By Boris Shusteff
. . . If you love your mother, would not you hate the man who sought to kill her: would you not hate him and fight him at the cost, if needs be, of your own life?......(Menachem Begin, The Revolt)
In his novel The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years the famous Kirghiz writer Chingiz Aitmatov recalled an ancient Kirghiz legend about the mankurts. The legend tells of a tribe, long ago, that was extremely cruel to enemies that it captured. Sometimes they sold their prisoners into slavery, and this would be very lucky for the captives since sooner or later the slave would have a chance to escape and return to his homeland. Meanwhile, the fate of the prisoners who remained in the hands of this tribe was far worse. The tribesmen destroyed their memory through a terrible torture. After tying their hands and legs, they would place raw camel hide on the prisoners' shaven heads and abandon them in the steppe without food and water for several days in the full blaze of the sun.
Most of the prisoners would die within several days. They succumbed not to thirst or hunger but to the unbearable, inhuman tortures of the sun. The raw hide dried out fast and compressed their heads like an iron hoop. These vices that gripped their heads would squeeze the last sparks of memory and sanity out of them. After five days of this torture, if any of the prisoners were still alive, they were untied, fed, and given water. A lot of effort was devoted to their recuperation. They were called mankurts. Aitmatov wrote:
"A mankurt did not know where he was from. He did not know his name, did not remember his childhood, his farther and his mother - to say it more simply, a mankurt did not realize that he is a human being. ...He was just like a speechless creature and therefore subdued and harmless. He never dreamt of escape. For any slave-owner the worst thing is a slave's revolt. Every slave is a potential rebel. A mankurt was the only exception; he made no attempts whatsoever to rebel, to be disobedient."
Forcefully purged of all memory, the mankurt, like a dog, acknowledged only his master. He needed only to be fed. This was enough for him to perform the most unpleasant and difficult work without complaint. Therefore, there was a rule among the tribesmen that the compensation for a killed slave-mankurt was three times greater than that for a killed free fellow tribesman.
Although this legend is several hundred years old, it is not irrelevant, since there was an attempt in this century to recreate these mankurts. During the rule of the Third Reich in Germany, Nazi scientists experimented with drugs trying to find a formula that would allow them to produce these mankurts in vast amounts. They wanted to create people without memories, human machine-slaves that would perform different sorts of work. One can learn about the attempts to create these men-horses, men-blacksmiths, men-weavers, men-bakers from the famous documentary movie "Ordinary Fascism," directed by Michail Romm.
Fortunately, the Nazis did not succeed. It is extremely difficult to destroy one's memory. Aitmatov wrote in his novel, "It is much easier to decapitate a person, to harm him in any cruel way than to deprive him of memory, to destroy his mind, to extract the roots of something that remains with a human being till his last breath, that is his only acquisition, that will disappear together with him and that is inaccessible to others."
How has it happened that the Jews have arrived at a situation when they are ready to give up their memory voluntarily? How is it that a people that has survived against all possible and impossible odds only by preserving its memory, has turned into a people without memory, a people of mankurts?
We want to forget everything. We want to forget that God told us to conquer and settle the Land. We want to forget twenty centuries of yearning for the Land. We want to forget the millions of our brethren massacred, tortured, slaughtered, butchered, and gassed without having the chance to return to Eretz Yisrael. Moses warned us, "When you have all you want to eat and have built good houses to live in and when your cattle and sheep, your silver and gold, and all your other possessions have increased, be sure that you do not become proud and forget the Lord your God who rescued you from Egypt, where you were slaves" (Deuteronomy 8:12-14).
We never completely cast off the yoke of slavery from our souls. We forgot our God and embraced the gods of the Western civilization. We forgot that we are Jews, the people chosen by God to live as a moral "light unto the nations" (Isaiah 49:6), and that our "chosenness confers neither privilege nor superiority, only obligation and suffering - 'Since I have known only you of all the people of the earth, I will visit upon you all your sins' (Amos 3:2)" (1)
Judging by the amount of suffering that has befallen us, we are definitely the chosen people. Why, then, accepting these sufferings, do we want to forget the other parts of the Covenant between us and God? Let us have at least our Land intact in our possession. Let us settle it as we were ordered by God. Let us show to the world that we remember who we are and what our destiny is. Then, as Moses said, "You will live a long time in the rich and fertile land that the Lord promised to give your ancestors and their descendants" (Deuteronomy 11:9).
There is a terrifying epilogue to the mankurt legend. One mother did not want to believe that her son, who had became a mankurt, would not recognize her. Although it was unbearably painful for her to see her son's empty eyes with no glimpse of memory whatsoever she attempted to perform a miracle. With all her motherly love and patience, for two long days, she tried to restore in the mankurt's head the events of his forgotten past. All was in vain. Then the mankurt's master noticed her. He told the mankurt that the woman was dangerous and gave him a bow and arrows. When, on the third day the mother returned, an arrow sent by the mankurt's hand pierced her heart - the son killed his mother.
Eretz Yisrael is the mother of the Jewish people. She gave us our name. She lead us through our childhood. She gave us our culture and our holidays. It is with her that we received our Book. All that has made us unique we have gained thanks to her. When we were torn away from her, when we were forcefully separated from her, all our thoughts and desires were directed towards returning to her bosom. We shed oceans of tears dreaming of her. Her name was on our lips with our last breath.
It is one thing to be forced to abandon her. It is another to forget about her. However, nothing can be worse than to return to her, embrace her, use her bread and water, and then to strike her with a knife. No human being can do that. A mankurt can. A mankurt can cut her body piece by piece not hearing her weeping, her howl of despair. A mankurt can do this because he is deprived of memory, and has no feelings; he is not human but a scarecrow that only looks like a man. [04/14/99]
1.. Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin: Why the Jews? p.43
Boris Shusteff is an engineer in upstate New York. He is also a research associate with the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies.