Hazel McHaffie

Middle East

The seeds of peace

I’ve lost track of the number of books I’ve read about the persecution of the Jews, and the Holocaust, but the horror never fails to move me deeply.

One which has haunted me is The Twins of Auschwitz, first published in 2009. I read it ages ago, but it has remained with me.

It’s a first person story told by Eva Mozes Kor, with the assistance of Lisa Rojani Buccieri. Eva was one of those twins who arrived at the gates of horror, clutching the hand of her identical twin … and survived. One pair of around 3000 children chosen for experimentation.

Every protective instinct in my being is stirred listening, through the perceptions of a six-year-old child, to how innocent Jewish families were taunted and victimised by the locals in Romania, how hatred was infused into their minds, even before the concentration camps began their unspeakable work. And I’m so many steps removed. What must it have been like to be parents, helpless in the face of such ugly harassment, hounded out of their home, forced into ghettos, powerless to resist or reassure their children, haunted by guilt about their failure to escape from their country while they could?

The utter terror that consumes the twins, Eva and Miriam, when they are deported, separated from their families, is heart-breaking. On the Auschwitz selection platform, Eva’s memory is of …
Crying, crying, crying. The crying of children for parents. The crying of parents for their babies. The crying of people confused and bewildered. The crying of people who saw with certainty that their nightmares had come true. All together, the cries resounded with the ultimate and most unimaginable pain of human loss. emotional grief, and suffering.

Their parents and older sisters are sent one way – the way leading to the gas chambers; they are directed in the other. It was the biological accident of being twins that gave the girls access to ‘privileged treatment’. Privilege? A relative term. They find themselves in a filthy stinking barn with a few hundred other twins aged 2 to 16. Auschwitz.

The old photos of Auschwitz in Kor’s book make the whole thing even more gut wrenching – the emaciated bodies, the shaved heads, the aloneness of small children, a smiling and handsome Dr Josef Mengele. Even the family shots hurt – they so much resemble the ones of my own family taken in the same era; same poses, same fashions, same required smiles. But a world apart.

Mengele is there on the selection platform, he’s there in the packed dormitories, he’s there in Birkenau, carrying out his dastardly experiments, obsessed with finding the secrets of genetics in order to create a master race of blond blue-eyed Aryans. The Jewish twins are his guinea pigs.

Though acutely aware that they’re alive because of an accident of nature, the twins have no option but to do as they are told. To sit completely naked for up to 8 hours amongst hundreds of twins – both boys and girls – leered at by SS guards, feeling dehumanised and excruciatingly embarrassed. To undergo hours of measurements and comparisons and blood taking and injections of pathological products and X-rays. Very little is known about exactly what Mengele did in these experiments, apart from damaging one twin in order to compare the effects between the two, sometimes even killing both in order to obtain autopsy results. Beyond evil and barbaric.

Back at Auschwitz, inhaling the putrid stench of a combination of Zyklon B with hydrogen cyanide and diatomite – the chemical mix for the mass murder in the gas chambers – mixed with burning flesh and bones:
It is not a smell a human can ever forget.
Scavenging any morsel of food and water they can. Forced to observe hangings, dead bodies being trundled by in carts, naked bodies left lying in the latrine.

At Auschwitz, dying was easy. Surviving was a full-time job.

After the Nazis have fled the camp, when Eva eventually sees someone on the outside, clean, smartly dressed, going to school, she’s consumed by anger and incomprehension.  How could the world know what was going on and do nothing? How indeed?

And then the Soviet troops arrive to release them. The girls are 11 years old. Their only ambition is to go home and be reunited with their parents and sisters, of whom they’ve heard nothing. But, not only is the family no more, the house wrecked and empty, but the neighbours want nothing to do with them. Even when they go to the protection of an aunt, life under the communists in this war-ravaged Romania is harsh. Once more food and possessions are confiscated, people disappear. Anti-Semitism is still rife.

They plan to leave for Palestine as their father had urged them to do, but it takes over two years to obtain exit visas. They are 16 when they finally set sail for their new home: the land of freedom; the new nation of Israel. Now at last, there will surely be no more anti-Semitism, only encouragement to celebrate their Jewish heritage. Surely.

But the harassment starts up again when Eva marries in haste and moves to the USA; it lasts a further 11 years.

She eventually finds her niche when she forms an organisation CANDLES (Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors) and tracks down 122 survivors, helping them to deal with the issues they’ve carried from that time. When Miriam dies in 1993 from the effects of those horrific experiments, Eva opens the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Indiana, showing the world what was done, preserving the evidence for generations to come.

After years of bitterness and anger, she finally feels powerful when she finds it within her to personally forgive the Nazis for what they did, her parents for not protecting her, herself for hating them. After 50 years, a burden of pain is lifted from her shoulders. She is no longer a victim of her tragic past.

Anger and hate are seeds that germinate war. Forgiveness is a seed for peace. It is the ultimate act of self-healing … self liberation, and self empowerment.

She spends the rest of her life teaching young people the life lessons learned through her pain, trying to bring transformative peace and kindness to the world. In her words:
I hope, in some small way, to send the world a message of forgiveness; a message of peace, a message of hope, a message of healing.
Let there be no more wars, no more experiments without informed consent, no more gas chambers, no more bombs, no more hatred, no more killing, no more Auschwitzes.

Eva Mozes Kor died unexpectedly and suddenly in 2019.

It’s a troubling book, a challenging message. Perhaps even more so given the horrors of the recent conflict in the Middle East – only a matter of four months ago.

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Nadia’s Song

The keening of the women was deafening, painful, the high-pitched mourning ululation of the Middle East rising from a half-million throats. The corniche was a river of black, hiding the sea beyond.

What an evocative opening paragraph! The book? Nadia’s Song by Soheir Khashoggi. This tale of forbidden love and divided loyalties is set against the colourful history of Egypt’s conflicts and cultures. The events of the 1940s in the Middle East especially, add a depth of historical accuracy and credibility to the story.

The mourning ululation from a half-million throats is for renowned Egyptian singer, Karima Ismail, known as ‘The Nightingale’, dead at fifty-three. The country is in mourning, and Karima’s daughter Gabriella is utterly devastated by this sudden unheralded bereavement of a second mother. She can find no closure, no comfort. Something is gnawing away at her: how could it be that her mother had taken drugs, died of an overdose, when she never touched the stuff? As a reporter, as a daughter, she needs answers.

Unravel back to the 1940s when Karima is a young girl, a servant, learning about the ways of the world. A major war is raging in Europe, stretching it’s invading fingers into the homes of rich and poor alike even in at-that-time-neutral Egypt. There are spies and collaborators everywhere, disguised and unremarkable. Watching, listening, liaising, accusing.

But for Karima and her childhood friend, Charles, son of her master, major changes are at work at a much more intimate and personal level. So much divides them in this hierarchical culture. Theirs is a forbidden love – spanning class and race; a love that could not be. Tragedy separates them, but not before a child is conceived. Following the death of Charles, she pours all her raw emotion into her singing.

The code of honour governing behaviour in their culture is strict and rigid. Karima has disgraced her family. Her brother Omar is beyond outraged. He exacts terrible extended revenge. But, desperate to salvage something from the wreckage, he nevertheless finds her a good husband, Munir, more than twice her age, who in turn sees her potential and introduces her to influential people who can nourish her beautiful and exceptional voice. She becomes ‘The Nightingale’.  But the greater her success, the harder Omar presses her for money.

Munir however falls more and more in love with his beautiful young wife and gladly accepts the baby Nadia as his own. But happiness is short lived. Nadia is just two years old when a night of rioting and violence tears her away from her parents. In the same fire, Munir suffers a serious heart attack, leaving him a shadow of his former self. Karima devotes herself to caring for him, but when demands increase for her to return to singing, he urges her to do so. She eventually relents, promising Munir she will, provided he gets better. The promise extracted he can die happy, knowing she will not waste her God-given talent.

Karima has now lost both daughter and husband, and the crushing sorrow adds even more pathos to her singing. Her fame escalates and she is in great demand professionally.

In reality, and unknown to her mother, the child Nadia has escaped from the burning building, and is found and rescued by a childless couple, Dr Tarik Misry and his wife Celine, who take her into their lives and hearts. They rename her Gabriella, and devote themselves to her happiness. Discovering she is not their biological child has a profound effect on Gabriella, and sets her off on a mission to discover her true parentage, and the reality of what really happened to her famous mother.

SPOILER ALERT
The truth is sordid and despicable. Gabriella’s uncle, Omar, from an early age mired in a dark world of drugs and debt and gambling and whoring, is jealous of his sister Karima’s success. He convinces himself that it was he who saved her by finding her a respectable husband; she owes him, big time. He leans on her heavily for money … time after time. For years, she does indeed bail him out, living modestly herself while funding his dissolute and reckless life, but there comes a day, after Gabriella has been reunited with her, when she finally holds firm against his entreaties. Her beloved daughter who was lost is now found, and she must concentrate her resources on being a good mother.

Incensed by her refusal, Omar exacts a fearful revenge: he drops hints about her being a spy, and fabricates a story of her undercover work that leads to her untimely and brutal death, disguised as suicide. Under Egyptian law, two thirds of her great wealth goes to her brother; Omar accepts it with little regret. Years pass.

But now Gabriella is a highly regarded reporter, probing for the truth, aided and abetted by her Irish boyfriend and Karima’s devoted friend and admirer, Farid Hamza, a high-ranking army Colonel. Between them they tighten the net.

However, Omar is not about to roll over and confess. He hatches a plot to abduct Gabriella, gain a king’s ransom in money, and then kill her anyway. Victory went to those who dared, he told himself. And he had always dared. The strong thrill of the plot drives him onwards.

There are just two and a half pages left to reveal the end result! You didn’t think I was going to spoil the finale, did you?!

It was fascinating to learn more of Middle Eastern history through the eyes of those living in that volatile part of the world. Sobering too, to be reminded of the rigid rules and double standards of the day and place.

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Forgiveness writ large

I Shall Not HateEvery now and then a book comes along that challenges the reader at a very fundamental level. Izzeldin Abuelaish‘s book, I Shall Not Hate, was that kind of a read for me earlier this year. (Apologies in advance: this will be a longish post to do justice to a powerful story.)

Whatever your preconceptions or affiliations or prejudices, this is certainly not a book for the fainthearted, and the experiences this man recounts make one feel ashamed of ever having complained. You might perhaps remember Dr Abuelaish appearing live on TV reporting the massacre of his family in January 2009. This, and its subsequent reproduction on Youtube, precipitated him into the public eye. But let’s go back to the beginning.

The boy Izzeldin was born and raised in a refugee camp in the Gaza strip. Reading about his shockingly deprived childhood, it’s hard to believe this was less than five decades ago (he was born in 1955), taking place while we enjoyed the normal privileges and freedoms we take for granted in this country.

‘We were everything the word refugee stands for: disenfranchised, dismissed, marginalised, and suffering.’ 

He vividly describes the grinding poverty that drove him to work for a pittance from a tender age to keep his large family in food, wearing cast offs from humanitarian aid bundles, bone weary and constantly hungry. As the eldest male he was also culturally required to shoulder responsibility for his parents and all his siblings.

‘Like most Palestinian children, I didn’t really have a childhood. Until I was ten, my family, which eventually numbered eleven (two parents, six boys – I was the eldest of them – and three girls), lived in one room that measured about ten feet by ten feet.There was no electricity, no running water; there were no toilets in the house. It was dirty. There was no privacy. We ate our meals from a single plate we shared. We had to wait in line to use the communal toilets and wait for water that was delivered by the United Nations. We were only allowed to fill our pots during certain hours of the day. We waited for trolleys to come by with kerosene or wood for us to buy to cook with. We were usually barefoot, flea-bitten, and hungry. We all slept together on a huge mattress that was hoisted up against the wall by day and lowered at night – except for the baby. There was always a newborn, it seemed, who slept in the same basin my mother used to wash the dishes, scrub the kids with a loofah, and clean the house.’

He was accustomed to seeing at firsthand the brutality of war, over and over again; he watched his meagre home being demolished to make a road wide enough for Israeli tanks to drive along; he was himself the subject of humiliating acts of cruelty and discrimination. All around him was hate and revenge. And yet, from an early age, Izzeldin believed in the common humanity of all races, of the potential for good, and the ‘hope for a better tomorrow’. He was, and still is, convinced that the majority of Palestinians and Israelis want to live in peace, to lead decent civilised lives, in safety and harmony. ‘It’s largely the leaders in both camps who continue to fight the unfinished battles of yesterday’, and the minority fanatics who carry out atrocities, who fuel the divisions, perpetuate extremist visions, and polarise opinion outside of the Holy Land.

Furthermore, he sees his own profession as uniquely placed to foster peace. Against all odds, thanks to his own determination, and his indomitable mother, he succeeded in his chosen career of medicine, becoming a recognised expert in obstetrics and gynaecology, infertility treatment, and public health. Race is irrelevant when you’re sick or in need of medical care, he says. He became the first Palestinian doctor to work in an Israeli hospital.

He also believes that if women and girls were accorded equal opportunities for health and education, they ‘could very well lead us to a peaceful coexistence.’ He certainly has reason to be grateful to the women in his own life. Not just his strong mother, but also his wife, left at home with up to eight children during his frequent absences for weeks, months, even a year, while he acquired the qualifications to break the vicious cycles of his inheritance.

The picture he paints of his country is a bleak one. Deprivation continues even to this day and everyone, including professionals like Dr Abuelaish, must endure them in the Gaza Strip. Water and sanitation services are on the verge of collapse; materials to repair the crumbling systems sit on an embargo list; the healthcare system is broken; access to hospitals and expertise outside the Strip is limited and not infrequently prohibited; a public health catastrophe is highly likely. Unemployment is extremely high; 70% live below the poverty line; farming and fishing face impossible restrictions. Exit visas are often denied for no good reason, limiting access to better lives and opportunities. All contributing factors in the escalation of hostilities in this volatile region. ‘It’s so easy to incite the people with the misery they’re in.’

But this book is not principally about the Middle East tensions, it’s one man’s personal crusade against seemingly impossible odds. Because a successful career didn’t render Dr Abuelaish immune to personal suffering. His nephew was deliberately shot in the legs and seriously disabled. Then his wife, Nadia, was diagnosed and died from leukaemia, all within the space of two weeks, leaving their eight children motherless, and Izzeldin a widower at the age of only 53. And then the worst catastrophe of all happened.

The Abuelaish family were desperately trying to regroup after Nadia’s death at the end of 2008, when the Gaza War erupted: an ‘insane assault‘ lasting 23 days. From the Palestinian perspective, Izzeldin calls it a ‘crazy annihilation‘ of the innocents. For those three weeks the family lost their faith in humanity; ‘God and each other’ were all they had left as they clung together waiting for what was to come. Then, on 16 January 2009, just twelve weeks after Nadia’s death, an Israeli tank blasted shells into the girls’ bedroom, blowing three of Izzeldin’s daughters and a niece to pieces. A tragedy so enormous and harrowing that it’s hard to even comprehend it.

Yet this man, their grieving father, has devoted his life to treating people on both sides of the conflict equally, and actively fostering understanding and reconciliation. His steadfast faith (he’s a Muslim), compassion and strength of character are at once humbling and awe-inspiring, and his book is one of the most powerful testaments to humanity triumphing over tragedy I’ve ever read.

‘We all need to understand that there are evil people in every country, every religion, every culture. But there is also the silent camp of people in every country who believe, like I do, that we can bring two communities together by listening to each other’s points of view and concerns. It’s that simple. I know it is; I’ve been doing it for almost all of my adult life. Look at the Middle East, the bruised Holy Land, and its generations of hatred and bloodshed. The way to replace that is with dialogue and understanding.’

The terrible massacre of these innocent girls inspired renewed and widespread calls for revenge but, even in the depths of his devastation, Izzeldin knew that ‘hatred is an illness. It prevents healing and peace’. Besides, no amount of retribution would bring his beloved children back. Instead he writes: ‘This catastrophe … has strengthened my thinking, deepened my belief about how to bridge the divide. I understand down to my bones that violence is futile. It is a waste of time, lives and resources, and has been proven to beget more violence. It does not work. It just perpetuates a vicious circle… To find the light of truth, you have to talk to, listen to, and respect each other.’

And he extends the challenge to us all: ‘… wiling is not enough. We must act. It is well known that all it takes for evil to survive is for good people like you to do nothing.’ (my emphasis).

[You can see an interview with Dr Abuelaish here which challenges him on some of the points in his book.]

 

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