The Fiftieth Gate
Memoir by Mark Raphael Baker, 1997
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.”