I know I promised to continue my story from the Galilee, but I needed to write something up on to-day’s Jerusalem trip before I forgot something that I could not photograph. I’ll come back soon and finish that other story later, but for now let’s run back up to Jerusalem for more fun and games with penguins and traffic….
I left this morning along with the university crowd, taking advantage of their trip in order to score a free bus ride. I had already seen most of what they had planned, and I’d been intending to see Yad Vashem since I arrived in country and this was my last chance. The bus ride was pleasant enough, and I had a vacant seat beside me for a (welcome) change. Levi kindly asked the driver, Ahmed, to stop the bus at a corner not particularly inconvenient for them, and I took off on my own.
Rather than cross the street to the main Egged bus terminal and ride to the museum, as Levi had suggested, I elected to walk it so that I could see some more of west Jerusalem from the ground. This was difficult as I had no real map of the city and had to double-back a couple of times in order to get going in the direction in which I knew the museum lay. The walk was enjoyable and I got to take in more of the sights, including sections of the new light-rail system that’s being installed to relieve some of the traffic and pollution that are choking the capital. In other year or two there should be quite a few less buses running around the city, which would be a real improvement in my opinion. Like the penguins that have flooded the city, there are just far too many of them around.
Yad Vashem occupies the peak of one of Jerusalem’s many hills, and immediately abuts the military cemetery where everyone from Theodore Herzl to Vladimir Jabotinsky to Golda Meir are buried. I started my exploration of Har Hazikaron (the Mount of Remembrance) in the cemetery, mostly because it was there I suppose, and planned to use a nice wooded trail that was recently added to connect the two facilities. The cemetery itself, to add a few thoughts, was frustratingly laid-out, and it took far too long to find the sections I wanted. The maps did not bother to mention that one of the two halves that they described was not visible for several kilometres, and I was stuck between the street and the other half wondering where the hell the missing part was! The only bright spot along the way was the amazing memorial to the Ethiopian Jews who died on the way to making Aliyah (emigrating to Israel).
Once I got to the sections I wanted to see (the political figures), I ran into a huge crowd of noisy American kids on a trip organized by Birthright – a charity that offers free trips to Jewish kids in their late teens and early twenties. I got to see the down side, as they don’t get a choice of where they go and have to endure a drill-sergeant type tour guide who was tearing into them for being, well, the little arseholes college kids usually are! *grin* Still, they broke up the monotony of burial monuments, and I exchanged some amusing gestures with kids desperate to ignore the guide. Finally leaving the cemetery and coming down that trail toward the museum, my first sights of Yad Vashem were, to put it mildly, a bit startling.
I had (probably deliberately) never looked at photos of Israel’s celebrated Holocaust museum, so I was unprepared for the extreme architecture that has been employed to bring it to life. The most striking structural feature is a massive triangular building that bisects the complex. At one end the triangle bursts open and appears to spill its contents onto the hillside below; at the other end it comes to an abrupt end at a solid wall, but the entire shape has extended probably a dozen metres from the supporting structures, leaving it hanging there in mid-air. It’s a really impressive effect, and the stated aim of the building is to provide a “bridge” (which it vaguely resembles in shape) to a vanished world. For me, though, it also spoke of a bridge to nowhere – a place at which the train of Judaism simply tumbled over the edge of history and fell into the abyss below.
Once inside, I almost immediately ran afoul of their no-photography policy, which – while understandable from an artistic and intellectual-property standpoint – seems to run counter to the stated aim of bringing the images and memories of the Shoah to the largest possible audience. Whatever; with the camera tucked away in my palm I simply wandered through each exhibition hall and looked over what they had put together. The exhibits run in a rough chronology, starting with the ancient and modern anti-Judaism of Europe and ending with the survivors’ stories.
I was impressed by the refusal to mince words about the history of Christian “antisemitism” (I hate that word; what the hell is a semite?!), which is quite unlike most American portrayals I’ve come across. Despite the wealth of documentary evidence and apostolic writings on the benighted status of the Jews, it’s just a little too controversial for most American Christians to accept that their faith was the single largest factor underlying the Holocaust. No ideology written in modern times could have mobilized ordinary people to such atrocities without being able to dip its pen deeply into the inkwell of cultural and theological prejudice that had long conditioned Europeans to consider the Jews as worthy targets for hatred and abuse.
After this they move quickly into the rise of modern antisemitism and the racial theories of the nineteenth century, and from there to the birth of Nazi political ideology. The first of many, many excellent maps then shows you the relative concentration of Jews in the countries of Europe, the Near & Middle East, and North Africa. At each step along your journey through the exhibits, new maps present the political, social, and demographic changes wrought by war. The section on the rise of Hitler and the Nazis is very effective, and they make stunning use of documentary footage of his speeches. Rather than the typical few second clips of him ranting like a lunatic, these pieces were chosen for content, and as such they present Hitler closer to the way he must have been at the time. Of course, they choose particularly relevant bits like a “prophecy” he made to the effect that, if “international finance Jewry” were to plunge the world into war again, the result would not be the Bolshevism he says the Jews would want, but rather the extermination of Jews in Europe. As we all know, when Hitler had manufactured his own little war he did his best to make this come to pass.
Each room then takes you through a major event in the war, and in the unfolding saga of the Shoah that accompanied war in Europe. The camps all receive extensive coverage, and the difference between concentration, labour, and extermination camps is made plain by excellent models and descriptions of the purpose-built death-camps. The deportation of the Jews and the loss of their world is shown through exhibits showcasing, for example, boxes of valuables looted from Jewish homes. When it comes to the exterminations themselves, original canisters of Zyklon-B are presented, with their deadly contents spilling out into the display case; and, particularly effectively, the floor at one point turns to plexiglass and you look down to see a massive pile of empty shoes stretching across the length of the room. In the same room is a large-scale model of the entire gas and cremation complex at Auschwitz-Birkenau, made by the same Polish partisan who had seen the original and made the first model of the crematoria in Poland in 1946. You look in on a vast sea of carved figures screaming in mute agony in the gas chambers, only to be carried up a lift and loaded into ovens by half-starved Jewish labourers. The model is jaw-dropping and horrifying, and I wish I could share it with you…
The story is not unremittingly awful, as the moments of heroism are well represented. In keeping with the early Zionist obsession with the failure of Jews to resist en masse there are tributes to the ghetto uprisings and to the partisans, both Jewish and Gentile. There is also a moving memorial to the actions of Christian X of Denmark, who stood up to the Nazi authorities governing his country at considerable risk, and who – once it was clear that diplomatic protests could not guarantee the safety of Danish Jews – arranged to have nearly the entire population spirited safely across the Baltic to Sweden in small boats, one of which is now on display in the museum.
After the displays about the battered survivors and their search for meaning in a world turned upside down came the Hall of Names, which was more moving than I had expected it to be. The circular chamber houses thick black folders containing the names and available information on over three million of the lost. This material is a major part of the museum’s raison d’être and, while the sources are already fast disappearing, the hope is to save the names of as many of the dead as possible, so that something of them and their communities is preserved for future generations. The seemingly endless wall of carefully organised folders got to me enough to make me sneak a couple of photos when no-one was looking…
Finished with the main body of the exhibits, I gave the other halls (containing, e.g., sections on the children, on art inspired by the Shoah, etc.) a miss and headed out to the open-air memorials scattered over the museum grounds. On later reflexion I realised that I had passed up the Hall of Remembrance, and wish I had seen it – inside is a continuous memorial flame beside a crypt containing a sampling of the ashes from each major extermination site, along with the names of 22 of the most notorious places of execution. I doubt I could have looked in on this without tearing up; I was close to tears at several points in the main hall.
But instead, I got a brisk walk around the huge landscaped area beyond the museums, where modern art pieces, dedications by survivors and sympathisers, and large memorials to various aspects of the Holocaust compete with the surrounding Jerusalem Forest for your attention. Out here, at least, I could snap photos with impunity, and for nearly the entire length of the complex I was by myself – most everyone seems to leave after they finish the history museum. Was I not exhausted from the walk and lack of food, I doubtless would have walked all through the Valley of the Communities, which is a really distinctive and worthy memorial to the lost worlds of European Jewry. They have literally carved a labyrinth out of the bedrock of the hill and engraved within it the names of 5,000 destroyed or nearly-destroyed Jewish communities. I took a couple of pictures at the entrance, but fought back the intense desire to enter it and get lost for a while. Instead, I started heading back up, but ended up getting more of a walk than I was looking for…
I first came upon something I had seen in a model in the entrance hall – a gigantic outdoor “sculpture” that consists of a rail road bridge that extends into empty space and ends in a tangle of shredded steel. Sitting atop it is one of the original German cattle cars used to herd the Jews toward extermination camps, which was donated to the museum by the Polish government. This has to be one of the most awe-inspiring and effective works of historical art I am ever likely to see.
Beyond it are signs pointing back toward the main buildings marked with various words for ‘exit’. Silly me, I thought they meant that they’d take me back to the museum’s formal exit, since I needed to return to the cloakroom and pick up my backpack. Instead, they wrapped along the side of the hill and dipped into the Jerusalem Forest, forcing me to walk well over a mile, mostly uphill, back to the initial automobile entrance, and then to re-enter the museum where I started. Exhausted, I had thought to get something to eat in the restaurant downstairs, but had to settle for a drink and a brief rest. The dining space is divided into two sections – one for meat and the other for dairy – in accordance with kosher laws. Unfortunately, the only restaurant was on the meat side, and the dairy section had only super-fattening snack foods. Rather than hassle with the menu there, I opted to wait until I got back out of the museum complex to grab lunch.
I took the available free shuttle bus back to the main street, to save a couple of kilometres and some valuable time. Crossing the street, I picked up a bus back to the main Egged terminal and, since the hour was already growing late (damned shabbat shut-downs!), I grabbed a quick bite in one of the dive eateries in the terminal. Buying my ticket back to Haifa was unusually frustrating, as it turned out to be a microcosm of the kind of rudeness that seems to characterise so much of the population.
Several women attempted to cut in front of me, one of which succeeded. She then allowed a Haredi fellow with a booming voice to jump ahead of her, and he proceeded to waste fifteen minutes of everyone’s time as he tried one credit card after another in order to get eight tickets for his family. Just when I thought I could get no more annoyed, a middle-aged woman came up right beside me and started screaming at the woman in the ticket booth – over the heads of quite a few people and right into my ear. I came close to punching the bitch, but someone else answered her question and she hurried off to the terminal she needed. I have found, again and again, an annoying predilection for older Israeli (Jewish) women to cut in front of you in queue, to scream out questions to people at random, to throw violent tantrums in public, and so on. “Why” is, as always, a pointless question to ask in such circumstances – human beings just don’t make any damned sense. 😉
With ticket finally in hand, and having determined which terminal and times were possible, I had a helluva time finding my way back down to the food court mentioned above. I made it back up in time for the 1530 bus back to Haifa, and had to face more aggravation as one person after another tried to force themselves ahead of everyone else to squeeze into the bus. This is definitely one area in which Americans are, in general, so much more considerate than Israelis. I’m so used to seeing the ways in which my fellow countrymen are inconsiderate arseholes that it’s refreshing to find a place in which we actually stand up favourably. (Though for the Israelis it’s a sad verdict.)
The bus ride back was the nicest I’ve had, as the bus was not completely full and I had a vacant seat beside me again. Such luck, twice in one day! I got to see a few things on this route back that I’d not gotten good looks at before, including a good number of Muslim villages in the West Bank, which the toll rode skirts for some distance. Some of these had up to seven minarets that I could see, and one had a gold-domed mosque clearly intended to evoke the Haram ash-Sharif. I also got a close-up look at very long stretches of the Apartheid Wall, including rolls of razor wire, manned gun towers, forced-earth barricades, and – of course – the tall expanses of plain concrete wall that are increasingly showing up in images of Israel. On a less depressing side, I got to see another big hunk of the ancient Roman aqueduct, this time on the other side of the highway from Caesarea and quite a bit inland. It appears as out of nowhere just where the highway runs past, and stretches in crumbling majesty toward the distant hills before disappearing again beneath the soil. How much of human history is simply buried beneath your feet, never again to be seen?
I got back to Haifa before 1730 and thought that I’d still be able to catch a bus back up the hill, but it turns out that things closed up at 1700, not the 1800 I had mistakenly presumed. Oops. Without sufficient water to survive another walk up the hill from Merkazit Hof HaCarmel all the way to the university, I was finally talked into taking a taxi. I first refused several offers as too expensive, preferring the difficult walk to the rip-off, but managed to nudge one down to an acceptable fare and – grudgingly – took the ride back up to the dormitories. The driver decided to risk giving me a heart-attack, since he (like so many Israelis) drove casually over multiple lanes and, once well into the hills, often exceeded 100 miles per hour! I then spent (*gasp*) almost two hours typing this up, in between munching a few cookies and listening to some music.
All told this was my shortest visit to Jerusalem, and easily the least satisfying. I got to see relatively little that was of serious interest to me, and there were far too many small inconveniences along the way to make most of it worth the time and effort expended. Still, as with everything else I’ve done here, I have no regrets, and value all those scattered moments in which time seemed to stand still, as I took in another sight that I could not have imagined, and will in all likelihood never see again.