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By Bree Weizeneegger,
St. Paul's Anglican Grammar
"It always begins in blackness, until the first light illuminates a hidden fragment of memory...."
The Fiftieth Gate is a book concerning memories, lovingly written by Mark Raphael Baker as a historian and also as a son. In order to vindicate their stories, perhaps from both personal and professional interests, the author revisits the past of his parents who both survived the Holocaust. However, the cultural representations presented in this book are narrow, focusing mainly on Jewish stories. Therefore, although The Fiftieth Gate is an informative and heart-warming story about re-visiting the past of two Holocaust survivors, the representation of different cultural views is non-existent.
Personally, I feel different cultural representations are not necessary in this type of a book. The story was intended to "unveil" the mystery of the parents' survival" and to explore forgotten realms in order to unlock their personal memories. For the purpose to be fulfilled, no conflicting views were necessary, since the book was not intended to explore historical facts or opposing emotions of separate cultures in the Holocaust. However, the reader could argue that without a thorough background of all parties involved in such a large event, it is impossible to determine such things as how a survivor could endure, or why they hold certain viewpoints in the present due to things which occurred in the past. For this to occur, The Fiftieth Gate would have needed to take on more of a historical narrative and included such things as Jewish persecution by all cultures throughout history, up to and including the Germans, as well as the historical background of each of these cultures.
The Fiftieth Gate is written in an abstract manner including poems, lyrics, official documents, and old tales with a general narrative, tying it all together. The author uses interesting techniques to narrate the story of his parents' survival. He uses italicized writing to relay points his parents have told him of in the past and non-italicized writing to relay what his parent are telling him at the moment of his narrative. However, the story does not read as if penned from a meticulous and calculating historic hand. Instead, the book is touched with descriptions of such elegance that the language could almost be taken from a fictitious piece.
It is obvious, from the type of history that this book endeavors to cover, that most topics and memories discussed will be dark of nature. The Holocaust itself was a bleak and savage event, and Mark Baker tries to convey how this occurrence has affected his parents in their memories and thoughts. Their memories are hidden and mainly confused. Perhaps the inability to remember is due to the large lapse of time between the "now" and the "then." Perhaps these inaccuracies are due to burdened minds trying to live again, away from the blackness of their early life. Whatever the reason may be, these lapses in memory posed a problem for Mark Baker. He could not simply accept the "facts" his parents gave him, but instead needed to investigate the lives of which they claimed. This was the biggest problem of history the author faced while writing this book; the accuracy of memories gathered.
Mark Baker provides two examples in the book where the "sages" have taught something, yet his parents teach something else. The outcome of both examples taught by the rabbi are hopeful, full of peace and love. The outcomes of both examples taught by the Bekiermaszyn's reflect death and despair. The first example illustrates that of the "Garden, whose fruits reveal the secrets of the world." The sages teach; four rabbis enter and are struck down at various points in the garden, and only the fourth, wise rabbi escapes harm and exits. The author's parents teach that the fourth rabbi passes all points of danger in the garden, but he does not exit. This ending can be seen to reflect the destruction of the Holocaust, the despair and the belief held by these two survivors that the world is not a hopeful place where a happy ending always prevails. They have seen so much death and suffering, perhaps this is the only belief they can hold.
The second example portrays a rabbi being seized by his enemies, wrapped in a scroll of the Torah and set alight. Both sages and Mark Baker's parents teach that he was set alight and cried out he could see the parchment burning but the words were soaring high. Here, the Bekiermaszyn's taught that the rabbi turned to ashen dust, exactly like those Jews killed and burned during the Holocaust.
These two examples illustrate how history can change the perceptions of individuals in both conscious and unconscious ways. Mark Baker had to deal with this problem when writing The Fiftieth Gate, investigating and verifying everything he heard and a lot of what he had been taught. Another problem of history the author doubtlessly encountered were the emotions still existent concerning the Holocaust. When raw emotions still remain from a traumatic historical event, recollections and the retelling of events will most likely be clouded with opinions.
The author's parents were born before the war in small towns where the majority of the population was Jewish. Yossl Baker (previously Bekiermaszyn) lived in Wierzbnik with his family, and Genia Baker (previously Bekiermaszyn) lived in Bursztyn with her own family. During the year of 1942, both towns were occupied by German forces 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. 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.
[ AETI 1998 Table of Contents ]
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