History and Memory
The power of the language used by Mark Baker creates a strong depiction of the way in which history and personal history are shaped and represented. History and memory alone are not an irrefutable collection of absolute truths. History can be seen as the documentation of the past, however there will always be contrasting perspectives and interpretations of any one event. Memory is the motion of recalling or recognizing previous experiences but is often highly subjective.
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In order to truly understand and shape the past, we must fuse our knowledge of documented evidence with the memories and personal experiences that fill the gaps left by history. These concepts are effectively portrayed in Mark Bakers work The Fiftieth Gate, an exploration of the ability of history to validate memory and the power of traumatic experiences in shaping a person’s life. In order to vindicate their stories, perhaps from both personal and professional interests, Mark Baker revisits the past of his parents, both survivors of the Holocaust.
Mark Baker’s parents were born before the war in small towns where the majority of the population was Jewish. Yossl Bekiermaszyn lived in Wierzbnik with his family, and Genia Bekiermaszyn lived in Bursztyn with her own family. During the year of 1942, German forces occupied both towns and both Yossl and his future wife Genia were forced to move; Yossl to various labor and death camps, Genia into hiding. It is this time period, during which his father was incarcerated and his mother was on the run that Mark Baker was most interested in. His father was captured and first taken to Auschwitz then Buchenwald before his liberation in 1945.
His mother hid with her parents in forests and in small towns wherever possible. Once moving to Australia, due to their fear, Yossl and Genia were forced to change their surname to Baker. Their stories are different in terms of the horror they both had to endure, yet there is no mistaking that both were left with powerful memories which the author began to unlock when he journeyed into their pasts. The Fiftieth Gate is written in an abstract style including lyrics, poems, official documents, and old tales with a general narrative, tying it all together. Baker uses many techniques to narrate the story of his parents’ survival.
He uses italicized writing to relay the stories of his parent’s past and non-italicized writing to relay what his parent are telling him in the present. Here Baker disputes the traditional view that history is of more significance than memory, and instead he argues that history and memory are of equal importance. Baker explores the conventional views of history and memory that are: History is the branch of knowledge that researches and records past events, while memory is the power of retaining and recalling past experiences. Nor history or memory is more subjective than the other, both proving to have their faults.
The Fiftieth Gate is a vivid embodiment of that predominantly Jewish vocation of the storyteller and the commandment of Zakhor, as we watch Baker inhabit the roles of the vicarious witness—the teenage son, historian, writer, heir and incarnation of this vocation. The narrative content of Baker’s reconstruction of the everyday journey of the intimate, physical, and pragmatic topography of Genia’s and Yossl’s maltreatment, imprisonment, survival, and postwar refuge reveals not simply a son in search of knowing his parents but also his own Australian-Jewish identity that is secured to an unfinished present.
The responsibility to write the story of that identity, the text of his memory of their shared history, is reflected in Baker’s monumental gift to his parents, which is, to finally enter into the fiftieth gate, in which memory has survived the attempt to destroy it and where blackness is besieged by light; “it always beings in the blackness, until the first light illuminates a hidden fragment of memory. ” Here Baker conveys to the reader how it is both history and personal history that illuminate us on past events, representing a whole new perspective than what just one of these elements would have portrayed.
History and memory have an inherent and complex bond; one cannot exist without the other. Memory forms the foundation of history, while history can be used to elucidate the fragmented and often selective aspects of memory. Throughout The Fiftieth Gate, Baker delves into his parent’s past and uses his historical resources to confirm their experiences. As the text progresses, it is shown that both impressions have their flaws. Through the juxtaposition of his father’s shared experience with his mother’s phenomenal lone survival “His was a past written on a page of history shared by other survivors.
My mother could not point to anyone”, the reader is shown that Baker favors the precision of history over the vague and elusive nature of memory. Conversely, later in the chapter history is distinguished as cold and colourless; “What are these papers anyway except echoes of the past, dark shadows without screams, without smells, without fear”. The use of accumulation and repetition of “without” emphasizes that one of the crucial faults of history is its lack of emotion.
It is habitually the general hypothesis that the recorded history of the past is rather the essence of an objective representation of the truth. However, through expressing the complex relationship between history and memory, Baker proves it is evident that the symbiotic connection shared by these two concepts allows the inconsistencies of personal memories to influence the credibility of human history resulting in the questionable nature of the historical truth.
These inconsistencies of memory are contributed through the tendency for individual memories to be shaped by personal values and beliefs, and because history is essentially collection of individual memories, history is influenced by bias. However, there is also an exploration of the power of collective memory, which is basically what history becomes. This is further depicted in Baker’s attempt to validate his mother’s past with the archive. While Genia recalls the memory of as a young girl, for two years, hiding in blackness in a bunker in a nearby village. Baker finds that history does not confirm her memory. Baker’s search for archival signs of her former existence in Bolszowce prove superfluous and force him to rely on his mother’s memory as the verification and justification for her pain: “It was not the facts that were held under suspicion, but her credibility as a survivor. Unlike my father, she could never show her children the scars on her arm; hers were invisible, numbered in the days and years of her stolen childhood. Here Baker discovers the subjectivity and obscurity of memory and thus repeatedly recognizes and speaks about the limitations and weaknesses with the use of it. And so, Baker communicates how when fact and recollection and combined, a more distinct image of the past can be represented. The protection of the past through both personal recollection of earlier experiences, and the documentation of these experiences as evidence, is essential to humanity. Despite this, remembering past events is not always a positive feeling.
In The Fiftieth Gate it is depicted how the traumatic nature of an event such as the Holocaust has a permanent result on its surviving victims. Baker utilizes sensory imagery in his memoir in order to uncover memories to be reality, as opposed to the often worthless notion given by history, and to show the interminable power of memories of personal experiences, as depicted in; “Can you hear, or do the screams from the mass grave drown out the sounds and melodies of Wierzbnik in its innocence? The negative implications of this extract are repeated later in the text “Jews do not remember with mirrors but cover them with a cloth during the first seven days after death; as if what we see in our reflection is what we are. ” This is a primary example of collective memory, and the amalgamation of the past into the lifestyle of the present. Baker uses metaphoric language here to present the readers with a fundamental theme in The Fiftieth Gate; that looking into oneself is to look into the past.
Mark Baker offers two examples in the book where, based on the same story, the “sages” have taught one lesson, yet his parents teach a different one. The outcome of both examples taught by the rabbi is optimistic, full of peace and love. The outcomes of both examples taught by Baker’s parents reflect death and despair. The first example illustrates that of the “Garden, whose fruits reveal the secrets of the world. ” The sages teach; four rabbis enter and are struck down at various points in the garden, and only the fourth, wise rabbi escapes harm and exits.
Baker’s parents teach that the fourth rabbi passes all points of danger in the garden, but he does not exit. This finish can be seen to reflect the destruction of the Holocaust, the desolation and the belief held by these two survivors that the world is no longer a hopeful place where a happy ending always prevails. They have seen so much death and suffering, perhaps this is the only belief they can now hold. These two examples presented by Baker, illustrate how history can change the perceptions of individuals in both conscious and unconscious ways.
Baker portrays how when raw emotions still remain from a traumatic historical event, recollections and the retelling of events will often be clouded with opinions. Through the examination of personal experience, memory and documented evidence, as clearly expressed in Mark Baker’s The Fiftieth Gate, it is evident that each individual aspect is a fundamental component in a complex relationship. Each one has its own specific role, be it to personalize history or to validate memory. When both fact and memory are brought together, it creates a new representation on history.