A long contemplation on well, space, displace, and place. Relevant to the modern world.
Read more to learn more. Let me know what you think.
"Truth involve universals, and all knowledge of truths involves acquaintance with universals."
— Betrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy
State-sponsored violence, called by whatever name, progress, pogrom, development, reclamation, massacre, keeps people enthralled with fear. Fear solidifies power and keeps people separate from each other and themselves. If people are separate then places become spaces, space is void and so, space displaces.
Although place is considered something that simply "is," like the air or clouds or being alive and therefore, is not worth talking about because it simply "is," place is the most prominent component in any decision about resources, about life, about the world we live in, on, and with because the place we live is the only place we live. Without place, we are not. Even this statement seems none-essential and yet is essential. Essential because owning place and owning the need for home counters the state-sponsored violence, the "appropriation by dispossession," that has been occurring globally since 1492.
In 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue and found India on Hispaniola, the world became immediately a space for Western Imperialism to inhabit and make in its image or not. Not coincidentally, almost the same day that Columbus set foot on Hispaniola, the Jews and Arabs of Southern Iberia were expelled from the Peninsula. The displacement tactics, the state-sponsored violence, that the West would go on to use all over the rest of the globe was homegrown and well-developed by then and has proved a useful tool for making place non-essential and space a commodity. People suffered and people suffer as a result. My family did/does. Violence to place and violence to a place takes generations to heal.
Stories can only take place in a place and are the seeds for healing and for reclaiming place from space. This paper is a first step. A small star in an infinite universe, an infinite place.
Pogrom |ˈpōgrəm; pəˈgräm|
An organized massacre of a particular ethnic group, in particular that of Jews in Russia or Eastern Europe. Sorry. No. Not in particular. The word was coined to specifically mean "kill Jews." Isn't it worth noting that even now after the Holocaust the idea of only killing Jews has to be masked with a caveat?
Early 20th cent. (No. Wrong. Late 19th century. When most of the pogroms happened, well, before the Holocaust, which was one giant pogrom. Officially sanctioned, no, instigated by the Czar. Every pogrom caused a mass exodus to anywhere else in the world. The waves of Jewish immigration to the United States and elsewhere at that time are always pegged to dates of largest pogroms.): from Russian, literally ‘devastation,’ from ‘gromit’ ‘destroy by the use of violence.’ Confiscate by use of violence or appropriate by use of violence, or dispossess by use of violence. Pogroms were the model for appropriation by dispossession that built the backbone of the modern global economy causing waves of displaced people in the millions and millions of dollars of property left for the takers. Takers such as the Czar, later Stalin, later Hitler, later multinational corporations.
Pogrom |ˈpōgrəm; pəˈgräm|
How is it that every civilized nation has not formally denounced this pogrom? (Because it's a useful policy of the corporate state, is why.) Massacre, slaughter, mass murder, annihilation, extermination, decimation, carnage, bloodbath, bloodletting, butchery, genocide, holocaust, purge, ethnic cleansing. I'll add lying, fabrication, justification, embroidering, distortion, intentional blindness, intentional deafness, Shoah (shame).
— New Oxford American Dictionary and Thesaurus
. . . the Ancient Pueblo people depended upon the collective memory through successive generations to maintain and transmit an entire culture, a worldview complete with proven strategies for survival. The oral narrative or "story," became the medium in which the complex of Pueblo knowledge and belief was maintained. Whatever the event or subject, the ancient people perceived the world and themselves within that world as part of an ancient continuous story composed of innumerable bundles of other stories.
A story is a map. A map to knowing about the place we live, how to live there, and how to go on. As I hash over writing this paper and not knowing how or where to start, I realize that I must agree to read the map my soul is presenting and stop hiding in order to start and if I do not, I will only stall and stall and stall and never write and have to take an incomplete and then I will never write and then I will be haunted by what I really do need to say. As removed as I wish to be, I cannot write clearly and hide the foundation of my interest, no, my need to know, about displacement and about being placed, being at home somewhere. Because this story and how I came to want to tell it and learn is all about me, my family, and the world I live in. The past and future meet present and that is all there is.
She sees everything now, in all directions. The red floor. Her husband lying in the doorway, covered in blood so thick his nightshirt is black and stiff with it. There are things on the floor between them: her grandmothers' teapot in four pieces, the bucket, standing on its mouth, the cloth they hung for privacy. A hand. Her mother is lying on the floor. too, gutted like a chicken through her apron, which falls like a rough curtain on either side of her. Lillian stands naked in the red room and the color recedes like the tide.
See, in my soul, I am a stateless person, a placeless person. Why? I am Jewish. Jews have a contract with the world. We make an exchange: We don't say we are Jewish. We get left alone. We hope. We hide. We hide and good luck. We are found anyway but not "particularly" although everyone knows, yes, particularly yet won't say so.
American Jews, in particular, have a contract with their now-country. The contract reads this way and we agree to this contract by simply being born here: "We are Americans and nothing ever happened before or even happened here." In America, we agree to believe fairy tales. We agree to look away from the truth. We agree to not say and not listen. In short, distortion is the story. Secrets are the story. Everyone says jokingly, "Disney is King." No, Disney is truth.
If we keep the contract, life is good. We hope. My old relatives never wanted to talk to me about what happened before, before they came to this place. How do you learn to live your life if telling stories is shameful? If everyone endeavors to forget? How do you know what is real and what is false? How do you know where you belong? Where your home is or could be?
One time, a long time ago, I asked my uncle, my father's brother, who was probably twenty-years older then my father, why did the Kaplans come here? He said to me, why do you want to know that old crap for, Amy? Once, I asked my old boyfriend's grandparents, who had to flee Vienna on a moment's notice in 1937 or thereabouts, about how they felt about fleeing and losing their family home and all that and they said, we believe in world peace not in nations and we don't talk about the past. Here, eat some more food. My mother always told me to keep a suitcase packed with cash, a change of clothes, and a toothbrush under the bed just in case. In case of what?, I wanted to know. In case they come to take us, she replied her eyes full of fear. My mother was born here. I was too. And my father. What's to fear?
I am a boy about to turn 13. You wouldn't know this, Amila since you were born in a free country, but where we live, there is no freedom especially for Jews. The Russians came when a Jewish boy turned 13 and took him from his family. Then he had to serve thirty years in the Russian Army. Most Jewish boys didn't come back from that and if they did, they were broken. Being stolen from their Mama when they were still boys and then treated like a dog, breaks a person's soul.
My mother and father decide this was not to be my fate. They decide they would rather die then let the army take me. They give me a choice: cut off the trigger finger on my right hand or go to Vienna and then to America. Together we chose for me to go to America. I go. I am a boy. My finger is saved and my home is lost. This was about 1892.
I know, Amila, that you want me to take you to the place I came from. I don't know where that was. I forgot. When the census people come to my house after Faigele is born, I tell them I am born in Vienna. Why do they need to know the truth? The best is to forget the truth. If you can.
The fear I have was taught to me by the forgetting. Telling the stories means coming out of hiding and coming out of hiding means violence. "Better to let the past be the past," people say. My Grandmother said. I don't agree. Stories tell us who we are. Stories tell us how to live. Stories root us to a place on the earth. Jews have no place.
No one wants to talk and tell the stories of how we got to America and why. No one wants to admit in public that we are Jewish so they don't tell the stories. When the stories get told publicly, they get told insipidly and with a happy ending. The hell and the pain and the dispossession, so as not to worry others or cause us to admit the depths of our anger, fear, and placelessness, go untold.
Brooklyn isn't home. The Fairfax district in Los Angeles isn't home. For most Jews, there is no home. The only home is what we carry with us is our hearts. A Wandering Jews puts out runners always going some where else to survive. Its roots are shallow and easy to tear out. Doesn't matter, another runner goes else where.
When stories aren't told, they beg to be told and haunt the people who need to tell them until they are told: somewhere, somehow, sometime. There is no settling down, there is no healing until the stories are told.
I realized as I set out to write this paper and couldn't get started that I needed to tell my family's stories because their stories are my story. Their stories are about my search for home. I am going to tell the story of how they got those stories and I am going to comment fleetingly about why these stories are important to the place we live, our earth.
As you may have noticed already, this paper is a constructed as tapestry, a collage, weaving together different styles of writing and different sources of information -- my own and others-- to present a whole that will, hopefully, give clarity to what I am exploring: space/displace/place. I am choosing this collage method because, as evidenced by the attached definitions for the word place, the story of what place is, what home is, and how people make those stories and share those stories, is a multi-layered undertaking that comes in many forms, with many definitions. Stories never tell only one story.
I am a nurse. As a matter of fact, I am a nurse-midwife. I have a reputation for being competent and intelligent. Because of this, all the wives of the officers in the Polish Army, come to me for their care before, during, and after they give birth. I know the officers and their families, here in Riga, very well. They respect me.
My family owns a small department store where we sell ladies goods, especially hats with artificial flowers. My family makes the flowers. We do well at our business and we have a reputation for selling good products at good prices and are known for our pleasant, reliable, and timely service.
All the children in our family go to school beyond the grade school and get professional degrees. We speak and are literate in several languages. Even for Riga, where we Jews are well mixed in with everyone else, my family is unusual in our achievement and in our position in society.
Because of my relationship with the officers and their families and because these people are also my family's clients and because of who my family is in Riga, certain officers keep us informed about official news and policies in regards to Jews. We learn through this privilege that we better take our money out of the bank and take it elsewhere. We do. We put our money in the oven.
Then we learn that they are going to sweep through our part of the city sometime soon and take us somewhere or do something or take our house or well, we don't know. We make preparations to leave. We get a warning on the night the action is coming that we need to leave. We do. We crawl under the sewage tank on the sewage wagon and we ride there for hundreds of miles till we are over the border —I don't remember which— and we then go to America. We have to leave Latvia this way because even though we aren't wanted there, we can't leave. If we leave openly we will be caught and killed on the spot or jailed and then killed. Or something.
Right before we leave our house, my mother lights the oven and burns up all the money. We take this story to America with us. The year is 1886. I think.
My great-niece wants me to take her to see the places where these events occurred. I am not sure they are there anymore. I have no nostalgia or attachment to that place even though we lived there, my family for a very long time. I won't go back.
My family left Eastern Europe under shit— okay, excrement— in a sewage wagon, to avoid being stolen into the Russian Army, because I don't know why, and in reaction to the Kishinev Pogrom.
Why did they come to America? The Gulden Medina (the Golden Land) was a place to come then. The story was: the streets were paved with gold and no one hated Jews there. That was before the doors slammed shut. Native-born Americans were not happy in the late- nineteenth and early- twentieth centuries with all these dark people fleeing here from central Europe. No one discusses this anymore but anyone not from Western Europe was suspect and this was a very real fact in my grandparents' and parents' lives. They weren't wanted here. They dropped their language and told no stories, except in the most pleasant ways. They had to be American. Being American meant shutting up. The alternative was terror and death and torture.
We left the Ukraine about 1905. We left, my mother and father and sister and brother because The Czar said to kill all the Jews around where we lived. My parents said we will live. We left. I was nine. After that, I went to the trenches in France and caught what they call "Trench Fever." You don't recover from Trench Fever, they told me. Just try to be happy. They told me. No, I didn't want to go back to that place I was born. There was not home there. The people hated us. They still do. You Acie, don't need don't need to go there either. Forgetting is the best.
I begged to know the stories. I was told these stories reluctantly and privately in a soft voice and told not to tell anyone. Why? I wanted to know. People won't believe you I was told. People will shame you and use the stories against you. I was told. I learned when I did tell, eyes glazed over and people didn't talk to me anymore. I learned that real Americans don't tell these kind of stories. And, now, in today's world, with the irony of Israel, the stories of my family and their displacement are held accountable for the suffering of others. Perhaps, not shockingly, there is an association. I will explain this association shortly.
The Sooknes are from Rostov-on-the-Don. Before, maybe, a long time ago, we lived in Persia. We don't know. We have a good life in Rostov. We have a nice place to live and everyone goes to school and into professions. We speak many languages and circulate in many social circles, Jewish and not. We are happy. We had to leave though. I don't know why. No one says and I am too young to ask. I just go. We come to America before the worst pogroms and before life gets so very bad over there. The year is maybe, 1876 or 78. Our family is very-educated and takes no chances. That is probably why the adults choose to leave.
There is no place or house or anywhere to go back to in Rostov. America's a safe place. Not home, no but safe.
How long did my family live where they lived? I don't know. Did they consider where they lived home in the sense of being attached to the place? In the sense of the place shaping them? I don't know. There was pain associated with "The Old Country." I watched my old relatives flinch when when asked about that place. No longing. No nostalgia. I have to wonder though, how could they live for so long in a place and not feel an attachment to the place? If they didn't feel that the places they were forced to leave were home then where was home for them? Can saying "Next year in Jerusalem" for a thousand years really make people feel at home living nowhere?
There's no going home to find out. I'll never know. Finding home has been a solo journey for me. I have to learn from others and from looking deep inside myself how to identify where home is and how does a place become my home. The long history of state-sponsored violence and of my family's dispossession from place doesn't make this journey a clear one.
One day in summer 1956, leaving home for school, I stopped on the side of the road directly above the house where I live now. From there you could see a mile or so across the Kentucky River Valley, and perhaps six miles along the length of it. The valley was a green trough full of sunlight, blue in its distances. I stopped here in my coming and goings, just to look, for it was all familiar to me from before the time my memory began: woodlands and pastures on the hillsides; fields and croplands, wooded slew-edges and hollows in the bottoms; and through the midst of it the tree-lined river passing down from its headwaters near the Virginia line toward its mouth at Carrollton on the Ohio.
Standing there, I was looking at land where one of my great-great-great-grandfathers settled in 1803, and at the scene of some of the happiest times of my own life . . . And I remember gesturing toward the valley that day and saying to the fried who was with me: "That's all I need."
Not everyone suffers from this confusion, this detachment. Some people actually have a place that feels like home to them even if they don't live there all the time. Why? How do they know when they are home? There seems to be two general ways that people look at place. One is that the landscape we live in is merely a space devoid of any "there-ness" until we put there-ness on the space and make it a place.
This empty space until people make it a place can be argued to be the Western paradigm for viewing the earth and all the landscape that is the earth.
Space is a void until someone comes and names it. That someone is Western and that someone decides the purpose of the space now a place, what is going to be done or not done with it, and who can and can't live there, and use it or not use it. The earth is entirely viewed this way now since the West and its points of view have triumphed as the global philosophy and every other philosophy is the "other" until proven otherwise.
My family was subject to this philosophy throughout the formative years of Western Imperialism until it morphed into the current American hegemony which is a version of the same Imperialism (see footnote 1). A place and the people at the place and the landscape and the resources, in other words, the entirety of the space that was now a place was a product of the desire of any given state to do any given thing at any given time for whatever given reason.
Was it the ditches filled with layered mothers nursing babies, grandfathers with war medals, grandmothers in old shawls, little boys and girls clutching their toy bears, teenage lovers holding hands, dogs that stayed with their masters, cats?
Or was it the thin cover of dirt tossed over as an afterthought to cover the deed? Certainly not The Dead? Who weren't there. You didn't see.
Maybe the neatly sorted piles of hair (blond in a pile of its own), teeth with gold, tailored suits, fine leather shoes, satchels--leather only, bags, eyeglasses, rings, toys did the trick?
Was it the stench that wasn't there while children screamed and held onto their mothers as gas rained down on flesh and you ate your dinner with your teeth and without your nose?
No, no, maybe, maybe, you gave me this cursed land because of sending me off on the Holiest of Holies from my home that I made in your land, the land I nurtured, that I made rich for you. New Worlds.
Or was it the babies of mine you swung over your heads into the fire, laughing, smirking? Injecting polio into little bodies, just to see what would happen, one uterus into the body of the other twin, what does happen when a leg is cut off without anesthesia? Let's see, scientific inquiry, you said, grinning. Justified. Papers and numbers in hand.
I creep around always in secret at the edge of this ditch that everyone thinks is covered. Gone for good. In the past. No.
I need a home.
You gave me this cursed land after I soaked the world with my blood. My tears.
You cracked my back. Over and over.
"I am sorry, so sorry." You said, smiling. The gun at your head, all your friends looking on. I'm sorry. I know different. I can see the lie in your steady, honest gaze.
Here take this land. Sign here! Have a home. Touch the earth. Stay! You said. Here! Smirking, your people always liked irony. Now, it is all yours.
We all agreed, now, the deed was never done. The dead never died.
You gave me the cursed land, my ditch. Forever layered with bodies.
A thin soil topping the deed, the dead.
I agreed to absolution. You agreed to turn away.
We decided we'd forget. We decided, you'd leave me to fight and die alone. Shoulder the blame.
In this cursed land. Alone. Again.
If the people that were at this space now a place did not suit in someways the goals of the state at that time then they were a void that needed to be voided— meaning made not there. This worldview is exactly what created the irony of Israel. European Jews, at any given time, either did or did not suit the needs of the state. The Nazis and their collaborators built on this long legacy and moved to eliminate those people from the spaces they sought to control. That dispossession, like these dispossessions, didn't work. Life can't be destroyed. The purpose of life is to live. That purpose triumphs always.
Still, in 1945, the dispossessed and displaced Jews needed to be placed somewhere— Palestine— so other people this time the people who happened to be living where the displaced Jews were being allowed to go, because really nobody wanted them anyway, had to then be displaced to allow the Jews a place to live for a time. The Palestinians home, their place, became a space, a void. They weren't there.
Of course, the Palestinians lived where they lived because the British encouraged them to settle there for their own making space a place reasons. But, that's another story. The point being that the Western manner of viewing all places as spaces until they become places for a reason, is one more tool in the Imperialist arsenal for taking and for setting people against each other in order to take more. Fights always over whose place is a space and over whose space is place lays the groundwork in place for separation and therefore the solidification of power by the West.
There's a story that a Navaho friend tells me to illustrate the way the Dine and their place are interconnected. Are one. She tells about going between one family settlement and another as a child. This is in the Shiprock area of the Navaho Reservation. The family traveled by pickup. The older and younger cousins would travel in the back. As they approached a certain area with certain rock formations, the older cousins would sternly shush the younger ones and say, that's the place where the baby died. If the young ones kept carrying on, they'd be told in no uncertain terms to hush and listen and then, the story of the young mother giving birth to a baby who was sick and then died in "those rocks" was told. Every time the family traveled between the two family settlements the story was told. My friend says in this way, in the stories told, the Dine are connected to the land, to the place they live. She says the children learn the seriousness of the connection in the way the stories are told over and over.
This is another view of place, a unified view, and, despite the hegemony of the Western philosophy and action, millions of people globally hold this view: place is, there is no space.
Place is where people live and where people make stories and tell stories. Place and people are the same. Not separate. Ever. There is no nothing and then something because someone made a "discovery" or did a study and found a something or because someone decided this space is really a place and a place that should be set aside and saved forever or used up and thrown away or something else in between. People, even now, if being completely honest, in the supposedly stateless modern world, consider themselves empty spaces without places.
What are the stories of the places my family comes from? What are the stories I can learn from? How can I learn to be a person of worth, a wise person from the stories? How did my family feel about the spaces that were places that they maybe considered home for hundreds of years or more? Did they feel about those places the way the Dine feel about their small place on the earth that they know so well and don't feel secure without?
My guess is, no. My guess is that while my family lived in Central and Eastern Europe probably for many centuries, they knew always, all that time, every day, that one day, they'd be gone. Forced to leave. My guess is that the place they lived was at root, a space and not a home.
My guess is that my longing for home is my heritage and may be my only home. My guess is that, as the Rabbis decided after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, the home place of the ancient Jewish world, that Jews were now going to have to carry the Temple in themselves, and that I carry my home in me and that's my only place . . . Still, I stood one day when I was five, outside the apartment my family was living in Albuquerque, New Mexico and I smelled the air. The rain had just stopped and I went outside to be outside. I stood looking over the landscape. Turning right to see the Sandias and then straight forward to see the West Mesa and left to see the Manzanos.
I held my arms up. I stood taking in that vast land. I stood smelling the smell of the brown warm air rising from below because the rain had just moistened the dry earth. I stood observing the clean light. I stood embraced by the place. I stood in silence taking in the world around me and I knew, even though I knew even then the story of my family, I knew I was home. The interior and the exterior made an agreement that day: this is Amy's home. The place told me a story. I listened.
We can all listen even in the cacophony of the violence and the lies, we can listen. What do we hear? What will we do?
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