Skip to main content

Memory and Identity in "Everything Is Illuminated" by Jonathan Safran Foer

Teodora is a bilingual writer. She is the author of two books, a poetry volume and a collection of short stories.

Jonathan Safran Foer and The Postmodern Holocaust Literature

Up until the 20th century, the Holocaust had been perceived as a subject of great gravity, which was by no means meant to be popularized or provide entertainment. Christoph Ribbat remarks a significant difference between the Holocaust American novels from the 1990s and the 21st-century works of authors such as Jonathan Safran Foer.

While the first is focused on somewhat reclusive protagonists, the others seem to be interested in conjoining the tragic history of the war with family stories and sometimes mystical, ironic tales. (Ribbat 211). By doing this, the fiendishness of the Holocaust was diminished and the events of World War II were brought closer to contemporary American life. This confusion of facts and non-truths led to conflicting ideas among literary critics.

Collective Memory and Identity in 'Everything is Illuminated'

Another trait of the Postmodern Holocaust works consists in the emphasis placed on the relationship between collective memory and identity, as well as the division that memory spans between the public and the private. (Eaglestone 79) As the Holocaust is deeply rooted in the minds of the survivors, they share a collective memory of the events, and identify with the tragedy as a whole. However, each individual has his own view on the Holocaust and different ways of identifying with it.

Foer’s Everything is Illuminated is a literary jewel, speaking about one of the world’s greatest tragedies, while intertwining facts and fiction, painful memories and innocent dreams. The stories that come together in the novel are relevant for the understanding of how memory and remembrance are connected to the consciousness of those who have survived the atrocities of the Holocaust

Memorial, dedicated to victims of Holocaust in Odessa, Ukraine

Memorial, dedicated to victims of Holocaust in Odessa, Ukraine

Painful Memories and Suppressed Identities

As a Ukrainian citizen, Alex Perchov’s Grandfather hides a painful memory, which comes to haunt him when he meets Augustine, a survivor of the Holocaust. The history of Ukraine informs us that, after the Nazi invasion, Ukrainians showed considerable involvement in helping the German officers find the Jewish people residing in their country (Feuer 28). Grandfather, originally a Jew himself, betrays his Jewish friend during a German raid. Augustine also avoids her past, due to the trauma of losing her family and unborn child. The meeting between the two represents a crucial moment, as it unleashes blocked memories and reconnects them.


Augustine is running from the past, by locking her memories in boxes. The shape of the box and its closed space reflects spiritual imprisonment. The woman chooses to live in isolation and separates herself from unwanted memories. She refuses to acknowledge the truth of the events that have occurred in the war. By giving Grandfather the box, Augustine decides to uncover a part of her past and invites Grandfather to do the same.

He discovers a photo where Jonathan identifies him: “It’s you!” This constitutes vivid proof of the fact that Grandfather and Augustine knew each other. The man appears to be indifferent to the photograph, asking ironically: “Who is me?” He does not wish to reveal the fact that he had once been acquainted with Augustine, as he is ashamed of the past.

Jonathan’s exclamation has the effect of a revelation. There is an obvious astonishment underlying the boy’s words and gestures, which may be a hint at the importance of the finding, as well as its power to produce a remarkable change. It urges Grandfather to come to terms with his Jewishness and also with his crime. Before Jonathan’s outburst, the man had kept his past a secret from everyone. But Augustine and the young man remind him of the identity he had tried to suppress for so long.

"Memory begat memory begat memory..."

"Memory begat memory begat memory..."

Alex’s question serves to elucidate another mystery, that of Augustine’s real name, Lista. She too is hesitant before accepting her true identity, which is suggested by the moment of silence. Lista’s troubling question about the war brings the past into the present and may be interpreted as an inquiry about Grandfather’s feelings towards her and himself.

Scroll to Continue

In this context, the war stands for the conflict between the Ukrainians and the Jewish people. The kiss symbolically marks the reconciliation of the victims and the perpetrators. Jonathan is responsible for this to a great extent. As a Jewish American citizen, he is the voice of the new generation, free from prejudice. The Holocaust memories become part of his own existence because he accompanies Grandfather in his journey and he is a witness to his discovery. The same thing may be said about Alex, whose astonishing and almost incredible resemblance with his relative places him even closer to his drama. The family ties are thus reinforced by the process of remembrance, triggered by the photograph.

The Unreliability of Memory in 'Everything is Illuminated'

Robert Eaglestone argues that the drama of the Holocaust has changed identity and memory in such a way, that it has become unclear whom one can or should identify with. The villagers are confronted with a lack of activity, which is basically an indication of the absence of purpose. Memory perpetuates itself, as it is in a constant move: “memory begat memory begat memory”. (Foer, 258) Yet, this cyclic nature is monotonous, because it does not lead to anything substantial. Uncertainty prevails in this spiritually emptied environment.

From a general perspective, individuality is subjugated by a collective conscience, because the people share a common trauma. But “they are insecure about the capacity of their collective memories to remember the past.” (Collado-Rodriguez 60) Despite struggling to trace back the origin of their sorrow, and get a grasp of their own existence, they fail in finding either a beginning or an end to their lives. As a consequence, villagers are no longer in charge of their past, they become possessed by legends: “We do not possess memories, memories possess us, we rise from them” (Eaglestone 79).

Paradoxically, memories are deceitful, but at the same time, they are the only means of relating to one’s identity. They provide people with a storehouse that their minds can access freely. Here, the villagers are able to encounter clues about their past: mad Sofiowka, white string, the smell of raspberries, or the clamor of the children playing. But they are uprooted from a sense of belonging because these are just pieces from a puzzle that escapes them.

The scene where Alex meets Augustine's sister

Individual Versus Collective Memory

From the individual’s point of view, however, the trauma is depicted at a much more personal level. Women are not allowed to search for their past memories in synagogues and workplaces. They are discriminated against by being denied access to religious and intellectual activities. They are to be pitied because their identity is conditioned by the interdictions imposed by men. The meaningfulness of their lives is suggested by their engagement in an unsatisfactory routine. These shallow labors generate a feeling of loneliness and helplessness. They have no one to share their thoughts with.

There is no perpetuation or fluidity of memory in this case. On the contrary, time seems to stand still, giving the impression of inertia and immutability. The past and the future overlap, so life loses its meaning, in the absence of change. Seconds have to be walked and crawled, which alludes to the obstacles that women came across in their attempt to reach the source of their anguish, but also to the difficulty in admitting to the truth of the Holocaust.

Children cannot understand or recreate the traumatic events, as they “grow up dominated by narratives that precede their birth” (Ribbat 204). Therefore, they are the most unfortunate of all. The stories that never quite get to haunt them are nevertheless tied to them. The responsibility (the itch) of investigating the past has been embedded in their conscience. Thus, they are forced to remember something that lies in darkness, because they inherit their parents’ doubts.

Beside the dichotomy collective/individual, there is a second one, which opposes the “active forgetters” and the “inert rememberers.” The first category includes are those whose ignorance or sorrow prevents them from reaching the storehouse of their memories, but replace memory with idle activities. The others still remember, but are not able to make use of their memories.

Everything is Illuminated Scene

Works Cited:

Rodriguez, F.C. (2008) Ethics in the Second Degree: Trauma and Dual Narratives in Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated. Journal of Modern Literature 32.1: 54-67.

Feuer, M. (2007) Almost Friends: Post-Holocaust Comedy, Tragedy, and Friendship in Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated. An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 25.2: 24-48.

Ribbat, C. (2005) Nomadic with the Truth. Holocaust Representations in Michael Chabon, James McBride, and Jonathan Safran Foer. In C. Ribbat (ed.) Twenty-first Century Fiction: Readings, Essays, Conversations, 199-281. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter

Eaglestone, R. (2004) The Holocaust and the Postmodern. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Foer, J.S. (2002) Everything Is Illuminated. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Related Articles