It's often cold and rainy in the Gaza Strip in February, and 1949 was no different. The pelting winter rains had arrived and so had Al Holtz.
Al recalls stepping off the military train into Gaza town, "You couldn't see a thing. Jet black. Kelly [Peckham] and I jumped off the train with our little satchels and stood there and looked around a minute. There were something close to a quarter million refugees in Gaza by the time we arrived, plus the local population."
"It was raining and cold," AFSC worker Marshall Sutton remembers, "People were cold. They didn't have shelter. The immensity of the problem was boggling." These three men, recently released from an alternative to military service in Civilian Public Service camps, were some of the first group of AFSC relief workers sent to the Gaza Strip to set up and administer assistance to displaced Palestinians.
Beginning relief work
"Of course our immediate mission, because none of us knew anything about Arabs or Arabic," says Al, "was to scurry around and find suitable personnel who would at least act as our interpreters." In the first months of '49 there were twenty staff. They worked through organizing the operations and were assigned to the various refugee camps scattered along the Gaza strip. The work in each of the camps was primarily the same: distributing relief supplies and administering medical relief, technical know-how, and social welfare as funds and energy would allow.
Tens of thousands of people passed through the distribution centers and clinics each day, and reports from AFSC staff reveal how the faces, families, and histories of individual refugees left lasting impressions.
Josina Vreede Burger recalled her initial impressions of Gaza and of the generosity of spirit she witnessed even in those who had nothing. "I remember the first days when we didn't have a clinic I used to walk through the camp and look at what was going on, try to understand a little. It was all so rainy and cold. There was an old man sitting in front of the house where he stayed that was an old prison cell. In the cell there was so much water. He had a piece of paper, and he had put on it a stone, and he knelt behind it for breakfast. He had a piece of bread and two dates. . . . I passed, and I felt so really ashamed that we had such a good life. So I said, "Good morning." Those were the first words I learned. He looked up and said, 'Oh, a thousand mornings to you!' I felt so touched, so nice. This smile. I thought he would be angry, but no."
A Quaker presence
While these personal accounts bring home the enormity of the task, the misery of the situation, and the undaunted spirit of the refugee and AFSC staff alike, they also tell of the unique Quaker nature of the effort. Paul Johnson explains, "The simplest illustration was that we were probably fifty Quakers at any time doing work that eight Red Cross staff were doing second-hand. They didn't identify with people. They lived separately in guarded houses. . . . We lived as close as we could live and still remain active at the level of local folks. I will say we were stingy with our own food [but] . . . were open and present and among the people all the time. If we sent a staff member and a Palestinian assistant out to a milk station or a feeding place, there you were. There were 10,000 refugees who were getting rations that day. We weren't working through somebody else's hands. We were working as best we could through our own, and I think that's what constitutes a Quaker presence."
By the time the United Nations took over the operations in 1950, more than 100 men and women had worked in Gaza under the AFSC program, most in their twenties or early thirties, many of them with little or no experience in relief work. But as boggling as the task appeared, the AFSC work embraced nearly every aspect of refugee life including the disbursement of food, blankets, tents, the creation of schools, maternity centers, metal shops, and recreation clubs.
Two decades later when AFSC worker Russ Rosene applied for a relief position with another agency, he recalls the almost legendary knowledge of AFSC's Gaza work. "It shows here," his interviewer commented, "that you were in the Gaza Strip in 1949 and '50. Tell me just what kind of magic went on?"
Perhaps Al Holtz answered that question best when he said, "A funny thing there is that we did so much, and we did it so well because we were so naive. We did things we couldn't do, but we didn't know we couldn't do them."
- Researched and written by Joan Lowe