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The House on Graetz Street

April 24, 2009

This may be the week to pick up a correspondence I inadvertently dropped.  It all started with a note from a friend who lives on Graetz street.  “This is probably up your alley,” he wrote.  “If you want to answer him, you can.”

Attached was a note from Munir K., who had written to my friend asking for information about his erstwhile home on Graetz.  Dr. K., now a physician in the States, had lived on Graetz Street in the 1930’s and 40’s, and was wondering what had happened to his house. (For the record, Dr. K. gave me explicit, written permission to use both his letter and his name any way I wished.  I’ve used only parts of the letter, and not his name, simply to ensure that he’s not harassed in any way. )

Who couldn’t easily understand his curiosity, even his longing?  I took a camera with me to work one day, snapped some shots of the neighborhood and of the house in question,  and emailed them to him.  I introduced myself, explaining how his email had ended up with me, answered his questions about the neighborhood today, and wished him well.

He answered me almost immediately, thanking me for the note and the pictures.  But then his tone changed.  “I was shocked and appalled,” he wrote, “to see that the Israeli government granted rights of ownership to another individual of my home of birth to which I own title (my father willed it to me) without any consideration of who the original and legal owners are. ”  Like many of us, he has powerful memories of his childhood home, and I’d just unwittingly undone them.  “I have always maintained an image of a one-story red-tiled quality home with a beautiful garden as the one my father built and in which I was raised for the first ten years of my life. That image is now shattered in view of the … email and the photos you sent.”

It was one of those “road to hell is paved with good intentions” moments.  Had I been in his shoes, I’d thought as I took the photos, I’d want someone to do for me what I was doing for him.  But memory is treacherous territory.  It can nourish us, giving us a sense of where we’ve come from, or, it can ossify us, rooting us somehow in worlds which (however tragically) no longer exist and are gone forever.  And the choice between those two stances makes all the difference.

Sixty years had passed, but Dr. K.’s memory remained sharp.  “I was born on 8/28/1937 at the Government Hospital where Dr. Gmelin was the obstetrician. … The house across that road from us was owned by family friends, the Maloufs, who rented to it to German Jewish refugees, the Jafet family. … The house immediately next door to us (to the west) was owned by the brother of Dr. Itayyim, who was a government chemist. They stayed in their house till the late fifties. The Itayyims and Maloufs all ended up in Lebanon.”

His was clearly no ordinary family.  “My mother always prepared a formal four o’clock tea – we learned that from the British. We had a live-in maid, and my father was the highest ranking Arab in the British Mandate government. He was the Assistant Director of Education for all Arab government schools.”  One can understand his longing for that world of honor and privilege.  Who hasn’t read compelling and heartbreaking narratives by Jews about the lives that they lost in the 1930’s and the 1940’s?  And if we can weep at the latter, surely we should feel enormous pain for his lost world, too.

But here’s the rub.  Even this week, awash in Yom Ha-Shoah on TV and in the papers, we all read and listened to the accounts of people who lost everything – not just homes, but families – to the Nazis and to Europe’s murderous venom and hatred.  There were tears.  Recollections of indescribable suffering.  But these were mostly memories in which people celebrated what they’ve created since: families rebuilt, traditions perpetuated, a state that emerged from the ashes.  And they are memories that have accepted, even with all the anguish, what is gone.

Not here.  Dr. K. ended his note:  “I have very strong feelings about Palestine and my Jerusalem home. … My son-in-law is Jewish, and I have willed my Jerusalem home to him and my daughter (his wife). Isn’t there a Jewish prayer that includes this statement: ‘If I ever forget thee O Jerusalem….’  That describes my feelings.  … Do stay in touch.  Munir K.”

I didn’t stay in touch, I confess, though I meant to.  I didn’t write because I don’t know how to relate to his kind of memory.  It’s the sort of memory that makes demands that cannot be accommodated and ultimately condemns us to conflict.  It’s a form of memory that makes inevitable more losses of the sort we’ll mourn on Yom HaZikaron.  What I would have wanted to say was that we live in a country that, for all its many faults, uses its abundance of memory primarily to propel us forward, to give us a sense of what we have to (re)build, of what cannot be recreated or returned but that still ought to animate us.

Dr. K.’s is a gentle form of a very different sort of memory.  It yearns to restore the status quo ante.  It’s the American version of the Lebanese refugee with the keys to his erstwhile home in his pocket, or much worse, the enemies just across our border who will not rest until all their former land has been restored to them.  That memory, we’ve learned, does not accommodate new realities.  It almost invariably leads to war.

In the next couple of days, though, I’m going to force myself to answer him.  It will be a useful exercise.  Especially this week, we could all use reminders of how powerful, necessary but also dangerous memory can be.  I’ll write him and explain as gently as I can, that one of the things I love about this country is not only about that we remember, but how, and why.

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