Saturday, April 30, 2011

Thoughts before Yom Ha-Shoah

Tonight I decided to look through the pile of old newspapers and clippings that I took out of the cupboard yesterday (I had needed more room to put the Passover dishes away). I was thinking of cutting some of them up and taping them to pieces of paper to put in a scrapbook that I’ve been keeping. I think it must be awfully old-fashioned to keep newspaper clippings and put them into scrapbooks, but I started doing it as a child – I think when I was 12, in 1968 – and I have articles that I’ve carried around from place to place since then.

Among the papers were a whole big pile of the New York Times from September 2001, starting with September 12, 2001 – devoted to the terrorist attacks the day before. Included in the pile about the terrorist attacks were editions of the Ithaca Journal from September 12 and 13 and of the Ithaca College student newspaper, the Ithacan. I started teaching at Ithaca College in late August, 2001, and I always associate the beginning of my teaching career there with that sunny blue-sky day in September when the World Trade Center was destroyed and the country was changed forever. (I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that – reading the articles from September 12, 2001 reveal how much the country has changed since the first shocked reactions to the attacks).

Other events also showed up in the saved clippings – a big collection about Abu Ghraib and the revelation of the mistreatment and torture of inmates there by American soldiers, from spring of 2004. I was talking about this the other day with the students in one of my classes, and getting frustrated that they didn’t seem to know very much about it. I realize now that the Abu Ghraib revelations came seven years ago, when the oldest of them would have been 14 years old. I should have more patience with them, especially considering how badly American high schools teach about current events, especially events that are politically controversial.

A few of the articles really called out to me, and I’m going to go through them in chronological order of publication.

The first one is a reprint – published on May 14, 2006, but originally from the August 31, 1958 New York Times magazine. It was written by A. M. Rosenthal, the executive editor of the New York Times who died the week before the reprinted article was published. It is about his visit to Auschwitz. He writes,
The most terrible thing of all, somehow, was that at Brzezinka the sun was bright and warm, the rows of graceful poplars were lovely to look upon and on the grass near the gates children played.

It all seemed frighteningly wrong, as in a nightmare, that at Brzezinka the sun should ever shine or that there should be light and greenness and the sound of young laughter. It would be fitting if at Brzezinka the sun never shone and the grass withered, because this is a place of unutterable terror….

By now, 14 years after the last batch of prisoners was herded naked into the gas chambers by dogs and guards, the story of Auschwitz has been told a great many times. Some of the inmates have written of those memories of which sane men cannot conceive….

And so, there is no news to report about Auschwitz. There is merely the compulsion to write something about it, a compulsion that grows out of a restless feeling that to have visited Auschwitz and then turned away without having said or written anything would somehow be a most grievous act of discourtesy to those who died here….

For every visitor, there is one particular bit of horror that he knows he will never forget. For some it is seeing the rebuilt gas chamber at Oswiecim and being told that this is the “small one.” For others it is the fact that at Brzezinka, in the ruins of the gas chambers and the crematoria the Germans blew up when they retreated, there are daisies growing….

There is nothing new to report about Auschwitz. It was a sunny day and the trees were green and at the gates the children played.
It seems appropriate to cite from Rosenthal’s article today, since Yom ha-Shoah is tomorrow.

I found two articles from early September, 2001, both about the second intifada in Israel. The first one is from September 3, 2001, and is titled “Back to School on Two Sides of Mideast’s Dividing Line.” It’s about the first day of school in Israel/Palestine (which usually occurs on September 1). It begins –
One of the more familiar routines in any country, the first day of school, became another reason this weekend for Israelis and Palestinians to worry about the fate that each might endure at the hands of the other.

Barbara Ben-Ami could not shake her disquiet today as she dropped off her 6-year-old son, Boaz, at the Adam School on Emek Refaim, a lively – one could almost say trendy – street in Jerusalem. Boaz was starting the first grade, a milestone if ever there was one.

Naturally, mother and son were excited. But it was the start of the first school year since violence broke out 11 months ago, and that made it harder to keep dread from creeping in at the edges, Ms. Ben-Ami said….

Young as he is, Boaz sensed that things were out of kilter, his mother said. “Whenever something like that is on TV, you try to shut it off,” she said. “He does feel the tension.”

Not only that, the Ben-Amis live close enough to the action to hear the tank shell bursts and the machine-gun fire that have reverberated across the Jerusalem development of Gilo and the next-door West Bank town of Beit Jala. The boy is well aware that this is not how life is supposed to be, Ms. Ben Ami said.
The daughter of a good friend of mine goes to the Adam School, so I can picture the entrance of the school where she goes every school day. Now the level of tension has dropped a great deal, and it’s much safer to walk the streets of Jerusalem. Nonetheless, there’s still the fear that something could happen, as with the terrorist attack last month near the Central Bus Station. I feel very uneasy about the new reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Hamas has called for the PA to repudiate the agreements with the Israeli government and says that the new interim unity government that will be formed will engage in no negotiations with Israel. The PA has been working towards a declaration of Palestinian statehood in September, and if that occurs, and the General Assembly ratifies it, what will happen? There have been a number of alarming articles in Haaretz this week predicting the start of a new intifada in the fall as a result of the declaration of statehood. I certainly hope not!

The next article is from September 10, 2001 – just before the Al Qaeda attacks the next day (not that anyone knew they were going to occur, except for the attackers). It’s titled, “Israeli Arab’s Suicide Bomb Points to Enemy Within,” and it’s about a day of attacks on September 9. The article begins,
Israel suffered a jackhammer series of terrorist blows today that the police and senior government officials said included the first suicide bombing ever committed by an Arab who was one of its own citizens.

Violence flared on the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and in this surfside northern town [Nahariya], and even its toll of eight dead, including three implicated in the attacks, and scores wounded understated the psychological impact on a nation that had already begun waking up each morning wondering where the next bomb would go off, and who would deliver it.
The attack in Nahariya was at the train station – three people plus the bomber were killed, and 71 were injured.
The day’s killing started at about 8 a.m. in the West Bank, when shots were fired at a van carrying Israeli kindergarten teachers to work. One teacher and the driver were slain. Then, at about 10:30 a.m., the bomb exploded here, less than 10 miles from the border with Lebanon.

That bomb was followed a few hours later by an explosion in a car south of here, near Netanya. That explosion, apparently by a bomb made of mortar shells, killed the Palestinian driver, injuring three people and burning several vehicles.
I visited Israel in the summer of 2001 for a few weeks, staying in Jerusalem at the intersection of Emek Refaim Street and Pierre Koenig, in the southern part of the city. I remember hearing the gunfire from the vicinity of Gilo – Beit Jala: the loud booms of tank shells and the smaller sounds of shooting. It was frightening, and I was glad to go home to the United States where it was safe. Or so I thought.

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