When historical and personal trauma mingles, it often leaves survivors determined to erase their memories. But there is an emotional and social cost to this “forgetting.” Jonathan Gil Harris is a New Zealand-born, Jewish writer and academic, who currently lives in India.
In this multi-part series he traces the story of his mother, Stella, from her childhood in a bourgeois Jewish family in Warsaw in the 1930s, through deportation to camps in Russia and Uzbekistan, to undivided Palestine, and finally New Zealand.
Step-by-step he unfolds the secrets that his mother kept folded away in a Chinese chest in her living room. In the process, he draws evocative, and worrying, parallels between the India of the present, Europe in the years leading up to the second world war and Israel in the years since the war.
People keep silent for many reasons, he concludes. But this silence can be as toxic as the events it conceals.
In 1946, Stella and her sister moved to what was then Palestine to live with their mother’s brother, Joe. Her uncle sent my mother to a boarding school in a village inhabited by Palestinian Arabs as well as émigré Jews.
My mother used to describe her schooldays, from 1947 to 1951, as a particularly happy time.
But in 1948, the UN Partition Plan for Palestine was implemented. Suddenly my mother found herself on the opposite side of a border from her Palestinian school friends.
The partition of Israel and Palestine marked a division not just in space, but also in time.
The partitioning of memory
Suddenly, people who days earlier had been my mother’s beloved comrades, were now representatives of a wholly “other” cultural and religious tradition.
One with which “the” Jews – as if that definite article could ever define the enormity of its fractured, multiple referent – had experienced a supposedly timeless enmity.
Stella’s memory was partitioned too.
Before and after 1948
When remembering events from before 1948, she would talk with deep affection of her dear Palestinian friends.
But when remembering events from after that year, she would talk of Palestinians as mortal enemies who wanted to push “us” (Jews) into the sea.
Averting the gaze
Over the decades, the misery of Palestinians in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza became the increasingly troublesome secret from which she averted her gaze. She had been trained in averting her gaze from trauma during the war, after all.
Over time, the memory of Israel became traumatic for Stella.
Partly because she came to associate it with loss: the loss of Hebrew when she migrated to New Zealand and devoted herself to a new family with whom she would speak in English.
There was also the loss of her Uncle Joe, who died days after I was born and the loss of her sister Mariska, who died of cancer in 1965. And I suspect there was the loss of her fantasy that Israel was the vehicle of a glorious socialist future.
Nazis in Arab guise
I inherited from my mother her deep belief in social justice. But it was precisely that belief that led me to question her many inflammatory statements about Palestinians and Muslims.
The first big fight we had, when I was a teenager, was about the Palestinian Liberation Organization, whom I idealistically supported. She saw them as Nazis in Arab guise.
Exhalations of pain
I reminded her of her stories about her Palestinian boarding-school friends. She then fell into a grim-lipped silence and refused to speak to me for a day. Her silence was broken only by a cascade of horrible stutter-shudders as her exhalations of pain permeated the house.
I’d like to think that my mother’s pain wasn’t just because I had dared to criticize Israel. Her pain emanated from a more ancient wound inside her, a rent in the fabric of her fantasy of Israel that made it unsustainable even for her.
For my mother, the partition of Israel and Palestine marked a division not just in space, but also in time. Suddenly, people who days earlier had been my mother’s beloved friends, were now wholly “other.”
The misery of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza became an increasingly troublesome secret from which my mother averted her gaze.
My mother’s pain wasn’t just because I had dared to criticize Israel. Her pain emanated from a more ancient wound inside her, a rent in the fabric of her fantasy of Israel that made it unsustainable even for her.
My mother had been trained in averting her gaze from trauma during the war.