Deir Yassin, Where Are You?

In October, 2014, I visited Jerusalem with my husband Jonathan.While he spent his days participating in the annual conference of the International Association for Psychoanalytic Self Psychology, I visited sites in Israel and Palestine. I went first to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum. It was appropriate to do so; it is like making confession before praying. To say it was a moving experience is to engage in gross understatement. Two elements were particularly moving to me (and I was touched everywhere I turned). First was the memorial to the children lost in the Holocaust. I could not stop weeping. Second, I went to the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto. At first, I had a hard time seeing it. I was standing in the middle of very large space that looked like a town square. But there was nothing there. Then I realized that was the memorial . . . there was no one left. The people were wiped out. Only the town square remains. More tears.

A few days later, I traveled to Kfar Shaul, a mental hospital a little ways further out from Jerusalem than Yad Vashem. A participant in Jonathan’s conference told me he had walked from Yad Vashem to Kfar Shaul in well less than an hour.

Why did I go to the site of a mental hospital? I went, as I went to Yad Vashem, to honor the dead and missing, this time those killed on April 9, 1948 and those who fled the killing from what was then a small Palestinian village, Deir Yassin. The attack on the village by Zionist paramilitary groups, the Irgun and Lehi, was part of the fierce fighting that was going on between local Arabs and Jews for control of land that was to become the State of Israel.

Reports of the killing of villagers in Deir Yassin spread quickly among many villages and the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians began.

Kfar Shaul entrance

The entry gate to Kfar Shaul, with the buildings of Deir Yassin behind. Author’s picture

Today, instead of a marker for the lost village, or any other sign of what happened here 68 years ago today, now the village buildings comprise an Israeli mental hospital called Kfar Shaul. Of course, that facility is behind locked gates, and there is no public entry. There is here an echo of the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto–nobody remains.

I have written the poem below–and I continue to work on it, because it feels incomplete yet–to commemorate my visit in 2014, and to keep erasure of Deir Yassin before us. I will not forget. I ask that you not forget either.

Deir Yassin, Where Are You?

The distance between
Yad Vashem
and
Kfar Shaul
more than a stone can throw
less than a good morning walk
but the canyon
between
each
gapes wide and deep like yes and no
a wound buried in enough denial to be ignored

Deir Yassin, where are you?

I.
Yad Vashem
records the horrors of
Holocaust
the truth of inhumanity
shining the deepness of honesty on brutality
recounting the names and faces of victims
recalling the perpetrators of butchery
recording the names of the righteous among the nations who refused to lie in bed with evil

Tears flow
hearts ache
minds recoil
as we repeat
Never Again
Never Again
knowing
in the lurking memory of time
it is a promise
we may not keep

Yad Vashem.

Deir Yassin, where are you?

II.
Kfar Shaul
tells a different story
speaking in code known to those who want to forget
a moment of silence lasting lifetimes
a center for mental health
mental
health
resting on
the remains of a village
living in denial recording nothing of the souls buried beneath its glassy façade locking patients and remembrances of things past lives gone
behind security cameras and guard posts

Kfar Shaul.

Deir Yassin, where are you?

III.
It was a day in what should have been another lifetime
but feels like only yesterday
the wounds buried
just deep enough in denial to be ignored
continuing the mournful fugue of historical futility
A
day
April
9
1948
righteous men believing in a vision to reclaim their ancient home
struck out at villagers in homes
these in the wrong place at the wrong time
on the wrong side
at least the losing side

Deir Yassin, where are you?

100 or 250 gone of 600 or 750 inhabitants
depending on the history we read,
one-sixth to one-third gone
whatever your source
reports of rape
men paraded through Jerusalem
to the cheers of other men
and then shot
others dispute all the horror
blaming it on Arab soldiers
whose single-fire guns sought to stave off
automatic weapons and mortars

Still

Deir Yassin,where are you?

IV.
The exodus
of villagers not just Deir Yassin
250,000 refugees in camps
symbol of the new order
creating fear among people without an army even a government
some said they did not even exist
living in a land without a people

Deir Yassin, where are you?

The conquerors
terrorized in other lands
hated and feared and maligned
survivors of the slaughtered
came
a people without a land
to call home
filling the homes of those who fled
becoming a people and a land as one
prosperous and strong
proud and feared
hated too

Deir Yassin, where are you?

V.
Are you under the wound
scabbed over now
by a place for
mental health
a place of screams and dreams
of loves and lives lost
remembered
repeating in flashing fits of confession and accusation
rambling humbled haunted tales of fear and illusion
even bouts of sometimes reality?
Yad Vashem.
Kfar Shaul.

Deir Yassin, where are you?

No word
about what lies buried
under

Deir Yassin, where are you?

No names on homes still standing as offices and cottages for the new village inmates
even as their walls and doors and windows and roofs hold the secrets of yesterday’s disappeared

VI.
A visitor
stands on the sidewalk
tearfully remembering the histories he has read and Holocaust stories he can almost recite word for word from memory
and the endless arguments about who killed how many in ‘48 and ‘67 and ‘73 and ‘14 and all the other years too
and why it had to be so
persist like a bad dream growing more weird
frightening
ugly

Yad Vashem.
Kfar Shaul.

Deir Yassin, where are you?

His mind reciting
repeating
mumbling
stumbling
Never Again
Never.
Again.
Knowing
knowing
knowing
it is a promise
we have yet to keep

Deir Yassin.
©Robin Gorsline 2016

3 thoughts on “Deir Yassin, Where Are You?

  1. The fighting at Deir Yassin is infamous. It is one of a very few massacres alleged to have been committed by the Israelis during the War for Independence. Here is another narrative.Israel War of Independence:
    The Capture of Deir Yassin
    (April 9, 1948)

    War of Independence: Table of Contents | Background & Overview | Palestinian Refugees

    Print Friendly and PDF

    The battle to capture Deir Yassin during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence remains one of the most infamous, yet misunderstood, incidents in the history of Israel. During the battle, launched by the Irgun, approximately 100 Arabs were killed.

    – Background to the Battle
    – No Easy Battle
    – Counting the Dead
    – Reaction

    Background to the Battle
    The United Nations resolved that Jerusalem would be an international city apart from the Arab and Jewish states demarcated in the partition resolution. The 150,000 Jewish inhabitants were under constant military pressure; the 2,500 Jews living in the Old City were victims of an Arab blockade that lasted five months before they were forced to surrender on May 29, 1948. Prior to the surrender, and throughout the siege on Jerusalem, Jewish convoys tried to reach the city to alleviate the food shortage, which, by April, had become critical.

    Aerial view of Deir Yassin showing the Arabs defensive trenches built into the mountain
    Meanwhile, the Arab forces, which had engaged in sporadic and unorganized ambushes since December 1947, began to make an organized attempt to cut off the highway linking Tel Aviv with Jerusalem – the city’s only supply route. The Arabs controlled several strategic vantage points, which overlooked the highway and enabled them to fire on the convoys trying to reach the beleaguered city with supplies. Deir Yassin was situated on a hill, about 2600 feet high, which commanded a wide view of the vicinity and was located less than a mile from the suburbs of Jerusalem. The population was 750.1

    On April 6, Operation Nachshon was launched to open the road to Jerusalem. The village of Deir Yassin was included on the list of Arab villages to be occupied as part of the operation. The following day Haganah commander David Shaltiel wrote to the leaders of the Lehi and Irgun:

    I learn that you plan an attack on Deir Yassin. I wish to point out that the capture of Deir Yassin and its holding are one stage in our general plan. I have no objection to your carrying out the operation provided you are able to hold the village. If you are unable to do so I warn you against blowing up the village which will result in its inhabitants abandoning it and its ruins and deserted houses being occupied by foreign forces….Furthermore, if foreign forces took over, this would upset our general plan for establishing an airfield.2

    The Irgun decided to attack Deir Yassin on April 9, while the Haganah was still engaged in the battle for Kastel. This was the first major Irgun attack against the Arabs. Previously, the Irgun and Lehi had concentrated their attacks against the British.

    No Easy Battle
    According to Irgun leader Menachem Begin, the assault was carried out by 100 members of that organization; other authors say it was as many as 132 men from both groups. Begin stated that a small open truck fitted with a loudspeaker was driven to the entrance of the village before the attack and broadcast a warning to civilians to evacuate the area, which many did.3 Most writers say the warning was never issued because the truck with the loudspeaker rolled into a ditch before it could broadcast the warning.4 One of the fighters said, the ditch was filled in and the truck continued on to the village. “One of us called out on the loudspeaker in Arabic, telling the inhabitants to put down their weapons and flee. I don’t know if they heard, and I know these appeals had no effect.”5

    Contrary to revisionist histories that the town was filled with peaceful innocents, residents and foreign troops opened fire on the attackers. One fighter described his experience:

    My unit stormed and passed the first row of houses. I was among the first to enter the village. There were a few other guys with me, each encouraging the other to advance. At the top of the street I saw a man in khaki clothing running ahead. I thought he was one of ours. I ran after him and told him, “advance to that house.” Suddenly he turned around, aimed his rifle and shot. He was an Iraqi soldier. I was hit in the foot.6

    The battle was ferocious and took several hours. The Irgun suffered 41 casualties, including four dead.

    Counting the Dead
    Surprisingly, after the “massacre,” the Irgun escorted a representative of the Red Cross through the town and held a press conference. The New York Times’ subsequent description of the battle was essentially the same as Begin’s. The Times said more than 200 Arabs were killed, 40 captured and 70 women and children were released. No hint of a massacre appeared in the report. “Paradoxically, the Jews say about 250 out of 400 village inhabitants [were killed], while Arab survivors say only 110 of 1,000.”7 A study by Bir Zeit University, based on discussions with each family from the village, arrived at a figure of 107 Arab civilians dead and 12 wounded, in addition to 13 “fighters,” evidence that the number of dead was smaller than claimed and that the village did have troops based there.8 Other Arab sources have subsequently suggested the number may have been even lower.9

    Deir Yassin after the attack
    In fact, the attackers left open an escape corridor from the village and more than 200 residents left unharmed. For example, at 9:30 A.M., about five hours after the fighting started, the Lehi evacuated 40 old men, women and children on trucks and took them to a base in Sheikh Bader. Later, the Arabs were taken to East Jerusalem. Starting at 2:00 P.M., residents were taken out of the village. The trucks passed through the Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim after the Sabbath had begun, so the neighborhood people cursed and spit at them, not because they were Arabs, but because the vehicles were desecrating the Sabbath. Seeing the Arabs in the hands of Jews also helped raise the morale of the people of Jerusalem who were despondent from the setbacks in the fighting to that point.10 Another source says 70 women and children were taken away and turned over to the British.11 If the intent was to massacre the inhabitants, no one would have been evacuated.

    After the remaining Arabs feigned surrender and then fired on the Jewish troops, some Jews killed Arab soldiers and civilians indiscriminately. None of the sources specify how many women and children were killed (the Times report said it was about half the victims; their original casualty figure came from the Irgun source), but there were some among the casualties. Any intentional murder of children or women is completely unjustified. At least some of the women who were killed, however, became targets because of men who tried to disguise themselves as women. The Irgun commander reported, for example, that the attackers “found men dressed as women and therefore they began to shoot at women who did not hasten to go down to the place designated for gathering the prisoners.”12 Another story was told by a member of the Haganah who overheard a group of Arabs from Deir Yassin who said “the Jews found out that Arab warriors had disguised themselves as women. The Jews searched the women too. One of the people being checked realized he had been caught, took out a pistol and shot the Jewish commander. His friends, crazed with anger, shot in all directions and killed the Arabs in the area.”13

    Contrary to claims from Arab propagandists at the time and some since, no evidence has ever been produced that any women were raped. On the contrary, every villager ever interviewed has denied these allegations. Like many of the claims, this was a deliberate propaganda ploy, but one that backfired. Hazam Nusseibi, who worked for the Palestine Broadcasting Service in 1948, admitted being told by Hussein Khalidi, a Palestinian Arab leader, to fabricate the atrocity claims. Abu Mahmud, a Deir Yassin resident in 1948 told Khalidi “there was no rape,” but Khalidi replied, “We have to say this, so the Arab armies will come to liberate Palestine from the Jews.” Nusseibeh told the BBC 50 years later, “This was our biggest mistake. We did not realize how our people would react. As soon as they heard that women had been raped at Deir Yassin, Palestinians fled in terror.”14

    Reaction
    The Jewish Agency, upon learning of the attack, immediately expressed its “horror and disgust.” It also sent a letter expressing the Agency’s shock and disapproval to Transjordan’s King Abdullah.

    The Arab Higher Committee hoped exaggerated reports about a “massacre” at Deir Yassin would shock the population of the Arab countries into bringing pressure on their governments to intervene in Palestine. Instead, the immediate impact was to stimulate a new Palestinian exodus.

    Just four days after the reports from Deir Yassin were published, an Arab force ambushed a Jewish convoy on the way to Hadassah Hospital, killing 77 Jews, including doctors, nurses, patients, and the director of the hospital. Another 23 people were injured. This massacre attracted little attention and is never mentioned by those who are quick to bring up Deir Yassin. Moreover, despite attacks such as this against the Jewish community in Palestine, in which more than 500 Jews were killed in the first four months after the partition decision alone, Jews did not flee.

    The Palestinians knew, despite their rhetoric to the contrary, the Jews were not trying to annihilate them; otherwise, they would not have been allowed to evacuate Tiberias, Haifa or any of the other towns captured by the Jews. Moreover, the Palestinians could find sanctuary in nearby states. The Jews, however, had no place to run had they wanted to. They were willing to fight to the death for their country. It came to that for many, because the Arabs were interested in annihilating the Jews, as Secretary-General of the Arab League Azzam Pasha made clear in an interview with the Egyptian paper Akhbar al-Yom before the war (October 11, 1947): “It will be a war of annihilation. It will be a momentous massacre in history that will be talked about like the massacres of the Mongols or the Crusades.”

    References to Deir Yassin have remained a staple of anti-Israel propaganda for decades because the incident was unique.

    Sources: 1″Dayr Yasin,” Bir Zeit University.
    2Dan Kurzman, Genesis 1948, (OH: New American Library, Inc., 1970), p. 141.
    3Menachem Begin, The Revolt, (NY: Nash Publishing, 1977), pp. xx-xxi, 162-163.
    4See, for example, Amos Perlmutter, The Life and Times of Menachem Begin, (NY: Doubleday, 1987), p. 214; J. Bowyer Bell, Terror Out Of Zion, (NY: St. Martin*s Press, 1977), p. 292-96; Kurzman, p. 142.
    5Uri Milstein, History of Israel’s War of Independence. Vol. IV, (Lanham: University Press of America. 1999), p. 262.
    6Milstein, p. 262.
    7Kurzman, p. 148.
    8Sharif Kanaana and Nihad Zitawi, “Deir Yassin,” Monograph No. 4, Destroyed Palestinian Villages Documentation Project (Bir Zeit: Documentation Center of Bir Zeit University, 1987), p. 55.
    9Sharif Kanaana, “Reinterpreting Deir Yassin,” Bir Zeit University, (April 1998).
    10Milstein, p. 267
    11″Dayr Yasin,” Bir Zeit University.
    12Yehoshua Gorodenchik testimony at Jabotinsky Archives.
    13Milstein, p. 276.
    14″Israel and the Arabs: The 50 Year Conflict,” BBC.
    Photos: Library of Congress; The Irgun Site

    1. Stan, I have been reading about Deir Yassin on and off ever since I returned from our October 2014 visit. I went to that site because of the view among most authorities that it was the news from Deir Yassin that seems to have been the catalyst for mass evacuation by Palestinians from their villages in 1948 (and even here there are disputes).
      The sources you cite are part of the picture to be sure. Other eyewitnesses and organizations take a different view. I do not find it useful to engage in tit for tat about the exact number of killed, which side did exactly what, etc. It was war, it was messy. I deliberately do not use the word massacre. It seems too unclear to me. My poem tries to recognize this, even as it takes stock of the erasure of the village.
      What I seek to do is to express remorse for the loss of an entire village. As citizens of the United States, we have in our history the loss of entire villages, Native American ones, but in most of those cases the village was not a fixed place. Of course, these often were massacres. But it is difficult, impossible really, to place a marker or otherwise take public note of the erasure of these homes. It is not so in Deir Yassin, and hundreds of other Palestinian villages left empty in 1948 (and then in many, if not most, cases, repopulated by Jewish settlers).
      The lack of historical memory about these people and their villages among so many, though not all, Israeli Jews and their allies around the globe signals to me an unresolved conflict within Israel and friends about the creation of the modern state. A nation that is at peace with its history would be able to honor those it displaced.
      That we in the U.S. still are unable to do so is an indication of how hard it is. So I do not seek to simply condemn Israel—a nation state is always morally ambiguous, no matter how good its intentions may be. But I do believe that this conflict would be moving toward a more peaceful denouement if Israelis could openly face and acknowledge that the creation of their nation was made possible by the displacement of 750,000 (more or less, depending on your source) Palestinians.
      So I mourn for Deir Yassin, and I will continue to do so. And I intend to learn more about other villages similarly afflicted, as I mourn for them. And I may write more here about what I learn.

      1. I agree that war is messy and innocents and not so innocents always suffer. I know you are a sensitive and feeling person. Your pain at Yad Vashem is not suspect. Rather than the neat narrative of “The Nazis did to the Jews and now the Jews do to the Palestinians” I would use the Arabs did to the Jews and the Jews did to the Arabs as more direct. When Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem fell to the Arabs, the doctors, nurses and patients in their beds were massacred. Instead of thinking that a modern hospital would be a benefit to the civilian population, the Arabs threw the x-ray machines out of the windows. My bottom line on 1948 is that if the Arabs had not attacked Israel as it was being born, their would have been no death on either side.

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