It was always a dream come true to meet you. In sixth grade, I read The Diary of a Young Girl, and suddenly became absolutely enthralled and puzzled by the Nazi holocaust. I think I know now that Anne Frank’s story felt all the more relatable because, at 11 years old, I looked so strikingly similar to her. It was terrifying, really, for in her writing and in the pictures that remained of her, I could quite literally see myself—a curious, fiercely empathetic young girl who longed to write, who struggled to find her place in the world, who wanted more than anything to believe in people’s innate goodness.
And then, during my sophomore year of college, I had the opportunity to meet you through an oral storytelling class. All my efforts to imagine the Nazi holocaust through children’s books and through the life of Anne Frank became real and alive in you. “Never forget,” you said so often as my classmates and I sat at your kitchen table, tears in your eyes, your small offerings of popcorn nearby. I never did forget. I never will. Your love took me to Kigali, Rwanda, where I became the adopted daughter of Mama Teddy, a genocide survivor, a former refugee, a mother and grandmother like yourself. It took me to Nakivale Refugee Settlement, where I met Rwandan men and women in exile, much like you were at the end of the war. It took me to Gulu, Uganda, where I witnessed the ravaged life of the Acholi people, literally cut from society simply for being. And finally your love took me to what you call the land of Israel, but what I call Palestine.
I’ve never uttered that word in front of you before.
The word holds both the weight of memory, and the ease of forgetfulness and denial. I told myself that I could never hurt you like that. It would be too painful for you to learn that you, once victimized by the Nazi and Soviet regimes, now support the Israeli regime. The last time I visited you, you made an off-hand remark about immigrants crossing the United States’ border illegally. You were disgusted. How could they do such a thing—steal our jobs, destroy our culture, threaten our national security. I had never critiqued any of your opinions. I’ve always nodded my head and smiled. There is something untouchable about you being a survivor of the Nazi holocaust. But that time, I felt bold, angry I felt I could never talk with you about the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians waged in your name. I expect xenophobic statements like that from my grandmother, but not from you, so I said: “Weren’t you an illegal immigrant once too?” You were immediately quiet and returned to your meal. You knew that you too were once an undocumented immigrant, a refugee, a migrant worker, terrorized by racist regimes.
When my teacher prepared us to meet you and the other survivors for our class’s oral storytelling project, he said: Remember, you are speaking to survivors, not victims. Still, the Nazi holocaust as we know it today is no longer about survivorship. It has been morphed and twisted into a narrative about victimhood, specifically and exclusively, the victimhood of the Jews. And as real and valid as the trauma of the Nazi holocaust is, it does not mean Jews get a free pass. It does not mean Jews get to wage another ethnic cleansing in the name of memory.
Which is why I need to tell you about Abu Arab and his holocaust, his Nakba.
Two summers ago, I visited his home village of Saffuri, a destroyed Palestinian village outside of Nazareth. “I know how it feels when you enter into a cemetery,” he said to my classmates and I. “And I’m so sorry this is the first place we will visit today.” His words paralyzed me, for they were your words: Sorry, you said. Sorry you have to hear my story.
Unable to watch the scene in Saffuri unfolding before me, I gripped the iPad and focused my eyes on the screen. Much like my time with you, I had come to Saffuri to record Abu Arab’s history. Behind the gaze of the lens, I felt protected. My first interview with you came to mind. Assigned the task of filming, I had sat behind the camera and quietly cried, grateful you could not see my tears.
On the evening of July 16th, 1948, Saffuri was attacked by bombs. Three hundred Israeli soldiers stormed the village. In the middle of Ramadan, the people of Saffuri, seven thousand in number, fled their homes with empty stomachs. They thought they would come back soon. By three o’clock in the morning, Saffuri no longer existed; Saffuri was now “Zippori,” a Hebrew pseudonym for the destruction that remained. But I did not hear Abu Arab’s words at that moment. Instead, I thought of yours: “There were bombs falling from the sky,” you said to us as you sat at your kitchen table, pictures of your family, exterminated by the German task forces, hanging on your wall. You said you ran so fast from the bombs you felt like you were on wings.
You told us how you grew up in the Polish village of Zhurmuny, a village mostly made up of your family, and how you often spent time in the city of Lida. Sometimes your house was in Russia, other times Belarus, and Germany. My note taking never seemed to be accurate enough. I wanted to believe it was your faulty, 89 year old memory. I couldn’t comprehend how several military occupations seemed to rise and fall in the span of a three-hour interview.
As I stood in Saffuri, I suddenly realized I had stepped into Abu Arab’s Zhurmuny.
“They planted pine trees to make the Eastern European immigrants feel at home,” Sally, one of our tour guides, said to us pointing out the scattered trees. Lida, a city that you loved so much, happens to mean, “A place cleared of forest.” I remembered reading this when I searched for Zhurmuny on the Internet; there is nearly no record of Zhurmuny anymore so I had settled for learning about Lida. I pictured the forest of your nearby city of Lida cut down and hastily replanted in Saffuri. Lida’s name is a coincidence, of course, but it puzzled me—the way Israelis literally planted forgetfulness.
In 1948, you and Abu Arab were both refugees. You lived in a displaced persons camp—a euphemism for a refugee camp—in American-occupied Germany. You never returned to Zhurmuny because your family, and therefore your village of Zhurmuny, no longer existed. Abu Arab fled Israeli-occupied Saffuri and escaped to southern Lebanon, eventually returning to the new state of Israel because his family yearned for their home. Sixty-eight years later, though, he remains a refugee in his own land, the land you now call Israel. Your homeland. Your heaven.
But it isn’t yours. It never was.
A week after I met Abu Arab, I spoke with Ziad, a third-generation Saffuri refugee living in Nazareth, and Abu Arab’s nephew. “I’m a physical therapist. I know that each person has pain,” Ziad explained. “I treat Holocaust survivors. I know these humans’ stories. I want to bring them to my story.”
He told us of his confrontation with Israelis in Saffuri: “I said to them, ‘You are afraid of the story. The story is frightening for you, I know.’”
I say this to you now, just as Ziad said to the Israelis.
I know this story frightens you. It frightens me too how easy it is to wipe a people off a map. I have sat with this story for so long. I want to separate your story from Palestine. And yet, the damage is done, your story woven into the fabric of Palestine. You see, what was most frightening about Palestine was that in the chaos of apartheid, occupation, displacement, and grief—I found you there.