Study Guide

Everything Is Illuminated Memory and the Past

By Jonathan Safran Foer

Memory and the Past

The what […] is not so important, but that we should remember. It is the act of remembering, the process of remembrance, the recognition of our past… Memories are small prayers to God, if we believed in that sort of thing. (6.3)

The people of the shtetl have an almost religious view of memory and remembering, almost as though they wouldn't exist if they didn't remember that they existed. We have a fancy term for this: bearing witness. It's not always necessary to do something; sometimes, you just have to listen.

It was the first occasion that I had ever heard Grandfather speak of his parents, and I wanted to know very much more of them. What did they do during the war? Who did they save? (15.13)

Er, try asking "who did they kill?" and you'd probably get a more accurate answer. Alex's Grandfather keeps his memories close to the chest because sharing the past makes it real again, and his past is not something he wants to relive.

"Have you ever witnessed anyone in this photograph?" I inquired, and I felt cruel, I felt like an awful person, but I was certain that I was performing the right thing. (15.46)

Not-Augustine's memories are so awful that she doesn't want to relive them. Alex has to ask Not-Augustine ten times whether or not she recognizes the people in the photograph. You'd think he'd take a hint, but it turns out to be a good thing that he keeps asking—for us, at least. We're not so sure about her.

I could imagine in my brain how the days connected the girl in the photograph to the woman who was in the room with us. Each day was like another photograph. Her life was a book of photographs. (18.5)

… probably with carefully applied vintage filters, right? Just imagine Not-Augustine's Instagram feed. Her memories are like photographs, memories of the past that were once moments in the present. We're pretty sure that not even X-Pro II can light up these snapshots.

"We are not going anywhere. We must help her to remember. Many people try so rigidly to forget after the war that they can no longer remember." (18.9)

Grandfather really wants Augustine to remember what happened during the war, but irony alert: Grandfather has tried harder than anyone to suppress his memories of the war. It's all cool until someone wants you to talk about how you basically murdered your best friend.

"I felt safety and peace." (18.27)

Jonathan says he feels "safety and peace" after describing a memory of his grandmother. Sharing your memories can bring relief—but not always. For Alex's Grandfather, it brings shame and despair.

You cannot know how it felt to have to hear these things and then repeat them, because when I repeated them, I felt like I was making them new again. (23.9)

This drives home the "talking about memories makes them real" theory we've been talking about. And this is Alex talking, who didn't even live through the war. Simply translating Not-Augustine's story to Jonathan is traumatic for him. Is there a word for feeling trauma-by-proxy? The Germans probably have one.

"People can remember without the ring. And when those people forget, or die, then no one will know about the ring." (23.16)

The ring is evidence that the people of Trachimbrod existed, but it has no meaning at all if no one is alive to remember why the ring existed. It's like, without that story of how The Wanted signed your shirt, it's just another ratty t-shirt that your grandkids are going to throw away someday. You have to tell that story to make it meaningful—over and over and over and over and …

Touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing… memory. […] Jews memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin, or its silver glimmer, or the taste of the blood it pulls from the finger. The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins. […] When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like? (24.21,24.22)

Memory is positioned as a sixth sense here—not in a Haley Joel Osment way, but in a way that memory helps us experience and give meaning to the world, just like our other senses do.

Trachimbrod itself was overcome with a strange inertness. […] Activity was replaced with thought. Memory. […] Memory begat memory begat memory. (32.4)

As the war gets closer and closer to Trachimbrod, the villagers start just… sitting around waiting to die. Maybe they know it's inevitable, and they turn to their memories (and, most importantly, record them) so that they will one day be remembered themselves.