Book Bag: ‘The Memory Monster’ and ‘#Me Too, Anch’io’

Staff Writer
Thursday, October 08, 2020

“The Memory Monster” by Yishai Sarid; translated by Yardenne Greenspan

How should the Holocaust be remembered? The unnamed narrator of Yishai Sarid’s “The Memory Monster,” a tour guide of German death camp sites in Poland, is convinced he’s doing his bit by providing visitors with every last detail of the operations: the exact means the Nazis employed to turn mass murder into an industrialized process.

But can those details simply numb one in the end? Can an obsession with the inhumane decrease one’s own humanity? That’s a question at the heart of this slim novel, published a few years ago in Israel as “Mifletzet Ha-Zikaron,” where it stirred up some controversy, in part because it criticizes what it portrays as Israel’s use of the Holocaust to shape national identity.

The English-language version of the novel has now been published by Restless Books, the Amherst-New York press founded by Ilan Stavans, the writer and professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. It’s a quick (169 pages) but engrossing read, told in the form of a report the guide is writing to the chairman of Yad Vashem, Israeli’s memorial/museum to Holocaust victims.

It’s implied at the beginning of the novel that the guide has committed some mistake in the course of his work, though exactly what won’t be revealed until the end. But in leading up to that moment, he relates his background as a Holocaust historian, how he became a death camp tour guide, and how in the end he was consumed, mentally and emotionally, by the experience.

As he explains, his limited career options as an academic — his studies had concentrated on the specific extermination methods used in different Nazi camps — led him to become a guide first at at Yad Vashem and then in Poland, where he led tours for Israeli high school groups as well as for Israeli officials and other big shots; the latter often used the camps as background for photo ops.

The narrator finds himself becoming annoyed with the teens, feeling they don’t appreciate the magnitude of the horror that took place at sites such as Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, and Auschwitz: “Their faces were glued to their phones, busy texting and playing flashing games.” He bluntly tells them that all people, not just the Nazis, are capable of murder, earning a rebuke from some of the teachers.

He also senses that on some level the teens admire the Germans’ ruthlessness and efficiency, and he’s forced to admit he’s impressed with the fact they got away with such an enormous crime. “[I]t’s hard for us to hate people like the Germans,” he writes. “Look at photos from the war ... they looked totally cool in those uniforms, on their bikes, at ease, like male models on billboards.”

By contrast, the narrator says, “We’ll never forgive the Arabs for the way they look, with their stubble and their brown pants that go wide at the bottom, their houses without whitewash and the open sewers on the streets.” At one point during a tour of Majdanek, he hears an echo of that thought when he overhears some of the teens saying “The Arabs, that’s what we should do to the Arabs.”

The narrator’s alienation deepens as he spends more and more time in Poland, only returning periodically to his wife and young son in Israel. When he learns the boy is being bullied in his kindergarten class, he confronts the teacher and screams at one of the offending students. “Force,” he writes, “is the only way to resist force, and one must be prepared to kill.”

Sarid, a lawyer and an award-winning Israeli novelist, employs a lean prose style that nevertheless packs an emotional punch as it traces the narrator’s descent. He’s increasingly angry at himself, the breadth of the Nazis’ crimes, and the way different people interpret the Holocaust. It’s a rage he often doesn’t know what to do with; he notes that “private thoughts” keep “falling out of my mouth” in public.

In the end, “The Memory Monster” poses difficult questions about how we remember the Holocaust, the relationship between its European Jewish victims and the Israelis, and the cost of studying such horror and brutality — and how the traumatized may in turn traumatize others.

#Me Too, Anch’io by selected writers; edited by Daniela Gioseffi

“#Me Too, Anch’io” (“anch’io” is Italian for “me, too”) is a collection of essays, poems and fiction by Italian-American women who sound off on the subject of sexual assault and harassment. The collection is edited by Daniela Gioseffi, a poet, writer and activist who introduces the book with a terrible story: how she was raped by an Alabama sheriff and Ku Klux Klan member in the early 1960s while in the state to do an internship with a TV station.

Gioseffi, the daughter of an Italian immigrant father, writes that she had been arrested after violating local segregation laws in Salem, Alabama and that the sheriff who raped her — in jail — told her “Go back home, Yankee guinea girl … I can invite all my pals to have a piece of you next time if you don’t hightail it home.”

In the wake of the national Me Too movement that formed a few years ago, Gioseffi invited other Italian-American women to share their stories of being attacked or suffering “general condescension for being female.”

One of the contributors is Northampton writer Lorraine Mangione, who teaches clinical psychology at Antioch University in New Hampshire. Mangione co-writes a piece with Donna DiCello, a clinical psychologist and teacher, on how both gained self-confidence from their fathers.

Mangione relates that such strength enabled her to fend off a potential assault by a man who once tried to lure her into a car in New Orleans; he flashed a phony police badge and claimed he’d observed her “soliciting men” on the street.

Mangione quickly challenged the fake cop, who took flight while she tracked down a real police officer. She credits her response to her “internalized Italian American dad,” who taught her always to stand up for “what was right and true, even against rogue or fake cops.”

“#Me Too, Anch’io” is published by Poets Wear Prada.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.