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The unseen village By Sara Leibovich-Dar
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Posted by Uri Zackhem on January 7, 2008

By Sara Leibovich-Dar
Not known to many, but forever remembered by its former residents - the story of the Armenian village Sheikh Brak is one of Israeli ambivalence toward the Armenian Holocaust.
Every few weeks, Naomi Nalbandian travels to the abandoned Armenian village of Sheikh Brak, near Atlit. As a child, she lived there for just one year, but she still misses it. "As the years go by, the abandonment of the village saddens me more and more," she says. "If I'd have been older then, I would have fought with all my might against the abandonment and tried to get other Armenians to join the struggle."

Last week, on the eve of Indepen-dence Day, Nalbandian, a nurse in the rehabilitation department of Hadassah University Hospital on Mount Scopus, lit one of the ceremonial torches on Mount Herzl. She wanted to mention the Armenian holocaust during the ceremony. In 1915-16, about 1.5 million people were killed in the Armenian genocide carried out during ther time of the Ottoman Empire. The organizer of the ceremony - the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport's "Merkaz Hahasbara" (Center of Information) - pressured Nalbandian to do no more than allude to the genocide.

Turkey continues to deny responsibility for the annihilation of the Armenians and contends that the number killed was much smaller. And, apparently, the diplomatic, economic and defense-related ties between Israel and Turkey are too important to endanger with even an indirect reference to another people's holocaust. Nalbandian gave in, and the process also sapped her energy to fight for permission to mention the other ethnic trauma: that of the abandonment of Sheikh Brak.

In 1920, a few dozen Armenians who had fled Turkey to escape the massacres settled near Atlit. A Christian Arab landowner leased them the village lands. When he fled to Lebanon in 1948, the lands were appropriated and distributed to the kibbutzim in the area.

"Your state and mine deceived them and took all the land from them," says former agriculture minister Pesach Grupper, an Atlit resident who once employed the Armenians in his fields. Not only was the land taken away from them, their village was not connected to the electricity grid and did not have proper sewage. "But they were content. That's their way," says Grupper.

One after the other, the young people married and left the village. The last Armenians left Sheikh Brak in 1981, after receiving compensation from the Israel Lands Administration (ILA). Each family was given what amounts to about $40,000 in today's terms. "But to whom does the state pay big sums?" asks Grupper.

"It was their fate," explains Aryeh Simhoni, head of the Hof Hacarmel regional council. "It was from heaven. If I were religious, I'd say it was with God's help. What was the name of that village again? Mubarak?"

Nalbandian's grandparents arrived in Sheikh Brak in 1948. They had fled the slaughter in Turkey in 1915 and wandered through Syria and Lebanon before settling in Kafr Yasif in the early 1920s. In 1948, they moved to Sheikh Brak. Nalbandian's mother was 16 at the time and taught the village children Armenian, English and Arabic. "There were 15 children learning in one room that was divided into six classes," her mother recalls. At age 25, she married and moved to Haifa, where her daughter Naomi was born. Naomi was sent to school in the village for one year. "I gave her to my parents for a little while so I could work at a factory in Acre," says her mother.

Naomi Nalbandian became very attached to the village: "It was a wonderful place for kids, a whole world unto itself. To this day, it pains me to think about the village. Whenever I go to visit my mother in Haifa, I pass by and get all emotional remembering how we celebrated the Armenian holidays there. Even after I returned to Haifa, I went there every weekend and during every summer vacation. It's a shame that it ended the way it did. We gave up too easily. We didn't realize that we were losing the only Armenian village in Israel."

"No one forced us to leave," says Salfi Morjalian of Haifa, who was born in Sheikh Brak and lived there until she was 12. "But, politically, they tried to make it hard on us so we wouldn't be able to stay there. We didn't have electricity or running water or a sewage system. We did our business outside - each family found a far-off, hidden spot to do it in."

Walking around the remains of the abandoned village, she points out a space surrounded by cacti: "That was our bathroom. We bathed in basins with water that was heated on coal ovens. If they'd provided us with the basic things, we never would have left."

"If we still lived there today, we'd be staging demonstrations and going to the press," says Eli (Yeriya) Lafajian of Jaffa, who was born and raised in Sheikh Brak and left in the 1960s after he married.

"I don't know who was supposed to have seen to it that we got electricity. The electric company wanted a lot of money and our parents didn't have the money to pay them to get attached to the grid. Our parents were timid. They were afraid to cause trouble. They also asked us, the younger ones, not to speak out. They thought that it was forbidden to make a fuss against the authorities."

Lafajian says that the younger generation had to adapt to the lifestyle whether they liked it or not: "In Haifa, I attended a Christian school where my classmates were the children of French diplomats. I never invited them to visit me at home because I didn't want them to see how I lived."

Without electricity, they couldn't keep food refrigerated. "When we bought meat in Haifa, we had to cook it that same day so it wouldn't go bad," says Lafajian. "After many years without running water, we were hooked up to the water system of Kibbutz Neveh Yam, but the water we received was salty. We got used to drinking this water, but whenever guests came, they couldn't drink it. When I got engaged and my wife, who was from Jaffa, came to visit me in the village, she brought bottles of water along with her in the car."

Yosef Katrian of Haifa, who was born in the village in 1943 and lived there until he married and moved away in the 1960s, recalls troubled ties with the surrounding kibbutzim.

"We worked just for bread," he says. "We never managed to make money. We had an arrangement with the neighboring Neveh Yam. We grew melons and watermelons on their land, but all we got from it in the end was food for the cows. They said it didn't bring in any money."

These things happen

At Kibbutz Neveh Yam, they're not pleased to hear such criticism. "We had a lot of sympathy and compassion for the Armenians," says Nurit Bruner, a kibbutz native who is also the kibbutz secretary. "As kids, we would walk over to visit there, but we couldn't get too close because the dogs were always barking."

Were the kibbutzniks comfortable with the fact that they worked for you and then returned home to their village where they had no electricity?

Bruner: "Think what kind of electricity they had then on the kibbutz. Everyone was unfortunate then. Am I supposed to be responsible for who has electricity in this country? What does that have to do with us? Really - are we the state authorities? Why do you think we ought to have been bothered about whether they had electricity? Those were the rugged, early days of building the state."

In the 1970s?

"We couldn't worry about the surroundings. Maybe some kibbutzim could, but not Neveh Yam. If the people that helped them in Neveh Yam could rise up from their graves, they would slap you. If there was anything there at all, it was thanks to us."

Shlomo Kahal of Neveh Yam is familiar with the water problems the Armenians faced: "In the Zionist Archives, I found a document in which the village mukhtar asked the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association [PICA] for permission to be hooked up to the water pipes. From us, they got water from the same place that we drank from. We also had salty water. They worked here in our cannery, but we didn't know about their living conditions. They were quite distant."

The short access road to the village, off of the old Tel Aviv-Haifa road, passed through a part of Kibbutz Ein Carmel, but the kibbutzniks there weren't pleased by this bit of traffic to and from the village, so they blocked the way. The villagers and their visitors then had no choice but to travel by way of Atlit, over a rough dirt road. When the highway was later paved right by their houses, a bridge was built over it so they could continue to use the dirt road from Atlit.

"Personally, as the kibbutz coordinator, I helped them," says Aryeh Simhoni. "I let them come onto our lands. We gave them hay and straw. They didn't have anything. We just gave them ma'aser [the 10th of the crop yield left as a tithe for the poor], and we did so generously. We connected them to a water line. They didn't need any more. They lived in poverty like an 18th-century village in the remote reaches of Armenia."

Maybe their life could have been different with a little more help from you.

Simhoni: "Why should we have done more than we did? Do you know the State of Israel or did you just land here yesterday? How was I supposed to give them an electricity line?"

"Was our situation any better?" Pesach Grupper asks rhetorically. "Electricity only came to Atlit in 1924."

The Armenians had no electricity until 1981.

Grupper: "The effendi brought them so they would work the land. They were content with their lives. That's their way. They didn't have rights because they were tenant farmers."

Freer than the kibbutzniks

On the outskirts of the village lies the grave of Sheikh Brak, for whom the village was originally named; the Armenians refer to it as "the Armenian village" or Atlit. The first settlers arrived in the early 1920s. After fleeing Turkey, the survivors of the genocide passed through Lebanon, where they met a Lebanese effendi, Anton Hamouda, who proposed that they work his lands as tenant farmers.

Osna Katrian of Haifa is from one of the first families who came to the village. She was born in Sheikh Brak in 1931 and remembers a very hard life there. "We drew water from the well. There was no road. We went everywhere with carts and donkeys. We only studied for a few years in a little school in the village with teachers who came from Cyprus to teach us Armenian. At 15, I was doing cleaning work for farmers at Atlit and at 17, I went to work in the cannery on Kibbutz Neveh Yam. I didn't have a choice."

The hardships of daily life were compounded by the grief over all those lost in Turkey. During World War I, the Ottoman rulers ordered that the Armenians be cleared away from the regions where battles were being fought with Russia, because they were supposedly collaborating with the Russians. The Ottomans paved the way for the expulsion with a mass arrest of Armenian leaders. Six hundred were killed in one day - April 24, 1915, which has been designated as the anniversary of the Armenian genocide.

The mass expulsion of the Armenians was accompanied by methodical massacres. The authorities gave the exiles no protection and allowed the Kurds, through whose territory their convoys passed, to attack them. The Armenian men who survived were conscripted into labor brigades while their families were imprisoned in concentration camps. The Turkish government denies all this: It says that the Armenians were not murdered in an organized and methodical fashion, but transferred out of war zones for the purpose of resettlement.

"My mother talked about it all the time," says Osna Katrian. "She was seven when her family escaped. She told horror stories about a relative whose hands were cut off by the Turks. They put his hand on a plate and told him to eat it."

In Salfi Morjalian's family, the mourning was less overt. "My grandfather lost his entire family," she says. "He didn't have any brothers or sisters left, not a single one, and he didn't know anything about them - what happened to them and how they died. It was very hard for him to talk about them. He wanted to start a new chapter in his life and we didn't want to disturb him. They didn't talk about it. When I hesitantly asked him to tell me what happened - I saw a tear in his eye and dropped it and went outside. They didn't want to pass the pain onto us, but it's hereditary. It hurts just to think that they went through such things. You sometimes hear their stories and then you say to yourself, my God, how could this have happened."

Their childhood was special because of what happened to their people, says Morjalian. "Our parents were very caring and protective of us, maybe too much. They worked very hard but they wouldn't let us do anything, except collect eggs from the chicken coops. We didn't feel that it was hard here. They tried to provide us with everything we needed and they didn't complain, despite all the hardships. They made do with what there was and always said that having been through the worst, what they had now was enough for them. For someone who has lost his entire family, when he gets a plot of land with a garden - he thinks it's paradise. It's enough that they're still alive. For them, that's everything. Here they felt that they could finally live in peace without anyone bothering them."

Miriam Lafajian is still afraid of the Turks. She refused to have her picture taken lest the Turks identify her and harm her if she passes through Turkey on the way to a visit in Armenia. Lafajian came to Sheikh Brak with her parents in 1940, after years in which the family wandered from place to place.

"Many people from my parents' village in Turkey were slaughtered," she says, sitting in her small apartment in Haifa. "My parents talked a lot about the holocaust. They described how the Turks came into the Armenians' homes, dissected their bodies and took out their hearts. They saw Turks pour gasoline on Armenians and then clap their hands while the Armenians burned. In many villages, the Turks killed all the Armenians, and even their cats and dogs, too. In the village, at night, when they finished their work, the older people would sit around in a circle and talk about the holocaust."

In 1947, Lafajian's parents and about half of the village's residents immigrated to Armenia, then a Soviet republic. "They said that they were Armenians and that Armenia was the only place where they could feel Armenian," says the daughter, who remained behind in Sheikh Brak, married and had three children. "Despite the hardships, life here was good. We were all one big family. We put on plays in Armenian. Our parents only knew Turkish, because in Turkey they were forbidden to speak in Armenian. Here, the children learned Armenian freely. There were no thefts. Doors were always left open. We were freer than the kibbutzniks, who had to eat in the dining hall at set hours. To this day, I still dream about Atlit, about the landscape there - with the sea on one side and the Carmel on the other."

Lafajian and her husband spent seven years working Pesach Grupper's fields. "All of the Armenians worked there. The land was his and we grew vegetables," she says.

Grupper has a slightly different recollection. "We didn't have any special connection with them," he says. "They weren't regular workers. They worked and left."

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