Thursday, October 13, 2011

Learn From Your Fathers and Mothers

"Ahh, how history continues to roll beneath our feet!"

This is what my Saba exclaimed with a shake of his head and a bewildered grin. I have just brought my laptop outside to bask in this perfectly clear, blue sky of a day after one of those incredible moments that just sometimes happen when I visit my Saba's house. I sat down on his black leather couch, leaning against the same pillows I remember from my childhood, and he just began to talk. About the book he's just finished chronicling the life of a man who was one of the founders of Degania, the first kibbutz; about the first chalutzim (pioneers who settled Palestine at the end of the 18th century); about the evolution of the settling of the State of Israel--all the way back to his story, always his incredible, unbelievable, fantastical story.

Every year of my life, we visited the kibbutz, and each time we would sit on Saba's lap to hear "the story." Each year we joked it got longer, but I think his memory just grew as we got older. Today more holes were filled when I asked if he ever read Mein Kampf. He told me this story over lunch (which I paraphrase here):

"We were liberated by black soldiers. Imagine the sight! Me, who has never seen a black man, and them who were witnessing the walking dead. After we were free I decided to return to the village we had passed the day before on the Death March. Me and a boy I had walked with the whole time went and came upon a real house. For the first time in years I walked into a real room with a real bed, with linens and pillows and a shower with soap! I threw off my rags and collapsed into the bed, only after taking my first real shower in years and eating some food. I think I slept for something like 48 hours. Then I dressed and we went back through the village. By the way," he smiled to himself with faraway eyes, "your Savta the first time she saw me asked me what are those silly pants of mine? They were from that house! I told her they were the only ones I had!" He laughed and ate another scrumptious fish pattie. "Suddenly, we saw a library! I couldn't believe my eyes! I rushed inside, as quickly as my weak legs could carry me. I ran to the bookshelf and grabbed at the first book I saw." Here his eyes grew wide and he threw back his head with an excited leap. "And it was Mein Kampf."

I stared at him in awe. "What happened after that?"

"Then at some point I think I must have fainted and someone brought me to the hospital. You know the rest of the story after that."

The rest of this remarkable story is one that I have heard several times, each time renewed. After being taken to the hospital, he lay in a bed with his eyes closed for twenty straight days. The doctor there, who happened to be a man from his own village, Shavli, Lithuania, had known him and his family. He told him he could not believe he was still alive. Then one day, my Saba heard exclamations through the window. Israeli soldiers, from Palestine had arrived in a jeep! Saba threw himself out of bed and rushed to witness this miraculous sight.  He collapsed in front of the soldiers and says that day saved his life.

Years later, my Saba was principal of the school on the kibbutz he founded. He made it a point to visit each of his students, to confer with them and check on the learning environment within the home. He says that's where the real learning starts. He was visiting the parents of one of his students when her father, Naftali, pulled out an album. "You know, " he told my Saba, "I was in a brigade of Israeli soldiers and visited Holocaust survivors in Germany." They realized they had been in the exact same place. And there in the album, was a picture of survivors kissing the soldiers, their jeep, and the flag of Israel. Naftali's daughter ended up marrying my uncle.

And now I'm here in Israel for a year with all of this history rolling beneath my tingling feet.

Me, Saba, and Ima last Pesach

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