Fic­tion

The Mem­o­ry Monster

Yishai Sarid, Yardenne Greenspan (trans.)

By – January 12, 2021

Yishai Sarid’s lat­est book, The Mem­o­ry Mon­ster, offers a new and unset­tling per­spec­tive on the Holo­caust. The Israeli nov­el­ist plunges read­ers into a tale that is decep­tive­ly sim­ple on the sur­face, but takes read­ers deep into the hor­rors of the Holo­caust. The sto­ry cen­ters on the men­tal dis­in­te­gra­tion of a his­to­ri­an obsessed with com­mit­ting to mem­o­ry Nazi meth­ods of exter­mi­na­tion in Poland, and then con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing them — with dimin­ish­ing suc­cess — for new generations.

This epis­to­lary nov­el begins with the unnamed nar­ra­tor writ­ing to the chair­man of the board of Yad Vashem: I appre­ci­ate the oppor­tu­ni­ty to earn your trust.” Through the narrator’s attempt to explain what has led to his sit­u­a­tion, read­ers begin to under­stand how immer­sion in Holo­caust his­to­ry has led to his undoing.

The nar­ra­tor at first envi­sioned a career as a diplo­mat but ulti­mate­ly chose to study his­to­ry and pur­sue a PhD in Holo­caust Stud­ies. This deci­sion was dif­fi­cult, he recalls, because I was afraid. I want­ed to con­tin­ue to cruise through life as on a calm lake, clear of wor­ry and tur­moil.” He became a guide at Yad Vashem — in order to earn a liv­ing while study­ing and start­ing a fam­i­ly — which the chair­man he address­es helped arrange at the time. The chair­man had asked the nar­ra­tor if he was aware of the extreme men­tal bur­den the work entailed,” receiv­ing robust half-truth” reassurances.

The nar­ra­tor excels in his posi­tion; as time pass­es he is pro­mot­ed abroad, to guid­ing tours in death camps in Poland. It becomes increas­ing­ly clear that the nar­ra­tor can­not han­dle the men­tal bur­den, as he sinks into the dark­est details of human exter­mi­na­tion. Yet he moves to Poland, spend­ing ever more time as a death camp guide in a hos­tile coun­try. Unable to stop step­ping over the line with his detailed descrip­tions and edi­to­ri­al­iz­ing, the nar­ra­tor begins to repel and fright­en the groups he is sup­posed to enlight­en. Along the way, Sarid intro­duces var­i­ous char­ac­ters who range from real­is­tic to sur­re­al, includ­ing the remain­ing fam­i­ly mem­ber whose loved ones per­ished in the Holo­caust, a for­mer Jew­ish kapo, a mod­ern gamer with a Holo­caust con­cept, and an Israeli del­e­ga­tion intent on stag­ing a con­tem­po­rary lib­er­a­tion” of a death camp.

The Mem­o­ry Mon­ster is an exis­ten­tial tragedy, but the bleak sto­ry is occa­sion­al­ly off­set with dark humor. The nar­ra­tor tires of the flag-wav­ing, singing teen groups who vis­it the death camps, and, after some mem­o­rable mis­steps, is switched to guid­ing gen­er­al tourists” — vaca­tion­ers who take day trips to a Holo­caust site. Pret­ty soon I was miss­ing the stu­dents and the sol­diers and regret­ting every neg­a­tive thought I’d ever had about them,” the nar­ra­tor writes ruefully.

Sarid’s nov­el ulti­mate­ly sug­gests that the mem­o­ry mon­ster of the Holo­caust is alive and well. As the nar­ra­tor becomes con­sumed with mem­o­ries — trig­gered by and embod­ied in the peo­ple and geog­ra­phy around him— the tale grows dark­er. At Belzac his career is fin­ished, when he phys­i­cal­ly lash­es out at evil star­ing him in the face. In this final act of writ­ing the let­ter, he con­trasts him­self with the Yad Vashem chair­man, look­ing into the dis­tance beyond your win­dow, cool­ly, nev­er let­ting the winds of time rat­tle you.…” The Kafkaesque nar­ra­tor, in con­trast, remains bit­ten and bleeding.

Amy Spun­gen, a free­lance edi­tor and writer, has a BS in jour­nal­ism from Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Uni­ver­si­ty and an MA in Eng­lish from North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She lives near Chica­go in High­land Park, Illinois.

Discussion Questions

The Mem­o­ry Mon­ster by Yishai Sarid is an insight­ful and indict­ing book about the way we remem­ber the Holo­caust. Writ­ten as a let­ter to the chair­man of Yad Vashem, it exam­ines both the lega­cy of the Shoah and the indus­try of mem­o­ry built around it. The nov­el cen­ters on a tour guide’s break­down. Unable to sep­a­rate the hor­rors he teach­es from his own life, he becomes a liv­ing alle­go­ry for the lega­cy and trau­ma of liv­ing in a post-holo­caust age.

This book is unique­ly Israeli. Though the expe­ri­ence of the Shoah is uni­ver­sal­ly Jew­ish, Sarid is able to view it through the eyes of his coun­try­men. The book strug­gles with themes as diverse as the place of and rea­son for evil, how we remem­ber, and the last­ing effects of trau­ma. Yet, it is per­haps at its most pow­er­ful when it asks whether Jew­ish sur­vival neces­si­tates that we become a lit­tle like the Nazis ourselves.

This book will dis­turb you in the best way pos­si­ble, chal­leng­ing you to think about issues we oth­er­wise keep from the surface.