I was very moved about a month ago watching Marie Nahmias light the national Independence Day torch in Israel, one of the nation’s highest honors for an Israeli civilian, and decided on the spot to write about her in this space. Mme. Nahmias came originally from Tunisia, where she was just a girl of seventeen when the Nazis occupied her homeland. She understood herself and her family to be in mortal danger, but they somehow survived until the British pushed the Germans out in 1943 and things calmed down considerably. But that turned out only to be a temporary respite for Jewish Tunisia: once the country became an independent Arab republic in 1956, anti-Jewish sentiment became rampant and violent. And so, after surviving the Germans, the Sabah family (Nahmias is Marie’s married name) emigrated with almost the entire Jewish community to Israel, where they were housed, not in modern apartment houses or on welcoming, verdant kibbutzim, but rather in one of the vast tent cities called ma·abarot that were set up to accommodate the massive immigration to Israel from the Arab world in the 1950s. Conditions were, to say the least, primitive. There was a strong sense among many that the states assets were not allotted fairly or equitably to all immigrants regardless of country of origin. No one wished to stay any longer than necessary. And Mlle. Sabah, now Mme. Nahmias, didn’t stay either, eventually moving out and becoming the mother of eight children. Things became much, much better. But then Marie’s son Shaul was critically wounded in the Yom Kippur War.So here was a woman wholly entitled to be irritated with the world: her teenaged years spent first hiding from the barbarians who occupied Tunisia during the dark years of the German occupation and then trying to evade the anti-Jewish thugs that terrorized Jewish people in her newly independent homeland, her twenties spent under the most primitive of conditions in a country that could barely accommodate the level of immigration it itself encouraged relentlessly among the Jews of the diaspora, and then her oldest son very seriously wounded in a terrible war that took the lives of thousands of the nation’s young people. Yet Mme. Nahmias did not respond angrily or bitterly, but instead resolved to respond to her own life by doing good. And so she opened up her house to foster children, but not just to any foster children at all. Instead, she made it known that she would accept in her home solely children with the kind of grievous physical and mental handicaps that basically made them unplaceable elsewhere. Eventually, she took in fifty-two such children, Jewish and Arab, Israeli and foreign, making of her home a warm, accepting place and a wholly safe space specifically for children whom no one else would take in regardless of their level of physical handicap or special needs.
Mme. Nahmias is ninety-three years old now and has over 100 descendants, including great-great-grandchildren. The committee that chose her to light the Independence Day Torch heralded her as “a symbol of the immigrants who established Israeli society on a foundation of mutual solidarity and help to the needy, and of the thousands of foster families in Israel who opened their hearts to help children in crisis.” At first, she appeared overcome with emotion. But then she was asked to offer the nation her personal blessing, which she somehow managed to do with such unexpected eloquence and graciousness that it was beyond remarkable to watch. Click here and listen carefully—even without Hebrew, you won’t fail to be moved by this woman who had so many reasons to be bitter and angry at the world, yet who responded to her life’s calamities by choosing to do only good…and who even now in her nineties continues to do good.
I’d like to compare Mme. Nahmias’s story to someone a universe away from Israel, a man named Arun Sothea who lives in a town named Phum Thom in Cambodia.
I’ve written before about Aharon Appelfeld’s great novel, Blooms of Darkness, and specifically about its stunning conclusion. In those final pages of the book, a little boy—recognizable to all readers as the author himself, but of course maintaining his in-book identity as little Hugo as the story progresses—a little boy who finds himself entirely alone in the world after the woman who hid him from the Nazis was herself executed by her countrymen for collaborating with the enemy, this friendless, protectorless, completely defenseless waif makes his slow progress through the streets of his hometown in search of his parents and his own past. As he walks, the hearts of the those reading the story are broken: Hugo is still living in a child’s dream world, whereas we, the readers, know that it’s all gone, that his parents and his entire family have been murdered, that the life he is expecting to find intact in the setting in which he last saw it has irrevocably and permanently vanished, that the only way for him to survive is to start life anew…and that we are asking that kind of mature effort to self-define and self-invent of a boy of nine. (To revisit what I wrote back in 2012 about Appelfeld’s book, click here. If you haven’t read the book, I can’t recommend it too highly.)I have read almost all of Appelfeld’s novels and have come to esteem the closing pages of Blooms of Darkness as one of the seminal passages in Appelfeld’s entire oeuvre. I’ve read it many times and never without tears coming to my eyes. (To read that passage and not be moved to tears would require having a heart made of brick.) And now I read that same story, almost exactly, about another little boy from a different universe.
In the late 1970s, the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia. To subdue the nation, its rulers used the usual tactics of totalitarian regimes to bring the populace to its knees: mass executions, forced deportation, interment in labor camps, intentionally inflicted mass starvation, and the threat of merciless torture for all who run afoul of the authorities. Arun Sothea was a child back then. For the crime of stealing a fish, the starving child was sent to a labor camp for “re-education.” And then, in 1979, when he was still only nine years old, he was released from the work camp in which he had been imprisoned. And now he steps into Appelfeld’s narrative. He had no family, no money, no friends, no concept of what he could or should do. And so he undertook to walk on his own back to his hometown, a distance of 150 miles. Like the boy in the book, he maintained the fantasy that he would find the setting of his earlier childhood intact, his family and friends waiting to welcome him home. But, of course, like young Hugo in Appelfeld’s novel, he found nothing at all. Indeed, it was upon arrival in his village that he learned that the Khmer Rouge had murdered all thirty-six members of his nuclear and extended families, including his parents. He was totally alone in the world. And there was no one to whom to turn or on whom to rely.He somehow found his way to Phnom Penh, the capital, where he lived on the streets for years. So if there was every someone who could claim the right to be angry, bitter, and resentful it would be he. But he chose a path more akin to Mme. Nahmias’s than the one most people would feel entirely justified in taking: he grew up to found and run two different orphanages, one in Phnom Penh for children on the street like he himself was and one in his home village for children with neither parents nor extended family to take them in and watch over them. I first read about Arun Sothea in a Times of Israel article that detailed the way that various Jewish charities have reached out to help Sothea in his work. Click here for the article, which is very impressive and quite moving. I can promise that you’ll be moved.
It’s a low-rent operation, especially the branch in Phum Thom. The children sleep on mats on the floor; there are no beds. There are a handful of computers on site, but no internet connection. There is a single classroom. I hope that things improve as time passes and Sothea’s work becomes better known. But the point I make here is more about the man than his work: here is yet another person who responded to the most horrific tragedy—the murder not solely of his parents but of his entire extended family and his own childhood imprisonment in the kind of forced labor camp that many adults didn’t survive—and yet who came through the whole experience imbued not with the desire for revenge but with the desire to do good in the world and to reach out to children in need.These stories—Arun Sothea’s and Marie Nahmias’s—are very encouraging to me. It’s impossible to read them without wondering how I myself would have responded as an adult to a childhood spent trying solely to survive the almost unimaginable brutality of my nation’s oppressors, poverty unlike anything I personally have ever known, and a sense of uncertainty about the future that makes it only marginally possible that I will even have one. Those same thoughts, of course, come to mind when I speak with the surviving survivors in our midst, people who lived through the camps and the death marches, through the brutality and daily degradation that was the lot of Jews caught in the Nazis’ net and somehow not murdered immediately. In the end, I suppose, the answer is that I don’t know—that none of us can truly know—how we would have responded to experiences like those. On the other hand, what I do know is that tragedy embitters some and ennobles others. But why some fall into one category and others into the other—that is a riddle I have yet to come even close to solving.