Madagascar

Antananarivo

22 July 2007

 

Sometimes I do think it would have been better had the Jewish state arisen in a place less embattled than the Middle East. A place like Madagascar, a relatively pacific republic adrift in the Indian Ocean. Jews have migrated around the world, but until very recently they only lived as a minority dispersed among larger, often hostile, populations. Throughout history, wherever Jews have wandered, they have been quick to adapt to their new environment. Surely they might have found temporary comfort in Madagascar. Economist and philosopher Isaac de Pinto observed 250 years ago that “the Jew is a chameleon that assumes all the colors of the different climates he inhabits, of the different peoples he frequents, and of the different governments under which he lives.” I wonder what colors Jewish life might have assumed in Madagascar, so very far from Zion.

 

My feelings about Israel are complex, a combination of admiration and disappointment. As an American-born, naturalized Israeli citizen who has moved back-and-forth between the two countries, I am bifurcated, having two homelands at one and the same time. To be a Jew, some say, means always having your bags packed. I’m tied not to domestic apron strings, but to backpack shoulder straps. My wife, Jessica, is disquieted by this perpetual vagabondage. She points out that Madagascar contains no sites of Jewish memory to explore. Why go? Why spend all this money? I can’t provide her with a convincing rationale for my journey, and can only quote poet Delmore Schwartz: “Decide to take a trip… / Go quickly!”  No argument has ever been won with poetry. Schwartz’s student, Lou Reed, called him a “wandering Jew,” and I suppose I’m one myself because Jessica is right: there is no Jewish history in Madagascar, only a lost vision of an alternate future. So I travel not to a place, but back in time. Like a chameleon, as the Malagasy saying goes, I have one eye on the past—and one eye on the future.                                                                    [photo courtesy of Mark Paskowitz]

 

Central Highlands

24 July 2007

 

A three-man Franco-Polish Commission of Experts set out on a fact-finding mission to Madagascar in May of 1937. The delegation consisted of Leon Alter, director of a Jewish emigrant aid society based in Warsaw, Mieczysław Lepecki, a Polish military officer, and Dr. Salomon (Shlomo) Dyk, a noted agronomist in pre-state Palestine. Their mission was to discover whether the French colony could become a land of refuge for Poland’s “excess” Jews. An official communique from the Polish Foreign Office in 1937 indicated that “central Madagascar, at least that part lying 800 metres above sea level” was “suitable for Jewish emigration.”

 

Seventy years after the Commission set out, I jolt and bounce through the terraced fields of the island’s central plateau along with two friends, Mike Kollins and Mark Paskowitz. Mike is a liberal who worked in international finance, but he’s more comfortable sleeping in a Third World hostel than a suite at the Four Seasons. Mark, a California native, once worked as a rocket scientist and is now in finance. He’s a big guy—a rugby player who looks like a rugby player—and tilts Republican. We’re a very different group, I imagine, from the Commission triumvirate of 1937. Then again, the composition of our group shares some similarities: non-Jew (Mark), Diaspora Jew (Mike), and some-time Israeli (me). Our trek is easier than the Commission’s journey all those decades ago, though transportation has improved only slightly in the interior regions. The French left behind a colonial legacy of crusty baguettes, flaky pain au chocolate and a crumbling infrastructure.

 

Dust kicked up by our Renault panel van clouds my view of the narrow roads that twist across the hills, bend alongside footpaths, and wind past shambling figures carrying colorful bundles on their heads. The landscape appears prehistoric. Hills and terraced fields stretch endlessly in every direction. The vistas remind me of high-plains scrubland. The sky dims. Diesel fumes waft through the open windows and road grit finds its way into my mouth. The pungent earthiness tastes like chewing tobacco. We arrive at nightfall in the spa town of Antsirabe and head off to eat. Rows of orange rickshaws tilt to earth. Drivers stand at the ready. Women remove their wares from tablecloths spread on the ground. Children clamor around us and beg. One boy, maybe four or five, picks up a still-lit cigarette butt, puts its end between his lips and sucks in his sunken cheeks. We file into a brightly painted restaurant and leave the bustle behind.

 

“This place is mostly empty. This country, I mean,” Mike announces in his characteristic staccato. “Madagascar could have been it.” Israel is an impossible place, he explains, because of the tens of millions of Arabs in the Middle East. “If you don’t cut Israel into two countries,” he insists, “there’s no future. Split Jerusalem down the middle. Easy.” He’s unsentimental, though he’s visited me in Israel more than once. It’s painful to hear him pass an emotionless, Solomonic verdict while he tucks into his romazava—a meaty stew.

 

Mark takes a long drink from his liter of Three Horse Beer before speaking. He suggests there would have been endless ethnic conflict in Madagascar and with the African mainland. Jewish claims to the island would have been illegitimate, he adds. “Look, it wouldn’t matter where they went. Not the Europeans, not the Africans, and not the Arabs,” Mark says. “No one wants the Jews next to them.”

         “Except you,” Mike points out, turning to Mark beside him.

         “Yeah,” Mark deadpans. “Sometimes.”

 

Diego Suarez (Antsiranana)

30 July 2007

 

At daybreak I head to the British war cemetery with Mark. Winds kick up and bring a midsummer drizzle that locals call the “mango rains.” I’m glad it’s raining; it should always be raining in cemeteries. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission makes certain that even in this ragged corner of the world, the graves of its soldiers are kept manicured. One of the caretakers is seventy-seven, the oldest person I’ve met in two weeks of travel in this country where the average life expectancy hovers around sixty. I ask if he remembers the invasion. “Yes,” he says softly, “I was a little boy and it was the first time I saw an airplane. There was shooting and bombs and we were scared.”  When I ask him if he knows what the fighting was about, he shrugs and explains that the British and French just wanted his country’s mineral resources.

 

For the groundskeeper, Madagascar was the entire theater of the Second World War, not a distant, forgotten battlefield. I came to this island in search of alternate history and it seems I’ve found one here. I wander up and down the rows, reading the hundreds of inscriptions. The markers of British soldiers are carved with crosses, but the many headstones with East African names are otherwise blank. Some stones are chiseled with Arabic. Then, several rows from the front and near a stunted baobab, I spot a single grave with a Jewish star. Captain Israel S. Genussow, age 28, died July 30, 1944—exactly 63 years ago to the day of my visit. I let out an involuntary gasp at the coincidence. I hadn’t expected to find any Jewish graves. My hands shake as I dig a rock from the damp soil and place it on the headstone in accordance with Jewish custom. I call Mark over and ask him to take some photos since I can’t steady my hand.

         “I’m going to say a Jewish prayer for the dead.”

         “Kaddish?” Mark asks. “I know it a bit. My dad’s Jewish.”

I hadn’t known. He pulls the hood on over his head out of respect. We muddle through the ancient Aramaic while a few scattered birds circle overhead and the mango rains sweep over us.                                                            [photo courtesy of Mark Paskowitz]

 

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