From Pearl Harbor to Partition

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published November 26, 2008, issue of December 05, 2008.
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There are five Big Dates I remember from my childhood — the kind of memories that include where I was at the time, memories that remain vivid after all these years.

The first of these was December 7, 1941 — Pearl Harbor Day. I had no idea at all what it meant that the Japanese had attacked us in Pearl Harbor, but I knew it was a very big deal because the radio program I’d been listening to with my friends in Bridgeport, Conn., was interrupted with the bulletin, and we immediately ran into the street to shout the news.

The second was April 12, 1945, the day that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the man who had been president all my life, died. I still have my diary page from that day, where I reported that FDR had died of a “ceberal hemmhorhage,” neither “cerebral” nor “hemorrhage” being familiar words, and went on to write that this was the first time I’d ever seen my parents crying.

And less than a month later, on May 8, the war in Europe was over, which meant that my brother, whose United States Navy ship was then on the high seas bound for Europe, would not be in danger. (He and his shipmates ended up making a goodwill visit to Scandinavia.)

Those three, memorable though they were and remembered though they’ve been, were “out there.” The other two were of a different texture.

I’ve often written of August 7, 1945, among the few decisively formative events of my life. I was a camper at Habonim Camp Moshava, outside Annapolis, Md. That morning, at flag-raising, Miriam Falk, the head of the camp, began by saying to us that a terrible thing had happened the day before, that a very large and new kind of bomb had been dropped on a city called Hiroshima, and that our lives would never be the same. I don’t think she added any of the gruesome details, which may well not have been known yet. I’m quite sure that it wasn’t fear that etched her telling in my memory, that it was, instead, the wonder of an 11-year-old child being invited into the world of adult discourse. I learned that early morning a lesson that shaped me as a teacher for the rest of my life, starting with younger kids in Habonim itself, then as a Hebrew and Sunday school teacher while I was in college, eventually as a professor in two distinguished universities as also as an itinerant lecturer and sometime story-teller. The lesson: Take your students seriously, never ever talk down to them.

It’s the last of the five Big Dates that is the occasion for these reflections, since as I now write its 61st anniversary is approaching. The day was Saturday, November 29, 1947, the day the United Nations by a vote of 33-13 passed Resolution 181, calling for the partition of Palestine into two states, one Arab and the other Jewish.

I was at the town house that served as Habonim’s headquarters and meeting place in Baltimore, and I was “on assignment.” Everyone else was meeting on the first floor, most likely engaged in hot debate on the relative merits of the kibbutz versus the moshav shitufi (basically, collective versus cooperative organization); I was stationed on the third floor, next to the radio, listening to the report from Lake Success, where the U.N. meeting was under way.

I might not have remembered the specifics of the vote in quite as much detail as I do had it not been for a recording I own that includes the roll call of U.N. members that day, a recording we play every year at our Passover Seder. (It belongs at the Seder because it reports on a modern instance of the redemption of the Jewish people, this time less from slavery to freedom than from ashes to rebirth.)

When the vote was over and the approval of the resolution announced, I bounded down the stairs, shouting, “We have a state, we have a Jewish state!” And, as if on signal, we all poured out onto the street, where others, too, were gathering — this was a Jewish neighborhood — and began dancing a hora.

Bear in mind: This was just 31 months after the war in Europe had ended, fewer months than that since we’d seen the first films from the newly liberated camps, begun to learn the gross details of what later came to be known as the Holocaust, the Shoah. This was before television and, newspaper photographs aside, we were limited to a few minutes on the newsreels that were shown at the movie houses before the feature film. After months of shock and grief, of gathering sorrow, here was cause for rejoicing, cause beyond belief; this was not a passing happy moment, it was the end of 2,000 years of exile. That is what we’d been taught, that is what we knew. Herzl in Basel in 1897, the Balfour Declaration 20 years later in 1917, and 30 years after that, in 1947, United Nations Resolution 181.

It is odd that I have no recollection at all of the formal birth of the State of Israel less than six months after partition, and little of the war that ensued. It is as if the Cup of Redemption was already filled to overflowing and there was neither room nor need to dance in the streets once again. It is as if Israel was formally licensed on November 29, 1947, and then had to wait to exercise its license for 167 days. (A mandatory waiting period, one might say, since it was on May 14, 1948, that the British Mandate for Palestine expired.) And now, too, our lives and our world would never be the same.


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