Next of Kin
Surprising commonalities invigorated an unlikely friendship between a Polish-born survivor and an Israeli Arab, whose histories could have made them enemies.
We had come to spend the summer day with our friends in Nazareth, and our eyes were at once drawn to the wood carvings arrayed on the shelves in the parlor. They seemed almost endowed with life, so faithfully had the sculptor’s knife rendered the subtleties of form and expression. The figures had not been there before; we could not have failed to notice them, as we often visit with the Khourys.
“Wherever did you find them?” my wife, Judy, asked Samir Khoury.
“They were given to me,” he answered, and then launched into a story that began more than 60 years ago.
An advance column of the German Army entered a town in northeastern Poland on the morning of June 28, 1941. The Jews were rounded up that afternoon. They made up more than a third of the town’s inhabitants, and the S.S. detachment was too small to do the job. Soldiers of the regular Wehrmacht volunteered. Polish neighbors gave away Jews who did not stand out in dress or appearance or tried to hide. The Jews were driven to a shallow ravine on the outskirts of town. The adults were lined up at the edge and gunned down. When the shooting was over, the children were thrown alive on top of the rows of dead and wounded. The open grave was then filled with dirt by a bulldozer Polish onlookers had brought to the site.
There was one survivor, a boy. His name was Elchanan Steiner. The roots of trees bordering one side of the ravine had formed pockets of air as the earth covered him. He lay very still for several hours. Then he clawed his way out and hid behind haystacks in a nearby shed. (He had been with friends in the town. What he could not know as he huddled in the shed was that he would also be the sole survivor of his family in the nearby city of Bialystok. A few weeks later the Germans shut 1,000 of the city’s Jews into the great synagogue and burned it to the ground.) Walking when it was dark and avoiding towns and villages, Elchanan made his way eastward. Occasionally, he found shelter with bands of partisans. After many weeks, he reached the Russian line and was adopted, part mascot, part scout, by a reconnaissance unit with the forces that rolled the German Army back to the Elbe. One night he crossed into the American zone of occupation; there he was taken to a camp for displaced persons in Bavaria.
Late in 1947, he was among several hundred survivors who boarded a boat for Palestine. The British were barring the coast to refugees and Elchanan’s boat was intercepted by the Royal Navy; the refugees were interned in Cyprus. It was not until the summer of 1948 that Elchanan landed on the shores of the newborn State of Israel.
In Israel, Elchanan became a ship’s steward, working for the national Zim line and foreign maritime companies. On land he lived a largely solitary life. He had acquaintances, but none he’d call friends. As he grew older, Elchanan retreated further and further into himself. He would stay in his apartment in Haifa when he was not at sea, reading and drinking bitter Turkish coffee, seldom venturing into the city.
Like many people who choose or are dealt a lonely existence, Elchanan was a collector of things, and he developed a discerning taste. The shelves of his room were crammed with works of art acquired over the years in distant ports: a golden-haloed Buddha radiant and tranquil on a throne of lotus leaves; phantasmagoric creatures crouching on guard before a Shinto shrine; a young woman in a rippling kimono smiling wistfully at the child cradled in her arms; a village elder bent with age leaning on his hoe. There was little that he wanted other than the silent companionship of beauty, and his earnings sufficed the desire. And there was no one with whom he could, or wished he could, share the enchantment of his treasures. Until he met Samir Khoury.
It was in the 1990s when, returning one evening from a trip, Elchanan stopped at a harbor café. The only place available was at the bar. The man seated next to him moved his chair to make room. Younger than Elchanan by several years, he was pleasant looking with an open face and dark eyes that had light in them. They exchanged a few pleasantries, and when he ordered a glass of wine, the man asked Elchanan to join him. “Samir Khoury,” he introduced himself. They shook hands.
Elchanan, too, gave his name and, surprised at his unwonted loquacity, continued, “I’ve just come back from Japan. A fascinating country. Have you been there?”
No, Samir had not, but he did know the Caribbean islands and parts of South America, and so they began talking about the faraway places to which they had been and what had brought them there, and the hours slipped by. When Samir suggested they have dinner together in a good Arab restaurant the week after—he would be in town representing a client in court—Elchanan heard himself accepting and extending his own invitation: “And if you can take the time, I’ll show you my place. The carvings I picked up on my last trips to China and Japan are really quite good.”
Samir and Elchanan were in middle age when they met. At the beginning, they did not speak of their pasts, little more than intimation. Only as time went by did they share their convoluted journeys, their memories, the narratives of their peoples.
Khourys had held land in the Galilee for generations, as far back as Samir could trace his family tree. Then Israel fought its War of Independence, and the Khourys, like many Arab farmers, lost their villages and holdings. Many fled or were expelled. The surrounding Arab countries refused to absorb the refugees swarming across their borders; they were shunted into “temporary” camps that became permanent townships of sprawling, hopeless misery.
Samir’s family was fortunate. After years in Lebanese and Jordanian camps, a family reunification program arranged their return to Israel. They settled in Nazareth, impoverished. Samir’s father worked hard and scraped enough money together to send his son to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Samir studied law and now had a busy practice in the north.
What was it that had drawn Samir and Elchanan together? Was it a gesture of defiance, an attempt to break down barriers between Jew and Arab that they did not see fit to honor? That may have occurred to them; the satisfaction of a gesture sometimes takes on a life of its own. What came to matter was that friendship had sprung up between them, and they did not pursue, even as friendship grew, an unraveling of all its strands.
Elchanan had turned 70 when illness overtook him. It was a relentless downward course, operations that slowed but did not halt the decline. Weeks on the surgical wards of hospitals, the degradation of his weakness evoking memories of other degradations and other helplessness. Intervals of remission. Samir was at his side in the wards and in his home during the periods of convalescence.
Elchanan called a distant cousin in America. Years ago he had learned of the relative’s existence from an Internet service that traces Holocaust survivors. The cousin’s family had found refuge in Shanghai; after the war, they immigrated to America where the cousin became a partner in a large commercial enterprise. Elchanan had met him a few times when he was in Israel for business.
“I must see you once more before I die,” Elchanan now told him.
The cousin arrived at Elchanan’s apartment accompanied by another gentleman. “An associate of mine,” he introduced the stranger. “I thought that asking him to come with me would be good for your peace of mind and mine. He has experience evaluating goods and properties, and really, we should have an idea of the worth of your estate, wouldn’t you agree, Cousin?”
Elchanan was weak, but not too weak to rise from his bed. “Leave at once, both of you, and shut the door behind you,” he shouted. After that disastrous meeting, Samir urged Elchanan, during his better days, to get out and see people. “You have friends who will be glad to see you again, it will do you good,” he said.
“No!” Elchanan was adamant. “You are the one friend I have. There is no one else I trust. Let’s have some tea or coffee and something to eat, right here. The housekeeper will bring some things from the grocery.”
The better days became even fewer. When Elchanan died, only the one friend stood for him at the open grave and cast earth over the lowered coffin.
Later, at the reading of Elchanan’s will, the elderly Jewish lawyer leaned back in his chair and studied Samir with interest. “I do not wish to pry, but…between colleagues…were you not astonished?” he asked.
“When I opened your letter…astonished?” Samir replied. “I don’t think so. No, I wouldn’t call it that. Moved, yes, that would be more accurate. And sad.” The letter from a legal firm in Haifa had arrived some weeks after Elchanan’s death.
“There are no problems, none at all,” the lawyer continued. “The intent and the execution are perfectly clear. All you have to do is sign the papers…. Of course, you are familiar with these formalities. And I congratulate you! ”
He lifted the pages of the testament from his desk and held them for a moment or two, the hesitation of a sober man delegated to transmit a matter of uncertain plausibility. He handed them to Samir.
“And here is the key to his apartment, and the bank accounts. His housekeeper brought them to our office. Mr. Steiner left you quite a legacy!”
“He was my friend,” Samir said.