Three books about three cities and one shared history. Three books about war, genocides, refugees, and victims but also about courage, tolerance, love, and sacrifice. Three books that demonstrate how generous and resilient a human spirit can be, even in the darkest times.
As a person who lives in peace, but also lives in a country with a long history of colonialism, revolutions and a civil war…I can’t live without remembering those caught in wars, their suffering and death, their humiliating status as refugees. As we often confront a wall of silence in the face of daily atrocities that deepen my anger, nothing helps to ease my helplessness and my rage at not being able to improve the situation except through my writing and poetry, which I use to make their stories known. My words are my homage.
The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway. In my memory the Bosnian war is deeply connected with our stories as Algerians of those who suffered the calamities of civil war (1991 – 2002) in the years of my childhood when my father was targeted by the terrorists in a world that fostered my mother’s breakdown.
Sarajevo was under siege (1992-1995) and the characters in this book represent a daily reality of people trying to survive in every possible way: the cellist (Vedran Smailoviç) who played Albinoni’s Adagio to honour Sarajevans who died in a queue in front of a bakery; Kenan who struggles to keep his family alive as he crosses the city to bring water, knowing that a wrong move will cost him his life; Dragan who sent his family away when the war broke and remained alone to face uncertainty and fear; Arrow, a Serb sniper who shoots for Bosnian forces to protect the besieged city while reminiscing about her university years and a former life that seems like a dream.
In Sarajevo, survival is an act of defiance. People learn to cope though no one knows when a bullet will end their life. They learn to embrace every moment of happiness, get used against their will to horror but never let it break them from within. wartime and siege reveal the true nature of humans.
The Pianist by Wladislaw Szpielman. This is the extraordinary story of a Polish musician who wrote about his survival during the Second World and the extremely difficult years in Nazi occupied Warsaw. This book might never have reached us. It was banned by the Communists soon after the end of war and it took the whole world more than fifty years to finally know this young musician’s poignant testimonies.
Wladislaw lived with his family in Warsaw and worked in Polish radio station. When the Germans invaded the city, their lives radically changed. A series of cruel and unjust laws against Jews were enacted and implemented. They start with forcing Jews to wear the star of David to mark them for the creation of the Warsaw ghetto where half a million Jew were crammed in unspeakably atrocious conditions. When the deportations to the concentration camps started Szpielman was miraculously saved by a policeman who recognized him and loved his music. The rest of his family was sent to Treblinka with hundreds of thousands of other Jews. This was the first of so many escapes that kept the pianist alive in ruined Warsaw.
Szpielman wrote about Polish resistance and friends who helped him hide in apartments, brought him food despite the danger of death penalty for all those who helped Jews. One German officer, Wilm Hosenfeld who was the opposite of the brutal, merciless SS officers helped Szpielman in the last months of the occupation, but was himself captured by the Russians and died in a Soviet labour camp.
The Pianist is not just a testimony and a life account, it is the voice of all those victims, Jews and non Jews alike, who lost their lives in a useless war. It is a reminder of the strength and compassion of human spirit and how one can remain true to one’s own beliefs in a time of absent morality.
The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan, the last of my books is a story of a rare and real friendship that blossomed between Dalia Ashkenazi Landau, a Bulgarian Jew, and Bashir Al Khayri, a Palestinian in a country both claim his own.
Sandy Tolan traces the stories of the two families: the Ashkenazis, who fled Europe to Palestine after the holocaust, for the promise of better life for all the Jews in the land of Israel and Al Khayris, a prominent and wealthy family from Lod (city in occupied Palestine) who fled the atrocities of Zionist gangs in 1948. When Bashir and his family became refugees in Ramallah (a city in the West Bank), Dalia and her family started a new life in Lod.
When Bashir goes back to the city one summer day he feels confused, everything is strange and unwelcoming – the language, the people, the street names. He finds Dalia in his childhood house, which was built by his family and now taken by others. Here starts a precious friendship between two people who try to make sense of everything. Bashir’s unflinching and inexhaustible quest for freedom meets with Dalia’s dreams of peace despite the tightening grip of Israeli occupation in a sixty years span of exile, prison, confiscation, killings and racism.
This is a book of hope, of deep humanity found in two persons who chose not to be enemies. It is one of the best about the ongoing Israeli Palestinian conflict because it teaches us that stories of reconciliation and hope can exist even amid the most unlikely circumstances, in this case one land and two nations.
– Imen Benyoub
© 2016, Imen Benyoub, All rights reserved; book covers are under fair use; Wladislaw Szpielman’s photograph is in the public domain