August 20, 2012
We were out the door again at 8 with our bags packed as we'd be lodging in Tel Aviv that evening. The day's activities began on the outskirts of Jerusalem though, as we attended Yad Vashem, the Israeli museum-memorial to the Holocaust (above). After World War II, about a third of Israelis, including those who fought in the 1948 War Of Independence, were holocaust survivors. This of course had a big effect on Israeli society, and the tribute is the largest of any around the world.
We began our tour of the museum, which is built around a gorgeous tree-lined valley with stark giant walls of limestone, by watching a movie about a particular survivor from Salonika, Greece. I found this particularly fascinating not because of his story, which is all too similar to every other holocaust survivor. These events were carried out in a brutal methodical fashion that begets a sameness in the events of the stories. However, this survivor came from Greece, a place we don't usually associate with the Holocaust.
At the time, the city was predominantly populated by Sephardic Jews, who didn't work typical Ashkenazi jobs like doctor, jeweler, and lawyer, but rather ran the docks. The Jewish population there was so dominant that the sabbath was observed in this fishing village on Saturday and not Sunday. When the Nazis began their occupation of Greece in 1941, Jewish life in the city came crumbling down. They humiliated the leading community figures in public and eventually executed them. By the end of the war, 96% of Grecian Jews were killed: a higher percentage than any other country in Europe.
The man whose story we followed survived Auschwitz through a combination of hard work and extreme luck, and till his dying days he wondered how he was able to escape such a place while so many people he held in higher regard did not. Because he was a simple young man from a fishing village, whom his mother thought would not amount to much more than a dock worker, he may have gone under the radar and was able to return to a city that no longer resembled the one he was forced to leave. His family was all exterminated, but by some chance, he was able to reunite with and marry the woman whom he courted in Auschwitz, living out the rest of his long life in Saloniki and building a family despite the fact that his wife was presumed to be made sterile in prison—she was helped by a subversive French doctor who didn't alter her organs after the incision. It was a remarkable story, allowing us to connect with a survivor rather than just the artifacts of the time.
We next headed into the museum to view the immense relics of the Holocaust. Most people loved the museum guide and felt engaged by his dissertation on the difficult subject. I was personally turned off by his abrasive teaching style from the outset, as he repeatedly said things like, "When I ask you a question I expect an answer," and, "It's not hard! Tell me your name before speaking." He seemed more pushy than guiding, and his comments came off to me as slanted.
I didn't expect him to be supportive of the Holocaust by any means, but I found his statements to be hypocritical. Where on one hand he would say the Nazis were original in the scope of their antisemitism and had come to their conclusions about Jews on their own, he would later claim they used historic methods of antisemitism to denigrate Jews. He said this was done with the purpose of making Jews think their brand of antisemitism was no different than what had come before in history in an attempt to deceive Jews of their greater malice. This may all be true, but it also begs the question that maybe the Nazis did such things because that is what they themselves learned to do through the lessons of history without necessarily hiding some hidden ultimate agenda of extermination, at least early in their reign. More to the point, he portrayed the Nazis as being both original in their hatred and unoriginal in their ideas, as if to make them out as wholly evil but also stupid. He would call Jews who did not fight and were forced into concentration camps heroes while German bystanders were deemed cowards. He said himself that all sense of morality goes out the window when your life is endanger in reference to the Warsaw ghetto uprising, but this philosophy did not appear to extend to anybody who was not Jewish. There simply seemed to be a double standard to his remarks, trying to make both the Jews seem greater and the Nazis seem worse than they actually were, which in my opinion obscured the actual history that to any decent person would make it clear how horrific the events were.
As we moved through the exhibitions, I began paying less attention to the guide and more to the items that interested me, which I found more rewarding. The building itself was a brilliant piece of architecture with great aesthetic and symbolic beauty. The cement walls provided an austere look to echo the tragedy. The main hall was triangular in shape with a skinny skylight running the length of the room giving the feeling that the walls were closing in over top. As you passed deeper into the museum, towards the exhibitions featuring the most harrowing events, the skylight became narrower, letting less light into the hall, while the exit again opened up to a wash of sunlight and a grand vista across the Israeli hillsides, displaying the development that has blossomed from the ashes of the Jewish slaughter across Europe.
After the museum we stopped at a nearby shopping center for lunch, where there were some more exotic food options including sushi and pad thai. Personally, I opted for a chicken salad at a more regionally oriented restaurant. One of the fascinating consequences of starting a new Israeli state is the lack of an extensive food culture. The history of the land may be long, but the confluence of modern Israelis and local ingredients has been a short-lived affair. It is a largely desert land with limited water resources. Meals are dominated by dairy products such as yogurt and cheese, beef, chicken, rice, cucumbers, tomatoes, and garbanzo beans. Despite the fact that it is on the Mediterranean, seafood was never featured in any meals I had, and at one point I was told most fish were imported. Faced with this ingredient base and the lack of a large East Asian immigrant population, I had no reason to trust such dishes in Israel. It's just not a part of the culture at this moment in time. I'd rather trust the ingredients I've seen driving through the countryside: cucumber, tomato, and chicken.
After lunch, we drove to nearby Mt. Herzl, viewing the great Israeli military cemetery named for one of the foremost leaders of the Zionist movement. Theodor Herzl asked that his remains be buried in Israel if a state were ever formed, so, despite the fact that a war for independence had hardly been completed, he was laid to rest in 1949 at the peak of the mountain that would later bare his name on the outskirts of Jersusalem.
Those of us who'd been to Arlington National Cemetery immediately began making comparisons. I believe what we universally found most striking was the amount of care that went towards every one of the graves. Each was marked by a full garden plot that resembled a bed with plants growing from the covers and an engraved stone pillow commemorating the person sitting at the head. Generals laid beside privates, marking solidarity between all soldiers and their efforts, and a newer memorial noted commemorated civilians who died in terrorist attacks, giving them a place beside Israel's great leaders and military figures. While I found the care and landscaping afforded to each grave a wonderful show of respect, I did not hold it higher in regard than Arlington as many of my peers did. While Israel tries to personally memorialize each and every person, America's military cemeteries are built around the concept of the unknown soldier. Despite the fact that most of the graves in Arlington feature names, the cemetery is most striking due to its sheer breadth of stones covering field after field, which, even if one wanted, would take an unfathomable amount of time to individually recognize. They are both beautiful sites that due justice to those who served and perished within the context of their respective cultures.
While at the site, the Israeli soldiers led a short service to expose us to the solemnity around Memorial Day. As everyone in Israel serves in the military, there is no Veteran's Day, and Memorial Day is a much bigger event because everyone knows somebody who lost their life to defend the state. During the service, we came upon some cultural dilemmas, such as: Israelis do not clap at the end of memorial presentations. Fortunately, we were told of this in advance, but I still felt the impulse on several occasions to show my respect to those who spoke or sang, instead finding that I had to pay that tribute through silence. We were also caught off guard by what to do during the national anthem. While in America we would remove all head coverings, that felt contrary to Jewish practice, so several of us reached for our hats before deciding to leave them in place, taking our cues from the soldiers, whose berets remained on their heads.
Perhaps the most fascinating moment was when a training unit of Israeli officers passed us by. We turned and stared in their direction, observing, trying to discern what this cemetery meant to them and perhaps learn how to behave and respect the memorial as they would. However, our stares were returned by equally penetrating gazes, as they no doubt wondered what this site meant to a group of foreigners. How curious that a group of strangers would come to view our cemetery. Now equally conscious of each other, our probing looks continued as fervently as ever, and as time progressed, our thoughts shifted from, What does this cemetery mean to them?, to, Who are these people?
They marched past us in a single file line, weaving through the graves, and we saw up close the youth of the Israeli soldier. Our Israeli companions were mostly completing their service, but those who walked by us, training to take their place, were all of 18 or 19 years old, wielding automatic weapons that bounced at their sides. They were five or six years my junior holding the security of a nation constantly under threat in their hands. They seemed innocent, proud to serve, diverse in personality and background, but united by a body language that seemed to say they would rather be out of uniform exploring their lives as young adults. It was a sentiment I had heard from our companion soldiers, but to see it in their eyes of these Israelis as they marched by, aching, with sagging shoulders, hit home in a totally different way. I wondered, How would I act in such a situation?, and, How would I have handled it when I was 18?
Observing Theodor Herzl's grave. [taken by Natalie Nissan]
[taken by Natalie Nissan]
[courtesy of Natalie Nissan]
[taken by Stephanie Sherwood]
[taken by Samantha Gellman]
As the afternoon waned we departed Jerusalem, off to the modern Israeli epicenter: Tel Aviv. We spent the night at a sports training complex where junior soccer players ran up and down the hallways kicking a soccer ball. As if to counter the dark theme to the day's activities, we were given the evening to hang out in a modern shopping-restaurant development along the Mediterranean. In one of the trip's moments of pure unvarnished joy, I sat with three of my close friends passing around a bottle of wine, sipping in the atmosphere, the stars, the gentle ripple of waves in the wharf, and each other's company. We were at the Mediterranean. We were in Israel, and we were sharing it with people we'd come to care for. The four of us soon parted ways, going off to hang with other people in other places, but years from now, I know that will be the moment we will all hold onto from that night, and perhaps hold as a highlight of the trip, when location, company, and culture came together in such a positive way.
Although Israelis tend to go out later, we headed back to our hotel by 12:30, taking our last full night's sleep in beds before our trip came to a close.
[courtesy of Abbie Levenson]