Ostensibly the story of a son’s attempt to access and narrate his parents’ fragmented Holocaust biographies, Mark Raphael Baker’s The Fiftieth Gate also subverts the convention of second-generation memoir writing.
A composite of detective story, love story, tales of hiding, and vignettes of discovery, The Fiftieth Gate has themes that are synonymous with the difficulties of the narrative construction of the Holocaust as an event “at the limits”: the search for appropriate interpretive vessels sensitive to the expression of often unspeakable memories of first-generation survivors, the traumas of intergenerational transmission, and the child’s adoption of a vicarious Holocaust identity as one of many complex responses.
Baker’s relentless subjection of his parents’ memories to forensic historical analysis based on empirical evidence also revisits the vocabulary of speaking the unspeakable commonly associated with the long-standing debate about the Holocaust and its preferred modes of representation. The motivation for the story emanates from Baker’s quest to find the thread that might weave the fragmented narrative of his parents’ largely unspoken pasts in which his childhood and adolescent Jewish identity were clothed.
The environments that propelled Baker to this quest festered in an urban social context of dislocation: the absurdity of his parents’ Holocaust pain muted in the suburban isolation and material complacency of his home in Melbourne: “And there was the pain of displaced identification. I invented a biography for myself and elements of my parents’ lives, characters more valorous than any protagonist found in fiction. As a child, I even gave myself a number, imagining myself as a ghetto fighter … What was I doing? I now ask myself. Was it Australia I wished to escape, its suburban dross and culture of leisure?
In the absence of a Holocaust, I was compelled to create my own. ” The most invigorating and frustrating moments of Baker’s path to his parents’ memories are found in his attempt to validate their pasts with the evidentiary apparatus of the historian—the archive. Documents in regional archives in Radom and Jerusalem are scoured with a feverish intensity in order to verify the droplets of memory that are revived upon touring the scarred European landscapes to which the family returned in 1995. Genia Krochmal, Baker’s mother, was born in Bolszowce, in Galician Poland, in 1934 nd was the only child to survive the deportation of 1,380 Jews to Belzec in October 1942. She did so as a young girl, for two years, hiding in blackness in a bunker in a nearby village. But history does not validate her memory. Baker’s search for archival signs of her former existence in Bolszowce prove redundant and force him to dispense with the historians’ truth and rely on his mother’s memory as the evidence and hence justification for her pain: “[I]t 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. ” Baker’s father, Yossl Bekiermaszyn, was from Wierzbnik, southeast of Warsaw. The Nazis’ murder of his two younger sisters, Martale and Yentale, and the missing history of his father, Lieb Bekiermaszyn, unequivocally freight his story. Baker returns with his father to one address from his past: Buchenwald.
There he is able to depend on history, since he can quote his father’s incarceration and validate his experiences: “My father is on pages forty-two and 109 of a Register of Jewish Survivors published by the Jewish Agency of Palestine in 1945 … He is listed as Josek Bekiermaszyn, officially arrested by SS on 28 October 1942, after which he was imprisoned in Starachowice, Auschwitz and Buchenwald. ” The narrative style of The Fiftieth Gate reshapes the genre of conventional memoir writing. The book is divided into as many chapters, each symbolizing a gate on the path to a religious revelation, the triumph of good over evil.
Vignettes of memory are juxtaposed in the context of the present-tense journey of Baker’s investigation of archives, the acquisition of historical details, and a self-reflexive analysis of the right to occupy his parents’ pasts as a historian and son. While spirited by the historical weight and empiricism of archival evidence, Baker surrenders to his mother’s memories of unspeakable darkness in particular, to her story of a young girl denied the right to be one, to her dual roles as Holocaust survivor and mother, permitting her to speak without qualification, and is almost ashamed for having required the initial documentation of history.
The details of the physical return to Poland—as the source of both wound and revelation—recalls the methods of writing the detective genre: the burial of evidence and its rediscovery, the travel from archive to archive, with documents in hand, desperate to corroborate his parent’s memories forged in the addresses of Birkenau, Bolszowce, and Buchenwald. In Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, an examination of survivor testimony, Giorgio Agamben remarked that the vocation of the survivor is to remember.
The Fiftieth Gate is a vivid incarnation of that particularly 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 embodiment of this vocation. The narrative content of Baker’s reconstruction of the everyday journey of the intimate, physical, and empirical topography of Genia’s and Yossl’s persecution, incarceration, survival, and postwar refuge reveals not simply a son in search of knowing his parents but also his own Australian-Jewish identity that is anchored to an incomplete 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, finally, to enter into the fiftieth gate, in which memory has survived the attempt to destroy it and where blackness is overwhelmed by light.