The Atlas

Carmiel Frutkoff
12 min readDec 29, 2020
Photo by British Library on Unsplash

Eighty years ago, the Jewish people experienced a traumatizing event in which we lost half of our people. Hurt and scared, our wounds still bleeding, we came together and created the State of Israel. We infused into this country many dreams, and hopes alongside the pain and fear we inherited from the Shoah.

Some came to Israel with the lesson of self-preservation, they said:

“This can never happen again to us!”.

These people set forth to make Israel strong and resilient. An entity that can stand up for Jews, where ever they may be threatened or in danger.

Others came to Israel with the lesson of universal compassion, they said:

“This can never happen again, period”.

These people see our State as a stepping stone for a better humanity.

These two statements, these two mindsets; tribalistic and the universal — echo through every issue that Israel has ever contended with. They mark the borders of our Israeli identity, most of us falling somewhere in that spectrum.

Often, when I share with people how my family’s experiences of the Shoah led me to be sensitive to another’s plight, some of whom we are oppressing, I see them cringe.

“How dare you compare!” they shoot back at me defensively.

Little do they understand that I am not comparing. I am moved and compelled to action by human atrocities of the past. Our grandparents suffering, I argue — does not give us a free pass to hurt others. Even when, and especially when the political realities are complicated.

The following story is based on incidents that took place during the summer of 2002. For the sake of the story and some of its real-life characters’ anonymity, I took the liberty to make some fictional changes. Overall, the story is factual, but more importantly, it depicts some of the thoughts and feelings I was having at the time and how they play into my life today.

The Atlas

When I was six, in anticipation of my first day of school, my parents bought me my first Atlas. Of all my newly acquired books at that time, it was the most exciting of them all. It was so big that it did not fit on any bookshelf and demanded it’s own place of honour on my desk. When I would sit down and read it, it would reach out far beyond my lap, and it took an entire arm’s length to turn each page. But most intriguing about it was that rather than words, it was filled with pictures that sparked this child’s imagination and sent me miles away to countries and cultures I would never see in person. Stories of past and future, some historical, others imagined would fill my head as my little hands turned those pages. Many a time, I would dream myself a captain of a ship or some other character in a Kipling story sailing seas and exploring these foreign lands. These stories were just about as spectacular and fantastic as ever could be told, since a child’s imagination knows no limit.

However, most of these stories have since gone and faded from memory as the sight of land from a ship set sail, while it voyaged on towards my adulthood.

All, but one story.

It was told to me by Grandpa may his soul and memory be blessed, on a rainy November day not long after school had begun. My grandfather saw the Atlas sitting on my desk; boasting its throne to all that cared to notice, and nonchalantly, picked it up and told me that he personally knew the editor. He pointed to his name on the bright red cover as he sat down on my sister’s bed and opened it to a random page. I crawled up next to him and waited in anticipation to hear more, The fact that MY Grandpa knew the editor of my favourite school book thrilled me to no end. Maybe he could tell me stories that I had missed. And boy, could he!

As we flipped through the pages, my grandfather proved to be the best history teacher I would have, pointing to different lands and telling me their stories. Grampa met every question with another detailed account of what had happened and how ‘this and that’ took place. That afternoon empires rose and fell as the raindrops on my window, withering away with only the occasional thunder to remind us of their once great distant past.

I must have been daydreaming when I suddenly noticed that Grandpa had not spoken in a while. His moist eyes staring hard at the map shared with me that he too was somewhere else, somewhere that pained him. I followed his gaze down to the opened Atlas and tried to read the name of the country we were about to explore, breaking the word into syllables as my Mummy had taught me.

“Pooh — laaaand” I read carefully.

Then with a little more confidence, I repeated it.

“Po-land… Poland. Grandpa, it says Poland.”

“Yes, it does..” he said sadly. “that’s where I am, sorry — was from”

“Oh” — I replied, looking at the green outlined country sitting in the centre of the page yet explored. My heart was conflicted at addressing his sadness, all while wanting to continue on our exciting voyage.

“Do you miss it?” I asked him hesitantly.

“Miss it?” He repeated my question as if to reiterate, but never answered it.

Instead, he began with a shaky voice to tell me a story, his story, a story of a little boy in Tarnow and of the war that would annihilate everything he knew. His voice choked as he told of the last time he saw his mother, of his brothers and sisters that were incinerated to ash. Of Gentiles who stood idly by and watched in silence. Of a world that didn’t care.

To this day, I don’t know how much I understood of his stories. Many of them would be repeated, details filled throughout years to come, to the extent that I could never differentiate when I was told what.

Two things, though, did stand out on that occasion. I remember my Grandpa crying, his tears staining the pages of my newly bought Atlas. From that day forth, whenever my Atlas was opened to Europe, I could see the place where they fell and would remember the moment. The other was of the moment after, he wiped his tears and said that it would never happen again. Not now, when we have our own country. “One day you will grow up and go to the army,” He stated — “and you, along with many other Jewish boys and girls, will make sure of that, It will never happen again!”

I swallowed his words eagerly, every one of them imprinting itself upon my heart. I reiterated them when I rose, and when I slept, in my home and along the road, my life was to take me on. I looked forward to the day of my conscription with passion, every moment of my teenaged life seemed to be in preparation for it. Finally, the day came, and on a sunny morning in March I arose tenaciously to mission, uniform to the nines, gun at hand “It would never happen again!”

It was only once I was in the army that my determination wavered. I began to look at the world around me with the naive yet beautiful sense of justice that only the young can procure. Terrible things were happening, and my people were no exception in bringing harm to others. My Grandpa said that it would never happen again and on that rainy day in November, so many years ago, I believed him. Yet the people in Cambodia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Serbia and many other distant lands seemed to counter this notion. My Grandpa spoke of our army in idealistic terms; how it stood proud for a people who longed for freedom and self-determination. Yet it would seem that dreams; pink and lofty when first conceived, tend to turn grey come reality. How could one really rid the world of pain with more fighting and killing?

Then one day, my narrative shattered, and I got lost in my Tank in search of the meaning of it all. It was a Tuesday morning, I had just arrived at the base after a vacation at home. My comrades were excited to see me, I was early, which meant that they could go home earlier.

“We have a patrol in half an hour,” one of them told me, “switch to work uniforms, you could take my place, and I could go home.”

I assured him I would do my best, but the base commander thought otherwise.

“You don’t know the area yet,” He declared,

“Once you are in work uniform come to the war room for a briefing.”

I was to be part of the secondary patrol that would follow, half an hour behind the leading party.

My briefing was cut short by a distant explosion, and machine-gun fire of a 0.5 browning. The radios in the room immediately came alive with chatter, and along with my crew, I ran to our Merkava Tank, knowing that someone would surely need our help. The command came moments later, the patrol Tank was hit by an IED — Go secure the area so that medical and mechanical crews can safely reach the bombarded Merkava.

We take our position, and the rest of the crews move in. We scan the area for further threats, and the gunner notes that it is oddly quiet for a supposed battle zone.

“The Tank looks fine too,” He says.

We drive closer to the other Tank and call out to the team on board, they stick their heads out and wave back. Their Merkava had lost it’s left caterpillar but otherwise was relatively intact, the crew seemed fine too.

“Where are they going?” my commander asks, pointing to the medical crew walking away from the scene into a nearby field.

“We killed the terrorists!” They all tried to answer at once.

“We saw them hiding low in the field after the explosion”, “We opened fire!” “They stopped moving!”

We grab our guns and follow the medics, they might need back up. Up ahead of us the Medics suddenly stop short, frozen in place they stare at the ground from a few feet away. One first-responder turns around and vomits while the rest seemed bewildered by some terrifying sight. As we advance, the horror becomes clear to us as well.

A little girl, (later we would learn she was nine years of age) was lying on the ground, her white dress stained with dirt and grime, her head was nowhere to be seen… at her side, an older woman, (her mother) lay still, a hole the size of a tennis ball pierced through her chest. There is a baby in her arms. One of the Medics lifts the child from her lifeless arms. The baby whimpers, a shiver runs through me, he’s alive!

The Medic stares at us and then back at the baby wide-eyed. We stand in deafening silence.

The stillness is disturbed by a grunt from a nearby bush, a quick search finds a young boy a few feet away, the brother of the headless girl. The Medic quickly hands the baby over to one of the fighters and runs over to check him. The boy is no more than twelve years of age. He is missing his right arm and is losing a lot of blood. The Medic stops the bleeding and patches him up, we signal one of the ambulances to approach. While we lift him into the ambulance, the boy is blabbering incoherently in Arabic.

“What is he saying?” my commander asks.

One of the soldiers translates: “We heard the explosion, we were scared, we hid in the bushes, but then they started shooting at us, why were they shooting at us?”

The Medic wipes the blood away from his hands, shaking his head fervently.

“He lost too much blood” he mumbles, “he won’t make it.”

He was right, he didn’t.

We head back to base with the baby, others go to the nearby village to locate the family, or rather the father who shy of his little boy no longer had a family. The scene is sombre and tense, we sit around in silence, Skynews blasting in the background — we wonder if they will pick up on the story. The other Tank commander curses to himself as if a conversation just took place in his head, then he fumbles to light a cigarette, his hands are shaking. The gunner turned killer lifts the baby in his arms and gazes into his eyes in disbelief,

“I can’t believe I killed his family, we were sure it was the terrorists who attacked us” he mumbles as he looks into the babies eyes. Then the tragic irony hits me; the gunner himself also lost his mother to a violent attack when he was a child, now he just made this child an orphan to his mother. Is this what they call the cycle of violence? It usually sounds so dry. I put my hand on his shoulder and try to comfort him as he begins to sob. “It’s okay” I hear myself say, “It’s okay”, but it’s not okay. Why the fuck would I say it’s okay?

He buries his head into the baby’s tummy, the latter finds this amusing and giggles, unaware of the tragic moment.

“He will never remember this”, I think to myself. “He will grow up learning how an IDF patrol killed his family, but he will never remember how the man who pulled the trigger, cried in his arms.”

“He will grow up to be a terrorist,” says another soldier as if to counter my thought process. The commander curses again and spits on the ground. I turn around irritated and silence him, but deep down, I know he might be right. It is the circle of violence, after all.

Emotion overwhelms me, and I sit down by his side and join the gunner in his tears. I’m confused and not really sure how or what I should be feeling. This is what happens when you give kids uniforms and guns and tell them to make the world a better place. This was us, making sure it would never happen again.

Two weeks later, back at home, I come across my old Atlas, it’s cover barely holding fast. I open the book and flip through it, stopping short as I come across Eastern Europe. I run my fingers across the map that saw my Grandpa’s tears fall so many years ago. His voice echos in my mind across space and time as if suddenly he was sitting once again by six years old me.

“…it will never happen again.”

My heart begins to race fast.

Every story has a moral, but had I jumped to conclusions? What was he trying to say to me?

“…it will never happen again”, was it only to ourselves that we owed this?

My thoughts wander back to the two orphaned boys, one in uniform, the other in diapers, and I am taken by emotion. With a fit of rage, I send my Atlas hurtling across the room. Its cover comes apart, and some pages fall to the ground as it hits the wall of my childhood room. A thought comes to mind. How when telling a country’s history, we tend to look at the coloured parts of the map when, in fact, it’s the black lines between them that actually tell the story. Every line representing thousands of human beings dead, killed, murdered because someone thought that the coloured part was worth dying and killing for.

Descartes once said that the first man to put up a border and say, ‘this land is mine’, was the greatest sinner of mankind. So many have followed on this path, so many sinners, and I was now among them.

“…it will never happen again”,

the narrative no longer worked for me. Not if it was solely focused on us. Not if spoken from the mouths of victims who can not see the pain of others. I must write a new story, I must listen to my heart, I can no longer live old narratives in silence as the world once did us.

For let us be honest, let us speak plainly — it will happen again!

It will happen again for the simple reason that we are human, and in our times of weakness, we forget who we are and hurt others.

It will happen again because time after time, we fail to embrace the weak before they learn to hate.

It will happen again because we refuse to face our own depravity and choose to blame religion, nationalism, or other economic and political movements rather than own up to what we, humanity, have done. We systematically disassociate ourselves from the “offender” and fail to realize that all the finger-pointing in the world will never remove the mirrors in which our fingers are pointed right back at us…

It will happen again.

Only this time, I won’t be silent.

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Carmiel Frutkoff

Jewish Educator, Social entrepreneur, Tour guide. I write about community building, mental health, interfaith work and anything Jerusalem related.