At Passover, remembering others to be freed

I am the daughter of a former United Nations refugee. In my desk drawer lies my mother's Displaced Person ID card signed by a UN Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA) officer in 1947 in Gauting, Germany.

Having survived the war in Poland, stateless and penniless and with nowhere else to go, by default my mother made her home in a DP camp. Within a year, she had received a US visa, and by 1952, she was naturalized as a US citizen. I was born in New York, an American child of American citizens, far removed from the tangential existence of a stateless person in a relief camp. Yet my mother's refugee card remains, and I know that while for our family it is a historical document, there are still millions today who hold one as their only identity document.

This winter, I read the notice of a US Holocaust Museum conference devoted to Jewish displaced persons from 1945 through 1951. It was a historical meeting, including sessions on creativity, education, birthrate, religious observance, and political activity in the DP camps. But people who are still refugees interest me more than historical conferences. And for Palestinian refugees who have been holding a UNWRA card since they fled their homes in 1948 when Isreal was created, there is no need to hold retrospective seminars; for them, these issues are part of their day, not history.

DP camps came to life from stories my mother told. But several years ago I visited a UN refugee camp still very much in the present tense - near Jericho in the Israeli-occupied territories.

It was my last stop after a day of nature hiking through a breathtaking gorge in the desert. But the most forceful images of that day were the barefoot children who ran to surround me, holding out their hands, happy for a stick of gum or a single candy. That was a year before the intifada, the 1987 to 1993 Palestinian uprising against Israel.

I'd like to go back to a Palestinian refugee camp, to take in with my own eyes how they're shown on TV: the hodgepodge of crowded shanties, the household wastewater trickling down the streets, the improvised windows and doors. Above all, I'd like to witness the generations of people who live there. The old ones, aged like my mother now, sitting in courtyards in the sun thinking back on all they lost. The children, now middle-aged, brought up to think they were in a temporary home, which became a trap they could never leave. And their children, who took to the streets in reckless anger. Those Intifada youths are now also grown up, among the ranks of the ballooning unemployed. Some already have small children - a fourth generation of UNWRA refugees.

But I can no longer set foot in such a camp, for I have become the "other." Without special protection, it would be too dangerous for me.

Of course, I support finding a solution to their misery. But most of the time, I don't think of them. I hardly ever do, except when I open my desk drawer looking for a fresh diskette or my box of Picasso notecards, and I am stopped by my mother's yellowed refugee card. Then I'm reminded of those who still have no passport, no right to travel, nobody to vote for in any primary, no university exams, no taxes to file, no public libraries, no swimming pools, no museums, no restaurants. Of those who'll never have the chance to ride a train or have a newspaper delivered to their door. Of children who've never heard of Disneyland, let alone dream they might visit it.

Who said there must be justice?

A lot hangs on the unexplainable - like my mother being arrested by the Gestapo for not wearing a yellow armband, and then being let go because a policeman took pity on her.

The historical parallels between Jews and Palestinians are not equal. But as the child of a former UNWRA refugee, as inheritor and guardian of the UNWRA card, I cannot get off with saying, "There but for the grace of God go I."

The Passover caveat of my religion reverberates: Every Jew must consider himself as having been personally delivered out of slavery in Egypt. But what about the inevitable corollary? The moral imperative not to abandon those whom destiny has not yet rescued.

* Helen Schary Motro is an American lawyer and writer living in Israel. She is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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