The House on Graetz Street

This may be the week to pick up a correspondence I inadvertently dropped.  It all started with a note from a friend who lives on Graetz street.  “This is probably up your alley,” he wrote.  “If you want to answer him, you can.”

Attached was a note from Munir K., who had written to my friend asking for information about his erstwhile home on Graetz.  Dr. K., now a physician in the States, had lived on Graetz Street in the 1930’s and 40’s, and was wondering what had happened to his house. (For the record, Dr. K. gave me explicit, written permission to use both his letter and his name any way I wished.  I’ve used only parts of the letter, and not his name, simply to ensure that he’s not harassed in any way. )

Who couldn’t easily understand his curiosity, even his longing?  I took a camera with me to work one day, snapped some shots of the neighborhood and of the house in question,  and emailed them to him.  I introduced myself, explaining how his email had ended up with me, answered his questions about the neighborhood today, and wished him well.

He answered me almost immediately, thanking me for the note and the pictures.  But then his tone changed.  “I was shocked and appalled,” he wrote, “to see that the Israeli government granted rights of ownership to another individual of my home of birth to which I own title (my father willed it to me) without any consideration of who the original and legal owners are. ”  Like many of us, he has powerful memories of his childhood home, and I’d just unwittingly undone them.  “I have always maintained an image of a one-story red-tiled quality home with a beautiful garden as the one my father built and in which I was raised for the first ten years of my life. That image is now shattered in view of the … email and the photos you sent.”

It was one of those “road to hell is paved with good intentions” moments.  Had I been in his shoes, I’d thought as I took the photos, I’d want someone to do for me what I was doing for him.  But memory is treacherous territory.  It can nourish us, giving us a sense of where we’ve come from, or, it can ossify us, rooting us somehow in worlds which (however tragically) no longer exist and are gone forever.  And the choice between those two stances makes all the difference.

Sixty years had passed, but Dr. K.’s memory remained sharp.  “I was born on 8/28/1937 at the Government Hospital where Dr. Gmelin was the obstetrician. … The house across that road from us was owned by family friends, the Maloufs, who rented to it to German Jewish refugees, the Jafet family. … The house immediately next door to us (to the west) was owned by the brother of Dr. Itayyim, who was a government chemist. They stayed in their house till the late fifties. The Itayyims and Maloufs all ended up in Lebanon.”

His was clearly no ordinary family.  “My mother always prepared a formal four o’clock tea – we learned that from the British. We had a live-in maid, and my father was the highest ranking Arab in the British Mandate government. He was the Assistant Director of Education for all Arab government schools.”  One can understand his longing for that world of honor and privilege.  Who hasn’t read compelling and heartbreaking narratives by Jews about the lives that they lost in the 1930’s and the 1940’s?  And if we can weep at the latter, surely we should feel enormous pain for his lost world, too.

But here’s the rub.  Even this week, awash in Yom Ha-Shoah on TV and in the papers, we all read and listened to the accounts of people who lost everything – not just homes, but families – to the Nazis and to Europe’s murderous venom and hatred.  There were tears.  Recollections of indescribable suffering.  But these were mostly memories in which people celebrated what they’ve created since: families rebuilt, traditions perpetuated, a state that emerged from the ashes.  And they are memories that have accepted, even with all the anguish, what is gone.

Not here.  Dr. K. ended his note:  “I have very strong feelings about Palestine and my Jerusalem home. … My son-in-law is Jewish, and I have willed my Jerusalem home to him and my daughter (his wife). Isn’t there a Jewish prayer that includes this statement: ‘If I ever forget thee O Jerusalem….’  That describes my feelings.  … Do stay in touch.  Munir K.”

I didn’t stay in touch, I confess, though I meant to.  I didn’t write because I don’t know how to relate to his kind of memory.  It’s the sort of memory that makes demands that cannot be accommodated and ultimately condemns us to conflict.  It’s a form of memory that makes inevitable more losses of the sort we’ll mourn on Yom HaZikaron.  What I would have wanted to say was that we live in a country that, for all its many faults, uses its abundance of memory primarily to propel us forward, to give us a sense of what we have to (re)build, of what cannot be recreated or returned but that still ought to animate us.

Dr. K.’s is a gentle form of a very different sort of memory.  It yearns to restore the status quo ante.  It’s the American version of the Lebanese refugee with the keys to his erstwhile home in his pocket, or much worse, the enemies just across our border who will not rest until all their former land has been restored to them.  That memory, we’ve learned, does not accommodate new realities.  It almost invariably leads to war.

In the next couple of days, though, I’m going to force myself to answer him.  It will be a useful exercise.  Especially this week, we could all use reminders of how powerful, necessary but also dangerous memory can be.  I’ll write him and explain as gently as I can, that one of the things I love about this country is not only about that we remember, but how, and why.

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About Daniel Gordis

Dr. Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice President and the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. The author of numerous books on Jewish thought and currents in Israel, and a recent winner of the National Jewish Book Award, Dr. Gordis was the founding dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

23 Comments on "The House on Graetz Street"

  • Dr. K. has clearly been living his life for 50 years in relative serenity without “his” property in Jerusalem. Had his family stayed here, the house would still be his and he would be sitting on a small treasure chest. The Jews of Lebanon did not have that luxury. They were chased out and the property and assets they left behind, fleeing with their lives intact, are not within their reach. If we were to respect his claim because his son-in-law is Jewish, we would truly be racists.
    As in most things in life, the Torah has the solution for this problem, too. The Torah precludes any private sale of land. Every 50 years land reverts to its rightful heir, dating back to the times of Joshua.

  • Renee Wallace says

    My parents left Vienna and came to Israel (then Palestine) in 1933, hoping to establish a life there. My brother Akiva was born in 1935. As things unfolded, they all returned to Europe in 1938, only to find themselves in a quagmire (the Anschluss occurred three days after they arrived in Vienna). But before leaving Israel, my parents bought a small piece of land in Holon. I can only suppose that they wanted to retain a tangible connection with the land. As it turns out, my parents were among the lucky Jews of Europe. They were able to get out, and arrived in New York in 1940. They were poor…coming without any money and owing money for their passage…and went to work in the factories of New York. And while they lived in walk-up apartments, and earned meager wages, they continued to hold on to this tiny piece of property. After the establishment of the State of Israel, they paid yearly real estate taxes, always making sure that their tax status would not go into default. My father died in 1956, my mother in 1992. My mother’s will provided (I was the attorney who drafted the will for her) that this parcel of land would be left to my brother, since this was the land of his birth (I was born in NYC in 1944, the first natural born American in my family). Although this section of Holon has not yet been developed, my brother remains current on his real estate tax obligations.

    Why do I tell you this story? Because, if Dr. K was really interested in retaining
    title to the Jerusalem land, he and his family would only have had to do one thing: PAY THE TAXES. The rule of law in Israel is no different from the rule of law in the United States. If you fail to pay municipal property taxes, your property can be sold (in a tax sale) to third parties.

    I understand that money may have been tight and real estate taxes were not high on the family’s list of priorities. But there we have it. My family had very little. My father died when I was 12. My mother, a widow, who sewed coats for a living, never failed to pay this bill. She wanted to keep that connection to the land, not because she hoped to make a profit, but because she wanted to leave a legacy to her children and grandchildren.

  • David Stolow says

    Granted that between tax liens and adverse possession one could lose a house in New York City in pretty much the same way as the house on Graetz Street was lost, though I would hazard a guess that the time allowed to pass and the notice that would be given in NYC don’t apply to Dr. K’s former property. But the technical, legal argument begs the real underlying question: where clear title existed, was it right to take the property from Arabs and give it to Jews? Does the Arabs’ refusal to accept the partition in 1948 (and, with it, the sovereignty of the State of Israel) justify the taking of the property? I await your next column and public response to Dr. K.

  • Jack Arbiser says

    Dear Daniel
    It is a waste of time to answer him. As you know, this is not a conflict about land, but a conflict about legitimacy. He is basically accusing you of identity theft. My mother grew up in a very nice house in Drogobycz (now in the Ukraine) and was hidden by a Catholic nanny (who is now listed in Yad Vashem as a righteous gentile). Photos of the house now show a dilapidated house shared by multiple families. He is accusing you and the Jewish people of material and identity theft. Your time is better spent on Torah study (or even Ebay).

  • Richard M Marcus says

    Renee Wallace answer the matter succinctly. One need read no further, nor worry about “rights” of Arabs or Jews. A simple reading of the law is what prevails.

    There have been tax collectors since time immemorial.

  • David Levine says

    “…listened to the accounts of people who lost everything – not just homes, but families – to the Nazis and to Europe’s murderous venom and hatred. There were tears. Recollections of indescribable suffering. But these were mostly memories in which people celebrated what they’ve created since: families rebuilt, traditions perpetuated, a state that emerged from the ashes. And they are memories that have accepted, even with all the anguish, what is gone.”

    Dr. Gordis, you use the Holocaust to justify theft? That is an insult to the memory of my family who were exterminated!

  • paul plotkin says

    after my juban friends get their homes and factories back and all jweish refugees from arab countries get their property or compensation we should then consider his particular claim. I wouldn’t be holding my breath

  • paul plotkin says

    after my juban friends get their homes and factories back and all jweish refugees from arab countries get their property or compensation we should then consider his particular claim. I wouldn’t be holding my breath

  • Cindy Wall says

    I write from, I’m sure, a much more “shallow” point of view than others who’ve commented. Someone whose only knowledge of Israel, of being Jewish, has come through her daughter — who chose a study abroad at Hebrew University (though raised with in no particular relgious tradition) and who, after college, converted with much shared celebration.

    I went to Israel for a visit, for no other reason but to see my daughter. I left moved and touched in ways I would never have predicted or imagined.

    Now, when I describe Jerusalem to friends, I talk about meeting people who so vividly live in history and live without complacency about their country, their faith, their history. And people who understood the contradictions — that they are on land that was once others’; that they are confronted by choices; that they have to take stands daily that for us (in all our typical American-ness) are unimaginable.

    So, my reply to your article, Mr. Gordis, is simply a thank you. It is not simple. It is not “black and white.” It is not neat.

    And no matter how profound your convictions, when faced with one story, one person, one account, we are all, of course, very human. We ache for each other’s families. We understand each other’s pain. We are too often swamped in the “every day.”

    But there is always a bigger story that we are part of. In this case, one house, one family…and a much bigger story.

    It’s not neat. But thank you for expressing that. Expressing your own difficulty in facing that. And reminding me of what I found to be so powerful about the people of Jerusalem.

  • marcia lewison says

    I am a 73 year old Israeli Ameican and did a book report on The Lemon Tree to my book club last Wednesday. Send him a copy–and on a personal note my recently deceased and much missed WestBank Palestinian life partner (19980-to 2003) was unable to return to his village near Bethlehem from Jordan where he was working got word to his Palestinian wife not to leave their house in their village. To stay indoors with their little children under any circumstances as once the Israeli army took the home they would never get it back. She was VERY brave-bullet holes in the house attest to that…and she lives there to this day. There was a choice. God help us all…Marcia

  • Daniel:

    Your piece eloquently captures what Cindy Wall accurately describes as the contradictions and complexities of the situation. Of course, one can feel sympathy for Dr K without accepting the implicit call for the return to the status quo ante. Yet there are too many in the US who endorse that call without any understanding of the events of 1947-1948. Benny Morris describes how many of the Arab elite left ,on their own, early in the course of the civil war– started by the Arabs– after the adoption of the partition plan in November 1947. Was Dr K’s family among them?

    It’s also interesting how many of the same Americans who believe in turning the clock back to 1947 in Israel have no problem living on land that once belonged to native Indians, who were forcibly evicted by actual (American) colonialists.

  • can i get my father’s house back in warsaw? he lived there from birth to age 5. (and yes, family members have been there, took pictures – it really isn’t standing anymore, but there is a half-empty lot where it used to be, and the neighbors on either side have no memories of the draiman clan….)

  • ann ballen says

    When you answered him, you validated his claim to ownership. Rabbi Michael Paley, scholar in residence of NY UJA Federation, tells a similar story: A friend of his lives in a home in Israel that once belonged to an Arab family. The family fled to another community years ago. Now a daughter is to be married. A family member went to the home and asked for grapes to make wine for the wedding. The owner of the home refused, on the grounds it would suggest the grapes still belonged to the Arab family. (Rabbi Paley, I hope you see this comment and correct me if I am wrong!)
    Ann Ballen
    Miami FL

  • Jacob Goldberg says

    Tell Dr. K that his father’s compatriots declared war on the new state of Israel and killed thousands of Jewish soldiers and citizens. He cannot pretend that did not happen. If he ignored Israel’s broadcasts urging him not to leave he forfeited his property. If he can prove that he was forced to leave against his will and if he has affirmed Israel’s right to exist, he should enter a claim for compensation as part of the peace process.

  • Ken says

    I’m sorry that Dr. K lost his home. I’m glad that he did not lose more than that; that it would appear that he has been able to live a long and prosperous life since then. Dr. K’s community should have figured out to live in peace with or in Israel. Instead it tried to push the Jews into the sea and lost. There is a cost for such folly, and Dr. K has paid that cost. It’s time for him to move on.

  • Stephen Gurevitch says


    Strip any emotion from it. In practicality has he maintained the place? Paid taxes? If somebody left you property that long ago and you didn’t assert your claim previously well than sorry…
    Yes I know in truth he’s talking about the law of return. As Jews do we have that right where we’ve been driven out? Do aboriginal people have this right? Yes Israel is an exception but where does one stop?

  • Dr. K - says

    I am the Dr. K that Dr. Gordis refers to in his post above. The responses to his column raise so many issues that I find myself unable to respond to all of them. I will be short.

    My father had this house built in 1932,and I was born in Jerusalem in 1937. My family left Jerusalem because of the state of war that occurred in 1948. Regardless of why we left (it was not voluntary), why should we lose title to our home because of that war? The Israeli govenrment did not allow us to return to it (nor to pay taxes on it!) after May 1948. To this day we have never been offered compensation nor any acknowledgement by any party for our loss.

    My original purpose in communicating with Dr. Gordis was to try and connect with another human being who can help provide me a sense of connection with my home and land of birth. I am a realist and not stuck in living in the past. Yes, I was shocked at the changes that have occurred but who wouldn’t be?

    I am intrested in a dialogue and not in having people talking at me and telling me how I should be feeling or behaving. I hope we can talk about ourselves and not lecture others. Is this possible in this forum?

  • David Naggar says

    What drives me insane about the view of the situation from here (the U.S.) is the myopic lack of perspective that I find most American Jews have vis a vis what goes on in Israel. I may have lived 36 of my 44 years in NYC, but my parents were both born in Egypt and their families kicked out when Nasser took over, nationalized Jewish properties and businesses, and expelled the families (my mother wrote a very well reviewed memoir recently .. Sipping From The Nile: My Exodus From Egypt-, and my wife was born and raised in Morocco until she was 15, then her family moved to France. Hearing their stories certainly gives a perspective to being a Jew in an Arab land.

    And then I hear people around me (Jews and non Jews) clucking their tongues in judgment over a situation that they cannot possibly begin to comprehend. The comparison is laughable: one attack on the 2001 has justified an 8 year war, no end in sight, tens of billions spent, and the attempted mobilization of the entire globe against the threat. Israel has faced orders of magnitude greater proportional pain, and yet when she defends herself, is pilloried by those same people who scream for al Qaeda blood over what happened here. What happened here was horrific, and I was in my city that day and have never been the same since. BUT. But I can’t stand that too many people here don’t see the parallels between that situation and Israel’s. And rather than laud Israel for unbelievable restraint in the face of unimaginable provocation, the world shakes its head and judges. Harshly.

    The way I see it, if you’re in the schoolyard, and you are constantly being attacked and jumped on by a perceived smaller weaker child, most children react by squashing the smaller child, regardless of the level of provocation (see US v Afghanistan/Iraq). And that is ok to people here. But that was one attack. What if it’s dozens – hundreds – thousands of attacks over decades, the retaliation to which was mostly handled justly and with enormous restraint? How do you then condemn the child from once in a while losing their temper and striking back harder than they usually do (the recent Israeli self defense in Gaza). The answer is that no one would ever fault that child for defending themselves, or for losing it the one time. They would be commended for their restraint and the other kid would have “had it coming”. How does that thought process not happen here?

    There were an equal number of Sephardi Jews in Arab lands displaced after Suez as there were Palestinians in Israel. And? They picked up, moved away, and started fresh. Never in the thousands of years of our civilization’s conquer-and-occupy history has a turn at the gaming tables been allowed to be turned into an eternal do-over. How many times have these people stepped up to the wheel and placed everything on Black 27 (attack Israel, grab for the land, try and wipe Israel out), and then when they fail, ask for their money (land) back and then GAMBLE AGAIN!! This has never ever happened before. You gamble, you lose, you leave the casino. Period. Yet they ask for the money back over and over and the world thinks they should have it. But they don’t want the money to pay bills, send their children to school, or buy food, they use it to step right back into the casino and gamble again. In our society, people who act this way are sent to 12 step programs and pushed to change their ways. In the Palestinian’s case, the world says, “Yes, yes, give them the money back. And if they come back into the casino, Israel should deal with the aftermath but be gentle in how she defends herself.”

    I just don’t get it.

  • Naomi Kingston says

    I am simply astounded .I can scarcely believe the words I have just read. I think of my own childhood (during WW2)–my paternal grandfather lived in London’s East End ,where he had arrived before the flu epidemic of 1917 which carried off his wife and only daughter ,leaving him with three young sons to bring up.He NEVER looked back -he always looked forward..the family settled comfortably in England.
    My maternal grandmother hailed from Odessa–when we were children she taught us to sing in Russian and Yiddish……..but regrets.She had none.
    The only important thing was to raise a Jewish family…….and now we are up to the 6th generation. None of us has a craving for a wooden hut in St Petersburg Obelia or Minsk..

  • Michael says

    When does history start? How many Jews lived on the location of Dr. K’s house prior to his family living there?
    Does Dr. K remember when the Arabs who like to call themselves Palestinians had a chance to declare a state just as the Jews did and chose not to do so. In fact they chose to attack the most hapless and persecuted people on earth. They said the survivors of THE HOLOCAUST had no right to life much less land or homes.
    He is calling for the right of return to Israel by people who wish to see all Israelis kicked out because his family felt kicked out when in reality they chose not to live in peace.
    Is this Dr. K promoting peace on the planet in some form? Where is his call to prevent the Arabs who like to call themselves Palestinians from teaching hate and death and kicking all Israelis in the sea?
    How many Arab states do the Arabs need and how many Jewish states are the Jews allowed?
    Where in the Arab states are Jews allowed to own property much less reclaim property once owned?
    Where in Europe are Jews allowed to reclaim property they once owned.
    Dr. K is a lucky man who is still alive and thriving on land that someone stole from the Native American Indians. Is he giving that back or offering reparations to the Indians?

  • Melody Bormaster says

    No one has to approve of giving the house back to Dr. K. No one has to renounce his or her support for the existence of Israel.
    No one has to believe in or support any notion of a right of return for Arabs to what is now Israel. But where o’ where is some compassion for an individual human being? I was appalled with the vicious tone of most of the letters written.

  • Dr. Arnold Millan says

    Being “appalled”, as Melody Bormaster describes her feelings, would be appropriate if all things were equal: but they are not. Who on the Arab side is “appalled” for the loss of bank accounts, businesses, and real estate that the 800,000 + Jews were forced to leave behind in their ancestral Arab lands?

    While I empathize with the personal feeling of loss that Dr. K. expresses, his story can be multiplied by the 800,000 plus Jews and their descendants who were forced to leave behind, in the lands of their ancestral births (Arab lands), bank accounts, business and ancestral homes and adjacent lands. Is Melody Bormaster ‘APPALLED” at those 800,000 plus individual Jewish losses and stories?

    My best advise to Dr. K. would be to join together with Jews and Arabs in his community who have similar stories, in order to listen to each others saga. Perhaps then the individual, personal pain and grief would melt away in the knowledge that you are not alone, and that one side is no more damaged or culpable than the other. The victims of war are always to be found on both sides of the fens.

  • Shmuel says

    I can feel the pain of this Dr. K. Of course I can. What a terrible experience – to lose a home.

    He seems very civil and not a hate filled person.

    However, history is history. Our problems are not with individuals, but with national movements such as the palestinian movement.

    Many people lose in such situations. War is terrible. Many Jews have died. Many Arabs have died. It is awful.

    But I can’t give up my national home & rights to Dr. K.

    Because this will mean death for my people.



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