Forgotten, but not by everybody

By Tracy-Ann Oberman, August 6, 2012

One of the problems of getting older is short-term memory loss versus the clarity of long-term memory gain. Of course, being only 39-ish and fully intending to be that age for the next decade - as Dorothy Parker said, 39 is the best 10 years of a woman's life - my niggle with memory failure is only just starting.

Ask me at teatime what I had for breakfast or did the night before and my mind goes blank. But ask what I did on November 5 1987 and I can remember almost every detail of that night and indeed every night in that November and the years before. I can remember with every sense memory (the Stanislavskian concept of sound, taste and smell forming memory) the following events, beginning with the death of Elvis on August 16 1977. I was swimming with armbands in an over-chlorinated pool, my eyes stinging, the tinny radio blaring and Mum crying at the news.

I can look back to the death of John Lennon on December 8 1980. The heating was on the blink so we were freezing cold in our house in Stanmore, and Mum was crying at the news. The night Thatcher won, my parents held an election party for the neighbours. We kids were allowed to stay up late, stealing smoked-salmon bagels and biscuits.

I wore a hideous scratchy knitted jumper and watched Mum, Aunty Celia and Aunty Lesley jumping up and down in the kitchen like a gang of suffragists, shouting: "She won." And Mum cried at the news.

My great-grandma, at the ripe old age of 91, could recall with clarity and great detail her home in Kiev, which she fled on account of the pogroms when she was 14. She could remember the sickening journey on the boat and how her back hurt, waking up every day on the floor of the factory where she slept in her early years in the East End. But ask her to remember where she left her teeth or which was her bedroom and she was a goner.

The night Thatcher won, we held a party

I am therefore surprised to find that Laszlo Csatary, 96, who was recently discovered in Hungary and arrested for "unlawful torture of human beings", claims that he cannot remember much about his Holocaust years. Csatary is on the Simon Wiesenthal Centre's list of most wanted war criminals, accused of torturing Jewish prisoners and sending more than 15,000 of them to their deaths in Auschwitz.

The years of 1939-45 are apparently a blur to this former commander of a Jewish ghetto. His younger years were spent making life-and-death decisions and he has been described as a sadist. In his dotage, these must be the events that come back to him in vivid colour, day and night.

But sadly it is not just individuals like Csatary who have lost their long-term memories. Efraim Zuroff, of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, notes that, beyond the old, unrepentant Nazis who seem to forget their past, entire swathes of Eastern Europe - including countries such as Hungary - are demonstrating long-term memory loss.

Last updated: 8:45pm, August 6 2012