The Ghetto Within by Santiago H. Amigorena describes a carefree man leaving Poland to start a new home in Buenos Aires in 1928. His mother expects weekly updates about his new life, but Vicente scoffs, and despite his Jewish heritage, Vicente and friends scoff at the old-fashioned ways of their Jewish parents. Early on, Vicente makes halfhearted attempts to convince his mother and other family members to flee Warsaw, and as the decade progresses, he mostly stops writing. By 1938, her letters stop, too.
Vincente’s indifference and scoffing soon transform into despair as news about the war in Europe and atrocities gradually filter through. He receives two final letters from his mother, in 1940 and the other in 1941, describing deteriorating conditions and an uncertain future with Germans herding Jews into a ghetto, treating them worse than animals. In what would otherwise be an ordinary, peaceful life, Vicente’s spirit is crushed, tormented over his mother’s last communications, obsessing if she went hungry or still wore a favorite shawl.
Vicente sinks into a deep depression, spending some time with family and friends but no longer speaking, instead mostly gambling to confirm his own failure as a human being. His wife and her family are understanding, trying to accommodate him. Rosita and Vincente, both with “the hesitant, pale, mute fragility that revealed they had been much loved as children,” simply cannot comprehend the full extent of cruelty.
He describes scanning the newspapers for any bit of news before receiving his mother’s last letter – “for signs, for cluses, for hints that might help him understand – and searching, like everyone else, for reasons not to understand…. Like every human being, Vicente had wanted to know and, at the same time, had preferred not to know.” He longs for ignorance and the ability to erase his memory. “It is perhaps one of the most singular traits of a human being: just as the body, when it has endured too much suffering, or has grown too weak, temporarily lapses into unconsciousness… so that it can survive, or rather so that something can survive – something that is at once still human and already less than human, something that is still ourselves and is already no one.”
Forgetting is impossible though. Every morning is the same for Vicente, “the same memories, the same guilt, the same longing to forget.” He waned to forget words and sentences and meaning, longing for "a silence so powerful, so constant, so insistent, so relentless that all things would become remote, invisible, inaudible." He walks miles to be alone, hoping to escape his fears, but silence brings no relief. "[U]nfortunately, though stillness is the opposite of motion, there is no opposite to thought, nothing that counters the workings of the mind: not thinking is merely another form of thinking."
Most of all, he hopes to flee the voice of his conscience, even as he tortures himself about his inaction. “Something must be done to counter the nothing that I can do. I can do nothing. I cannot do anything. I have never understood the difference.”
One account of the camps describes an inmate who asked why after being given an order an the guard pushing the man and retorting: Hier ist Kein warum. Here there is no why: “these words summed up the determination of the Nazis in the camps to create a space that was utterly different, a space in which there was no why.” Vicente determines his life is worthless, also lacks “a why,” and so, “He became another, another devoid of meaning, devoid of hope, devoid of a future.” He describes feeling alone, sinking, heading only toward a grave. He becomes a shell, neglecting wife, children, job and friends.
Later Vicente’s grandson assumes that his grandfather must have wrestled with the notion that escape made him a traitor. Amigorena himself fled dictatorship in Argentina for Europe: “I was not where I should have been.”
But the grandson does not complain or accepts the life given to him. “I do not know whether, before he died, Vicente realized that remaining silent was not a solution,” Amigorena concludes. Instead, language is intertwined with memory, providing guidance as guilt and despair pass to subsequent generations. To avoid being complicit, survivors and their descendants must reject attempts to forget or deny the evil.