The International School for Holocaust Studies
The Pillar of Salt
Reviewed by Jackie Metzger
Beacon Press, 1992
A Semi-Autobiographical Novel, 342 Pages
More than fifty years ago, Albert Memmi published The Pillar of Salt, which is a thinly disguised autobiography of the first two decades of his life. This early work of Memmi’s, first published in French in 1953, is an engaging presentation of dissonances that the boy Alexandre Mordekhai Bennillouche had to work through en route to becoming Doctor Albert Memmi, Doctor of Philosophy from the Sorbonne in Paris.
The author was born in 1920 in Tunisia into a poor Jewish family living on the border between the Jewish ghetto in Tunis and their poor Moslem neighbors. The book is an account of growing up in a whirling world of flagrant contrasts and the effect of these contrasts on the protagonist who will subsequently flee their realities.
In the concluding chapters of the book, Memmi includes his experiences as a young man in a German forced labor camp in Tunisia. This gives the reader a steadily escalating series of “battlefronts” that the protagonist, or the author, was dealing with as a boy growing up or as a young man. Memmi writes with a searing honesty of his grappling with the problem of self-identity and one is filled with wonderment at how the Alexandre Mordekhai child in the book turns into the author/academic, Albert Memmi.
“‘I’m a Jew! My home is in the ghetto, my legal status is native African. I come from an Oriental background. I’m poor’. But I had learnt to reject these four classifications.’” (p.94)
Take the name Memmi gave to the book. A “Pillar of Salt” is such a powerful symbol from the Bible of getting caught in the act of fleeing your fate that in rejecting the categories he cites in the above quote, Memmi conveys his determination not to fail in his mission. It’s like tasting the salty texture appended to every chapter in the book, to every category he’s in the process of rejecting, and thus the reader is plugged into the author’s rocky journey of growing up and forging an identity out of constant negation. Near the end of the book this quote from Memmi conveys his struggle succinctly: “Studying again…was my old means of protection against the world and against myself, in fact against anything that happened.” (p. 322)
The fact of Albert Memmi extricating himself from his parents’ negative attitude to school and study and forging his way through the family obstacles of poverty and attitude via bursaries and hard work to higher studies culminating at the Sorbonne is testament to the boy’s extraordinary desire to change his fate. They were so poor that Albert’s father was continually persuading the children to drop out of school in order to help with the family finances by working.
“I must have been about ten years old and already in the fourth grade when I suddenly ceased to believe in my father.” (p.43)
For a child to register such a revolutionary observation at such a young age is very unusual. Add to this his description of his mother as “a primitive and unsophisticated woman who had never learnt to count or to speak a word that was foreign to her native dialect” (p. 27) and the reader becomes uncomfortably aware of the tensions operating along the parent-child axis.
There is both distance and anguish in Memmi’s descriptions of his relationship with his parents. Of his father, he writes that although there was never any real familiarity between them, he always retained an attitude of respect for him. His description of leaving for a summer camp as his parents bid him farewell is particularly loaded with emotion.
“The loneliness of my parents, silent and scared, moved me even more deeply than my own. I was seeing them, for the first time, uneasy and ashamed, with all their prestige left behind them in our blind alley…..only then did the tears at last come to my eyes” (p.45)
The last division of the book, Part Three, is called The World, and close to half of it is devoted to the protagonist’s experiences at the hands of the Germans in a forced labor camp. So in addition to all the problems he grew up with, the reader is suddenly cast into the maelstrom of World War Two and the effects of the German presence on the Jewish community in Tunisia.
The Holocaust is widely perceived as a tragedy of European Jewry and the six million Jews murdered were in fact mainly from Europe. However, the population of approximately 450,000 Jews in the four North African countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya suffered with many of the men taken off to forced labor camps before the Germans were expelled from North Africa after the battle of El-Alamein. Alexandre Bennilouche in The Pillar of Salt describes the hardships endured in such a camp and the final escape back to Tunis. His resolve to sign up for the Free French Forces fighting the Germans is further complicated by manifestations of anti-Semitism and a demand that he change his Jewish name.
The last few lines from the prologue might serve as a summary of the difficulties of growing up as a poor, Jewish child in a Moslem, African country ruled as a European colony: “Perhaps, as I now straighten out this narrative, I can manage to see more clearly into my own darkness and to find a way out.”
For our readers perhaps less familiar with the textures and history of Jewish communities in North Africa, Albert Memmi’s book provides us with a very colorful mosaic of growing up in Tunis between the two world wars alongside glimpses into his own personal story of the struggle with privations, identities and loyalties.