“Study the past if you would define the future”
Before we talk about today or tomorrow, we think it’s necessary to write a bit about the past. A major part of the misunderstanding between Israelis and Palestinians is that we aren’t taught the same version of historical events. We may have been born into a shared history, but our narratives are strikingly different. For our first blog, we’ve decided to each share a certain anecdote from our past that we think the other might not have heard before (at least, not from a personal source).These are the stories our grandparents told us. Each sheds a different light on history, and both are equally powerful and true. We hope they speak for themselves.
Alfred Helfgott was born on March 8th, 1927, to a Jewish family in Vienna. They were poor, but the house was always full of books. His parents would take him and his brother Isak to concerts and (more rarely) to the theater whenever his father got tickets from his workplace. In the afternoon he attended a Jewish school for Torah lessons, and played soccer in the streets with his Christian neighbors.
When Alfred was 11 years old, the Nazis invaded and annexed Austria. The Jews’ rights were revoked. In a matter of days, the pre-existent anti-Semitism in Vienna became much more hostile, and downright frightening. While walking home with his father one day, Alfred saw a group of Nazi soldiers on his street, surrounded by laughing and cheering bystanders. Below them were several Orthodox Jewish men, their white beards trailing on the floor. The Nazis were yelling profanities at them, forcing them to scrub the paint off the street with their bare hands. As Alfred came closer, he realized that among the men was a woman – his mother.
Many Jews started fleeing Austria, but the Helfgott family didn’t have enough money to escape. They stayed in Vienna for the time being, firmly believing that the situation would eventually calm down. Alfred’s dad had volunteered (at age 17) to fight with the Austrian army for the Kaiser and the Homeland in The Great War, and he saw himself and his family as full, first class citizens. They were sure that whatever the worst might be, it wouldn’t happen to them.
A couple of days later, there was a knock on the door. A Nazi soldier was there to take his father away. Alfred’s mom kissed her husband and wiped a speck of dirt off his coat. He embraced and kissed the family, said goodbye, and left. That was the last time Alfred ever saw his father. He was taken to the infamous Dachau concentration camp, and eventually perished in the Holocaust.
Frantically, Alfred’s mother tried to find a way to safety for her two boys. Most of the escape routes she heard of were too expensive for them to afford. Finally, she heard that British Jews, together with prominent non-Jews, had petitioned their government to send some form of aid to the Jews in Nazi territories. A number of trains would be arriving in Vienna, and they would carry children to England, to safety.
A few days later, Alfred and Isak boarded the first Kindertransport out of Austria. They each took a small suitcase, and headed to the train station with their mother. At only eleven years old, Fredi was so thankful to get out of the hell on earth Vienna had become that he didn’t realize he was leaving home for good. He hastily said goodbye to his weeping mother, and clambered aboard with the other kids. He would never see her again. She was killed in Auschwitz soon after. Of the entire Helfgott family (including uncles, aunts and cousins), only Alfred and his brother survived. Everybody else would be dead by 1945.
The two boys arrived in Harwich, England. They stayed in a refugee camp for several months, before good people in a small village in the North of England decided to take them in, look after them, and enable them to study at the local High school. Alfred spent the next three years at Bentham Grammar School, where he was well-accepted and distinguished himself academically and athletically. When he finished his matriculation exams the headmaster invited him stay an additional two years to continue his education. He declined, feeling that it was his duty to join the British war effort.
He moved to a hostel for Jewish refugees and found work in a chemical lab that analyzed metals to be used for military purposes. During this time he earned his Bachelor’s degree from the University of London, and began to develop an interest in Zionism. When he told the lab director that he was planning on making Aliyah to Israel, the lab director was very surprised. “You have such a promising future here, why leave?” he asked. This was Alfred’s response:
“My parents did not live where they were born, nor were they allowed to die where they lived. I was not allowed to live where I was born. I want to ensure that my children should be able to choose. Personal emancipation is not enough. The Jews need sovereignty, the freedom to shape their fate.”
That was a Holocaust story. My family’s story, the one I grew up with.
The unfortunate truth is that the Holocaust is a defining event in Israel’s history. You can never truly understand an Ashkenazi Jew (or any Israeli, for that matter) until you’ve heard a Holocaust testimony. The scar it left on our nation runs deep, and it contributes to our conviction that a state for the Jewish people is a necessity. We may no longer be victims, but the memory of genocide is still fresh in our minds.
For many of us, it acts as a constant reminder of the dangers of racism, fanaticism, and the bystander effect. Today, like in the past, there is need for tolerance, dialogue and solidarity. At a time when extremism is on the rise in Israel and in Palestine, and an end to the bloodshed seems farther away than ever, we need to stand together and remember that the most rational end to this century-old bloody conflict (as is true of all previous violent conflicts) is reconciliation and peace. We can choose a better end to our story. There must be – there is – an alternative to ongoing bloodshed and destruction.
Have you ever asked yourself what being a refugee feels like, or how it feels to lose your home and land?
Aisha was born in the 1920’s in historical Palestine. She lived a life nobody could have foretold. As a young girl she lived a good life with her family and completed many years of school. She was very well educated, and at a certain age she wanted to move to Jerusalem to continue her studies at a higher level. Her family refused because she was a girl, and Aisha was forced to stop her schooling.
She got married. The people around her and her husband wouldn’t leave them alone, because she was a liberal woman and he was a religious man. People criticized them, but they went on with their business, worked hard together and built a life for themselves. They started with nothing, and earned everything.
Before Al-Nakba, their life was great. They worked in farming and trading, and had a good amount of land. They even built a house downtown to live in. They opened markets downtown in order to get the best possible benefit out of the house’s excellent location. Everything was going very well, and they had a wonderful life, until…
The War started. The armies were everywhere, they came from every corner of the Middle East. This is how Aisha, my grandmother, described it to me:
“The airplanes started to bomb the city. Trucks began arriving and taking people so they could escape the war zone. They ran for their lives because of the massacres that were happening in those days, but we stayed, in our house, in our land. Even when my brother was killed by an airstrike, we stayed. We didn’t want to abandon our home, and we didn’t have anywhere else to go. One day I saw that the Egyptian Army had put tents up in my land. I tried to figure out what to do to make them leave, and decided to make them a big feast. After they’d finished eating, I approached the Battalion Commander and asked him to move his army, so I could work on my land. He agreed, moved to the next person’s land, and I continued working.
At this point, the situation started to become clearer. We began to figure out what had happened to us: that we’d lost a lot, not just our land, but also our future.
After the war ended, our situation only got worse. The army settled among us. The Jewish forces kicked us out of our house downtown and placed a Jewish-American family there. All of our possessions were in that house, but we had to move or we would be killed. We returned to our old house in the suburbs, and I came back to farm my land with your grandfather.
Soon after, they put a siege around us to prevent us from reaching our lands. We would jump over the siege and farm. One time, two people from the municipality caught me. They were named Naseem and Shoker, and they told me “take what you can, because this year you can farm; next year you won’t be able to.”
After that I went back to my downtown house to bring some stuff, knowing that if they saw me they would kick me out or kill me. When I reached the house, the Yemenite-Jewish maid told me to hide near the house and brought me some of my things. She told me to leave before the new citizens of the house saw me. This went on for some time. We farmed what we could and sold it on the black market, because if they caught us they’d take our crops.
One day, they came to us and said: ‘You can’t live here anymore. You have three choices. You can go to the West Bank, to the North, or to Gaza.’ Your grandfather chose to go to Gaza, but his father wanted to go to Hebron. It didn’t take long for your great-grandfather to come back to Gaza as well, because he couldn’t bear to be away from his grandsons.
In Gaza we lived in Shuja’iyya for a while, before moving to the Jabalia Camp. Our life was miserable in the camp. We didn’t have anything but the hope of coming back home. But this hope never saw the light.”
That is Aisha’s story. My Grandmother. They were from Al-Majdal, a city now called “Ashkelon.”
This story has lived with me from the day I was born until now. When I was young it was a bedtime story, and when I was a teenager it became an educational story. When I grow old it’ll be a wisdom story, so that I always remember the pain and sacrifice my family felt. This story is the imprint of my life: how we came to be here, and who did all of that to us.
Even today, I still ask myself questions about those sad events. Why, why did they do all of that to us? The only answer I can give is this: someday, we will come back.
The topics we spoke about above often seem obvious to each one of us, but may not be so obvious to people on the other side. For example, most Israelis don’t know that more than 30,000 Palestinians, like Aisha, were literally kicked out of their homes between the years of 1949-1950 (after the war), per the Israeli Prime Minister’s orders. Likewise, most Palestinians don’t understand that the Holocaust refugees who came to this land, like Alfred, can’t actually go back to Europe, and consequently there is real importance in having a state that will protect the Jewish people. We hope that after reading this you reached the same conclusion as we did: violence, everywhere, needs to stop.
The Palestinians need their rights, their safety, and their livelihoods back; they deserve liberation and justice. The Israelis need to stop being threatened with terrorism and annihilation. We have to stop letting extremists on both sides determine our fates. We need to spread the message of peace, and to believe in a better future for us all. The land of Israel-Palestine should be a place where people of all races, religions, origins, and opinions can coexist, with peace and dignity for all.
read more: Misunderstood blog page