Harriet Gimpel

About me – facts unanalyzed

By the age of 10, I had read “The Diary of Anne Frank.” At summer camp (1969 through the 70s), a Jewish fast day, Tisha B’Av, was used as an educational tool about the Shoah, more than about the Destruction of the Second Temple to which it is dedicated. At least the summer that I was 11 or 12, each child was given a candle and assigned the name of a child murdered in a concentration camp, and we marched into a large hall with cement floors and sat on blankets, facing a stage. Yet, I love the poetic style of the Book of Lamentations read on this day.

In junior high school, public school, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” was part of the curriculum for my English class. Peculiarly, I remember nothing about Bernard Malamud’s, “The Fixer,” that I read by choice for a book report at the time. I recall my mom let me stay home from school one day, at least one day, while we were reading Anne Frank’s diary because it was so upsetting to my nearly boundless imagination. Of course, Elie Wiesel worked his way into the writers I had on my personally determined required reading list.

Is there an age-appropriate time for exposure to the subject? There was certainly no age-appropriate time for being the victim.

When I was 16, in Hebrew school, we were required to read “Exodus,” and uncharacteristically I waited until the last minute, destined to read its 600 pages in five days. Uris, the author, I well knew, was a lonsman – his family and my maternal grandfather’s family came from the same town, Volkovysk. In every book on any Jewish subject, Leon Uris made mention of the town at least once, often in the most negligible manner, or so it was told in our family. In “Exodus” it’s a train stop. Most readers remember “Exodus” by the images from the movie. I was home alone reading passages mildly alluding to the Holocaust and citing a Volkovysk train station. It was about 10:00 PM. I heard sirens, presumably passing fire engines. Inside my head, I traveled in time, and evil people were coming to get me.

I stayed home from school the next day. Nobody gave me a valium, but I heard it discussed. At some time, during 10th grade, reading “Night,” with slogans in my mind about never forgetting, I made the decision to discontinue reading any Holocaust literature. I knew I would not forget. I avoided movies on the subject. I don’t think I ever watched the television series, “Shoah.”

Full disclosure, my grandfather and his siblings all came to the United States before World War II. No Holocaust survivors in the family, though I conveniently attributed that status to one second cousin of my mother because of her Eastern European accept and a deep identification with which my mind manipulated the sensible.

As a young adult, I ventured to read Primo Levi’s “The Periodic Table.” The title was such a magnet for my anything but scientific inclinations that I took the dare. I watched one movie at age 45 about my friend’s father and his story of survival during World War II. The producer was a friend too, so I was invited to the premiere showing at Tel Aviv University.

Over the years, I turned down professional opportunities at Yad Vashem. I was certain it was not the best place for my emotional wellbeing.

Since October 7, 2023, in Israel, much is said about what is said, and not said, to children. What they understand from not being told and from the nature of the answers to their questions. These are the children who were not directly exposed, or the children who don’t have older siblings or grandparents or cousins who were brutally murdered, raped, or kidnapped. There was no age-appropriate consideration for being a victim.

During the Yom Kippur War, I was 14-years old. I remember in school that it was a subject for discussion on current events, like war in Bangladesh. One day in class, I was shaking, and a friend turned around to ask me what happened. I explained that it’s just more than any other war for me. At that point, I already had a friend who had moved to Israel with her parents. But, it was more than that. “Exodus.”

The Yom Kippur War was 28 years after the end of World War II. I have childhood memories of the Six Day War in 1967 when my mom went to buy a transistor to hold to her ear even when vacuuming the living room rug. I remember a special prayer service at our synagogue. Mostly, I remember how sincerely I asked the rabbi why there was so much worry if God is on our side. I don’t remember his response, but remembering him, I’m sure he responded wisely, and in an age-appropriate manner.

Upon graduating from college, I made aliyah. Less than two years later, the first Lebanon War (1982) broke out. I remember that Saturday night when my flat mate from Haifa returned to Jerusalem and spoke about all the tanks, she saw traveling north that evening. Her parents were Holocaust survivors. She never missed an opportunity to tell me during that period that I had no idea what war is like: “If you didn’t experience the Yom Kippur War,” she would say, “you have no idea what it’s like.” By association, years later, living in Tel Aviv during the Gulf War with scuds aimed at us from Iraq, I remember all the Jerusalemites telling Tel Avivians that they would never know what it was like to spend a week in bomb shelters as they did during the Six Day War – 15 years to the day before that first Lebanon War.

Wearing a bright yellow shirt to work one day after the Gulf War, I absorbed some peculiar glances. One colleague gave me the courtesy of an explanation: Israeli Jews don’t wear yellow. Yellow. The color of the Star of David identification badge Jews were forced to wear by the Nazis.

At the end of the summer of the Lebanon War in 1982, when I went to the United States for Rosh Hashana and the other seasonal Jewish holidays, my mother was worried about me. I assured here there was nothing to worry about. I was a graduate student in Jerusalem. I had professors and classmates on reserve duty. That was worrisome, but Jerusalem was not endangered. One day a neighbor delivered something to my mom and made what he considered to be a Zionist, pro-Israel, pro-Begin comment. Little did he know about my politics. I politely went upstairs to my bedroom. Buried my head in the pillow. As I write the words, the tears come back as they came then. The neighbor left. My mother knocked on my door. She asked what happened. I told her Begin wasn’t sending his friends to risk their lives in Lebanon. My mother responded: “Now, you see why I’m worried about you.”

Sabra and Shatila. My mother told me that if Israel were responsible, she wasn’t sure she wanted me to go back. I told her if the US was responsible for My Lai, I wasn’t sure I wanted her to continue living there. Are there desirable alternatives? In 2023, that is haunting. Daunting. The United States, my mother always proudly reminded me, provided a safe haven to Jewish refugees, like my grandfather. (Well, once refugees were allowed entry.) My parents came to visit me in Israel many times after Sabra and Shatila. During the Gulf War, I would reassure them not to worry. With every scud headed for Tel Aviv, my line was, “Tel Aviv is a blast!”

Instead of asking the question of what happened to Israel after the Yom Kippur War and the subsequent peace treaty with Egypt, I wonder more about what happened between 1945 and 1973. The hubris of 1967 was hardly the trigger for confronting the harsher aspects of Israel’s earliest years. Not a time for acknowledging the Deir Yassin Massacre, nor Tantura, not the Nakba, nor the Kfar Kassem Massacre.

Israel was rather taken by surprise on October 6, 1973, when the warfare that became known as the Yom Kippur War erupted. Rather. Israel was warned.

Col. (ret.) Miri Eisin recently speaking on yet another broadcast about October 7, assured the public that human nature is human nature. Political leaders and senior military commanders will again and again disregard the clearest of indications. Reports by young women in observation posts on October 7,2023, were discarded, just as the messengers of blatant earlier indications of an imminent attack were dismissed with disinterest. I recall 9/11 and how the terrorists’ weapons were detected by security scans.

I do not know how Israelis will recover from October 7. I do not know yet when this war in Gaza will end or where attacks on northern Israel from southern Lebanon will lead us. I do not know the ultimate fate of the Israeli hostages still in Gaza as I write, those among the living and those whose bodies are held hostage. I recognize the dissonance in public reactions emanating from a conglomerate of individuals with incidental reactions. I see the absence of a clear strategy among the politicians sending soldiers to risk their lives to heroically save two hostages in the past week and their apparent unwillingness to engage in the diplomatic negotiations that will release them and maintain the ethos of this nation. I lack answers. Of course, I am concerned about Israel’s security. Of course, I would like Hamas to be wiped off the face of this earth. I am more realistic than that. I would like this war to have had inflicted far-fewer casualties on innocent Gazans. I would like to know how we heal from that, the denial far greater than for Israeli inflicted tragedies of the past.

Cycles, irreparable damages, scars, healing, just not age-appropriate. Just about 10 days from putting 65 candles on my cake, I need peace.

Harriet Gimpel, February 18, 2024

About the Author
Born and raised in Philadelphia, earned a B.A. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University in 1980, followed by an M.A. in Political Science from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Harriet has worked in the non-profit world throughout her career. She is a freelance translator and editor, writes poetry in Hebrew and essays in English, and continues to work for NGOs committed to human rights and democracy.
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