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When History Gets Personal

by Mimi Schwartz


1.

I like the way small decencies bump against the larger narratives of history, challenging certainties. So of course I liked Aron’s story of Salach: how he kept coming to milk the “Jewish” cows during the Six Day War in Israel in 1967. All morning, Arab radio stations had been calling to rise up and kill the Zionist infidels, so the Jews in this village of 300 were surprised to see Salach riding his bicycle up the dirt path as usual. “How come you are here?” they asked this Israeli Arab who had crossed the paved road from his Arab village to theirs. “The cows don’t know there’s a war on!” said Salach, and began cleaning udders and pulling teats as he had for fifteen years.

“We worked in the milk barns together for five years,” Aron tells me, as we drink cappuccinos in Edgar’s Café in Manhattan. “And forty years later and we are still in touch.” Aron now lives in New York, but has been invited to the weddings of Salach’s sons; his daughters correspond with Salach’s daughter; and the morning after 9/11, Salach called to make sure Aron and family were safe.

“I’d like to meet Salach,” I say, wondering what has kept their friendship intact despite the ongoing Arab-Israeli crises. I’d not thought this story was possible—even though Salach lives in Israel proper, within the original U.N. borders established in 1948.

“No problem,” says Aron, and two days later it’s all arranged. Next month in Israel, when I visit my Aunt Hilda who lives in Aron’s village, I will meet Salach.


2.

Six kilometers north of Akko or Acco or Acre (the name depending whether Muslims, Crusaders, Turks, Brits, or Israelis controlled this fortress city north of Haifa), you’ll find Aron’s village on the left, Salach’s village on the right. Both have long entrance roads lined with palm trees. The Jewish village is flat, laid out on a grid of a dozen streets close to the Mediterranean shoreline; the Arab village is tucked into a hillside rising just high enough to see the waves hitting the rocky coast.

I turn left first, to the community I’ve visited many times to see those who emigrated from my father’s German village on the edge of the Black Forest. Fleeing Hitler in 1938, twenty-nine families came here together when my family went to America. So while I grew up in Queens, New York, my father’s former neighbors started again on 600 dunams of land (148 acres), bought from a Turkish prince with gambling debts. There were no cow barns and green fields then; only sand, dirt, and British soldiers with guns who said, on that first day, the Jews could stay only if they could build a watchtower, bunkers, and a barbed-wire fence before nightfall. Otherwise, bill of sale or no, they had to leave. They did it—and were full of hope. As Jacob, a cousin of my father, wrote: “Everyone knew we had escaped hell . . . and so even in this barren spot, people felt a measure of control over their lives. In Germany, everything had been taken away: our swords, our guns, our civil rights. Here at least we could defend ourselves.”

Aron was born in one of the thirty small concrete houses they built that first year. All still have the red shingle roofs reminiscent of the life left behind; and inside, the cuckoo clocks still chime in tiny rooms with dark German armoires and lace doilies spread out on every tabletop. Others have settled here since—Jews fleeing Iraq and Iran and Syria—but I know only those who serve linzertorte, berches, and maultaschen dumplings floating in broth. They are the ones who remember the planting of every carob and almond tree lining their streets. And point out the tower with the menorah on top (where Aron’s mother once stood guard to warn against Arab attacks). And take you to the Memorial Room, built to honor the 126 from the old village who didn’t escape the Nazis and were murdered in Auschwitz, Theresienstadt, and Riga. Every name is carved into a wall of stone lit by an eternal flame—and mounted beside them is a Torah from the old synagogue that had been rescued on Kristallnacht by their Christian neighbors: “Ja, Nazi orders or no, they saved it for us, and so we have it still!” A small decency amidst so much horror, but they tell the story—like Salach coming to milk the cows.


3.

To get to Salach’s house, we drive through an all-Arab town, winding through quaint streets, past market stalls selling everything from hummus to lutes to kaffiyeh scarves. I expect the timelessness of this souk, but not the Internet café on the corner or the bright blue sign in Hebrew with a phoenix. “It’s for an Israeli insurance company,” my friend, Israel, says.

Yes, that is his name, not a metaphor. Or rather the name he adopted when he arrived in 1944 on a Kindertransporte from Rumania. He was fourteen. “I used to be called Vasile,” he says, “which in my synagogue was Yisrael. So the switch felt right.” I think so, too, for he’s a man I’ve long admired as representing the best of this country: tough, empathetic, innovative—someone who, like so many others, managed to shake off the yoke of Europe’s anti-Semitism and reinvent himself in a nation starting again. At seventeen, he joined the Haganah to fight for Israel’s right to exist; at forty, he became a professor of engineering at the Technion in Haifa; and at sixty-eight, he started a small tech company. Today he is my interpreter, translating Hebrew, which Salach speaks fluently, into English for me.

We head up the hill, as instructed, and near the top is Salach’s large white villa trimmed in blue, “a good luck color for the Arabs,” says Israel. Good luck, yes, but also great perseverance, according to my Aunt Hilda, who also knows Salach well. “Here is a man with no education, whose grandfather was a serf and who, through hard work, has built a mansion!” she told me yesterday, refilling my plate with linzertorte. “If every Arab was like Salach, we’d all be living in peace.”

Salach’s daughter Dalal, a delightful woman whom I met the day before in the office of the Jewish village, is waving in the courtyard. She is dressed in black pants and a black top, very Western, her head full of black curls, very stylish. There are three other women peering at us from the kitchen, all in headscarves, but they are unveiled. “They probably won’t come out,” Israel whispers. “Women traditionally don’t take part in such things.” Dalal is clearly less traditional—not only in dress, but in the bouncy independence of her step that exudes comfort with herself and with strangers. And her smile makes that comfort reciprocal.

She leads us into a large airy living room with several gray print couches, matching chairs, and a big Toshiba TV. I could be in Tel Aviv, I think, except for a brass-hammered page from the Koran on one wall and a framed poster of a crowd facing a minaret under a banner of Arabic writing. “It is the Pilgrimmage to Mecca,” says Dalal. “My father has made haj four times since 1990.”* She sounds very proud, which surprises me given her secular attire. I expected religion to be either/or, but then I also expected dark burqas everywhere in this village.

What makes the mix of modernity and Islam seem natural is the abundance of family photos, past and present. Snapshots of newborn twins are tucked into the frame of the Pilgrimage to Mecca. Several mid-size photos flank the right of the Koran, and on the left is a large framed portrait of a sturdy man in a white cap and white moustache and Dalal’s smile. It must be Salach, looking very much the patriarch. Crammed into his frame are a dozen photos of children and grandchildren. “That was taken on my father’s seventieth birthday last year,” says Dalal, and takes out a blue album to show us more handsome faces celebrating, the young stylishly bare-headed like Dalal, the seniors wearing traditional caps and head scarves.

“Look over there,” says Dalal, pointing to a woman’s portrait near the TV. “She lived until ninety-nine—under the Turks, the British, and now the Israelis.” Dalal keeps talking, and Israel looks pleased. “She says the Israelis are the best to live under. She likes our social services, the pensions, and health care. She doesn’t have to worry.” Later, back in Haifa, when we tell Israel’s wife this story, she says, “But of course Arabs will say that! You are naïve. What else would they say to us directly?” Israel and I couldn’t argue with that, but we kept thinking, She didn’t see Dalal with her confident bounce without deception. Besides, Dalal could have said nothing.

Salach appears, true to his photo in his white hat and moustache. Dalal takes his arm. “This is my father.” He bows slightly. “And this is Mrs. Schwartz, the friend of Aron.” I bow slightly, not sure if a handshake is better. “And this is her friend who will translate for us.” Israel smiles. Salach nods.

Dalal tells us how her father retired four years ago from working in dairy barns. “They begged him to come back to supervise, at least part-time, and so he went two hours a day. But I insisted to drive him by car, no more bike riding. After this birthday, we told him it’s inconceivable to work after seventy. People would think he was in need despite all his children to care for him. It would be a disgrace. It couldn’t be.” Dalal sounds neither bossy nor obsequious, and Salach seems amused. There is no sign of feeling threatened by a young person, a daughter no less, telling his story for him. This is a confident man.

“I just retired too,” says Israel, “and I also had my seventieth birthday.” Salach congratulates him, and they start talking with many nods and sighs about the subject of their shared wistfulness: retirement. Salach says he goes at four every morning to the mosque, comes home and sleeps until ten, goes to the mosque again, and then sits over coffee with other men his age. He misses the old days, working at full steam. Israel nods, saying he stays busy with some technical projects, but one of his children now runs the day-to-day operation of his company. More nods.

How glad I am that Israel has come! He’s managed, within ten minutes, to turn “Jew” and “Arab,” labels for those living a political chasm apart, into two amicable men of seventy, just talking. Children. Retirement. Common ground.


4.

“I built this with my own hands,” Salach says, waving his arm as if in a blessing for the three wings of his house. What began in 1951 as a single room for his wife, mother, and one child now has enough space to accommodate eight children and twenty-seven grandchildren who either live here or visit regularly from nearby Akko or Nahariya. One son is a sharia judge; another, a doctor; a third, in construction; a fourth runs the garage in Aron’s village; and Dalal, the only unmarried daughter, works in the office over there.

I am surprised by their success in a Jewish state and wonder how typical that is. True, Israeli Arabs are citizens, with representatives in Israel’s Parliament, and full rights to social services, health and educational benefits. But they don’t serve in the army—and many Jews worry that they could be a fifth column during wartime. Unofficial discrimination exists in jobs and housing, “not unlike your minorities in America,” Israel tells me later. “And certainly not all Israel’s Arabs are prosperous, like Salach.” But Israel knows several who have done very well: “My contractor, who started with nothing, owns one of the biggest construction firms in the city. Another is a professor. One heads a department in the hospital. One fixes doors, a good business.” He then says a variation of what my Aunt Hilda said: “We could live very well with Arabs if not for the stupidity of our leaders on both sides.”

Salach’s village has grown from 100 people in 1947 to 3,500 today—and is still growing. In fact, Aron’s village is about to transfer (with government approval) sixty dunams of land to this Arab village, an ironic reversal of what’s happening on the West Bank a few kilometers away. “They need the land and we need the money,” my Aunt Hilda told me. The Jewish villagers had invested in a plastics factory that hadn’t worked out. Plus, many of their children had moved away as adults (although most, unlike Aron, have stayed in Israel).

“I am not from this village,” says Salach after we start eating from the platters of dates, grapes, almonds, cashews, and olives, fresh and healthy from the orchards outside. Or so I imagine—not at all like my Aunt Hilda’s high cholesterol delights across the road. Salach’s wife, in a headscarf, has brought the food. She is plump, dignified, and after being introduced, she retreats to a chair in the corner. “My birth village is nearer to Lebanon,” Salach continues, “and was destroyed by the Israeli army during the 1947 war. I fled to the hills.” I listen for anger, but hear sadness. Israel nods. I know he fought in that war, trying to protect Jewish settlements, and I worry that “common ground” is slipping out from under us. But the code of civility prevails. Dalal pours us tea, stronger than coffee, and everyone drinks. A guest is a guest in an Arab home.

Salach tells us how “some hotheads” from the village were recruited by Arab leadership to attack Kibbutz Cabri. The Israelis retaliated. “My father was on the roof with a white handkerchief, but they shot him down.” Silence. “But I can understand that,” Salach says steadily. “It was revenge for a wrong.” Does he mean it? I wonder. Would I? The code of an eye-for-an-eye has ruled these lands forever, the turn-the-other-cheek teachings of Jesus never taking root here. “The Israelis had to do what they had to do,” Salach says softly. No one nods now.

Many Jews in this region of Western Galilee have told me that in 1947 “if the Arabs didn’t attack us, we left them alone.” Evidently Salach’s current village did not fight, but a nearby Arab village had a group that fought vigorously, and a bullet killed my Aunt Hilda’s friend as she worked in the communal kitchen. That Arab village was destroyed, except for the mosque.

“Many decisions depended on the Israeli commander,” Israel tells me, driving home. “Most were humane, but some were not.” His voice saddens with a memory of those days when he was seventeen and fighting for the first time. “In one unfriendly Arab village, there was an old man who could barely walk. I wanted to help him, but my commander said no. A minute later the side of his head was gone and he died before me. I still see this image today.”


5.

Baruch Ha Shem! Blessed be the Name! Two different gods— Yahweh and Allah—now inhabit, for me, the same phrase of gratefulness for surviving with good fortune. Baruch Ha Shem is what Solly, one of two Jews from my father’s village to survive the concentration camps, kept saying. A man let him work in the kitchen of the camp, Baruch Ha Shem. A friend dropped bread and water into a hole in the ground where he was being punished, Baruch Ha Shem. Later he met his wonderful wife in the DP camp, Baruch Ha Shem, and became a kosher butcher in America, and raised two sons who are rabbis whose families are in photos, twenty-seven children and grandchildren, dominating his living room (just like Salach’s). Baruch Ha Shem!

And now Salach keeps saying Baruch Ha Shem—he is speaking Hebrew, remember—to tell how he survived after the Israelis attacked his birth village and he fled. They captured him later and took him by truck to the Jordanian border, where he was dropped off. He had no food or money, but another Palestinian with a truck, who was traveling with his family, took him along into Syria. The Syrians didn’t want them, and, if not for this man, Baruch Ha Shem, he would have been badly beaten or worse. He made his way to Lebanon, hungry and dirty, and Baruch Ha Shem, a janitor in a factory took pity on him, fed him soup, and let him sleep on the factory floor. He slipped across the border into Israel and eventually made his way to this village. He was picking oranges in the field on the day the Israelis came in a truck and gave out identity cards, which allowed him to stay in Israel. And so, forty days after he was deported, he became a legal resident of the new state and even received a small plot of land. Baruch Ha Shem.


6.

My father bought two plots for graves not far from Aron’s house in the village. No one expected it. Here was a man who, after great dislocation, seemed to thrive for thirty-six years in his adopted country, America. Yet, two months before he died, he told my mother that he wanted to be buried in his Jewish homeland. So when his heart stopped suddenly in 1973, we flew his body across the ocean and watched men in shorts and blue kibbutz caps lower his pine coffin into the land of Israel.

True, my father had been a Zionist ever since 1917 when, as a young soldier in World War I, he saw the hate of German comrades (who liked him well enough) for the less-assimilated Polish Jews. He later wrote, “For the first time I realized that what I saw could happen to the Jewish people everywhere, and that impression never disappeared. It was the reason I knew right away in 1933 to leave Hitler’s Germany.”

This insight explains why he worked tirelessly for Jewish statehood, always raising funds to assure Jewish survival. And why, I suppose, in the end he decided to lay claim to this ancestral land, which so many claim. Signs of past occupancy are everywhere: the ancient Greek perfume bottle we found in a seawall; the shards of Roman pottery on the beach after a downpour; the insignia of the Knights of Saint John, dug up in my Aunt Hilda’s garden; the mosaic floor of an early Christian church, a minute’s walk from my father’s grave. And down the road: the spot where Jesus healed a sick child. The local Jewish version is that “the mother, a Canaanite, asked for help, and Jesus at first answered, ‘I can help only Jews.’ But this woman persisted. ‘You help dogs. Am I not as important as a dog?’ And so Jesus cured the child.”

A small decency, passed down as a parable of tolerance and faith (Matthew 15:21-28) for almost two thousand years. But still the Nazis posted signs all over Germany: No Jews or Dogs Allowed. And three weeks after my father’s funeral, Syria and Egypt attacked on Yom Kippur, the highest holy day of the Jews. I remember military planes racing low in the sky as I placed a stone of remembrance on my father’s grave in a tiny cemetery of thirty graves. Three decades later, my mother lies beside my father, and I hear more planes, still fast and low, as I search the sandy red soil for two smooth white stones before reciting the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead—all of them.


7.

Aron tells me on the phone that he and his eighty-nine-year-old mother went to visit Salach when he was in Israel last week. He was surprised by the enthusiasm of Salach’s wife for his mother. “His wife is always gracious, but reserved. I didn’t think she spoke much Hebrew. But she and my mother sat together, chatting in a corner, and when we were leaving, she gave my mother such enormous hugs! She was clearly happy that she came.”

“Why did she do it?” I am thinking of the latest headlines of battles raging, rockets being lobbed over borders, old men dying in the crossfire.

“I don’t know. She must really like my mother!” But then Aron remembers: “I think my mother was telling her how she had to flee her village in Germany and what hardships they went through coming here to start again. Maybe Salach’s wife had sympathy. She could understand because the same had happened to her.” I love this story, I say. I love that face-to-face stories can modify the anonymity of hate. “Yes, maybe that was it,” Aron says tentatively.

A few days later, he calls to say he’s thinking of a get-together of the two villages. Last year he organized a fiftieth reunion of his village schoolmates and that was a great success. They came from all over Israel, so why not this? “It probably won’t be held in either village, not this first time, but in the open fields between us. Maybe a potluck supper, picnic-style! The Jews could bring their food, the gefilte fish, linzertorte, whatever they want. And the Arabs could bring their foods.”

“What a great idea!” I say, and mean it. While politicians continue the barrage of rhetoric about death and revenge, Aron is planning the details of potluck possibility: “First the children could play games of volleyball or soccer, and then we could sit down on lawn chairs and eat together, celebrating our seventy years side-by-side. You know very few of us visit each others’ homes, and the two villages have never met together officially. It’s time.”

 

*Travelling to Mecca with an Israeli passport is not easy. Israel says that his friend, an Arab contractor in Haifa who also made haj, had great difficulty getting a visa.

 

Mimi Schwartz ’s most recent book is Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father’s German Village, a winner of the 2008 ForeWord Book of the Year Award in Memoir. Her other books include Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed and Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction (with Sondra Perl). Six essays have been Notables in The Best American Essays. She is professor emerita of Richard Stockton College and lives in Princeton, New Jersey.(10/2009)


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