World War II Memories III
Life goes on; after the tempest comes fair weather; after nighttime comes the day. Nature is made up of opposites: north and south, positive and negative, good and evil, beauty and ugliness, happiness and unhappiness, love and hatred. But people are naive. They always swing from one extreme to the other. They do not understand the basic rule of balance. Nature has been created to exist in harmony. The whole universe is based on a balance of forces.
We use the word "evil", whereas evil exists neither in nature nor in humans. What we face are divergent forces and different elements. Contingent upon the manner in which these forces and elements are used, the results will be good or bad. It is for us to know how to work with what we have to produce good and constructive outcomes. Those who do not understand the characteristics of these forces and elements should stay away from them. We can use atomic energy to destroy people or to cure disease. Whether we avoid or create evil is a matter of degree. But if we create evil, we must take full responsibility for it. Those who understood the basic rules were able to create goodness, beauty, music, literature and many of the other joys that touch our senses. Through them we can then experience a feeling of satisfaction -- which is nothing other than the mixture of love and goodness filling us with its special powers. It is often difficult to describe these sweet sensations. But the sight of a person beaming with joy, goodness and love, immediately takes one in. It is in our power to belong to that category of persons.
On the other hand, we will always encounter people who do not find us pleasant or lovable; no need to retaliate and become hateful toward them. Hatred can only be distracting. Let us ignore hostile comments and avoid provoking such persons, particularly if we wish to remain the way we are.
War is a sign of imbalance. It is not through force that one re-establishes the balance. History teaches us that the deployment of force has never led to a durable peace. Above all, let us respect each other. No nation is superior to another. This is also true of religions and cultures. A victory does not mean peace; it only brings a temporary period of quiet. It is a grave error to underestimate someone smaller. The greatness of a nation or a country is not measured by the number of its inhabitants or its size in square miles. No cause to rejoice from victories; they do not guarantee a lasting peace. Time does not matter in history, and history is only an episode in the life of the human race.
Our new house was located near the station, and the railroad tracks ran parallel to our bedroom walls. Needless to say it was not very quiet. Freight trains were the only ones allowed to run; they carried American soldiers to the battle area of Bizerte, where the Germans had given ground but were still holding on to this port city as the last symbol of domination over their enemies.
The inhabitants of Beja who had fled during the bombing were gradually returning to their city. People were entitled to live in abandoned houses. Gradually a normal life set in again. The stores reopened, although they did not have anything to sell. Meanwhile the British soldiers cleared the ruins, retrieving from the debris corpses impossible to identify. A foul smell spread over the whole city. Streets were strewn with furniture, doors and broken windows, but not for long -- since anyone could grab a piece of wood to fill up an opening in a house or shelter, or use it to make a door or a window frame. No thought was given to appearance or color, as long as the lumber could serve a purpose.
Ration tickets appeared. Beja got food through the American military trains. And in order to get a piece of bread, one had to stand on very long lines everyday. My father found a solution to this problem. He made an agreement with the baker who gave us our bread; in return for our bread, my father made shoes for his family.
On the whole, food was insufficient. My father loathed the idea of a black market; as for me, I saw nothing wrong with it. The local authorities could not supply our needs, while the Americans benefited from a surplus of goods. It could not hurt them if one were to think of taking a small portion away from them, I reasoned. I thought it was rather silly to respect the law considering the dire conditions under which we lived. Therefore I decided to make a deal with the Americans. I would get tickets for wine and, in exchange, I would receive corned beef and other goods. Thank God Beja was the last stop for all trains carrying Americans to Bizerte. That made it easy for me to barter and obtain food, clothing, blankets and even dollars - a currency new to me since I was seeing it for the first time in my life.
My business became so successful that I soon needed a place to store all the goods I was accumulating. I made arrangements with an old woman who had an empty warehouse, and in exchange for its use I gave her chocolate, cookies and canned food. Soldiers soon found out about this warehouse, and every day they would line up, exchanging their belongings for eggs and wine. As soon as the trains were gone, the inhabitants of Beja would come to replenish their larders with fresh supplies. Unfortunately the police discovered my business, searched the premises and took over my warehouse. I was furious! I could not find any justification for their behavior. Why did they prohibit me from making my deals? I was not hurting anybody. Quite the contrary, I was helpful to the refugees who could not find anything anywhere else. In addition, wine was very important to the soldiers who went to the front. My prices even varied according to the monetary means of the individual customer. The poor, for example, were not expected to pay for anything. Therefore I was furious, but I did not panic -- being somehow confident that the situation could be improved. After all, the American colonel did indeed appreciate my services.
I visited the colonel in a freight car which he used as an office. I was in tears when I told him the whole story. He listened to me very carefully and tried to calm me down by assuring me that everything would turn out all right. He then called ten soldiers and ordered them to go and free my warehouse -- an action that went far beyond my fondest hopes. By now I had stopped crying, and I followed the ten soldiers. I was certainly well on the way to getting back my belongings. However, things were to become rough. The soldiers did not bother to give any explanation to the policemen guarding the warehouse. They simply grabbed them by the neck and pushed them out, ordering them not to bother me again. The policemen complied sheepishly but threatened to take their revenge as soon as the Americans were gone.
The colonel had taken a liking to me, and sometimes we would spend hours together. His help exceeded my expectations. I even had two soldiers standing guard at the entrance to my warehouse, and this allowed me to work in peace.
Being prosperous in my work did not make me selfish, not at all. I really felt for these soldiers who went to the front to fight for our freedom. I respected and admired their love for justice. And no sooner did a train leave the station than I found myself praying for them. But in the evening, trains would return filled with wounded soldiers, and that made me sad. I would recognize faces that I had seen a few days earlier. I offered them wine or fresh water, according to their wishes. I also gave them coats and capes made from blankets I had received from them. I was able, fortunately, even to recognize the voices of some of the soldiers whose faces were covered with bloody bandages.
Although the station was guarded, I could walk in and out freely -- which made the station master envious of my privileges.
Bizerte was finally liberated. But, the railroad traffic had not slowed down. Soldiers were now going to Italy to fight, but still traveling through Bizerte. We would get the news over the radio, or by way of the wounded soldiers who came back to us. Numerous trains carried Italian prisoners; they seemed to be happy that the fighting was over for them.
Italians do not like fighting. For many centuries, the Mediterranean has had a beneficial influence on its neighboring nations by imbuing them with peaceful feelings. The long reign of the Greeks and Romans belonged to an ancient past, during which that sea was tormented. But these warriors have disappeared, leaving a Mediterranean that is once again calm. Blessed with sunshine all through the year, the sea appears serene -- with its soft waves, sweet winds and fragrant perfumes.
The martial spirit prevalent among the Middle Eastern nations hardly matches the symbol of the Mediterranean -- a blue sea serving as a link between two coasts that hold such a variety of nations, with their different political and religious backgrounds. This Blue Sea cannot be denied. Foreigners, when they first come upon her, are seduced by the atmosphere of love and generosity that she generates. After all, she nurtures people. One cannot resist her charm and beauty; her golden, finely-sanded beaches are universally appreciated. Germans, Americans and British have also had contact with all her benign qualities, but sadly under unfortunate circumstances.