By Sara Carmeli Warzager
The intermingling of the identities of Jews and Palestinians in Elias Khoury’s novel “Children of the Ghetto – My Name is Adam,” struck a deep chord with me. To my surprise, as the daughter of Holocaust survivors, not only did I identify with the Palestinian victims of the Nakba, but the book illuminated for me some of the images of death that my family members carried with them from the Nazi camps. The details are utterly different. The terror of manhunt, the forms of murder, the number of murdered, and the modes of murder and expulsion were completely different. But the descriptions of the atrocities in al-Lydd (Lod) brought to life for me some of the stories I was told by my parents and illustrated a horrible aspect of their experiences – an aspect that no one had yet managed to transmit to me – even though I have heard and read quite a lot about the Holocaust. Obviously, this book does not provide a comprehensive understanding and description of the Holocaust, but it did teach me something important about how we reflect upon it . And for that I am grateful to Elias Khoury.
In this book the comparison between the historic events serves to facilitate human identification beyond the boundaries of identity. It is a comparison that serves the understanding of the experience of the victim. Khoury’s narrator declares that he is against comparisons, but the comparisons appear despite their absence: in a discussion about the number of victims, which is not relevant to the comparison, evidence is presented from the Muslim scriptures: “Whoever kills a person, unless it be for manslaughter or for mischief in the land, it is as though he had killed all men” (Qur’an, 5:32). This quote echoes the Jewish maxim: “Whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.” Another version of the quote includes the words “in Israel,” giving rise to discussions over whether it refers to saving a life in general or just a Jewish life. And there we have a present-absent comparison. The same goes for terms that denote destruction from the Palestinian vantage point: the Jewish commanders conceived of ‘Operation Scissors’ to cut through the city of Lod, and Burning the Chametz for its cleansing. These words strike terror in the hearts of those who were “cut,” “cleansed” or “burned.” The association is obvious.
Despite his identification as Palestinian, the narrator also understands the Jews. He lives under an imagined identity as the son of a Holocaust survivor. He distinguishes between the Jewish commanders and the Jewish troops who perpetrated the Nakba, some of whom were victims of the Nazis. He considers the Jewish Holocaust survivor soldier to be a victim just like the Palestinian fighter, and contrary to the Jewish commander. He describes the Jewish commanders as executioners, but only in a limited context (namely in al-Lydd) . He asks: if a person were given the choice between being victim or victimizer, what would he choose? And the narrator’s honest answer: he would choose not to be the victim. The narrator is not afraid to settle scores with Palestinian society, with his real and imagined ancestors, and holds them too responsible for what happened.
The discussion of the degree of victimhood of the Jews in general and the Holocaust survivor soldiers in particular, is connected with a discussion of the degree of the occupiers’ barbarity. He maintains that the barbarity of the planners and leaders, who dispassionately set the political objectives, exceeds the terrible barbarity of the actual slaughterers, and is the real barbarity.
Therefore, there is a spectrum of victimhood and a spectrum of barbarity of perpetrators. The narrator’s discussions and deliberations about those spectrums (which are not always clear, possibly intentionally so) portray a universal person who deliberates and dreams, prefers the labyrinth of stories, philosophizes. The narrator attests that he is seeking justification for the Israelis, trying to forgive them, feels as if he himself could have been a murderer. Within the array of identities and masks, any categorical black-and-white view poses a threat. Therefore, the narrator broke up with the leftist Israeli Dalia, who held black-and-white views. She blamed the narrator for his conciliatory talk with the Israelis,-she supported revenge by the Palestinian victims. He did not.
Khoury talks about the racist, superior, contemptuous attitude native Israelis held towards the European Jews who were led like sheep to the slaughter. With this distinction Khoury again struck a surprising chord with me as the daughter of survivors. When my parents came to this country they too experienced the contempt towards them. They were called “soap,” although they refused to admit it. I was surprised by how strongly Khoury’s treatment of this subject flooded me with emotion.
“The dialogue between the living and the dead is the essence of literature,” declares the narrator. And elsewhere he indicates that his memory is his mother’s memory: “Not only did I hear the stories with my ears, I also felt as if I had lived them and witnessed them. It was my own memory that remembered, not my mother’s memory.” I have met several members of the second generation of Holocaust survivors who, on the one hand, flaunt their identity as second generation, but at the same time do not feel a deep emotional identification with the generation of their survivor parents, and even feel revulsion towards it. So that even within the category of second generation, some of us have more in common with Khoury than we do with other members of that category in our own camp.
Silence in the book has several meanings, only one of which is the personal-psychological meaning of the victim’s trauma. One of the additional meanings is the silence of the listeners. The narrator notes that the real question is the deafness of the world that does not hear the cries of the Palestinians. And that is a point of comparison, because after the Holocaust occured, the world did hear and is still open to hearing about it. Which is not the case for the Nakba, to which the world is deaf.
The author holds a PhD in Cognitive Studies and is a graduate of the Department of Literature. She is active in supporting the Palestinian cause for equality and human rights.