There is a family home where I have never been (writes Adrian Levy). But as a child my grandmother described it so lovingly that nowadays, whenever I am stuck somewhere, grinding my teeth on a go-slow story, it is to this house that my mind wanders.
With its scalloped roof and lime-rendered walls, the dream house garden runs down to a fast-flowing river into which swimmers jack-knife. A blanket has been flung over a ruffled meadow, a Meissen dinner service is arranged for a dozen people: cups filled with bitter coffee, plates laden with goose-liver pate and a crystal dish bearing an oblong torte, glazed with brittle toffee.
This dream house has a counterpart in reality: my grandmother’s childhood home. It was built by her father, a wealthy lawyer in the service of an aristocratic family, and stood in Nove Zamky, a town northwest of Budapest that was once a caravanserai for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today, it is merely a comma in a convoluted sentence of towns that runs through the barren landscape of Slovakia.
In 1939 my grandmother was forced to leave her home in Nove Zamky with such haste that all she was able to take with her was a diamond, sewn into the lining of her dress. She locked the front door to her house, with everything her family owned abandoned inside, fled the Nazification of the Czech lands and boarded the only liner on which she could get a passage. It should have sailed for Bombay but with the Second World War crashing around, the ship was diverted to England, where Anna, her husband Miklos, and their new baby (my Aunt Veronica) were ushered down the gangplank at Tilbury Docks.
From that moment on Anna and Miklos Klein, who were soon to be naturalised British, surrounded themselves with exiled friends who spoke in Hungarian, Czech and German. They ate goose liver, toffee cake and sipped bitter coffee. In spite of whatever new wealth they created they always regarded themselves as homeless. Anna could never bring herself to return to her Nove Zamky mansion, with its view over the Gymnasium where her handsome, high-flying brother Laci graduated with honours. She would never know who ended up living in the house where she was born. And she never again stepped foot in the region where, centuries before, her forebears had been embraced by the Catholic townsfolk – only to be betrayed by them in 1939.
In all honesty, I slept through the crucial parts of my grandmother’s stories. I was a shallow, unsophisticated listener, weary of the suffocating pall of the Holocaust that hung over our family. But even though I was second-generation British, a teenage atheist, studied in getting stoned, I could never rid myself of the image of a house-that-was-once-a-home in Nove Zamky.
As well as the fear and anger engendered by the loss of one home, my childhood was framed by the idea of building another. On my grandmother’s windowsill stood a small blue-and-white collection box into which all our small change was emptied, to finance, we were told, a sanctuary for Jews. Outwardly it was an insignificant, weathered tin and yet it conveyed a powerful idea (that for most of my childhood I presumed to be true). Provided by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), the box sported a bleached out map of Israel from which mushroomed vivid pockets of green. The JNF tin spun the story of an arid and empty desert, in which no one lived before green-fingered Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors (including a handful of my relatives) arrived and made it bloom.
Home was a powerful and persuasive idea that spanned the abandoned shtetls, towns and cities of Old Europe from where Jewish refugees fled and the Altneueland, or ‘Old-new land’ as they called the ancient biblical land of Israel that was to become their sanctuary. But something about this notion of Home had always jarred with me. It was extremely partial and incorporated only the lives of Jews sent into flight, stories that were animated in extraordinary colour. The fate of the homes and belongings that were left behind in Eastern Europe were rarely discussed. More startlingly, the outcome for those displaced by the Jews when they arrived in Palestine was never even mentioned.
The Jewish idea of Home was drawn as a straight line. But today I see that it would have been better described as a giant property ladder, with disparate people of different faiths on every rung. Christian families claiming the homes of Jews in Old Europe climbed onto the bottom rung of this ladder, some of them actively coveting the property of former Jewish neighbours, classmates and friends. Palestinians, who abandoned their property, land and possessions to accommodate the new emigrants to the Middle East, clung on at the top. People with little in common, of different faiths, nationalities and competing ambitions, were all linked together by the places they once lived. We wondered what would happen if we could locate all of the homes on such a ladder, identifying the successive residents who occupied them and rewound each of their stories as far as anyone could remember. What would be created would be a timeline of the 20th century, with which it should be possible to brush history against the grain, and see how the fate of those at one end of the ladder impacted on the lives of those at the other.
We decided to begin in the present, with a Palestinian family, one that was prepared to return, or at least allow us to locate and visit their former home in Israel where we would interview the new tenants and attempt to discover from where they had emigrated.
But the tensions of living within the Middle East conflict are so deeply felt that we decided to begin the search outside the region, among the millions of exiled Palestinians, professional refugees, with involuntary lives and neighbours they rarely see, in towns and villages that are nowhere in particular. One of them must want to go back to a home they have lost.
Many of their stories have been collected by Abbas Shiblak, a Palestinian refugee himself, formerly from a great house in Haifa, who today lives in a matchbox-semi in north London. He listened patiently to the idea but initially was reluctant to help. ‘Home, for me, is no longer a physical place or a country. Home is being in the company of like-minded people,’ he said. For Abbas Shiblak, Palestine existed only in the emails he shared with other exiles. However, he agreed to circulate our request for help in virtual Palestine. The responses flooded in.
Sari, in Beirut, wrote: ‘I cannot help. My mother’s Palestinian home was completely destroyed three year ago in Wad Salib, Haifa.’ Mansour from Cyprus: ‘For my dad it is too long a time ago. He can’t go back.’ Nadim mailed from Montreal: ‘Sorry, but I cannot face returning. Good luck in your work, Salam.’ And Abu Salman Sitta in Jordan replied: ‘Do you think Mr Levy would mind telling unpublicised facts about Palestinians?’
Caution, desperation, integration, suspicion and depression had overcome many exiled Palestinians. However, after more than 100 interviews, the fragments of two stories began to look promising. The first related to an Arab doctor who as a young boy had fled his family home in the former Palestinian port city of Jaffa in 1947 and made a new life for himself in an ancient town of black-beamed houses in a devout Christian pocket of southwest Germany. A new house in old Germany and a centuries-old mansion abandoned to the new Israeli city of Jaffa. The possibilities were plentiful – if the man, Dr Emile Berouti, would agree to talk to us. The second fragment encapsulated another side of the Palestinian story, a farmer’s wife born into a simple rural village on the Middle Eastern plains whose community was dispersed by the Israeli army in 1948, forcing her and all her neighbours into a dusty town that over time swelled into a vast and cramped refugee city. Nijma Mahamid had hoped to live out her life surrounded by her great-grandfather’s olive groves and the graves of her forebears. Instead, she had spent most of her 65 years as a refugee inside the new Israel, largely confined to a concrete block-house in a community of strangers. According to an email from Nijma Mahamid’s son, their original village had disappeared.
Birkenfeld, southwest Germany, population 7,500, has only four GPs and no visible links to the traumas of the Middle East. But while Dr Emile Berouti (formerly of Jaffa) is easy to track down, he is difficult to open up. ‘Thank you so much for your interest,’ he says politely, after we relate how Abbas Shiblak in North London had helped us contact Palestinian refugees. ‘But really I cannot help you. My life is here in Germany. I have been here so long that I know nothing any more about the old days in Palestine. I am married to a German. My family speak German. I can barely read Arabic any more. No need to. Palestine is in the past.’ As if to emphasise his point a television is switched on in a neighbouring room and begins to fill the house with the evening news from Berlin: a report about a multiple pile-up near Cologne, excerpts of Angela Merkel’s inaugural speech to parliament as Chancellor, gloomy economic news from Brussels.
‘News, news, always bad,’ mutters Dr Berouti from his armchair, before calling to his wife to turn the television down. ‘You want to talk about Palestine. Why? Always from Palestine there is terrible news. Only the other day I heard how the Israeli army fired into a school in East Jerusalem.’ He shakes his head. ‘Shooting at young children. Imagine. The only time I ever thought that there would be peace was when [Israeli Prime Minister] Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords in 1993. A wave of optimism swept through our exiled community. But then an Israeli shot him too.’ For all his protestations and feigned forgetfulness about the land of his birth, Dr Berouti has not completely broken with his past.
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