“Do you think your brother knew about the Nazi plans for Madagascar?” I ask. “I don’t know,” Herzl responds, “all I know is that he wanted to fight for his country.” Which country? I ask. “Ours!” Herzl is surprised at my obtuseness. Rachel clears the crumbs from my place with the edge of her hand. “I grew up in Poland…,” she interjects, “as a girl I had to keep my voice down, be polite everywhere, on the bus or in the park, so people wouldn’t point at the ‘noisy Jew.’” Her eyes mist over, her voice trails off. “And you know what happened there….” Herzl adds, “But here we’re like everybody else, here we can be just as bad as every other country.”
Is that what Israel Genussow fought and died for, serving to protect his adopted homeland so it could be just like every other place? I ask. They both turn to look each other, then at me, and answer “no.” Herzl sighs and fiddles with his hearing aid.
The photo album rests open on a picture of Israel in uniform, his moustache neatly trimmed, round spectacles framing his face. Herzl shakes his head in disbelief at the loss of his brother so long ago. He shakes his head at the history that never was, the future his brother never had. He stares out the window toward the Mediterranean, toward his brother’s tomb an ocean away on an island without Jews, where they say crocodiles wear jewelry and the natives are the happiest people on earth. “But here at least,” Herzl says, and raps his knuckles on the table, “here is home.”
Adam Rovner is an assistant professor of English and Jewish literature at the University of Denver and translations editor for Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture. His work has appeared in American History, The Forward and The Jewish Quarterly. He is writing a book about various proposals to establish Jewish “homelands” around the globe.