Madagascar: An Almost Jewish Homeland
At daybreak, I head to the War Cemetery to pay my respects. Winds kick up and bring a midsummer drizzle that locals call the mango rains. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission keeps the grounds in immaculate condition. Ruler-straight rows of graves stretch out between manicured flower beds, fences climbing with bougainvillea and the shade of tamarind trees. The order and symmetry are jarring amidst the haphazardness of this poor land. One of the caretakers, a spry, gray-haired man, shoos a chicken scratching for food off the trim lawn. He is perhaps the oldest person I’ve seen in my two weeks of travel through this country where life expectancy hovers just above 60. I ask if he remembers the invasion. “Yes,” he says softly, “I was a little boy and it was the first time I saw an airplane. There was shooting and bombs, and we were scared.” When I ask him whether he knows what the fighting was about, he shrugs and suggests that the British and French just wanted his country’s mineral resources.
I wander up and down the rows, reading the inscriptions of hardened grief on the tombstones. The markers of British soldiers are carved with crosses, but the many headstones with East African names are otherwise blank. Some stones are chiseled with Arabic, a few soldiers appear to have been Hindu and then, several rows from the front and shadowed by a stunted baobab, I spot a single grave with a Star of David. I hadn’t expected to find a Jewish grave. My fingers trace the worn letters of the Hebrew inscription. Captain Israel S. Genussow, age 28, died July 30, 1944—exactly 63 years ago to the day of my visit. My hands shake as I dig a rock from the damp soil and place it on the headstone. I muddle through the kaddish while it rains.
Wherever home was for Captain Genussow, I’m sure it was far away from this quiet patch of green on the outskirts of a town at the end of the world. I’m drawn to the story of this man whose tombstone records that he “fell on the battlefield to liberate his people and his land.” But which people? Which land? How did Israel Genussow find his way to this lonely resting spot, and from where? When I turn to look back, the efficient caretaker has already removed my rock from atop his marker.
Several months later, after a number of phone calls, a visit to the National Library of Israel, and thanks to Facebook, I meet Israel Genussow’s youngest brother, Herzl, in Netanya. A tall man with a barrel chest and a shock of white hair, he clasps my hand with a vigor that belies his more than 80 years. His wife, Rachel, makes me tea and places a slice of apple cake and a dainty fork in front of me. Herzl’s voice echoes like a thump on a hollow wall, but I can sense his melancholy. He has never visited his brother’s grave, and here I am, a stranger with a photograph showing up on his doorstep asking him to pry open painful memories.
“What can I tell you?” he says, suddenly switching from Hebrew into a sharp South African English undulled by lack of use. I flip through black and white family snapshots in the family albums as Herzl narrates, “My brother was an excellent student, brilliant, an athlete, handsome.” I read letters from those who knew him, and they all attest to Israel’s generosity and intelligence.
I want to know how his brother came to play a small role in denying the Nazis their Jewish reservation in Madagascar. “Our father was a Zionist in South Africa,” Herzl explains. “He grew wealthy from diamond mining. We played with diamonds the way other kids played with marbles. And people would come from miles to hear us speak Hebrew. We were curiosities from the Bible.” Later, the family moved to Palestine, where their mother, the niece of Solomon Schechter, had grown up. So not only was Captain Genussow Jewish, he was also Israeli after a fashion. When the war broke out, he was a student in England. He volunteered for the British military and was ultimately shipped out to Madagascar, where he drilled East African troops until a single stray bullet squeezed off during a training exercise ended his promising life.