29 Cheshvan 5759

(November 18, 1998) – Jerusalem

Emotions charged beyond belief today, highs and lows under a hot Israeli sun. – Newspaper headlines blazed the news of the deaths of three Israeli soldiers in Lebanon. It made an immediate impact on the people in this city. Life moves forward at a more subdued pace.

But today is on the calendar as Yad Vashem Day. At first, I was pleased. The cabby said he had been a history teacher before taking up cab driving. I held out hope for a nice exchange, insight into the things I would be seeing. But the mood changed quickly. First, he didn’t put the meter on, something that Philadelphia friends had warned me about (and I failed to notice at first). Once I saw that he would not do that, I knew I could not trust him.

And then – he tried to re-plan my itinerary for the day! Of course, the new schedule would have meant significant shekels to him. He wanted to be my guide for the day. “Skip Yad Vashem, go to Rachel’s Tomb, it’s a mitzvah, here you don’t want to start at Yad Vashem, you want to…” Ad nauseum. I kept telling him, no, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. Up to the very last, he kept trying to make me change my mind. I was never so glad to see a cab ride come to an end. I cannot think of what could have happened.

Yad Vashem was worth all the time invested. I’ve been to Dachau before. The Dachau museum and grounds are more gut-wrenching than anything at Yad Vashem. Dachau holds plenty of physical evidence of the worst of the atrocities. As it is built directly on the site of the concentration camp that was there, it holds an emotional punch that Yad Vashem cannot duplicate. Nor does Yad Vashem try to do so.

There were three things at Yad Vashem that moved me to tears, anger, a whole wad of emotions I cannot sort out.

First, the exhibit on the Ghettos allowed me to comprehend what White Rose medical students witnessed (even if not up close and personal). Since photographs from the Warsaw Ghetto were dated, I focused on those from July 1942, envisioning what those White Rose students saw and felt. This will help immensely in our family’s work on this topic. I grasp how those students could not return to Germany unscathed by the experience.

Second, the children’s wing rips your heart out. I just stood and cried. In this place, there is no need to be ashamed of tears.

One diary was in German, penned by Esther Cohen. Excuse me, Esther Lore Cohen, the “Lore” making it nicely Southern German. I would love to read the whole thing, it was so sweet and innocent. She was twelve, had polio, and resided in a children’s sanatorium. The open page (not translated for museumgoers, more’s the pity) described the other sick children in her ward. One she deemed very, very nice; another, a little stupid.

Third, the Hall of Names left me speechless. I place stock anyway in names. To see a library full of nothing but names, and not even all the names… it’s overwhelming.

So also the Garden commemorating the Righteous Among the Nations. So many names I do not know, courageous people whose lives are immortalized only here. Shouldn’t we be talking about them every time we speak of the Shoah? Wheels are turning.

Leaving that place, I walked down to Mount Herzl Cemetery (Yad Vashem is part of this complex, comprising the Mount of Remembrance). TheĀ morning’s paper had said the soldier named Ehad would be buried there today. I went where I thought it would be and at 1:50 p.m., no one was there. So I stopped two soldiers, who took me part of the way.

Again, emotions could not be separated into distinct patterns. On the one hand, there is anger, outrage at verbiage calling the speechifying surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a war of words. I hear Israelis in Jerusalem furious at that notion. This burial service made it clear that words are the least of Israel’s worries, and that Israelis are adamant on that point.

And yet, on the other hand this burial service was not about politics. This was about plain and simple grief. Tears, no more, no less. Sometimes you mourn a loss not because you know the person who has died, but because their death was senseless. That was part of the funeral too, mourning the unfathomable.

A child who was a soldier, maybe 19, asked me not to take pictures. This was once that the photo op meant less than sharing the mourning, an occasion where it was more important to demonstrate tangible respect. So I put away my camera and only took three pictures at the end, far from the grieving scene.

But I will never forget the faces.

I cannot erase the look of the boy’s family, huddled, crouched, doubled over on the ground beside his grave. I cannot forget the mothers hugging soldier sons, holding onto them as if they could will them safety. I cannot forget the young women clad in army green, the higher-ranking soldier with gray hair and a swagger who wept openly. The crowd saying the Mourner’s Kaddish, flowers carried forward from every direction, haredi standing next to kippot-less soldiers standing next to teenage girls in jeans and American t-shirts, standing next to Orthodox women wearing wigs.

The city mourned Ehad’s death – not as symbol of a struggle, but as friend, son, cousin, neighbor, beloved friend.

From there I took the bus to Central Bus Station. Maybe I should have been worried about suicide bombers, but I refuse to think about that. From the bus station, I walked to Machne Yehuda. What a perfect followup to the intensity of the day!

As wadded up as all the other emotions were, at the market all I could do was smile! For one thing, there is no trace left of the bombing only ten days ago. It’s business as usual, all vendors go.

Even without that recent history, it was simply a fun place. The FDA probably would go crazy over the ‘unsanitary’ conditions, but I would shop there. At the burial, I wished I could speak Hebrew because I could not understand the eulogies. At Machne Yehuda, once more I wished for Hebrew, to understand the fun.

While sorting through all the conflicting emotions in the peace of my hotel room, armed with blissful room service, it was American incompetence that ruined the evening. A call from the front desk advised me that VISA was rejecting the charges, despite more than sufficient credit limit. Thomas Cook’s failure to have enough traveler’s checks on hand is proving to be a significant obstacle.

The same charges in Germany would be approved, but since it’s Israel, VISA is acting funky. Important lesson: Next trip to Israel, get traveler’s checks well in advance of the trip. Debit and credit cards are more problematic here. Luckily, the excellent service at the Sheraton Jerusalem Plaza means they will not dump me out on the street tonight.


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