Jerusalem, Yad Vashem: "Remember!"


June 13, 2007

Dear Family and Friends,

The highway from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem passes through the Palestinian Territories of the West Bank. Towns and villages, farms and mosques are clearly visible on the rocky hillsides. And to my right is a series of tall, tan concrete walls. "The Wall."

Here is one description:

"The construction of the Israeli separation wall began on the 16th June 2002. For the most part the barrier, which could eventually extend over 750km, consists of a series of 25 foot high concrete walls, trenches, barbed wire and electrified fencing with numerous watch towers, electronic sensors, thermal imaging and video cameras, unmanned aerial vehicles, sniper towers, and roads for patrol vehicles." *

In the short run, The Wall serves its purpose. (Do they read Robert Frost here?) Yet I am positive the Israelis remember history and history tells us that any wall can be breached. **

Jerusalem is dramatic. And beautiful. And mysterious. And even though "salem" means peace, I understand now why Jerusalem is also the scene of centuries of contention. She is mother. She is home. Everyone wants her.

(The Gay Pride organizers led a perfectly legal Gay Pride Parade through the streets of Jerusalem . Imagine squadrons of riot-geared Policemen trying to keep order as a legion of gaily-painted, gaily-unclothed, gaily-dancing and gaily-loving Israeli couples "do their thing" as throngs of black-suited, black-hatted, black-bearded religious men throw stones at what they consider to be the "abominable" behavior of their fellow citizens.)

My bus tour of Jerusalem made stops at several important sites: The Mount of Olives, The Citadel, The Tomb of King David, The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Last Supper Church, and The Via Dolorosa. Dramatic hillside views. Mysterious religious art. Ancient structures in an ancient city.

After a hot climb through the busy and friendly Arab Quarter and up the steps and the narrow passageways of the Via Dolorosa, our group sat for a well-deserved coffee in a small square. Naturally the hawkers are circling the tables.

I decided to test my bargaining skills and buy some trinkets. The eager peddler started high and I just said no. He came down a little and again I said no. We repeated this dance for a few minutes. No! No! No! I made a mental calculation and finally I gave my price. He was not happy, so I upped the price, but added more trinkets to the bargain. I was firm and he was frustrated. Finally, after much drama, he agreed. He frowned, and as he grudgingly handed me my purchase he growled, "Sir, you are a hard man." I smiled. I took this as a great compliment.

Yes, it's historic here in Jerusalem, with something of importance for everyone, Christians and Jews and Muslims alike.

For Jews, for me, it's The Western Wall, the last remaining section of our ancient, two thousand year old Second Temple.

The First Temple was built by King Solomon in 957 BCE and was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The Second Temple was built seventy years later under the patronage of the tolerant Persian King, Cyrus the Great. The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. ***

Twenty-four hours a day, every day, Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews from every part of the world come to The Western Wall to pray. I pray, and recall my departed family and friends. We pray, and recommit ourselves to our traditions. We pray, and remember the sacrifice of millions who perished as steadfast adherents to our traditions. We pray for peace.

Yad Vashem is the type of place I like to avoid in my travels. I prefer colorful old buildings, crumbling forts, golden temples, inspiring landscape and on occasion, a very occasional museum. But here I am, reluctantly exploring the attractive grounds. ****

Built and administered by The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, Yad Vashem is the memorial to six million innocent men, women and children who "disappeared" in Europe from 1933 to 1945. Entire age-old communities disappeared from Germany, Poland, Holland, Belgium, France, Italy, Norway, Hungry, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Russia, The Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Greece.

Yad Vashem is the memorial to the cheerful infant, the rambunctious child, the rebellious teenager, the handsome young man, the beauty queen and the withered old woman, the learned rabbi and the arrogant criminal, the cook and the nurse, the architect, actor, teacher and tailor. They all disappeared.

Yad Vashem is the memorial to the rug dealer, the used car dealer, the physicist, the psychiatrist, the flutist, the shoe salesman, the insurance salesman, the farmer and the philanthropist, the carpenter, the swordsman, sprinter, soldier and sailor, the tall and the short, the halt and the lame, the wise and the simple, the gay and the straight. They all disappeared. *****

"Disappeared" is the mild word, the sensitive, unemotional euphemism, the circumlocution my late Aunt Ida used when she spoke of her lost uncles and aunts and her lost cousins and her grandparents.

"Disappeared" is more easily enunciated than "transported" or "perished" or "murdered" or "brutally murdered" or "savagely murdered" or "maniacally murdered" or "shot" or "hung" or "buried alive" or "tortured and then murdered" or "starved to death" or "worked as slaves to death" or "gassed to death" and then "incinerated."

Reciting The Schma is our unpardonable "crime." "Hear, Oh Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One" are their last words.

At least twenty-five members of my own family are memorialized at Yad Vashem:

My Great Grandfather, Josef Polacek (1849-1923) married Rosalie Smrcka (1851-1921). They had six children: Emanuel, Anna, Alois, Herman, Eduard and Josefina.

Emanuel Polatschek married Olga Altschul and they had five children: Hedwig, Laura, Siegfried, Otto, and Ida. Emanuel and Olga survived and their descendents survive until today. Ida's daughter Miryam lives in Israel. I am anxious to meet her and her husband Moshe and their large family. ******

Anna Polacek married Gustov Svoboda. They had six children: Jaroslav, Emil, Josef, Otto, Heda and Ella. Jaroslav married Ida Zemanek and their family survived. Emil, Josef and Otto disappeared. Heda married Jindrich Roubicek. They had two children, Sonja and Jiri. They all disappeared. Sonja was 12 and Jiri was 5. Ella Svoboa disappeared, along with her parents, Anna and Gustav.

Alois Polatschek married Paula Brumlik. They had two daughters, Else and Liesel. Else married Fritz Silberstein and their family survives. Liesel disappeared.

Herman Polatschek, my grandfather, married Rosa Taussig. They had two children, my Aunt Ida and my father Otto. My Grandparents survived and our family survives.

Eduard Polacek married Anna Brumlik. They had three children: Hana, Emil and Josef. They disappeared.

Josefina Polacek married Alois Krebs. They had three children: Karl, Ida and Else. Josefina and Alois, and Karl, and Ida and her husband, and Else and her husband, all disappeared.

My father's maternal Grandmother, Elizabeth Taussig disappeared along with her younger daughter.

I can only guess about my mother's family. My mother's father, Harry Lifson (Joshua Lifschitz) and his brothers Abraham and Issac and his sister Lena came to America at the turn of the century. (Another brother, Jerome returned to Russia.) They settled here and raised their families. I assume that several aunts and uncles and cousins and their friends and neighbors remained in Russia and Poland . If I am correct then it is almost certain that they all disappeared as well.

My late father Otto never used the word "disappeared." In fact I don't recall him using any word at all. For him the Holocaust was un-utter-able. *******

For me, the Holocaust is un-view-able. So I walked into the New Museum, filled with photos, drawings, maps and video clips, and I walked out. I have read books. I try to articulate my feelings in my letters. I simply cannot bear the sights.

Speak or read or write about it; or visit the sites. Above all, The Holocaust is to be remembered.

The Children's Memorial is quiet and so very dark that I must hold on to the handrails and shuffle my way around this sanctum sanctorum. Displayed from above are large photographs of six darling children. In the background, the narrator gently recounts the name of each vanished child, slowly, one by one. How long, do you suppose, will it take the narrator to read one million, five hundred thousand names?

The original building of Yad Vashem is a large dim room with a low ceiling. The names and locations of the Concentration Camps in Europe are engraved on a slightly raised platform that forms almost the entire floor. I linger here quietly for several minutes as I am quite alone. In the center of the platform, one candle burns. One eternal flame for six million souls. One flame for my family. I never met them. I miss them. I must remember them.

As the tour bus winds its way around Jerusalem, I see not a museum, I see a city. The hilly narrow streets are alive with traffic, shoppers, colorful stone buildings and crowded markets. A one-time day-trip here is outrageously unsatisfactory.

Air travelers to Thailand arrive in Bangkok. Bangkok is the first chapter in the guidebook. Air travelers to India arrive in New Delhi. New Delhi is the first chapter in the guidebook. Air travelers to Egypt arrive in Cairo. Cairo is the first chapter in the guidebook.

Almost every traveler to Israel arrives at the airport in Tel Aviv. Is Tel Aviv the first chapter in the guidebook? Jerusalem is the first chapter in the guidebook.

Jerusalem is the magnet and the focus. Ancient pilgrims and modern travelers yearn to see and to touch Jerusalem.

Not only historic and mysterious and exotic and beautiful, Jerusalem is unique. I promise myself I will return soon. I must stroll. I must wander. I must explore.



* The Separation Wall.

** Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford. In the Thirteenth Century, the Great Khan and his sons proved that any wall can be breached.

*** The Temple.

**** I first wrote about my feelings in 2003. Please see my website, 2003 Vietnam, "In Country."

***** Yad Vashem.

****** Some family members emigrated from Czechoslovakia to Germany. They changed the spelling of their name from Polacek to Polatschek to conform with German spelling and pronunciation.

******* When my sister Paula died in 1972, my father decided to research and draw a family tree. Now I suppose I am responsible to continue his work.

Add new comment