One Saturday morning this past January on a trip to the West Bank with American-Jewish doctors, I spent several hours at a mobile clinic staffed by Israeli-Jewish doctors from Physicians for Human Rights, Israel, and Palestinian doctors from the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees. In a West Bank village, Mas’ha, a modest house was turned into an improvised clinic, where doctors from our group provided medical care alongside their Israeli and Palestinian counterparts. A draconian system of “internal closure” (under which no one can leave a village or city without Israeli permission) and checkpoints has closed off all access to regular healthcare. Mobile clinics bring some minimal medical attention to the beleaguered population.
Eighty-two-year-old Pnina Failer, a former nurse, is a regular volunteer for the PHR/UPMRC Saturday clinics. She is the mother of Dror Failer, a 52-year-old saxophonist-composer married to the Swedish artist Gunilla Skold-Failer. The Failers’s installation in Stockholm, Snow White and the Madness of Truth, made international headlines last January when Israel’s ambassador to Sweden physically attacked the artwork, claiming that it glorified Palestinian suicide bombers.
She was born Pnina Naijdorf (“New Village”) in 1923 in Lodz, Poland. Among her earliest memories is a magazine to which her family subscribed, Literary News, which featured progressive writers. “I also read many books, including Forty Days of Mossadegh and Knut Hamsun’s writing. For a girl of 11, 12, 13, they made an impact. We also got a pamphlet called The Brown Book about the Fascist way of dealing with Jews and Communists in Italy. I still remember the pictures of people who were given oil, which makes you have diarrhea; they had to move their bowels without removing their trousers. And I learned about the Civil War in Spain. We were not Zionists. My father died when I was one and a half years old. We had a cousin in the United States, Albert Epstein, who was a Zionist. He tried to influence my mother to go to Palestine. My mother wasn’t enthusiastic. Her whole family was in Poland, and Palestine looked like some Asiatic country. But we went in September 1938. He promised her she can go back if she doesn’t like it, but of course we couldn’t go back.”
The arrest of Pnina’s brother, David, clinched the decision to emigrate. “He was four years older than me and he was a member of the Communist Party, which was illegal. They would make small demonstrations in the street: Someone would get up and begin to speak and a small crowd would gather. They would disperse before the police came. On one occasion my brother [then a gymnasium student with no criminal record] was caught by the police. Someone came to our house and said, ‘You must clean everything because people are coming to search.’ My mother threw everything in a reservoir of water. They came at night–I pretended to be asleep–they looked [everywhere, even] under the mattress, and found nothing. But the lawyer my mother hired said he would still be sent four and a half years for re-education to a concentration camp called Bereza Kartuska unless he declares that he is a Zionist. If he’s a Zionist he can’t be a Communist, and they will let him go. He wanted to be a hero and not declare himself a Zionist, but my mother cried and implored. Finally he had a trial and said, ‘What do you want? I am going to an agricultural school in Israel called Mikvah Israel’ [now a boarding school in Holon, near Tel Aviv]. He went there to study agriculture but quite soon he became involved with the Communist movement, which was also illegal [under the British occupation.] He was in the Communist Party a long time, and then he joined the British Army as a driver because there was a war against fascism.”