Day 8

I’ve had a couple very intense days in Jerusalem and it has been difficult to make time for this travelogue. That is likely because I feel most in my element when traveling through cities. A waterfall hike is nice, but there’s nothing like reading the tone of an unfamiliar cityscape.

Thursday was a difficult day because someone, somewhere thought it was a great idea to combine Yad Vashem in the morning with the Mount Herzl military cemetery in the afternoon. Each was an overwhelming experience in a different way, so I’ll just cut the bullshit (Mirah, you know you don’t just break the ice, you shatter it.) and tell you about the times I was on the verge of tears at each.

Yad Vashem is Israel’s national Holocaust museum, and was designed by Moshe Safdie in some weirdly Germanic, Bauhaus-esque style. (Oh, can you tell I liked it?) He also designed the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Montreal for those of you reading from there.

What made me weepy? The museum is loaded with artifacts from people who lived and died in the Holocaust. In one display case, there are photos of a little boy. I stupidly forgot to write down his name, but he was sent out of Europe (Germany or Austria, possibly?) on the Kindertransport. The mother had died when the boy was very young, so his father remained on the Continent, while the boy was raised by a family in the United Kingdom. But the father missed the son in an excruciating way and coped by sending the boy postcards meant for children, all of them funny and sweet, but not particularly unusual for the time. Sometimes on the front, he would write “Love, Daddy” over top cartoon animals in silly situations. Rabbits and mice play-acting as people in still-bright, printed color images.

In 1943, the postcards stopped arriving. The little boy and his foster family could not guess why. After the war, the boy learned his father died in a camp. Of course. These stories tend to have the same ending.

I have no idea what was said in any of these postcards. I only saw four cards in a huge photo album of pasted-in postcards, whatever page happened to be open. This exhibit was right at the beginning of the museum. I want you to see me standing there, sniffling over an album of cheap, mass-produced cartoon postcards, a heap of broken images. I want to reaffirm the value of things. This flimsy cardboard postcard means nothing, but a Jewish man walked to the post office or stuck it in the box or handed it to his mailman and miles away a little boy was reminded of his father.

Let’s move on and I will tell you about Horst Rosenthal. Horst Rosenthal who died in Auschwitz and made me laugh. Horst Rosenthal, whose name I recorded, who wrote and drew a Mickey Mouse cartoon about life in the French labor camp of Gurs long before Art Spiegelman had his say.

See Mickey inspect his microscopic crust of bread. See Mickey have a riotously circuitous, tautological conversation about his Jewish origins with a camp guard. See Mickey lament his stay at Gurs, and hear that high-pitched “Aw shucks” voice come through the precise, finely-drawn panels. See funny, ironic, tender, 27-year-old Horst Rosenthal murdered at Auschwitz.

So there you are. I am standing in front of Horst’s work at Yad Vashem, pushing myself to decipher minute, perfect handwriting in French and laughing. That Mickey Mouse sure knows how to get into scrapes. Wonder what kind of death camp shenanigans are next?

I pass through galleries and am drawn to the art of the dead. Drawings, paintings, poetry, diaries. Were they afraid of us because of our capacity for expression? Is that why so many were executed? Did the mastermind feel he would never be as good as Horst Rosenthal? It’s true: his paltry, wan landscapes and urban scenes never carried the warmth of humor, a fine-tuned sense of irony. I laugh for the work I’ve seen, and weep for the work I’ll never know.

I have no segue that doesn’t read false.

Mount Herzl was another difficult experience that warrants an explanation. It is Jerusalem’s military cemetery, where all who have contributed to the creation and maintenance of the nation are buried. All the gravesites are identical. There are no personal memorials beyond the linear walls of Jerusalem Limestone, punctuated by the vertical rectangles of jutting graves.

Naturally we visit the places where they buried the Americans who did Birthright and then made Aliyah. It is sad, but it is another’s loss. I feel what I am meant to feel, but it is not acute, wrenching.

Then S. leads us to a new row of nine graves. Stone memorial plaques have not yet been placed at the heads of eight of the nine graves. There are temporary identification signs in Hebrew, and a mason dusts the half-finished limestone wall.

Look, says S., when I was here last month this was grass. They have had to extend the graveyard. A moment, then comprehension. These are the half-built graves of the Israeli soldiers who died in Gaza. The one permanent stone plaque? That is Max Steinberg, the American who joined the IDF after Birthright, consumed by a country and way of life that held some ineffable meaning to him. I don’t understand, and yet I feel the loss of the grass, replaced by gravel from Jerusalem quarries, space cleared to make room for the dead. I have nothing to say about the graves of Yitzhak Rabin or Golda Meir. May no more cemeteries of war be extended.

I wanted to write about yesterday’s experiences in Jerusalem as well, but I already changed the title of this post long ago, knowing definitively that there is such a thing as too much. Jerusalem is a city of too much. Memorials, nightlife, open celebrations of death and of life. As a person of too much, I will take this as my explanation for the connection I feel, this home and not-home sense of compatibility. I can’t say for sure that next year will be in Jerusalem, but I am doubtful this is the last.

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