A Place Cleared of Memory

Gabrielle  Spear

Contributor

I have spent the past four years studying memory. It has become an obsession, and quite honestly a burden. I carry the memories of lives not my own—Holocaust survivors, Rwandan genocide survivors, the Acholi people of Northern Uganda, and Palestinians—and yet they are a part of me, becoming the lens through which I view the world. To disregard the way history intertwines is to disregard the power of choice and our ability to be intimately woven into lives far removed from the ones we live.

“I know how it feels when you enter into a cemetery. And I’m so sorry that this is the first place we will visit today,” Abu Arab says to us as we stand in Saffuriyya, a village outside of Nazareth.

His words paralyze me. They are the words of Rivka, the Holocaust survivor I interviewed sophomore year. Sorry, she said. Sorry you have to hear my story.

I grip the iPad and focus my eyes on the screen, unable to watch the scene in Saffuriyya unfolding before me. Behind the gaze of the lens, I am protected. My first interview with Rivka comes to my mind. Assigned the task of filming, I had sat behind the camera and quietly cried, grateful she could not see my tears.

On the evening of July 16th, 1948, Saffuriyya was attacked by bombs. Three hundred Israeli soldiers stormed the village. In the middle of Ramadan, the people of Saffuriyya, seven thousand in number, fled their homes with empty stomachs. By three o’clock in the morning, Saffuriyya no longer existed; Saffuriyya was now “Zippori,” a Hebrew pseudonym for the destruction that remained. But I do not hear Abu Arab’s words. Instead, I hear Rivka: “There were bombs falling from the sky,” she said to us as she sat at her kitchen table, pictures of her family exterminated by the German task forces hanging on the wall.

Rivka grew up close to the Polish village of Lida, which was conquered by various regimes. Sometimes her house was in Russia, other times Belarus, and Germany. I wanted to believe it was the faulty memory of an 89-year old woman. I couldn’t comprehend how several occupations seemed to rise and fall in the span of a three-hour interview.

As I stand in Saffuriyya, I suddenly realize we have stepped into Abu Arab’s Lida.

Lida means, “A place cleared of forest.”

“They planted pine trees to make the Eastern European immigrants feel at home,” Sally, one of our tour guides, says to us pointing out the scattered trees. I picture the forest of Lida cut down and hastily replanted in Saffuriyya.  Lida’s name is a coincidence, but it puzzles me—the way Israelis literally planted forgetfulness.

In 1948, Rivka and Abu Arab were both refugees. Rivka lived in a displaced persons camp in American-occupied Germany. She would never return to Lida because the Lida she knew no longer existed. Abu Arab fled Israeli-occupied Saffuriyya and escaped to Lebanon, eventually returning to Palestine because his family yearned for their home. Sixty-six years later, though, he remains a refugee in his own land, the land we now call Israel. The land that is now Rivka’s and thousands of Jews by right of God and birth.

A week later, we sit in Al Mutran, the hotel we have called home for the past three weeks. I hesitate to use the word “home” so carelessly. Too many people have claimed this land as their own, and I do not want to be one of them.

“I’m a physical therapist. I know that each person has pain,” Ziad explains. He is a third-generation Saffuriyya refugee living in Nazareth. “I treat Holocaust survivors. I know these humans’ stories. I want to bring them to my story.”

He tells us of his confrontation with Israelis in Saffuriyya: “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.

I know my story frightens you. It frightens me too how easy it is to wipe a people off a map. I have tried to separate these stories, untangle and compartmentalize them, even forget them.

You may read this story and believe I am contradicting myself, possibly betraying Rivka’s trust. You have been told that one cannot know the stories of the Holocaust and empathize with lives of Palestinians as well.

But I am willing to live within these perceived contradictions.

Glimpses from a sun-drenched elsewhere

Gabrielle Spear
Contributor

“What will you tell people back home about Rwanda?” my host sister and neighbor asked, me on separate occasions, a week before I left.
I paused, unable to articulate a meaningful response. I had been asking myself that same question for a while. “Be good

Photo of some locals on the sun-drenched beaches in Uganda (Photo: Gabrielle Spear)

Photo of some locals on the sun-drenched beaches in Uganda (Photo: Gabrielle Spear)

ambassadors to our country,” Rwandans always said. But that is such a loaded request.
“You,” I finally told them.
They seemed surprised.
“The hills,” I continued.
They laughed – a kind laugh, but a laugh all the same. As if to say: How naïve. How young. How American.
They do not understand how I can love a country that is not my own. Sometimes I do not even understand.
When I told people I planned to study abroad in Rwanda, they usually displayed looks of pity, as if a trip dedicated to understanding the complexities of genocide meant I would only experience sadness. But a country made up of survivors is naturally filled with life – the best kind of life, life that is thankful.
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Another Rivka: from oral history of Holocaust to Rwanda

Gabrielle Spear
Contributor

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Spear (left) with her host sister. (Photo: Gabrielle Spear)

“Sorry,” my host mom said when I found out she survived the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis. The word is a reflex born of a language barrier. Rwandans apologize for nearly everything, but this “sorry” held weight and meaning.
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