to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and Israel’s transformation into a theocratic kingdom. The Memory Monster is an equally provocative and disturbing story that questions the relationship of Israelis to Europe and the memory of the Holocaust.
“Dear Sir, you will find below an account of what has recently happened over there…”.
The ”Sir,“ the recipient of the letter that begins like this, is the director of Yad Vashem; the person who wrote it is a young Israeli historian, a specialist in the Holocaust. For the historian, “over there” is Europe, which is obsessively conceived as a crime scene, so far away and yet so close to the Jewish state, its evil province of origin. As for the “account of what has recently happened,” its purpose is to explain the gradual collapse of the letter-writer – which composes the entirety of The Memory Monster. The memory of the Holocaust, at least for the historian – first a guide at Yad Vashem before being dispatched by the same institution to extermination camps in Poland to accompany high school students on their “journey of remembrance” – is indeed a monster that consumes him. It is not just a social scientific phenomenon, a collection of information and details that he possesses; it is a noxious power, a haunting force that eats away at him and settles inside him, possessing him. Is the director of Yad Vashem, he asks, “aware of the impact [of such work] on his mind,” of the ”psychological dangers” to which he is exposed?“ He goes on to state: “I am the recipient of this history… and it will be lost forever if the fissures in me expand to the point of destroying me.”
These fissures first of all affect him because this history and the overwhelming burden of memory separate him from others and leave him isolated. He is put upon by the students he accompanies in Poland. By the representatives of the Israeli government who use the sites to their own ends. By the entrepreneurs of a Tel Aviv start-up company who ask him to help them design a video game about Auschwitz… His task is to “make people understand the magnitude of this colossal event called the Holocaust.” But how many people are really capable of that? He says that people appreciate his knowledge, but they notice a ”hint of coldness,“ a lack of empathy towards the recipients of the knowledge he passes on. He is criticized for not giving enough hope. “We have understood, that’s enough for us,” said a man in a group he led to Birkenau, “we don’t need to see more horrors to understand. That’s enough. We don’t need more. And don’t worry, you will be fully paid.”
What gnaws at him is the performance of memory (tourism, political use, overwrought pathos, stereotyped proclamation of the duty to remember…), all the speeches that aim, in a way, to digest the immensity, not to let oneself be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the event. He never fails to identify those that remain untouched. Until his last blow-up, face to face with a German director who hired him as a guide to prepare yet another film about the camps. And inflicts on him a violence that is simply too much.
Stéphane Bou: How did the idea for such a book come about? Was it first to write a critique of the relationship of Israeli culture to the memory of the Holocaust?
Yishaï Sarid: I was born with the Holocaust, my surname and its history attest to this: “Sarid.” Originally, the family name of my grandfather and his ancestors – who came from a region that was once in Ukraine and is now in Poland – was “Schneider.” In 1945, my grandfather, who was a teacher, found himself in a displaced persons’ camps teaching young children who had survived the Holocaust before they made their aliyah and left for Palestine. It was there that he told my father, then five or six years old, that our family name would henceforth become “Sarid,” which means “survivor.” The whole family had been exterminated in Europe during the Holocaust. In the Bible, “Sarid” means “he who remains.” To come back to your question, I don’t think there is any Israeli for whom the Holocaust is not an element of everyday life, I would even say for whom it is not its most fundamental element. And this is both on a general and a personal level. The Holocaust has a daily impact on politics as well as on each person’s life.
In The Memory Monster, the influence is mortifying: the narrator undergoes a psychic collapse caused by his status as a historian of the Holocaust.
For years, I read everything I could get my hands on about the history of the Holocaust: history books, survivors’ accounts and testimonies. As a writer, I felt I was becoming obsessive, interested in the smallest details. I wanted to know everything that happened and how. What were the means of killing? What tunes were played by the orchestras that accompanied the people to the camps? I wanted to know everything. And then this obsession started to scare me. I detached myself from the story and stopped being interested in it for quite a long time. But the truth is, beyond appearances, this obsession hadn’t left me at all. I decided to make this very obsession the subject of a book. Writing about the Holocaust is a huge undertaking, and I knew from the start that I didn’t want to invent a story about it. There are six million stories about the reality of what happened and I am not needed to add one more. I wanted to write about how each of us can relate to this issue. So I went to Poland. When I arrived at the Warsaw airport, I rented a car and spent two weeks visiting each of the extermination camps in Poland. These are horrible places. When I returned from my stay, my wife told me that I had been affected, that I was no longer the same. I then understood what the framework of my book should be: this almost obligatory trip to the places of extermination, which every young Israeli does at the end of high school. And my mission: to write it from the point of view of my feelings concerning what happened in these places.
You used the word “detail.” It’s a word that comes up frequently in the story. Your character is himself obsessed with details. His experience is in short the hyperbolic, catastrophic and pathological version of the one you had?
The main character is me and it’s not me at the same time. It’s always the case! What the prose or the novel allows, unlike a newspaper or scientific article, is to peer into your most disgusting thoughts, the most politically incorrect ones. Reading the text, one would think, for example, that it does reflect me, as I, too, almost became a diplomat. And yet, in the novel, the main character is not me.
But beyond these anecdotal elements, you share with the character this obsessive quality, racked by a question he never gets out of his head: How to create an account of the magnitude and the range of this event? He has the feeling that those who really want to grasp what took place are few. He feels alone with these young Israeli students he is accompanying to Poland, and he says several times that he doesn’t like them.
Almost all Israeli high schools send their students on this trip to Europe, which has almost become a rite of passage. It is extremely difficult for young people of that age to face this horror. I have witnessed it: the greatest fear of the teachers around them is that these students will shame them. The teachers are afraid that the students will leave the hotel at night to go to nightclubs and get drunk. They are afraid that they will bring shame to the history of the Jewish people. I know this first hand because in 1983 I was on one of the first such trips. An 18-year-old boy has other things on his mind than the history of the Holocaust, he thinks about girls for example. There is a kind of incomprehension and fear that germinates in the encounter between the aspirations of these young people and the Holocaust. I am a little ashamed of what I am going to confide now: in the first camp of Auschwitz I, there is this wall in front of which some of the Jews who arrived were shot immediately. In 1983, the group I was in got there and we sang the Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem. The wife of our guide had a very high voice, a somewhat ridiculous voice. We sang the national anthem and her voice echoed off the walls. All the students were on the floor, laughing. Such a situation, beyond the comical element, was the sign that it was very difficult to measure with what we discovered, which was insurmountable to us.
Although otherwise, that remains also insurmountable for the narrator of your story…
The narrator who is a chaperone finds himself in front of kids of 17 or 18 years for whom it is difficult to understand very complex events. He writes that he can’t like them because there is too much distance between them and him. And when he tries to find a way to connect with these young people, he begins to hear the voices of those who were murdered there and to see their faces. He tries to find that connection, that human connection, with his students in particular, but each time, he finds himself taken aback by the story of the killing, which he is indeed unable to overcome. When he visits one of the extermination camps and a high school girl passes by, he feels the irrepressible need to touch her long, silky hair to touch something young and alive. The girl turns around in outrage and says, “What the hell are you doing?
The narrator declares himself to be contaminated by a virus of memory. You would say that he suffers from a pathology of memory?
To say that it is pathological, that seems obvious to me, because it is a question here of a trauma which was never treated and which was never cured. We are all victims, affected by this trauma. I think that there are rituals that are not appropriate, such as singing the Hatikvah and waving the Israeli flag when leaving the camps. I also think of the images of the Israeli air force flying over the extermination camps, this way of wanting to put a happy ending to the story. But I can’t say “let’s drop it” either. How could I say that? The book is called The Memory Monster, because it is about a memory that is in flux and not something static. Memory works in strange ways. If you were to ask me if it is possible to do all this differently, I would answer that there is no real way to heal or to get out of this impasse. The wound is still open, at least in me, open in my heart. It is from this wound that my writing comes. The narrator is constantly thinking about the affront to the memory of the murdered, who are presented in the last stage of their lives, when the Nazis rob them of their humanity. There is no mention of these people when they were alive, of their homes, their jobs, their loves and friendships. None of that. We only talk about the moment when they are going to be annihilated. My character is a sensitive person and, beyond his sensitivity, he is hurt. Is it possible for him to continue like this, day after day, to live this kind of life? He feels invested with a duty that weighs very heavily on his shoulders. He writes a report to the president of Yad Vashem on his experience as a Holocaust specialist sent to Eastern Europe to accompany high school students on these memorial trips. He is like a soldier debriefing the Israeli state agency that is responsible for maintaining memory. At the beginning of his experience, he follows step by step the program prescribed by this institution. He is like a soldier sent on a mission, but in this case, he is a soldier who is isolated, singular, and he is alone to accomplish this mission. He wants to do well, he wants to be a trusted emissary until it breaks him down. He can no longer live up to what he is trying to do.
One notices all the same that he does not agree with the mission that one gives him. Several times, he questions what you call “the demand for hope” that he is tasked with satisfying. This is the main criticism that is regularly made of him: he does not offer enough “hope.” He is the soldier of a mission whose modalities do not suit him at all.
At the beginning, he succeeds indeed. It is afterward that things start to go wrong… But I would like to answer by going back to my personal experience. When I came back from that trip in 1983, this was my conclusion: “We have to be strong.” I then did my military service and continued my stint in the army for six years. This decision was, in large part, the result of the experience I had during that two-week trip. It taught me a useful and important lesson, as it does for all Jews. But later on, one matures a little, one becomes a little more intelligent and asks oneself the question: is this the only lesson one learns from the Holocaust? Is this the only lesson we are going to pass on to the young? This is the question that pursues the character in his personal life and in his professional life. “We must be strong.” Is that all there is to convey?
There is this “wound” that you mentioned and there is the indignation, which gives your story a vehemently critical, even satirical charge. Your character is disgusted by the political instrumentalization of these memorial trips to the sites of the Holocaust, as when he sees an Israeli politician whom he accompanies to Belzec being photographed in front of a monument to the dead…
When I wrote The Memory Monster, it was not my intention to voice political criticism. Criticism, in this book, is an integral part of the narrator’s psychological processes. He denounces the quasi-militaristic goals that are deployed during these visits, the different objectives that they seek to achieve. There is also another aspect, which is not on the agenda today, which is this feeling of revenge that he feels against the Germans.
The question of Germany haunts the narrative character and your character. He often repeats (to the high school students, to the military attachés that he accompanies in Poland): “Why do you have so much difficulty hating the Germans?” This is the question that interests me.
There is a love affair between Israel and Germany and between Israelis and Germans. I have Israeli friends who call me and say, “Come this summer, with your family, we’ll go to the Black Forest. I tell them, “Listen, guys, that’s not going to be possible. Maybe next year…”
The book is ambiguous, problematic not with respect to the hatred felt for the Germans of the time, but also with respect to those who are our contemporaries. The book ends with an acrimonious confrontation with a German.
I attended a meeting of Israeli and German intellectuals and writers in Jerusalem. The subject of the meeting had nothing to do with the Holocaust. But after a few moments, the Germans started talking about the history of the Second World War and the Holocaust. They started to tell the stories they had heard from their grandparents or their parents, their thoughts and reflections about the Holocaust. We discussed it with them. As we went on, I felt more and more uncomfortable. It lasted for two days, at the end of which there was a small concluding symposium. I said to them, “I have nothing against you personally, you are lovely people, but frankly, we are not on the same side.” This is not a common story that we can debate with each other. That’s what happens to my narrator who, toward the end of the novel, accompanies a German film director to the site of extermination; the director acts as if they are both having a common experience… That’s where this motif about Germany and Germans in the book comes from.
The book winds up with the story of the character’s final meltdown. What makes him collapse is the unbearable way in which, according to him, this German director that he accompanies looks at him: like a Jew. He feels observed by a kind of beast obsessed by a memory that does not concern him, at least not in the same way as it concerns the narrator.
Even today, we have to deal with anti-Semitism. Israel is perhaps the place where we are the most protected from it. The old anti-Semitic stereotypes, which go back a long way, are coming back to the surface. They motivated the creation of Zionism. The aim was to create a Jew who had nothing to do, either directly or indirectly, with the stereotypes of the Jew as conveyed by anti-Semitism. To the image of the weak, cowardly, spineless, unathletic being, the Zionist ideal opposes a tall, strong, agricultural Jew with strong, calloused hands. I remember as a kid that when we went to visit our relatives who lived on the kibbutz (I’m talking about the kibbutz in the golden age of collective farms), by the pool, the children were robust: they were tall, handsome, strong, unblemished. And I was a city kid, not so well-built, tanned or athletic – plus I was a four-eyes. The vision we have of ourselves through the anti-Semitic
gaze is something that persists to this day. Never be weak. You hear it all the time from Israeli politicians. It means not having too much guilt, not being too sanctimonious and not being too intellectual. To me, this is a suggestion not to be too Jewish. And this comes from people who are supposedly the “most Jewish,” the most religious…
But how about this “love story between Israel and Germany” that you mentioned?
We still have a problematic relationship with Europe. Israelis identify themselves with Europe. We haven’t found a suitable place in our little neighborhood… Israelis travel a lot in Europe and Israelis love Germany, its culture, the cleanliness, the blondes. A few years ago, I was walking in Tel Aviv and, not far from my apartment, I saw that there were Oktoberfest celebrations. In one of the bars, I saw Israeli women dressed as Bavarian women… Those who travel to Israel today will find, at Ben Gurion airport, a small fast food restaurant with Bavarian food. We are nostalgic for Europe. More than that! When Israelis observe migration to Europe, many of them are angry at these emigrants from Arab countries and Africa because they are damaging this beautiful white Europe that they love. They forget a little bit that we were “the Negroes of Europe.” You understand that I am not saying that we should go to war, that we should take revenge on the Germans, I am not in that spirit. But this anger, this need for vengeance or revenge, does not fade away. It redirects itself to another place and to whom? To the Arabs, for example. I think that if we reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians, it will take us much longer to pacify our relations with them than it took us to pacify our relations with the Germans.
You note a European nostalgia on the part of Israelis today. Is it your case?
I cannot be taken as an example. Me, I walk in Berlin and I have nausea. Ninety-nine percent of Israelis go to Berlin to shop, go to bars and nightclubs without any problem. I’m the one who is wrong, I’m the problem. For me, the wound in Europe remains open.
But do you still feel a little European?
I was never European but there is no doubt that I am of European origin. My parents came from Eastern Europe. My maternal grandmother was born in Lvov, now Lviv, Ukraine. She made aliyah in 1935, at the age of 19. She went to Palestine alone. She had a non-Jewish teacher in high school who was very fond of her. She told the teacher, “Look, Jews have no future in Europe. I heard there’s a place called Palestine. Maybe there would be something to build there and it would be a good place for the Jews. I will go there.’ And when she took the boat from Trieste, she saw the sea for the first time in her life. A few years ago I went to Trieste for a literary event and saw the harbor. It moved me a lot. She came to the country, she was educated in a nursing school, she met my grandfather, they got married. Her parents and sister were murdered in Lvov during the Holocaust. She was an exceptional woman but extraordinarily sad. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, she was asked if she wanted to return to Lvov to see her parents’ house. She said: “Absolutely not, I have only bad memories there.” To say that I have no connection with Europe would be wrong. I have a historical or cultural connection to Europe. There is a Jewish civilization that has lasted for a thousand years in Europe, I don’t ignore that. This is my answer.