The Fiftieth Gate: ‘Understanding the past is an open and ongoing process’

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Throughout Mark Baker’s The Fiftieth Gate, understanding the past is represented as a continual and dynamic process. Baker gives a holistic representation of his parent’s experience of the Holocaust, demonstrating the complimentary relationship between history and memory. This notion is explored in the autobiographical book through the depiction of his parents’, and his own past. The bricolage style of the text aids in portraying the interplay between history and memory, enabling a more cohesive representation of the lasting repercussions of the Holocaust. Due to the traumatic nature of her past experiences, Genia finds historical accounts of the Holocaust confronting to reconcile with her own memories. This tension is depicted by Baker, when he confirms the date of an Aktion against the Jewish population in Genia’s town, “’It was Yom Kippur. You’re right. The Aktion took place on 21 September 1942.’” Baker’s pursuit of historical accuracy compromises Genia’s personal memories, as she feels that compared to her own ordeals, history is an insufficient means of understanding the past. She responds: “‘I’m right, he says. What an honour. What do you know about Aktions? We were standing there like little lambs. Screams, crying. A massacre of weeping lambs,’” here, the imagery of a lamb conveys the destruction of both an entire community and the destruction of Genia’s childhood innocence. Baker struggles to unite the non-chronological and unreliable nature of memory with his own fastidious historical research, but gradually understands that the two complement each other to give a more open representation of the past.

However, the tension between mother and son and hence, history and memory, is seen in the transcript of Baker’s interview of his mother: “Pitch black. Pitch black, that’s how I was for years… What do you mean, do I remember? Stop interrogating me. Stop testing me. What, all these years you thought that because I wasn’t in Auschwitz like your father I...
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