The presence of memories in Jonathan Safran Foer’s "Everything is Illuminated"

Term Paper, 2007

22 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Memories

2. Digging for the Past
2.1 Pilgrimage – Displacement in Place and Time
2.2 Writing the Past
2.3 Jews: The People of Remembrance

3. Living the Past
3.1 Denial and Muteness
3.2 Collecting Memories

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction: Memories

Memory is important, letting that memory be sufficiently ambiguous and open-ended so that others can inhabit the space, can imbue the forms with their own memory. (James Ingo Freed In: Young 1993, 283)

The haunting ghost of history can be found everywhere in our existence. The past might be gone but the memory of it will stay alive in peoples minds, history books, museums, and in the developing society as well. One can recognise that a lot of people try to keep their memories of the past alive – in one or the other way. Some go through family photos while listening to their grandparents telling stories about the past, others take photos and videos themselves to preserve their own memories. Also attending history class in school, watching television programs about the past or reading books with that topic are a way of learning about the personal heritage. During their work on popular history making Rosenzweig and Thelen discoursed, that a high percentage of the people, asked about their experience of handling past and heritage, visit museums or historic sites to find a path back to their ancestors or national identity. Many also collect anything related to the past, which includes everything one can imagine – from photos, personal belongings of family members to antique china or souvenirs from places reminding them of past events. While recollecting their past people have different motives for their searching, some just want to find their own roots creating a family tree, others are more interested in their national identity and the history of the country they live in. A few start to write a journal or diary to remember things, which happened to them or others. Most of them are interested in finding where they come from, meaning not only their nationality but also the religious community and culture they originally come from and their family heritage. In Rosenzweig’s and Thelen’s survey about popular history making a factory worker from Indiana said that he is searching for his past “[t]o find out why I am like I am” and “to find out what direction we were coming from and what direction we’re heading” (Rosenzweig; Thelen 1998, 45). Answers like that they heard over and over again as the question of identity is the basic interest in digging for memories. But one should not forget the teaching effect of past events for the future generations. Children are shaped by their parents either in a good or bad way, people can learn from other family members, friends, society, historical events and the memories passed on to them by older generations, so that they become who they are. Memories are carried along a life time and are passed over to the following generations to keep them alive – sometimes they are only very personal memories, which are passed on to the next generation. Other memories influence not only one person, but a whole generation, like war. Here collective memories about past events spread over a bigger audience of people, who try to cope with them in different ways – some pass information on so that people, who were not there know what happened, while others want to forget and never mention it again, because it hurts to remember or they feel guilty, ashamed or regret to what has happened in the past. Altogether it is to say that memories in any ways are important for finding yourself and to develop your own identity.

Memories of a time already gone are often a major topic in books, not only in history books but also in literature. Jonathan Safran Foer is one of the contemporary authors who uses memories and a journey back in place and time as one way to find out where you come from and who you actually are. In his novel Everything is Illuminated a young American Jew, Jonathan, seeks for a woman who rescued his grandfather from the Nazis back in the Second World War in the Ukraine. On his journey he is joined by Alexander Perchow and his grandfather, who have, like Jonathan, a past which still influences their daily behaviour and way of life. The whole book is an ode to memories in which you can feel the presence of the past.

In my paper I like to explore in which different levels memories are presented and how the characters of the novel handle it. Further on I like to find out in how far fictional and real memories are mixed up and what aim the author claims with that.

2. Digging for the Past

2.1 Pilgrimage – Displacement in Place and Time

For centuries pilgrimage is a way to find one’s way back to the roots, the past and religious beliefs. Jonathan Safran Foer lets his Jewish hero Jonathan travel from America to the Ukraine, not only to go back to his ancestors homeland, but also to find his inner self. His travels are accompanied by the hope of finding Augustine, the woman who – in his beliefs – has rescued his grandfather from the Nazis in the Second World War. “Tens of thousands of Americans, especially young people, undertake ‘marches’ and ‘pilgrimages’ to Europe to visit the sites of the concentration camps.” (Mintz 2001, 3) Here Jonathan does not visit a concentration camp, but is also on his way to a place where the ‘Shoa’, the mass murder of Jewish people, happened years ago. When he starts his journey it is more the positive hope of finding a person who helped his grandfather Safran to escape, but without thinking of the cruel reality of the war behind it. While Jonathan is on the pilgrimage because of his free will, Alexander and his grandfather, who are his guides on the tour, are forced to do so by Alexander’s father, who owns a heritage tourist office. Jonathan wants to seek his past without influence of any particular family member, except for his grandfather who died long before he was born, but anyway plays an important role in his grandsons life. Although Jonathan never met him, he is an important part of his family’s past – he is the one who survived and because of whom Jonathan’s own existence is possible. But as he could never tell his memories to his grandson, he left a big gap in Jonathan’s life, which Jonathan tries to fill with returning to the place where everything began. He hopes that his questions about his family background, the past and his own existence will be answered during his trip. Jonathan’s grandmother, the only one who could probably tell him more, does not know about his search for the past nor does she tell him about what happened earlier in her life. “Her memories of the Ukraine aren’t good. […] But all of her family was killed, everyone, mother, father, sisters, grandparents.” (Foer 2003, 61) Alan Mintz found out that one reason for the silence of Jewish survivors living in the United States of America could be that the murder stands in contrast to the victory of winning the war: survivor’s guilt.

The enormity of the catastrophe – what it meant for Jews and for the world that a third of the Jewish people had been murdered – simply could not be accommodated by the ideas of victory or liberation, no matter what shocking facts may have been available by the end of the war. So this dark and unwanted knowledge was left aside until much later. (Mintz 2001, 5)

So the horror which the Jewish survivors shared was often left behind and never mentioned again, because the memory of it hurts so much and they do not want it to influence their “new” life in the “new” country. But of course such a terrible and inhuman experience can not be forgotten and keeps rumbling in one’s mind, that might be a reason why Alex wrote in one of his letters to Jonathan:

And now, to concern informing your grandmother of our voyage, there could not be a question that you must do it, even it will make her to cry. […] I think that you must need to see your grandmother cry, and if this means doing things to make her cry, then you must do them, and if this means looking at her when she cries, then you must look. (Foer 2003, 143 f.)

Instead of talking to his grandmother Jonathan goes on a journey back in time and place to find out what creates this gap in his life. With the help of Alex and his grandfather he starts his search for a place called Trachimbrod where his grandfather used to live in his youth. “It was seeming as if we were in the wrong country, or the wrong century, or as if Trachimbrod had disappeared, and so had the memory of it.” (Foer 2003, 115)

As I mentioned before the present of the two of them was not voluntary at the beginning of their journey, as Alexander’s father made them go. Alex’s grandfather is tired of going on heritage tours with Jewish descendants of Second-World-War survivors, not only because he wants to forget the horrible events of European history, but also because he is afraid of finding long forgotten or denied memories of himself. For all three main characters of the novel the whole book is a journey not only through history, but through their inner selves on their way to be themselves. They start on different points, Jonathan is searching for the past, Alexander is looking for the future – in his case his dream of living in America together with his younger brother Igor, while his grandfather denies the past altogether. All sit in one car, on one route on a journey of self finding and illumination. Where, at the end, they find nothing. There is literally nothing left of Trachimbrod.

There was nothing. When I utter ‘nothing’ I do not mean there was nothing except two houses, and some wood on the ground, and pieces of glass, and children’s toys, and photographs. When I utter that there was nothing, what I intend is that there was not any of these things, or any other things. (Foer 2003, 184)


Excerpt out of 22 pages


The presence of memories in Jonathan Safran Foer’s "Everything is Illuminated"
University of Rostock  (Amerikanistik/ Anglistik)
Global Plots: Transnationality in Contemporary American Literature
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
479 KB
Jonathan, Safran, Foer’s, Everything, Illuminated, Global, Plots, Transnationality, Contemporary, American, Literature
Quote paper
M.A. Virginie Vökler (Author), 2007, The presence of memories in Jonathan Safran Foer’s "Everything is Illuminated", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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