Day 5 – Mt. Herzl & Yad Vashem

Our fifth day in Israel, as I have previously mentioned, was spent at Mt. Herzl, in Yad Vashem, the new holocaust museum, and Israel’s national cemetery. We started the day, after breakfast of course, with a group activity where we shared our personal connections with the holocaust. Hearing the family stories of all these people who had quickly become my friends drove home how closely we were all related to the holocaust.

After packing up all of our belongs we loaded ourselves into the bus and headed out through the newer side of Jerusalem to Yad Vashem. Yet again the contrast to the day before, when the streets were devoid of traffic because of shabbat, was striking. Our hotel was not far from the museum, and the traffic was not bad, so we arrived before very long. We disembarked and gathered near the entrance to the museum. The courtyard where we waited overlooked a lush valley, but I could not concentrate on the view; I was too filled with trepidation about the journey before me.

Our tour guide, whom Shimi had been on a tour with before, was supposed to be excellent. He had completed his doctorate in history with a several month stay at Auschwitz before starting to give tours. English was his third language, with French being his first and Hebrew his second. That, combined with his English coming from his Welsh father, gave him the most interesting accent I’ve ever heard. Our appointed time arrived, we put on headsets and started our journey into the main exhibit of Yad Vashem.

The exhibit was built recently, completed in 2005, and attempts to show the stories of the Jews involved in the holocaust, the perpetrators of the holocaust, and the gentiles who risked their lives to protect Jews in Nazi Germany. When entering the museum you first look down a long open hallway, bracketed by two flat stone walls, which almost meet thirty feet above your head. Instead of them meeting, however, there’s a skylight that runs the length of the two hundred yard long structure. The path through the museum winds back and forth, crossing over the main hallway. As I’m sure the designers intended, the light streaming in from above serves as a distinct contrast to the dark and depressing exhibits on either side.

The individual exhibits start in the prewar era, and continue to the war’s conclusion. At the very end of the museum is the Hall of Names, a round room with thirty foot high bookshelves surrounding the exterior walls. Here, our guide explained, were all the names, along with as much information as had been gathered, of every known victim of the holocaust. More striking, to me at least, were the empty spaces along the wall where the museum had reserved space for the as yet unknown victims.

After leaving the Hall of Names we exited the main exhibit of the museum. As we walked out of the hallway the two sides of the building, previously leaning over us, spread to the sides to reveal a view over a valley in the suburbs of Jerusalem. Probably primarily because of the context, it was one of the most beautiful sights of the trip. We were all silent after leaving; I think we all needed to do some processing of what we had just seen. Before long though we set out walking across the grounds to the Children’s Memorial. This was small and simple, a handful of candles in a dark, mirrored room, and was all the more beautiful and powerful for it’s simplicity. It was the most moving, and upsetting, exhibit of the day.

We left the Children’s Memorial, trying to regroup, got on the bus, and headed to a nearby shopping center for lunch. I grabbed some felafel, the old standard, and sat alone, trying to process the day. Soon, we got back on the bus and headed back to Mt. Herzel.

Tree at Mt. Herzl

We walked up to the summit to the tomb of Herzl. Understand that Mt. Herzl would only be called a mountain in Israel, it was really just a glorified hill. Near the summit we sat and Shimi talked about Herzl’s life and his role in the foundation of the state of Israel. Then we paid our respects at the tomb, a simple rectangle standing three feet high and caved out of black marble. It’s only decoration was Herzl’s name, carved in relief on one end and painted gold. On top of the tomb lay a scattering of stones; in Israel it is customary to lay a stone on top of a tomb to pay respects.

Sunset in Helkat Gedolei Ha'Uma

Leaving the tomb we walked over to the National Civil Cemetery, which contained those citizens who sacrificed their lives for the state and it’s leaders. Starting in the leader’s section, Shimi gave us a brief overview of the public figures buried here. Like Herzl’s tomb almost all of the tombs were plain rectangles, set in pairs with the leaders resting beside their spouses. The only difference was Rabin’s tomb, which consisted of two flowing shapes. We stopped here for an introduction to Rabin, that Shimi promised would be expanded upon tomorrow, when we visited Rabin’s Square.

Victims of Acts of Terror Memorial

As we left the leaders and entered the Victims of Acts of Terror Memorial the sun started to set, painting the sky, which had dull and overcast all day, with a brush of fiery reds and oranges. While the last few hours had been a welcome reprieve from the depressing mood of Yad Vashem, it ended with the memorial. The memorial is a square with two sides bordered by high walls. The other two sides look out onto the valley. Upon these walls the names of every victim of terrorism in Israel is carved, grouped by decade. We stood by the section of wall for the 2000s, and Shimi told of the names he knew personally on the wall, and some of their stories. Then he asked those soldiers who knew someone on the wall to raise their hands; they all did.

Graves in the National Military Cemetery

In the fading light we walked though the military cemetery. One thing I noticed immediately, and had been true about the entirety of Mt. Herzl, was that it was much more lush than Arlington, the only other national cemetery I know. While Arlington had a very simple beauty, grey headstones on rolling hills covered only in well cropped grass, the Israeli National Military Cemetery was nestled on the side of a mountain, with each grave containing a small planting of ivy and each area bordered with tall trees that reached over the graves. I felt that it gave the cemetery a more intimate and personal ambiance. The graves were organized simply by date of death, with no separation for rank, age, or unit. It was not uncommon to see soldiers who had died at sixteen and seventeen. Among the graves were two sections where we stopped to see the graves of unknown soldiers, and soldiers who were missing in action. The most moving monument was a tribute to a submarine which went missing with all hands.

Missing Submariner Memorial

Then we came to the section of the cemetery which contained the newest graves. We stopped at one section, and Shimi told us the story of two of his commanding officers in the special forces, officers who died on missions he was on. The story was so personal, so touching, so depressing, and told so well, that I think we were all touched. Then we walked over to even newer graves, where one of the soldier’s neighbors was buried. We gathered around the grave and listened to his story, and a letter written to him by his younger sister after his death. Our last stop was at the grave of Max Steinberg, an American who lost his life while serving in the Lone Soldier program, a program which allows jews with citizenship in other countries to serve in the Israeli armed forces. When he was killed his parents came to Israel for what they thought would be a small ceremony, they knew no one in Israel, at Max’s graveside but instead found Mt. Herzl filled with people. Thousands, most of whom didn’t know Max, came to celebrate the sacrifice he made for the country.

Grave of Max Steinberg

Seeing these graves and hearing these stories brought the Israeli struggle into a more personal light for me, and I imagine a lot of us. After leaving Mt. Herzl we got on the bus and headed north, to Netanya, where we would spend the night before heading into Tel Aviv. We got stuck in traffic, and our two hour drive turned into a four hour crawl. We didn’t get in until after nine, got some lukewarm dinner, and then had a reflection activity. Needless to say everyone was exhausted, physically and emotionally, so the activity didn’t receive a lot of participation. As soon as it was over I collapsed into sleep.