The Memory Monster
By Yishai Sarid
176 pp. Restless Books. $20.
“What’s your job dad?” he asked.
“He tells them about what happened,” Ruth offered.
“What happened?” Ido widened his eyes with worry.
“There was a monster that killed people,” I said.
“And you fight the monster?” He asked, excited.
“It’s already dead,” I tried to explain. “It’s a memory monster.”
“The Memory Monster” by Israeli novelist Yishai Sarid is a relentlessly fascinating tale written in the form of a report. Our unnamed narrator is a “Poland Extermination Camp Expert,” which is to say he’s well versed in the methods the Germans used to slaughter six million Jews — as well as plenty of others — in the Second World War.
I’ve never read a Holocaust book like this one. It’s so unique, such a thought-provoking experience, that you can’t easily forget it.
I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau back in 2018. I remember the experience well. Our guide was appropriately somber, telling of the terrible things that took place there in something like a whisper. I also remember the very loud Israeli teenagers, a few of whom were running and chasing one another down the infamous train tracks leading into the camp. Our guide just about lost his mind. He paused every few seconds between sharing the details of the camp’s Jewish victims to glare at the kids, their Israeli flags fluttering behind them as they ran.
How much memory is too much? At what age are you emotionally mature enough to handle the responsibility that comes with witnessing a place where so many were killed?
While reading “The Memory Monster,” I had in my mind the image of our guide as the narrator, the expert in the Nazis’ tools of execution, in the 1.1 million who had been murdered at the camp. I could understand his frustration, talking to groups of kids, that they just weren’t getting it. That, maybe, all of this was having the exact opposite effect that it should have.
While guiding a group of Israeli kids through the camp, our narrator says, “I heard them talking about Arabs, wrapped in their flags and whispering, The Arabs, that’s what we should do to the Arabs.“
Later, “On a tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau, this one fat student with mean eyes, cheeks purple with cold, began to scratch the words, ‘Death to left-wingers’ onto a wooden wall in the women’s camp. An alert teacher intervened and didn’t let him finish. His friends consoled him, promising to complete the work when they got back to Israel. They were cloaked with the national flag, wearing yarmulkes, walking among the sheds, filled with hatred—not for the murderers, but for the victims.”
The Israelis being shown around the camps didn’t hate the Germans, our narrator reports. They almost admired them, dressed in their Hugo Boss uniforms, looking like “models.” Instead, it was the Poles, the collaborators, who they despised.
In a “what has this trip taught you?” review at the end of one particular tour, a boy stands up to reply.
“I think that in order to survive we need to be a little bit Nazi, too … we have to be able to kill mercilessly … we don’t stand a chance if we’re too soft.”
“But you’re not talking about killing innocent people,” the principal clarified.
The boy thought for a moment, calculated, taking his time. “Sometimes there’s no choice but to hurt civilians, too. It’s hard to distinguish civilians from terrorists. A boy who’s just a boy today could become a terrorist tomorrow. This is, after all, a war of survival. It’s us or them. We won’t let this happen to us again.”
There is some irony in my writing this review mere days after the Israeli government’s US-sponsored terrorism left dozens in Gaza dead, including at least nine children. To be “a little bit Nazi” has been the Israeli government’s position for some time now, and attempting to “distinguish civilians from terrorists” hasn’t appeared to be a priority in some time.
Of course, a politician here in the US can’t criticize these policies without being labeled anti-semitic, which illustrates the Israeli government’s success at managing to appear as a weak state, a victim, while in reality wielding outsize power in the region.
To embrace the victimhood that belongs to those who were so cruelly wiped out by Hitler’s forces in order to push a narrative of oppression that ignores the fact that you’re actually the oppressor is a slap in the face to memory itself, and to the memories of all those who were and continue to be murdered.