Many countries – and many families – have some tradition of territory, or property, which used to be theirs, and is now someone else’s. The memory, even though it may relate to events far in the past, is sometimes still charged with bitterness.
A classic example is the region known as Alsace-Lorraine, sandwiched between France and Germany. After the war of 1871, when it was “lost” to Germany, the French, who had a statue representing that province in the Place de la Concorde, used to perform an annual wreath-laying ceremony there, and kept the statue permanently covered with a black veil. Since then, of course, that whole disputed area has been “possessed” back and forth several times, although thankfully, with that corner of the world no longer considered a tinderbox, the Alsace-Lorraine region has ceased to be a bone of contention.
Another well-known instance is that of the so-called “Holy Land” which had already been at issue between various tribes and peoples for many centuries, before its occupants, by then known as “Jews,” were expelled by the Romans, about two millennia ago. Remarkably, although living in “exile” and dispersed all over the world, virtually until our own time, and often savagely persecuted, that people, clinging to their religion and to the memory of an ancient “homeland,” never gave up hope of a “return.” The traditional Passover service always ended with the pious expression “Next Year, in Jerusalem.”
As you know, this was one of the rare cases in history in which the myth of a return actually became a reality – although even today, when every person legitimately claiming to be Jewish has a “right of return” most of the world’s Jews still choose to live outside of the “Jewish State” of Israel.
But the supreme irony is that, in the course of creating this new state, many of its then-residents, generally called Arabs but now known as Palestinians, were displaced – and it is they who now suffer that tragically familiar yearning to return to their old homeland.
Yet another sad instance of this phenomenon is to be found in the part of eastern Turkey once known – until just over a century ago – as Armenia. I have visited that region – and, although it is still littered with ruins and vestiges of an ancient culture, those people are gone. What became of the Armenians? Those who were unable to escape, were exterminated during the First World War, in one of the great modern instances of “ethnic cleansing” – which the Turkish government still refuses to acknowledge.
There is, however, still an Armenia, an independent republic just east of Turkey, which was formerly part of the Soviet Union. But here comes another irony: the famous mountain called Ararat, which is still where it has always been (yes, the same mountain specified in the Bible as the place where Noah’s Ark came to rest, after the Great Flood), was once considered the heart of Armenia. It is now in eastern Turkey, but clearly visible from Yerevan, the capital of the current Armenian Republic. And that Republic’s national emblem, or “coat of arms,” has that mountain as its central feature! But the border between Turkey and the Republic of Armenia remains closed, as it has been for many decades.
My late wife’s family – if I may move from the international to the personal – was afflicted with this same “lost land” psychosis. Her great-grandfather, a retired clipper-ship captain from the East Coast, had chosen to settle in Santa Barbara in the 1870s, and had purchased 80 acres, built a fine house, and raised a family, in an area called “The Mesa,” which was then sparsely inhabited.
Fortunately or unfortunately, that land, for various reasons, increased greatly in value, and after the Captain had died and the family scattered, it was sold. The house was demolished, and, after going through periods of exploitation as an oilfield and an airfield, the land was eventually given over to the blocks of housing which cover it today. But when I married into that family, I had to get used to hearing the current generations still lamenting the “loss” of that idyllic property, and the rustic lifestyle it had once made possible.
I used to fantasize about buying back the house in London where I lived to age five, which is still there, but which my family “lost” as a result of World War II. In my personal mythology, it was the only place where I had ever been truly happy.