On Friday, 14.7.2012, my husband and I drove toward Betset. My aunt Mina, her children and their children still live there, since she first arrived in Israel from Romania after more than a year in a Cyprus refugee camp. She didn’t arrive alone. She came with her late husband, the daughter born in Cyprus and many other family members who settled in Betset, in Ma’ona, in Shomera and in Nahariya. Mina and her family were farmers in Betset until they could no longer make a living from farming. She still gives me huge pomelos when we visit her, avocados, grape leaves – all from the small, abandoned plot adjacent to her house. But this time we didn’t go home with pomelos or grape leaves. This time we didn’t go to Mina or to Betset. We went in the same direction; Mina was just across the road, but this time we went to al-Bassa.
Strange – Mina is lovely, my favorite aunt. Today she was just across the road; I wanted very much to see her. I don’t always have the chance to visit her; I see her only every few months, even though I’d like to see her much more frequently.
Mina and the rest of my family, including my grandfather, grandmother and Dov, their son, reached Israel from Romania on an illegal immigrant ship. Almost all the men still alive in my family are survivors of two death trains, a unique Romanian invention – hermetically sealed freight trains packed with Jews from Iasi travelling slowly to nowhere for days and nights in oppressive heat until all the Jews suffocate. My grandfather was one of seven survivors from his freight car. The women in my family who hadn’t been slaughtered in the pogroms or in the massacre carried out in the Iasi police headquarters eventually reached Israel.
Those same uncles and aunts, grandfathers and grandmothers and their children left everything behind and reached a new land. They spoke Yiddish all their lives. I heard almost no stories about Romania or the death trains. You could call those years the silent decades. Until, last year, Shlomo Waldman’s book – “Dracula Didn’t Conquer Him” – appeared. Shlomo Waldman, whose late father was also a survivor of the Romanian death trains, wanted to investigate that slaughter, which goes almost unmentioned in the history books. Not only has it disappeared, but even the young people’s edition of the encyclopedia “Brittanica” claims there was no holocaust in Romania. This book by Waldman, a stranger, created hysteria in our family. The book included names of family members, the names of the trains in which they rode, detailed testimonies, a photograph of a crowded, paved street, full of life, in Iasi, the city in which most members of my family were born. Almost everyone bought a copy of the book and read it with bated breath; straits that had long been blocked began slowly to open and we started talking. The holocaust survivors in my family finally recounted who had been taken to the principal city square, who was shot there, who fled when, how, and who boarded the death trains and died in them: “Grandpa’s sister, Sara, Grandpa’s father and Grandma’s father were murdered in the police station,” Mina said. “They took us from the town of Bivolari, made us walk miles, some were murdered on the way, some in the police station and some in the death trains,” said Toni, my grandfather’s sister.
Today, Zochrot took us with “guides” who had been among those uprooted from the large, wealthy, thriving village that was al-Bassa. They took us on a trip back to the period when survivors began arriving in Israel and when, at the same time, other survivors, people born there to families who’d lived there for generations, were being expelled. We traveled back to 1948.
The older uprooted villagers from al-Bassa who joined the tour are more or less the same age as my aunt Mina. They arrived in cars, well-dressed – you could almost describe their clothes as “tailored” – for a tour they’d prepared very well in advance. It was a little surprising that they hardly spoke about the lands and the territory that had been stolen from them, about the destruction of their livelihoods and their life’s work, and even the massacre that according to first-hand accounts had been carried out in the church wasn’t the focus of their account. Not that there was no pain. There was pain, which was even felt during the entire tour, but that wasn’t the tour’s purpose. They had come to speak about their childhood. About the hotel belonging to Ibrahim Khayyat, the uncle of Khalil ’Asi who had been born in al-Bassa in 1937, and about the coffee shop on the first floor, about the cold juice that Khalil drank there after school, about their schools, the teachers from Germany, the bountiful harvest, the wonderful squash that grew there. They spoke proudly of their homes and their homeland. And they had something to be proud of. It turned out that al-Bassa, unlike Mina’s Betset today, and certainly not like Shlomi, the impoverished town, made a very good living from its superior local agriculture and even provided jobs for people from Lebanon. It was rich and also modern. It met its own needs without difficulty. Where little Betset, whose agricultural economy fell apart and which is based today on renting cabins to tourists, and the failing Shlomi are located was once a large, thriving town which provided jobs for the entire region! Where people lived! Shortly before Mina and Matti, before Betty and Janco, before my grandfather and grandmother, other people lived there who spoke another language and led other lives which were cut off or, more precisely, were stilled. Is that the end of the story of al-Bassa? Had you heard Elias Wakim you might feel otherwise. He said: If you ask my little boy where he comes from, even though today we live in a different village he’ll answer, without any doubt, that he’s from al-Bassa.
But what is al-Bassa today other than a memory; abandoned crumbling buildings which the state evades authorizing the local community to preserve at its own expense? What is al-Bassa other than the sign we erected at two locations along the way, a yellow sign on which al-Bassa is written in Hebrew and in Arabic? On the other hand, what are Shlomi, Liman or Betset without that memory, without their actual history? And who doesn’t want to know their own history?
Because al-Bassa’s story is also my family’s story, and when two stories about the same place and the same period don’t connect, both sides lose.
The purpose of the tour was to present to Hebrew-speaking Israelis what they’ll never have the opportunity to learn in official institutions of the Ministry of Education or the state of Israel. The purpose was to have us meet those born here, the residents who were uprooted, dispossessed, some of whom where murdered in the massacre that occurred in the church and whose traces are unrecorded in any history book. Only the villagers remember their own history. But when we accompanied them, among the sites of their shattered, destroyed childhood, I felt that we weren’t really the target. They were there, at al-Bassa, for themselves. They were still the children of the large, thriving village of the 1940’s, and they didn’t care at all whether any of us understood, whether or not we confirmed their account. It was their childhood, their lives, their roots, which no one could take from them nor from their children and grandchildren who came on our tour with their parents.
When Khalil ’Asi pointed to dry vegetation among a few remains of a building and said, “This was my house, on this land, opposite the church,” I was reminded of Mina a few months ago holding Shlomo Waldman’s book open to the page with the photograph of the street in Iasi, a blurry black-and-white photo taken in the 1940’s, showing a lovely paved road crowded with people, shops, horse carts, saying to me in a tone I’ll never forget, “That’s Stikhi Street. My home was 9 Stikhi Street. My grandmother lived at Stikhi 5. But the street no longer exists. They demolished it and built a highway.”
English by Charles Kamen