My family survived the Deir Yassin massacre – 75 years later, we still demand justice

Dina Elmuti

Mondoweiss  /  April 9, 2023

On this day 75 years ago, my grandmother and her family survived the Deir Yassin Massacre in 1948. I inherited my family’s memories, the scars that come with them, and the duty never to forget.

The terraced stone homes of Deir Yassin stand seemingly undisturbed behind the locked gates of the Kfar Shaul psychiatric hospital compound. Virtually suspended in time and inaccessible to the public, it’s a fitting metaphor for the sustained concealment of the atrocities committed there. 

Seventy-five years ago today, April 9, the quiet stonecutter village of Deir Yassin became the site of the massacre that continues to reverberate with chilling significance for the Palestinian people. 

On my first visit to Deir Yassin in 1998 — on the massacre’s 50th anniversary — I walked down its quarry-studded pathways and admired the flowering prickly cactus plants leading to my grandmother’s family home.  Her words still echo in my head, each syllable striking my mind like the knives that spilled the blood of the villagers.

“Never forget what happened here. Inscribe it in stone. Engrave it in your heart forever,” she had pleaded to me, tapping her fingers against her chest. 

For many Nakba survivors – Al-Nakba, the Catastrophe of 1948 – the most minute details of the atrocities they witnessed remain fresh in their memories as though they happened yesterday. My grandmother recalled the stench of bloodied corpses, and the gruesome sight of her grandfather’s contorted, bullet-riddled body strewn on their home’s front steps. 

Photo of the author’s grandmother, Fatima Asad, seeing her family home in Deir Yassin behind the fence. Even though it wasn’t the first time she was seeing her home after the massacre, this photo captured the shock and heartache written on her face upon seeing occupants on the balcony of her home. (Photo courtesy of Dina Elmuti)

The trauma that our elders experienced during the Nakba inhabits our beings and becomes a part of us. Generations later, it lances through our bodies and leaves a soul wound. The intergenerational transmission of trauma in the grandchildren of Nakba survivors is a wordless story. 

No words of any human language can ever fully describe the atrocities committed in Deir Yassin, or any of Israel’s successive massacres. It’s a unique torment that flashes through our veins with severity, a waking nightmare that settles on our chests, grips our throats, and opens our mouths to soundless cries. 

When my grandmother died, I felt the immense grief of losing my first storyteller. It became an urgent duty to keep the Nakba narratives alive after the remaining survivors die, and the detailed horrors fade from living memory. 

My first visit to Deir Yassin drove me to explore the historical memory surrounding the Nakba, and has continued to underscore my entire life as a trauma social worker and storyteller. 

Targets for elimination

On the morning of April 9, 1948, the village of Deir Yassin felt the breath of death. By mid-afternoon, the streets were a bloody slaughterhouse and graveyard of unspeakable horrors. Zionist forces beat, stabbed, lined up and executed villagers – firing squad-style. Their violence and rage expanded beyond the execution of captive villagers. Surviving villagers, like my great uncle Dawud, who was 17 years-old at the time of the massacre, affirmed that Zionist forces terrorized, robbed, raped, brutalized, and blasted villagers with hand grenades. They crushed, bayoneted, and eviscerated the abdomens of pregnant women while they were still alive, and maimed and beheaded children in front of their own parents.

Everyone, from the unborn and nursing infants to the elderly, was a target for elimination

Nearly two-thirds of the massacred consisted of children, women, and elderly men above the age of 60. Zionist thugs hauled several bodies to the village stone quarry where they buried and burned them. Unnerved by the barbarities, they ate with gusto next to charred corpses

Bullet-pierced cactus plants outside Deir Yassin (Photo courtesy of Dina Elmuti)

The death toll of the massacre fell between 110 and 140 villagers, though Irgun commanders exaggerated the toll to 254 to escalate the terror and trigger the mass expulsion of Palestinians from neighbouring towns and villages. 

Today, Deir Yassin serves as the DNA of our current Nakba, remaining a haunting emblem of erasure and the ongoing systematic dispossession and forced displacement of Palestinians. Since then, the denialism and propagated myths at the core of the Zionist ideology have allowed for the state-sanctioned violence committed against Palestinians. 

Incapacity to forget 

The deliberate destruction of memory is intrinsic to the genocidal process, but it’s impossible to forget the unforgettable. Or something that has never actually ended. The Nakba did not begin or end in 1948. It remains an ongoing catastrophe, trauma upon trauma compounded. 

When it comes to forgetting such catastrophes, one borders on immorality, cruelty, or the reprehensible. To deny the suffering of victims is to deny the facts, history, and memory itself. For anyone in the world, this response would approach the incomprehensible and the unthinkable. 

For everyone except the Palestinian people. 

Forgetting, or rather denying, that massacres ever occurred has been reprehensibly common in the discourse surrounding the Nakba. References to the memory of survivors are often met with defiance and denial, their testimonies fraught with contention and controversy. These testimonies, however, continue to disrupt a discourse of veiled cruelty, enabling the enduring struggle against the imposition of silence and forgetting. 

Memories that threaten and shatter the integrity of a state are difficult to reconcile with its present trajectory and image, which is why Zionists continue to defame and label everything as antisemitic. Zionists portray themselves as the victims, claiming their suffering and existential threat through deliberate acts of memory manipulation and wilful distortion, thereby reducing their own culpability. 

This is a psychic defense or psychological pathology. The psychiatric hospital expanded all over the blood and bones of family homes in Deir Yassin in itself symbolizes a nation’s suppressed subconscious past of denial. A nation reborn from the ashes of the Palestinian people. 

A duty to remember 

The fire was extinguished from Deir Yassin 75 years ago, leaving in its wake a charred impression, the stains of which no amount of cleansing or denial could ever eliminate. The scale of the import of the systematic assaults committed by Zionists remains largely unrecognized, and generations of the architects that planned the Nakba and the butchers carried it out continue to go to their graves without repentance

But the Palestinian people are not desperate for a semblance of recognition or fake remorse. Our memories, narratives, and lives exist. They have always existed. The onus to protect and preserve our memories and collective narrative, in the face of every attempt to erase them, will remain ours to carry. 

We will continue to shatter the façade of deliberate distortions and disrupt the arrogant silence surrounding the Nakba. We will continue to resist, narrate, and prevent its memory from calcifying into the erased and forgotten. 

Like the bullet-riddled cactus plants that bear the scars of Deir Yassin – blooming out of carnage and destruction – we will remain a thorn in the side of the occupation. We will continue to name the victims and tell the stories of those who struggle for their lives and dignity with determination, transmuting trauma into steadfastness. 

We inherited the duty to never forget what happened, to inscribe it in our memories forever. 

Dina Elmuti is a trauma social worker and clinician, with a background in developmental trauma, early childhood adversity, and generational trauma; she has worked with NGOs serving children in Palestine and refugee and immigrant communities in Chicago