Tuesday, October 11, 2016

A Tale of Two Villages

On a recent stay in England I had the opportunity to visit the “ghost village” of Tyneham, a village that was “de-populated” during World War II – and the comparisons to the Palestinian villages that were “de-populated” during the Nakba were so strong that I was compelled to share them.

The shell of a home in Tyneham

Before the War, Tyneham was a small farming village of about 225 people, living in 102 homes – mostly tiny stone cottages – and working on the surrounding farmland.  It was in the heart of Dorset, on the southern coast of England, what the British call “Thomas Hardy country.”  But, as the Nakba changed things for the Palestinian people in 1948, World War II changed things for the residents of Tyneham in 1943.

In November of that year, the villagers were sent letters from the War Cabinet telling them that they had to leave their homes by December 19 in order to give troops the space they needed for training.  Of course, the patriotic villagers complied without complaint – England was a very patriotic place in the 1940s! – and left with the understanding that they would be allowed to return when the Army no longer needed their village.

and the shells of homes in Bir'im

If this story is starting to sound familiar, then maybe you’ve visited Bir’im, the Palestinian village in the northern Galilee that was the home of Archbishop Elias Chacour prior to 1948 – or one of the other hundreds of villages that were similarly destroyed during the Nakba?  The main difference is that the residents of Tyneham at least were given a few weeks’ notice to vacate their homes – the 542 residents of Bir’im had to flee with the clothes on their backs and whatever household goods they could hastily grab.

But residents of both villages were told they could come back – to Bir’im in a few weeks, to Tyneham after the war had ended.  Today – 70 years later – both villages are shells with crumbling stone walls, both have been turned into “parks” (of a sort!) and both have standing churches with cemeteries that are used to this day.  For, while the living cannot return to their homes, the dead may return for burial in both Bir’im and Tyneham.

Bir'im church

Tyneham church
Of course, the intervening years have treated these two villages very differently.  The buildings in Bir’im were still standing in 1951 when the residents petitioned the courts to return to their land.  When the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that they could return, the Army went in and blew up the houses, leaving only the rubble that is visible today.  Further, the Israeli government subsequently discovered that the village housed the remains of a 7th century synagogue, and thus turned the area into a national park, eradicating signs that a vibrant community of Christians and Muslims once lived, loved, worked, played and prayed there.

The dead return to Tyneham
Tyneham suffered a slightly different fate.  When its residents asked to return, in 1947, they were told that the Ministry of Defense was claiming permanent occupancy to facilitate the operation of a large military base, Lulworth.   The residents were given some compensation, and the village was turned into a shooting range, even as residents and sympathetic helpers attempted to re-gain access.  Finally, after continued discussions, in the mid-1970s the Army agreed to shore up the derelict buildings and to allow public access on weekends when the gunnery school was closed.  Today, one can visit the shells of the buildings and learn about the life of the village from the plaques on the walls, or visit the cemetery and church which, while decommissioned, is intact. 

and the dead return to Bir'im

Two villages – two people.  Separated by a continent, language and customs, yet bound together by war and its aftermath.  While in England, I noticed that many of the towns have signs, “Twinned with ____________,” referring to their “sister city” in another country.  Perhaps Tyneham and Bir’im should be “twinned”?

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