History and Memory

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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. 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...
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