The Memory Monster

An excerpt from Yishai Sarid's new novel about a historian who specializes in leading tours of concentration camps in Poland.

Yishai Sarid’s new novel, The Memory Monster (published by Restless Books), is written as a report to the chairman of Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the victim of the Holocaust. Hired as a promising young historian, he soon becomes a leading expert on Nazi methods of extermination at concentration camps in Poland during World War II and guides tours through the sites for students and visiting dignitaries. In the following excerpt, translated by Yardenne Greenspan, the narrator tells the chairman about the first tours he gave in Poland. If you’re interesting in learning more about the book, Tel Aviv Review of Books will be interviewing Yishai Sarid in a special Zoom event on November 18th. You can find all the details here


At the same time, to make a living, I began working as a tour guide at Yad Vashem. You yourself were the head of the committee that gave me the position. I recall your demeanor and the awe you inspired in me. You asked me why I wanted to be a guide, and if I was aware of the extreme mental burden the work entailed. I answered with a half-truth, explaining that this was an extraordinary opportunity for a historian to make real-life use of his profession, disseminating his knowledge publicly. I didn’t say my wife was pregnant and I had to provide for my growing family. I told you I was in the midst of working on my dissertation, and that I had plenty of detailed information on the techniques of extermination. In my CV, I included my experience teaching a gunnery course at the Armored Corps School, and mentioned that later, at university, I served as a teaching assistant to the dean of the history faculty. You asked me to present you with a truncated version of the story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the way I would tell it if you were a school student. I must have made a good impression, because the very next day I got a call informing me the job was mine. I didn’t take your warnings about the emotional strain too seriously because I had never suffered true emotional turmoil in my life, and thought I was immune. I burst into the field like a young bull and began working right away as a guide at the museum, the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations, and in classrooms. I showered the children with my knowledge. I had a knack for it. I aspired to give them a clear-cut summary of the big picture rather than bombard them with endless details, to take hold of several plotlines. I couldn’t convey every subplot—the kids would get totally lost. Some children from one of the first classes I guided told me that thanks to me they could truly understand, for the very first time, this whole enormous story of the Holocaust.

I was hardworking and always well-prepared for lectures. I never showed up unprepared. I worked from the assumption that they knew nothing and that I bore the entire responsibility of teaching this memory to them. I explained the roots of anti-Semitism, both traditional and modern, the rise of the Nazis, a bit of Hitler’s biography and the biographies of his first emissaries, the start of the war, the negation of rights, imprisonment in ghettos, banishments, extermination.

Sometimes I was enchanted by the interesting face of a girl or boy or an intelligent question asked, but mostly classes came and went without leaving any special impression. I remember that once, you dropped in unexpectedly to listen to me give a lecture to high school students from Rehovot or Gedera. You sat in the back and signaled for me to carry on, and I wanted to impress you. There was a blueprint of Treblinka on the screen, and I flowed between stations with ease until I reached the burning of bodies in large decay pits. A few minutes later you nodded and walked out. Then the wing manager came to see me. She said you were impressed by my knowledge, but thought I lacked some emotion and personal attention to victims. I’m a historian, I thought, not a social worker, but I promised I would take that into consideration and try to correct my ways.

I went to Poland for the first time to write my doctoral dissertation and see the places about which I’d read tens of thousands of pages. My advisor, the Chair of Holocaust Studies at the university, was supposed to go with me. He had some complicated connections there. But he pulled a muscle in his back the night before the flight; might have even slipped a disc. So I went alone. I rented a car at the airport and spent two weeks driving between camps, pouncing at them hungrily, and returning with hundreds of photographs and notebooks filled with sketches.

Everything fell into place during this visit. I understood exactly what I was seeing, and this understanding brought on a kind of intellectual elation. My dissertation was infinitely improved.

A few months later I returned to Poland for a delegation guide course. The sites were already familiar to me, and I almost felt at home. After I’d been formally authorized as a tour guide, I started making bookings and traveled to Poland more and more frequently. I made a few thousand shekels for each trip, finally earning a decent living for my little family: Ruth and our child, Ido.

Before too long, during high school heritage trip season, I would be away from home for a month at a time, sometimes longer, because there wasn’t enough time to come home between trips. Ruth and the baby got used to it. We had no other choice. I don’t know if you’ve ever been on one of those high school delegations: flying with them in the middle of the night, spending seven or eight days with them on the road, standing before them and explaining over and over again what happened in those forests, those ghettos, those camps, trying to carve a path into their expressionless faces, their minds filled with iPhone flickers. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to illustrate death to them, providing them with data and facts, numbers and names, or had them follow you around, wrapped in flags, singing the national anthem near the gas chambers, saying the Kaddish prayer by the piles of ashes, lighting candles in memory of the children in the pits, performing all sorts of made-up rituals, working so hard to squeeze out a tear. I’ve asked myself so many times whether you’ve ever experienced this first-hand.

The tour always began at the Warsaw Cemetery. Mr. Chairman, I tell you, it would be best to leave that part out. None of them knows who I. L. Peretz is and why he received such an impressive monument. I suppose he used to be an important author, but I don’t know anyone who’s ever read any of his books. They have no idea what Esperanto is, either, or that a man named Zamenhof was its creator. And they’re right, the whole Esperanto ordeal was a bust. We try to present them with a magnificent culture, but the truth is the Jews who lived in Poland didn’t build cathedrals or write symphonies. Most of them were petty merchants, simple people who ate herring and listened to klezmer music and lived in cabins. Toward the end, some of them were doctors or lawyers—they were among the darker-skinned people who lived in the east, the ones who murdered Jesus. The kids wander among the tombstones, tired after their red-eye flight, unsure whether it’s too early to wrap themselves with an Israeli flag, answering an automatic “Amen” when the teacher says the Kaddish prayer over every important grave. They’re cold, and all they want is to go to the hotel and enjoy a little bit of that “abroad” feeling.

After the cemetery we take them to the old Jewish quarter, to the dispatch quad at Umschlagplatz, and to the rebels’ bunker on Mila 18. “They were hardly older than you are now,” I tell them, “with almost no weapons at all; only a few Molotov cocktails, some hand grenades, and some guns. And with those measly resources, they were able to block a German military brigade for nearly a month.”

I stood before them, trying to convey to them the suffering and the heroism, holding strong to all of your messages, never deviating right or left. I was a good boy, doing my best to invade past those jeans and leggings and curls and ponytails and heavy coats, that flat, fast talking, the indifferent eyes, and the phones. To invade their hearts and their minds. I never felt like I truly succeeded, because I didn’t love them enough. I know that now.

Nights at hotels are a teacher’s worst nightmare. The last thing they want is to see a headline in tomorrow’s newspaper describing Israeli students acting out in Poland, trashing rooms, getting drunk, calling prostitutes. To prevent this kind of behavior, the teachers patrol the halls, pressing their ears against doors, threatening the children with terrible punishments, forbidding them from leaving the hotel. When morning comes, their eyes are red with lack of sleep. But usually nothing happens. The kids roam the lobby, at worst ordering a Coke, then shower in their rooms using the hotel shampoo and soap and play sad songs on their guitars, going to sleep like good little children at lights out. True, on occasion we get some disruptive kids—not really kids at all, but rather young pimps with their girls, small loudspeakers blaring Mediterranean music all night long as a revenge against gentiles and Ashkenazi Jews, ordering room service without paying, leaving their rooms filthy. And then, what a commotion ensues! Their teachers summon me to save the day and I come to offer help, though it isn’t part of my job description. I talk to the wild animals, I know how to do that, reach an agreement with the receptionist regarding reasonable compensation, and calm the agitated parents. A weak flicker in my mind tells me that these wild types are capable of murder, but they have a hard time with commands. They know to reject them, evade them, manipulating their way out of them, smuggling little bottles of vodka into their rooms, making noise in the middle of the night, but perhaps on the deciding day they wouldn’t turn in their neighbor, refusing orders, unlike the good kids, who would obey immediately, because for them a law is a law.

Usually we went to Majdanek on the second day—a long drive east on a road where Krupp tanks used to pass on their way to occupy additional living territory for the German people. Fields sprawled from one horizon to the next, planted with cabbage and turnip. I know what a tank is and am familiar with the magnificent feeling of driving without resistance, without stopping, without hitting the brakes, in the belly of a racing metal beast, living as one of its organs. Twice on the way we stopped at gas stations for food and drink or else the kids got antsy. As we know, the Germans didn’t get a chance to destroy the camp before the Russian invasion, and to this day it remains untouched on the outskirts of Lublin, exposed for all to see from the highway. Majdanek hits you with everything all at once. Two small gas chambers are located just by the gate, on the right. One of them was filled with carbon monoxide through a pipe that emerged from a tank’s motor, while the other was filled with Zyklon B from cans. Between a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand people died there; no one knows the exact number. Compared to other camps, that isn’t much, but everything is still there, the entire operation. Even the crematorium remains whole on a hill, inside a house with a chimney, German ovens in mint condition. Beside the house were the killing pits into which 20,000 Jews were shot on one day during the harvest festivities, when the Germans wanted a good time. For some reason, in Majdanek, of all places, on the few hundred meters’ walk from the gas chambers to the dirt monument and the crematoriums, I heard them talking about Arabs, wrapped in their flags and whispering, The Arabs, that’s what we should do to the Arabs. Not always, not in all groups, but often enough for me to remember it. I pretended I didn’t hear them; it was none of my business, let the teachers handle it. But I heard it, Mr. Chairman, I can’t lie. When they see this simple killing mechanism, which can be easily recreated in any place and at any time, it inspires practical thinking. And they’re still children, it’s natural, they find it hard to stop. Adults think the same things, but they keep it to themselves. Toward the end, on my last few trips, I gave my little speech outside the crematorium rather than join them inside. I didn’t want to hear what they were saying in there.

In Lublin we also visited the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva, which now operates an odd hotel, decorated with Jewish symbols. The synagogue can be entered through a side gate, where one pays the Polish guard a few zloty. Religious kids with knitted yarmulkes like to pray there. I stand on the side, listening. Sometimes I like the tune, or I relate to one line or another. Later, at the old city, at the foot of the fort, I read to them from The Magician of Lublin. It’s rare to find one among them who has read Bashevis Singer—there I go again, bad-mouthing the youth, but I promised to tell the truth.

Other than Jewish history, not much is left of this eastern city, what a bore. Tourists rarely go there, aside from war buffs. This building used to house Gestapo headquarters; this villa used to be the home of Odilo Globocnik, the SS officer responsible for Operation Reinhard; this is where Jews were forced to perform hard labor. Those are the kinds of attractions Lublin has to offer. The population is pale and forlorn. Black people and Arabs are not allowed to enter Poland. Borders are closed to them, and the State of Israel helps them achieve their goals with all sorts of electronic equipment we provide them. And it’s working. All you see on the streets are white faces, all alike, unnerving.

At night, I sat at the hotel bar and drank. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Often, my nerves were so shot that it was as if the operation was happening right then and I was taking part in the planning, the handling, the maintaining of schedules. Sometimes I had chest pain, eyelid twitching. I wasn’t calm. I looked forward to my moments of drinking at the bar at the end of the day, hidden from view, sitting in a remote corner so as not to be seen. Sometimes some rebellious teacher who also felt the need for some distance joined me. You always had to keep an eye on the kids, worrying about what they might do, to make sure they didn’t try to flee the hotel. It was a week-long anxiety attack.

Whenever a female teacher sat down beside me at the bar, I felt like a hairy carnivorous plant. I wanted to swallow them whole. They wanted me to comfort them after the difficult sights of the day, to explain to them how it was possible. Later, after we’d had a few drinks, they asked about my life, about my wife. It happened on occasion that we took it even further. A spark lit up in our eyes, and we had all the necessary emotional excuses, a need for warmth and love.

The first time it happened, the teacher had a long face and sad Jewish eyes. She wanted me to explain to her personally why they did it. She just couldn’t wrap her mind around it. She had too much to drink. I gently told her she was overreacting. I don’t care, she said with the lightheadedness of a drunk. She couldn’t have the children see her like that, and the only solution was to take her to my room, which was on another floor, and let her rest there until her intoxication wore out. She asked to take a shower and then came out of the bathroom half naked. I truly tried to avoid it, but she fell asleep in my bed and only woke up in the morning. I’d hoped she’d come back over the next few days, but she’d sobered up. I don’t want to share the other incidents; it happened one or two more times, it doesn’t matter right now. That really wasn’t the kind of guy I was. Usually, three shots of vodka were enough for me to fall asleep in the old Gestapo hotel in Lublin.

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