When Memory Comes (Quand Vient Le Souvenir)

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WHEN MEMORY COMES (Quand vient le souvenir)

Memoir by Saul Friedlander, 1978

The leitmotif of this memoir by one of the leading historians of the Holocaust is taken from the writer Gustav Meyrink: "When knowledge comes, memory comes too, little by little. Knowledge and memory are the same thing." For Friedlander, however, the sequence was inverted: When memory comes, knowledge comes, too. The book describes two things simultaneously: his survival during the Holocaust and the ways in which memory erupts in the present and shapes the self. The memoir is set, as it were, in the Israel of the 1970s and assumes a diary format. Yet his reflections leap from the present to the 1930s, '40s, and '50s as "memory comes." First published as Quand vient le souvenir in 1978, the memoir appeared in English translation in 1979.

He writes that before the war "everyone in our house felt German": he learned " Ich hatt' einen Kameraden," a funeral march often used for the German military, on the piano; his father had been in the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I. As the war loomed, his family moved to France and hoped to emigrate to Canada. The young Paul was placed in a home for Jewish Children near Montmorency. Having been too Jewish for his classmates before, now he was too assimilated and mercilessly bullied. "[B]eaten by Jewish children because they thought I was different from them." He was, he writes, "on my way to becoming doubly Jewish." Finally, however, his parents were unable to escape and tried to take false identities: Paul was, at their request, hidden in a Catholic school. Friedlander writes of this moment of separation: The "extraordinary mechanism of memory: the unbearable is effaced … while the banal comes to the fore." He remembers the ugliness of the city and the sun shining on it.

He was baptized and "became someone else: Paul-Henri Ferland, an unequivocally Catholic name." More than this, the "first ten years of my life, the memories of my childhood" had to disappear, "for there was no possible synthesis between the person I had been and the person I was to become." He remained hidden during the war. After the war, however, he began to reclaim his Jewish identity. Discussing a possible vocation in the Catholic church, a priest, Father L., tells him about Auschwitz, which before had remained indistinct to him. "A tie had been re-established, an identity was emerging." This began the long journey of his return to Judaism. Ten years later, in 1956, he read the work of Martin Buber while straying with an uncle near Stockholm, and this too made an impression on him. He is reintroduced to Judaism but not without difficul-ties. For example at his first Seder he declines the meat—it is Good Friday (a day on which Catholics traditionally abstain from eating meat). But memory is hard. He tries to remember his past—by, for example, drinking a milkshake as he had with his mother—but it avoids him. Yet he presses on, and memory comes slowly, irregularly. Reversing St. Paul's gesture (he changed his name from Saul to Paul on his conversion), Paul-Henri Ferland changes his name to Saul Friedlander. Finally, he settles in Israel.

The book is full of observed details: the white socks of the protesting Sudaten Germans, the texture of French streets. More than this, as one might expect from a book by a historian, it is full of documents: his own diary, letters to the school from his father and mother. It is also full of implicit and occasionally more explicit views about Israel. But the overwhelming quality is that of the attempt of Saul Friedlander to remember, to be true to his memories when they come and to their absences when they do not. The book—like his later historical and theoretical work—is about the constructive interaction between history and memory. On the one hand, he writes (of former Nazis and others) that for "anyone who does not know the facts, the mystical communion with the brownshirt revolution and its martyrs still remains. Thus is evidence transformed over the years, thus do memories crumble away"; on the other hand, this whole book reveals that "history" in itself—dates, facts, evidence—is not enough.

—Robert Eaglestone

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When Memory Comes (Quand Vient Le Souvenir)

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