Why the memory of the Holocaust has become a ′monster′ | Culture | Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 24.06.2019

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Why the memory of the Holocaust has become a 'monster'

In his novel about a Holocaust scholar, Yishai Sarid is critical of Israeli remembrance culture. In an interview with DW, he speaks about Auschwitz and the pornography of evil.

DW: Your book is entitled The Memory Monster. Why is the memory of the Holocaust a monster? 

Yishai Sarid: The history of the Holocaust is something that still has an intense impact on Israeli and Jewish life - both on a personal level, as a family trauma, and on an institutional level. The emotions that stem from it, like hatred and animosities, go in many different directions — and like a monster, you cannot control them.

The main character in your book is a historian at Yad Vashem who guides Israeli tour groups through the death camps in Poland. His thoughts revolve around the Nazis' cold-blooded mass murder. At times he even imagines he is one of them, while at the same time, he feels the eyes of the victims watching him. What is happening to him?

The Holocaust becomes his personal monster. He relives the extermination process again and again and becomes obsessed by its dark fascination. It is a kind of pornography; evil has a certain attraction. It's no wonder biographies of Nazis are published around the world. We are fascinated by their actions. We remember the German criminals because they lived on and they were active. That's not fair. The protagonists should be the victims, not the criminals.

Hall of Names, Yad Vashem

Dedicated to the millions of victims: the The Hall of Names in Yad Vashem

So like many journalists and historians, he is looking for survivors. Everyone wants to speak to the few "last survivors," but aren't we asking too much of these old, traumatized people?

It's very important to hear the survivors and document their testimonies because soon, they will not be with us anymore. But it's very difficult for many of them. My protagonist finds a survivor and persuades him to join the group. He takes him to the town in Poland where he was born and then to Auschwitz. But it's too much for the old man. He collapses.

Every year on Yom HaShoah, a siren sounds out across Israel, and life comes to a standstill for a minute as people commemorate the victims. What does Holocaust remembrance mean in Israel?

This is the subject of my book. The lessons we learn from the Holocaust and how we handle this issue are quite problematic. The main lesson is still that the Jewish people need to be very strong and able to defend themselves. But take Yad Vashem. The Holocaust is first of all a Jewish tragedy, but it's also a tragedy for humanity. They don't teach young people the universal lesson of the Holocaust: What would you do if you were in the position of a German? How can we make sure that such things will never happen again anywhere?

Yishai Sarid

Yishai Sarid

Every Israeli High School sends its students on a trip to Poland to visit the death camps. The hero of your book is a tour guide for such groups. He sees them wrapped in Israeli flags, singing the Israeli national anthem and crying. How do you feel about these trips?

They twist history. Instead of starting in Germany, they go to Poland. That's a mistake. If you ask young Israeli students who is responsible for the Holocaust, they know it was the Germans. But if you dig a little deeper, especially during these trips to Poland, they get to the point of blaming the Polish, which is of course historically wrong. There were many bad Polish people who collaborated with the Germans and did terrible things, but they didn't initiate it.

 Poland was occupied by the Germans, and many Polish people were imprisoned, tortured and murdered in Auschwitz.

Exactly, and that is why Polish people see themselves as victims. But because the long history of Jewish people in Poland was full of pogroms and persecutions, Jews see the Polish people as collaborators of the Germans. The huge extermination camps where most of the Jewish people were murdered were in Poland. The Germans didn't want the dirty work to be done on German soil. Today, Germany is a holiday destination for Israelis.

Many young Israelis live in Berlin, and both in Israel and in Germany, you'll find German-Israeli couples.

I don't want Israelis to hate Germans, but sometimes discussions about the Holocaust between Israelis and Germans are almost like talking about a common experience, about how Germans are so sorry and we accept the apologies. It becomes too cozy. What I say in the book is that the line between the killers and the victims should be distinct. It's not a common experience, to the tune of: "You killed and we were murdered." We should keep this clear.

Visitor looks at huge photo of prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau

A visitor stares at a photo in the permanent exhibition at the Auschwitz camp

During a tour of the Majdanek death camp, your book's protagonist hears some students whisper that "one should do this to the Arabs."

That's part of the monster: The feelings of hatred, the desire for revenge don't disappear, they transfer to the Poles and to the Arabs. One doesn't hate the Germans anymore, and I think this is very problematic.

How do you feel about Germans criticizing Israeli politics?

I have issues with Israeli policies, too, but I honestly don't think Germany is the right state to press Israel about anything or teach a lesson or preach to Israel about human rights. I expect that from other nations, like the United States — but not Germany. On the other hand, I expect Germany to be honest with Israel and not back every wrong or immoral Israeli policy.

I won't reveal what happens in the last scene of your book, but let's just say there is a confrontation between a German filmmaker and your protagonist, the Israeli historian.

In the end my guy makes it very clear: Enough of the bullshit, let's do what we should have done a long time ago.

Interview: Sarah Judith Hofmann

"Monster" is Yishai Sarid's fourth novel. After serving in the Israeli army for six years and becoming an intelligence officer, he studied law in Jerusalem and Harvard. He works as a lawyer in Tel Aviv.