WHEN I look back I see myself at twenty. I was at an age when anything seemed possible, at the beginning of times when anything was possible. I was standing on the deck dreaming; across the Mediterranean we sailed, from one end to the other, past Crete and Cyprus to where the East begins. Mare nostrum. Our sea. But I was not in search of antiquity. I was looking for a place without artifice or sentiment, where life was stripped back to its basics, where things were fundamental and serious and above all modern.
This is my story. Scratch a Jew and youve got a story. If you dont like elaborate picaresques full of unlikely events and tortuous explanations, steer clear of the Jews. If you want things to be straightforward, find someone else to listen to. You might even get to say something yourself. How do we begin a sentence?
"Listen . . ."
A sailor pointed out to me a little ship on the horizon, one whose role as a ship was supposed to be finished, which had reached the end of its life but had fallen into the hands of those who wanted it to sail one last time. "Do you know what that is?" he asked me.
I knew but I didnt tell him.
"It isnt going to land," he said. "The authorities will catch them."
"Are you in sympathy with those people?"
"Yes, Im sympathetic. Who wouldnt be? But they cant go where they want to go. Its just not on. Theyll have to find somewhere else."
"No idea. Thats not our problem, is it?"
"So you dont think the Zionist state is inevitable?"
"Oh, theyll manage somewhere or other. They always have done in the past."
This time its different, I thought, but I kept my mouth shut. Like the people on the horizon, I was determined that I was going home, though in my case it was not out of necessity but conviction.
Then I saw it, the coast of Palestine. The harbor of Haifa assumed its shape, the cypress and olive and pine-clad slopes of Mount Carmel ascended from the port. I didnt know then that they were cypresses and olives and pines. I didnt recognize a single thing. I had no idea at all what I was looking at. I had come from a city where a few unnamed trees grew out of asphalt pavements, ignored, unseen. I could identify dandelions and daisies and florists roses but that was all, that was the extent of my excursions into the kingdom of the natural world. And what kind of English girl doesnt look at a tree and know what type it is, by its bark or its leaves? How could I be English, despite what was written on my papers?
On deck, beside me, some passengers were crossing themselves and murmuring, "The Holy Land," and I copied them but we were each of us seeing something entirely different.
I know that people regarded me in those days as many things: a bare-faced liar; an enigma; or a kind of Displaced Person like the ones in the camps. But what I felt like was a chrysalis, neither bug nor butterfly, something in between, closed, secretive, and inside some great transformation under way as the world itselfin that strangest of eras just after the war was overwas metamorphosing into something else, which was neither the war nor a return to what had gone before.
It was April 1946. The Mediterranean was packed with traffic. Victory hung like a veil in the air, disguising where we might be headed next. Fifty years later its so easy, with hindsight, to understand what was happening but you were part of it then. History was no theme park. It was what you lived. You were affected, whether you liked it or not.
We didnt know that a bitter winter was coming, the coldest in living memory in the closing months of 1946 and the new year of 1947. America would be frozen. Northern Europe would freeze. You could watch on the Pathé newsreel women scavenging for coal in the streets of the East End of London. I had already seen in the pages of Life magazine what was left of Berlina combination of grandeur and devastation, fragments of what looked like an old, dead civilization, the wreckage that was left in the degradation of defeat. I had seen people selling crumbs of what had once been part of a civilized life. A starving woman held out a single red, high-heeled shoe. A man tried to exchange a small bell for a piece of bread. A boy offered a soldier of the Red Army his sisters doll.
Reprinted from When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant by permission of Dutton, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © Linda Grant, 2001. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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