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History and Memory Essay

The interrelationship of history and memory show that each is individually limited- memory presents limited perspective while history presents limited account- this conflicting nature ensures that without considering both we have a less reliable history. This concept is portrayed in the prescribed text “The fiftieth gate” by Mark Baker that involves an individual’s journey into the past to reconstruct his parent’s experiences. Baker’s explores the idea that both history and memory are essential to validate, illuminate and add emotion and colour to the other in order to ultimately form a true representation of history.

Through the study of this text one can come to understand that the ultimate role of history is to find self-identity and unlock the barriers of the past. Memory is shaped by and composed of individual emotions and self-reflections; as a result it is influenced by bias and is highly subjective. Therefore memory only provides one bias and subjective perspective of history, making the representation of history to be less reliable and limited. This is portrayed in the line “It was cold, winter, we had winter boots on, the ones with money sewn inside. He says it was cold. Winter. But it was warm. Autumn”.

Here the use of direct speech engages the audience into Yossl’s situation. The audience is then able to realise that the experiences of fear, torment and paranoia that Yossl went through in the holocaust has shaped and influenced his memory. As a result his perspective of history is less reliable and thus highly limited. This is portrayed in the line “I remember this exactly like yesterday: there was a church with some hills…can you see my legs through there? Here through the use of a narrative device, an interview, Baker engages the audience’s attention through the use of first person language and direct speech.

This then conveys the idea that memory is limited in representing history because it is influenced by individual experiences that will change their perspective of history. In addition the spontaneous responses add a personal sense to further emphasize the limitation of memory that it can fail at any time. History is shaped by collective memory, providing a common representation of an event, personality or situation. As a result the representation of history is less reliable because it does not account for the views and perspectives of those that are a minority or have been forgotten.

Baker uses a wide range of textual features to communicate to the audience how documented evidence paints a picture of the past. The use of archival documents, letters, school reports, council reports and Yiddish and German lullabies engage the reader but also adds a sense of authencity and historical presence. However through Baker’s self-journey in the book, the audience is able to realise that documented evidence cannot account for all stories, this is especially seen with Genia’s story of the holocaust. This is explored in the line “does history remember more than memory?…

I only recognise suffering in numbers and lists and not in the laments and pleas of a human being, of a mother, screaming for acknowledgment” The use of a rhetorical question builds suspense as the audience realises that the persona has come to a stage of realisation where Baker has understood that memory is just as important as the documented evidence that validates it. Documented evidence is able to validate as well as illuminate memory, while memory adds self-emotions and reflections to fill the gaps of documented evidence.

In collaboration they create a more reliable and truthful history. Baker uses archival documents, school reports, lullabies, council reports and letters to illuminate hidden fragments of his parent’s memory. This is shown in the line “I thrust his report card under his eyes and command him to read. He obeys, like an intimidated school child…He smothers an involuntary laugh, hiding the thoughts that lie behind it. ” Baker through the use of a simile compares his father to a child.

This conveys the idea that the documented evidence has allowed Yossl to step back into his youth and bring forward the significant memories of his past. In addition the use of emotive and descriptive language through “Laughing” and “intimidated” creates a warm and personal atmosphere to emphasises the idea to the audience of how memory can add emotions to documented evidence, and thus together to create a more reliable and truthful history. Together both documented evidence and memory allow for an “exchange of pasts” to create a more reliable, valid and truthful history.

Through this Baker has shown the interplay of history and memory. Baker has shown that the importance of the interplay of history and memory is to create a reliable history allowing one to explore the recreation of the past to make sense of who they are, where they are and the journey they have gone through. In “The fiftieth gate” the journey into the past of his parents has allowed Baker to undergo a self-journey of learning. At first Baker observed the past of his parents with an historian point of view, seeking documented evidence to validate and make true his parent’s memory.

However the experiences with the past of his mother, made Baker realise the importance of memory in the representation of history. This is shown in the juxtaposition of the line “His was a past written on a page of history shared by other survivors. My mother could not point to anyone” with the line “What are these papers anyway except echoes of the past, dark shadows without screams, without smells, without fear”. The juxtaposition of the lines shows the change in attitude of Baker as he realises the importance of memory in the representation of history.

The use of emotive language such as dark shadows” creates a dark atmosphere to emphasise the anger and torment he feels because of his ignorance to listen to his Mother’s story of the holocaust. Baker has used a circular structure to convey the idea that the journey into history and memory is a circular one. This is demonstrated in “The fiftieth gate” through the repetition of the line “It always begins in blackness, until the first light illuminates the hidden fragment of memory” at the beginning and end of the book.

This conveys the idea that the journey will allow for greater insight and understanding of your past and yourself. This will further inspire a self-journey of change and understanding. This has been shown through the changing attitude of Baker himself in the novel. This is demonstrated through the juxtaposition of the lines “His was a past written on a page of history shared by other survivors. My mother could not point to anyone” with the line “What are these papers anyway except echoes of the past, dark shadows without screams, without smells, without fear”.

This conveys that at first observed the past of his parents with an historian point of view, seeking documented evidence to validate and make true his parent’s memory. However the experiences with the past of his mother, made Baker realise the importance of memory in the representation of history. The use of emotive language such as dark shadows” creates a dark atmosphere to emphasise the anger and torment he feels because of his ignorance to listen to his Mother’s story of the holocaust.


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