Connections: Summers of War

The summer of 1948 was different

Summer as a child on my grandparents’ farm in the Catskills was fun. We played in a cold brook, picked blueberries on the hills, and invented fantastic worlds on the third floor of the barn, where a carriage had long been abandoned. Once, on a neighbor’s farm, I was allowed to attempt to milk a cow. 

The summer of 1948 was different. It may have been the last summer we spent on the farm, but I honestly can’t remember. Old Man Low, whose cows I used to visit in one of his pastures about a half-mile away, wasn’t there that summer; he was gone. No one told me if he had given up dairy farming, or just passed on, but in any case his pastures were empty and that was that. And then one day, his farmhouse and outbuildings were rented to a group of men and boys. 

In August, I was asked to go to the Low farm to help serve meals for the group. I would get up early and take a shortcut through the woods to a large room being used as a mess hall, where I dished out appalling reconstituted scrambled eggs, among other non-delicacies.

I didn’t hear any shooting that summer, but I knew these young men were training for the war in Israel, which had become an independent nation that May. Not too many months later, a man I had seen at the Low farm, known to me only as Warsaw, was arrested, apparently attempting to load guns onto a vessel in New York Harbor.

We learned then — at least, if my memory isn’t playing tricks, this was when I learned the name — that he and his fellows were members of a group called Irgun, extremist fighters seeking to force the British out of Palestine. Menachem Begin, who in time became the Israeli prime minister and won the Nobel Peace Prize, was one of Irgun’s leaders. Today we would call them terrorists. (Haganah was another paramilitary organization at the time, but it was less radical in its violence than its offshoot, Irgun.)

My parents weren’t political. My father had been a Roosevelt man, not knowing, of course, how little the president was doing to help the Jews escape from the Nazis. They held on tightly to Judaism, however, and belonged to an Orthodox synagogue. Did they know I was helping a secret cell of Irgun that summer? Were they indifferent to or ignorant of the presence nearby of men receiving training in arms? Or were they proud? What seems most likely is that they simply avoided thinking too hard about what was going on, just as I think they avoided thinking too much about the concentration camps. 

As a young woman I guess I took a cue from my parents. I had belonged to a Zionist youth organization in high school, but only briefly. I never chose to study the story of the new Jewish state. In fact, by the time I got to college, I was more interested in the Tunisian struggle for independence from France, and did a paper on Habib Bourguiba, a hero who became Tunisia’s president in 1957.

The New York Times reported on Tuesday that nearly 1,200 Palestinians had been killed in the previous three weeks, along with 56 Israelis, three of whom were civilians. It also reported that armed Palestinian fighters had reached Israel through one of the many tunnels Israel has discovered and hopes to destroy.

Every death in this war is an affront to humanity. The casualties are unspeakable. Pondering all this horror, I am almost bereft of opinion. I find myself coming closer and closer to my parents’ seemingly diffident attitude. How can an adult of good conscience — an Israeli, a Palestinian, who has witnessed plenty of evil in this world — see only black and white, or find it simple to take sides?