History lesson: He learned and forgot nothing

How did a professor from Oxford wind up in our provincial corner of the Levant? The answer is apparently family related.

Jezreel valley 311 (photo credit: Joe Yudin)
Jezreel valley 311
(photo credit: Joe Yudin)
Without a doubt, the history teacher at the regional school I went to, Dr. Yizhak Aviv, was an odd bird. As thin as a rail and very tall, he was impeccably dressed in a tailored jacket better suited to Oxford where he came from than to the rural school he found himself in.
I imagine he regarded the kibbutz kids in the school as savages in dire need of someone like him to civilize them, much as the missionaries in Africa, Asia and South America regarded the natives there.
None of us understood what the professor wanted from us when he inexplicably refused to allow us to come to school, as we always had, in the brown plaid zip-up slippers that were standard issue on the kibbutz.
In the winter he forbade us to wear our parkas in the unheated classroom, and in the summer he placed a strict ban on flip-flops, to say nothing of bare feet.
How did a professor from Oxford wind up in our provincial corner of the Levant? The answer is apparently family related.
He was married to the daughter of Shunia, our fabled school librarian. Shunia shared with Elizabeth Taylor the color purple, but while that color made the actress’s eyes stand out, on the old librarian it did the same for her nose.
“Shh” Shunia hissed at anyone who showed up in her library. I used to wonder if librarians hushed everyone at home the same way. But I’m not here to talk about Shunia and her fellow librarians, so I’ll get back to the point.
It was obvious that Dr. Aviv loved history. “Oxford – that’s where they do history,” he used to say, a reference to the exhaustive research, the long hours spent in musty archives, and perhaps the earnest academic atmosphere of the old buildings, green lawns, and ancient pubs where the décor looks natural and authentic, not glued on and out of place.
Dr. Aviv felt a deep emotional connection to events that took place centuries ago. It was instantly clear from his tone which historical figures he favored and which he didn’t.
His words dripped with contempt and disgust when he spoke of those he didn’t fancy. He found the Polish particularly worthy of disdain, ridiculing them mercilessly and speaking of the “poor Poles” who were conquered by one neighbor or another throughout their history.
Dr. Aviv’s ridicule was nearly as painful as the conquest itself. He also had contempt for the Holy Roman Empire, which, he explained, was not an empire but just a conglomeration of principalities. And it wasn’t Roman either, but German, and it was not holy either.
I remember when I was in the IDF I sometimes heard him giving a lecture on Army Radio. One night it was about the Spanish Civil War.
Even on my little transistor radio, I could hear the contempt in his voice that told me right away where his sympathies lay.
But there was a special place in the professor’s heart for the French Revolution.
It was the subject of his dissertation, and he knew it as intimately as if he himself had manned the barricades on the cobbled streets of France, throwing stones with one hand and raising the tricolor flag with the other. He described to us the bloodbath during the revolution and the guillotines working overtime, and how Napoleon emerged as the leader of the republic, proclaimed himself emperor, and launched a campaign to conquer Europe. When he told us about the restoration of the monarchy and the return of the Bourbon dynasty, he quoted a French saying from that era: The Bourbons, it was said, “had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.”
In other words, they didn’t learn from their past how to conduct themselves, and didn’t forget the bad habits that had led to their downfall.
Recent events have caused me to remember Dr. Aviv. I was reminded of him by the son of another distinguished historian. It seems as if the prime minister, whose father was a history professor, has learned nothing from the election results and forgotten none of his bad habits: Don’t change anything, don’t make any decisions, just hold tight to the reins of power and do as little as possible.
Translated from the Hebrew by Sara Kitai, [email protected]