“What I mix from languages is Russian, Ukrainian, Czech, and the mother tongue, the language of Poland.” Speaking in Polish, Abraham Segal, a Holocaust survivor, a retired resident of one of Haifa’s suburbs in his late 80s, and today primarily a Hebrew speaker, half-jokingly summarizes his past dislocations across borders and his struggle with both memory and forgetfulness.
The world has heard of Segal before, when in March 2016, in his presence and with his support, the Museum of Poles Saving Jews in World War II opened in Markowa, in the southeastern corner of the country. Back then the coverage of the event in some Polish and international media attached Segal to the ‘culprit’s’ side in the controversy about the Poles’ alleged attempts to use the new site to whitewash the history of Polish reactions to the Holocaust. But Segal wants to tell his own story as he remembers it, free of any clichés, from the debates about the memory of the World War II. “With me it’s like this: I don’t forget my past, and what I feel, I say outright,” he insists.
Segal’s arrival in Palestine when it was still a British Mandate eventually afforded him two citizenships, British and Israeli. He came there on April 24, 1946, with a group of children who lost their parents in the Holocaust. When he lived in a kibbutz, a Zionist collective farm, some British official, by mistake or out of good will, classified him in his state ID documents as “a British citizen living in Palestine,” with “agriculture” his occupation.
But it is a Polish passport that he most wants to see as part of his collection. He was born and raised, until the outbreak of the war, in Łańcut, Poland. His parents were well-assimilated citizens of the town, particularly his father, an orphan, who found most of his friends among ethnic Poles. Saved during the Holocaust in Polish households, he describes his memories of Poland in turmoil in terms of “suspicion,” but above all, “survival and good will.” Grief is obvious in Segal’s voice when he recalls trying to reclaim his Polish citizenship after the iron curtain fell in 1989. “Something was not right” and the authorities refused his request to be symbolically reunited with all the people and families whom he remembers with gratitude.
An arguably unjust law, which existed in Poland until 1951, stripped of citizenship anyone who served in a foreign army, including those who fought in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. But while we can imagine the pride of building one’s new country and alleviating the pain of losing citizenship in the old land, this is not the case for Segal. Necessity and powerlessness, rather than sincere will, brought him to Palestine in the first place.
“I have never been a socialist,” Segal stresses. But in 1945 he was an orphan. He was in Czechoslovakia, where he arrived with a Czech army. He had joined the forces in 1944, when, alongside the Soviet army, they marched through the area where he had survived the German Nazi occupation in a Polish household. After he ended up in an orphanage, a transport took him to Palestine. “I landed in a leftist kibbutz, and then they brainwashed us with Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, and then every May 1 we had to demonstrate,” he says, as he recalls becoming part of a movement, where he did not truly belong.
Segal would later fight for that movement, first on June 29, 1946, when the British raided Jewish settlements in Palestine to confiscate their weapons, and later during the War of Independence. He is not afraid to break the heroic myth around these events. “What did they do? Whom did they send to the first front? Poor orphans. And this is my first memory in renewed, promised fatherland,” he points out with irony.
Today Segal holds two national Israeli medals: for serving in the War of Independence and for serving during the World War II as a minor. “I wanted to brag, so I got it from Israel,” he comments on the latter. He learned to be proud of being Israeli. Today Israel is for him, above all, the country where he found his wife, a daughter of pre-war Slovakian-Jewish immigrants, and built his life, where his children live comfortably.
“There are no proletarians in this country anymore.” Despite facing lack of stability in his life, having recently dealt with a threat of eviction and a feeling of being cheated on, both by businesses and politicians, he still notices the positive change Israel has seen since the early days, the days when he arrived as a young orphan with lice in his hair.
But Segal remains faithful to his experiences, which taught him to never glorify or shame an entire group of people. “I don’t believe there is a deity, but I hope there is a historical punishment. In the end, as T.G. Masaryk said, truth prevails,” he says. “People hurt me in Poland, but I have also been hurt a lot here, in Israel.” This is his experience, his truth, different from that of many others. But like that of others, it does not rightfully belong to any person or nation.