‘We Make Allowances for Ourselves as if We Were Still Weak, Helpless Jews’

In his novel ‘The Memory Monster,’ Yishai Sarid imagines a Holocaust historian becoming dangerously immersed in his work. In an interview marking the book’s publication in English, the writer explains why it’s important to ask provocative questions about Shoah education

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Yishai Sarid at his home in Tel Aviv.
Yishai Sarid at his home in Tel Aviv.Credit: Meged Gozani
David Green
David B. Green
David Green
David B. Green

Midway through “The Memory Monster,” the narrator describes his one-day participation in an archaeological excavation in Poland at the remains of the Sobibor death camp.

Driven by an impulse he doesn’t quite understand, the Israeli Holocaust historian at the center of Yishai Sarid’s novel has taken a break from guiding visitors in order to get on his knees and dig in the cursed earth with his bare hands. When he comes up with an old key, in a pit next to where the gas chamber walls once stood, he is complimented by the Israeli archaeologist heading the dig, who notes that “we don’t find this kind of thing just every day.”

Then, as it begins to get dark and the archaeologist prepares to leave the site together with a team of Polish laborers, he warns the historian not to remain at Sobibor on his own: “This is a job. We finish and we leave. Otherwise we lose our minds. It’s too awful.”

Unfortunately, no one had thought to tell our unnamed narrator this when he made the decision to pursue a doctorate in Holocaust history, or when, to finance his studies and support his young family, he began guiding groups of students and adults from Israel around the former Nazi death camps.

As a consequence, our hero now finds himself writing a letter to the chairman of Yad Vashem, who is his unofficial mentor, trying to explain the meltdown he did eventually undergo in Poland. That “letter” is the novel, originally published in Hebrew in 2017 and just released in English translation.

Recounting for the chairman what brought him to this point, our narrator says he initially resisted studying the Shoah, having “wanted to stay far away from the disasters and calamities of our own people.” But after eliminating most other academic fields and as he was about to get married, he decided to pursue a degree in what he believed was the only historical period in which he would realistically stand a chance of finding a job in Israel. His thesis focused on the different methods used by the Germans to murder people in the six different death camps.

Two girls draped in Israeli flags sitting in front of a barbed wire fence in the former Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, May 5, 2016.Credit: Alik Keplicz / AP

It soon becomes clear, at least to the reader, that his initial reluctance to study the Jews’ disasters and calamities was a sound instinct. Even as he becomes fluent in the language and statistics of the Nazi genocidal apparatus, he can’t help imagining himself in the places of victims, perpetrators and bystanders alike, wondering how he would have acquitted himself had he been living in Europe at the time.

He also asks the same of the people he guides through Auschwitz, Treblinka and Chelmno – be they Israeli high school students, officers in the Israel Defense Forces, even ultra-Orthodox pilgrims he encounters on their way to the grave of a rabbinical sage. It’s a type of psychological probing that not everyone appreciates.

I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that our narrator’s meltdown doesn’t go beyond the level of his punching someone out. It’s hardly professional behavior, but most of us would probably agree that the person he hits gets what’s coming to him. What is more unsettling is the tour guide’s moral confusion and the increasingly wild mood shifts that augur the attack.

Manipulation and trauma

Yishai Sarid’s book is a critique of Holocaust education, but it’s far from being a sweeping dismissal of it. It’s sharply written, with a heap of irony and some mockery too. But if you’re wondering whether Sarid’s message is that it’s time to get over the Holocaust, the answer is no.

The 55-year-old is the author of six novels, the most recent of which, “Minatzahat” (Victorious), about a female army psychologist who’s an expert in training combat soldiers to lose their natural inhibitions about killing the enemy, was published in Hebrew just as “The Memory Monster” came out in English.

His father was Yossi Sarid, the longtime Knesset member and education minister, journalist – after his retirement from politics, he wrote a regular column for this newspaper – educator and poet. He died in 2015 at age 75.

Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum and memorial in Jerusalem. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Yishai Sarid lives in Tel Aviv, where he also maintains a solo practice as a civil litigator. His wife, Racheli Sion Sarid, is a critical-care pediatrician and the daughter of former Labor MK Yael Dayan (and granddaughter of Moshe Dayan). The couple has three children.

What follows are excerpts from a conversation with Sarid about “The Memory Monster.”

Your book is filled with extensive details about the Shoah, which you’ve obviously spent much time studying. It’s clear that you’ve also visited the death camps in Poland. Did that include accompanying one of the youth tours you describe in the book?

“The Memory Monster” by Yishai Sarid. Credit: Restless Books

“The book is a novel, but it was important to me to get a lot of Shoah history into it, and I made an effort to ensure that that material was 100 percent accurate. What’s fictional is the part that takes place in the present day.

“As for the trips, I was in Poland twice for trips of this type. The first time was when I was 18, in 1983, when I went with a delegation of boys and girls from all over Israel. It was the year before we were drafted. I was an 18-year-old idiot – no, not an idiot, just a normal 18-year-old kid. Interested in the things that interest kids at that age. My feeling, in retrospect, was [that we] lacked emotional preparedness.”

Do you think it’s a mistake to send groups of adolescents on such trips?

“I think that if one wants to really understand the Shoah, there’s no alternative to traveling there. You need to see these places with your own eyes – Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor – to really understand the Shoah. But I’m against taking kids of 17 or 18. For a few reasons: Their ability to understand is limited. They’re very subject to manipulation on these trips, in terms of the lessons or messages of the Shoah. And also, there are sensitive kids who can suffer trauma. To drop all this on them, with all the horrors, that can really be hard.”

A rusting sign showing Sobibor train station in Poland, December 1, 2009.Credit: REUTERS

Your hero, who’s nearly twice as old as that, is also very sensitive.

“What my hero undergoes, day after day, is to relive the murder. These are still terrible places. The second time I went was when I was researching the book, in April 2016. I went by myself, and I spent over two weeks visiting almost all the death camps. And I came back paralyzed emotionally. It was too hard. I was then 51, and at age 51 you understand a lot that you don’t understand at 18.”

What sort of relationship did you have with the Holocaust growing up? How was it dealt with in your family?

“The thoughts [I express in the book] are completely my own. But I got it from my father. The Holocaust was very present [in our home]. Father himself wrote a book called “Pepiczek.” It’s a true story about a survivor who was one of ‘Mengele’s twins.’

“Our family name was originally Schneider. They came from Poland, where they lived for generations upon generations in a small village, Rafalowka, in what is today Ukraine [and now known as Rafalivka].

“My father would often tell us how, when he was 5 or 6, his father, Yaakov Schneider – who was a teacher [and in the 1970s was director general of the Israeli Education Ministry] – went to Europe at the end of 1945, to go to displaced person camps to teach kids and prepare them for aliyah. On the eve of his departure, he decided – and Father described this very vividly, because it really stayed with him – ‘From this day, we’ll call ourselves Sarid [Hebrew for “survivor”], because we are the only survivors from our family.’ All the rest were murdered in Europe.

“In his politics, my father thought we couldn’t be like all the nations of the world. That we had to be better than them. That our tragedy obligated us with a special moral responsibility.”

Yossi Sarid in 2009.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

For some, because he was secular and a leftist, and such an outspoken one, he was perceived to be a ‘hater of the Jews,’ as anti-religion. But I remember seeing him on TV many years ago on the eve of Tisha B’Av, talking about the destruction of the Temple, and being surprised by his knowledge of the sources, his ability to quote from the Bible and his knowledge of history.

“I’ll tell you about my father – and about myself. This may be a little bombastic, but to me, Father was the most Jewish man I knew. In terms of his connection to the sources, his ability to quote the Bible like an encyclopedia, his level of learning, and also his sense of Jewish continuity – including in the matter of the Shoah, and perhaps most important, in his sense of moral obligation. Even if he didn’t believe in God, he possessed a ‘fear of heaven’ in the sense that he felt we Jews had obligations in this world.

“As far as I’m concerned, this is our culture, whether we like it or not. We can be influenced by the West, and by America and other cultures – and I do know them and I value them. But at the end of the day, our roots are in Jewish culture, with its good and bad elements. And I personally try to read and to learn as much as I can. To the extent that the religious – not all, but the religious establishment – use Jewish culture for political purposes, and say that in order to be a good Jew you need to be right-wing, and so on and so on, is just not correct.

“There’s no contradiction between being on the Israeli left and Judaism. Maybe the opposite is true. Whom do we remember in the history of Israel? A few great kings. But not many. What we remember are the Prophets of Israel, that’s the great legacy Judaism has given the world. And in that regard, the Israeli left is more Jewish than the right.”

Sometimes, says Sarid, his father reminded him of those prophets.

The Mizrahi curse

There are a few jarring sections in “The Memory Monster” in which our guide recalls how, more than once, he overheard Israeli students make disparaging remarks about Ashkenazi Jews – those who were the principal Jewish victims of the Holocaust. They characterize them as “the forefathers of left-wingers,” and believe that “they weren’t able to protect their wives and children, collaborated with the murderers, they weren’t real men, didn’t know how to hit back, cowards, softies, letting the Arabs have their way.”

“Hateful places breed hate,” the narrator writes in his letter to the chairman, describing how he watches a boy visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau begin “to scratch the words ‘Death to left-wingers’ onto a wooden wall in the women’s camp,” before being stopped by one of his teachers. He and his friends, writes the narrator, “were cloaked with the national flag, wearing yarmulkes, walking among the sheds, filled with hatred – not for the murderers, but for the victims.”

Participants in the March of the Living walk along rail tracks in the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland, April 8, 2013. Credit: AP

Our hero makes some pretty negative comments about Mizrahi pupils. Where did that come from?

“He didn’t say bad things about the Mizrahim. By the way, he himself is half Mizrahi [actually three-quarters, he says in the book]. But … if you were to go into the social networks today, and you see what people say there about Ashkenazim and the Holocaust, they are awful, terrible things. This is part of the thing about ‘the Monster.’ And it’s part of the thing about the political conversation in our day. ‘You, you leftists, the Ashkenazim, just as you were killed in the Shoah, and you were helpless in Europe, that’s the way you want us to be here.’ ‘You were weak.’ ‘Go back to the gas chambers’ – and things like that.

“Now, this isn’t [the] Israeli mainstream. But on the other hand, it’s not really fringe either. It exists, and there are those who fan the flames and encourage this kind of talk.

“There are certain things that remain unresolved. There’s the question of Jewish collaboration with the Nazis, the matter of the Judenräte [Jewish councils in the ghettos]. It comes up again and again in a political context.

“And there’s another thing. I’ve had the opportunity to speak with not a small number of Mizrahim on this. And they say: ‘Look, we know about the Shoah and it’s our people too, and it’s a terrible tragedy that happened to us.’ But at the same time, they say – and I’m talking roughly about people my own age, or a little younger – ‘It overshadows our tradition, our history as Mizrahi Jews. Because there’s always something more important.’ And they’ll give you an example about a kid of Mizrahi origin who, when he was in school, would be asked about whom he lost in the Shoah, family or relatives, and he feels embarrassed or despairs over the fact that he doesn’t have anyone. In a certain sense, it steals the show from him, being of his background. It’s a serious thing, it’s real and authentic, and I don’t minimize it.”

Heroes and villains

In one scene, the narrator meets with a survivor who has recently returned to Israel after many years of living abroad, hoping he might be able to speak with students about his experiences during the Shoah. Five decades after leaving the country, he remains angry at Yad Vashem, which, he says, identified him as a “kapo,” and led to his being vilified and ostracized.

Yishai Sarid. “You need to see these places with your own eyes – Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor – to really understand the Shoah. But I’m against taking kids of 17 or 18.” Credit: Meged Gozani

According to the survivor, the work he did as leader of a tunnel-digging team at the Gross-Rosen camp may have been brutal, but ultimately saved lives: “All I wanted was to buy us some time, get us a little more food, one day at a time, until it was over.” But years later, when he was living in Israel, “you [meaning presumably Yad Vashem] reported me to the police, saying I was a bad kapo; that I collaborated with the Germans. Tell me, was there a single Jew who didn’t collaborate?”

In this case, the narrator seems unsympathetic to the survivor. The next time he is in touch with the Yad Vashem chairman, he proposes that the institution assemble “an organized list of kapos,” for the historical record. He recalls how, to his disappointment, the chairman responded by asking him, “‘What do we need this for?’”

“I said, ‘So we may know the truth; so we may enhance the difference between black and white.’

“‘There is no black and white in history,’ you said, writing me off.”

I ask Sarid how he understood this lack of compassion on the part of his historian.

“This is an example of the gap between intellectual understanding and the emotional reaction. After all, you understand that these people did not have any choice. That it’s not right to judge them regarding the horrible situation they found themselves in. But still, when you encounter someone like this, it’s not easy to deal with [it] emotionally.

“We know in the 1950s, they held trials of some kapos, and they stopped with it because they understood that it just isn’t possible to judge people about what happened.

“But it’s more than that. You may ask, why is it so hard for our hero, why does he take it so hard? Because he keeps asking himself, what would I have done? And at the end, he says to himself: ‘You, you could have been a kapo. Because you would want to live.’ And it really means that for all of us, even though we all think of ourselves as big heroes, that any one of us, in circumstances in which the most brutal force is applied to him, is capable of doing the worst things. And it’s difficult for him – and difficult for me – to live with that understanding.

“For Israelis – let’s say that complexity is not our strong suit. The important, or one of the important, questions is: From what point of view do you look at it? Because, if you’re weak and helpless, like the Jews were [during the Shoah], all you can do is try to survive, to find the next slice of bread, to protect your children. Or to have the strength to be able to go to work in the morning. You can’t ask much more from yourself.

“But we’re not there anymore. We’re strong, thank God, and we’re independent, and we’re in a completely different place. We’re no longer helpless Jews, but we still make allowances for ourselves as if we were still weak, helpless Jews.”

Several days after our conversation, Haaretz reported that the Israeli government intended to nominate Effi Eitam for the top position at Yad Vashem in place of Avner Shalev, who is retiring after 27 years in the post. Eitam is a reserve brigadier general in the Israeli army and former politician whose hard hand as a combat commander and far-right political positions make him a controversial choice to lead an institution that has always strived to be above politics.

Effi Eitam.Credit: Gini

As Judy Maltz reported here this week, the news that Eitam was being considered for the job has drawn criticism from across the political spectrum, including from representatives of Holocaust survivors’ organizations. Polish-Jewish historian and survivor Marian Turski, for example, wrote to President Reuven Rivlin that Eitam’s appointment would “greatly undermine Yad Vashem’s authority around the world.”

For his part, Sarid says that the floating of Eitam’s name only demonstrates that the trend he depicted in his book is even further along than he had imagined. “It’s a statement that we don’t care about any universal or human lesson of the Shoah, other than the lesson that the Jews have to be strong,” he says. “And that’s fine, the Jews do indeed have to be strong – but it’s not the only lesson of the Shoah. Being human is not just a universal lesson, it’s also a Jewish one.”

Sarid also suggests that if Eitam’s appointment does come to pass, “We’ll have to think of another institution to serve as an alternative to Yad Vashem. I may have my criticism and reservations about Yad Vashem today, but it is important and respectable. As soon as Effi Eitam stands at its head, it will no longer be a respectable institution.”

“The Memory Monster” by Yishai Sarid (translated from Hebrew by Yardenne Greenspan) is published by Restless Books, $20

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