Monday, 23 February 2015

The gift of insight

After weeks of travelling ‘solo’, I find myself with two companions whom I ‘picked up’ at the airport today. They are friends who have come to join me as I journey into the last week of my time here in Palestine and Israel. As they were preparing to board the plane in the UK, I was making last visits to familiar and loved places in the Old City.

I visiteda new place though – a place that I had tried to visit on my first day in Jerusalem – the Chamber of the Holocaust. It stands in complete contrast to the National Memorial and Museum of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem, in terms of size and layout and information, but its power is no less commanding.

One enters through a small doorway into an entrance area. The gentleman on duty was at pains to advise me that they were undertaking renovation work at the present time and thus there were no labels on items etc. etc. I assured him this was fine for me, and that I was ‘pleased’ simply to be able to be there. On reflection, ‘pleased’ or ‘glad’, or any word like either of these will never do, regardless of whatever accompanying gestures that indicate the care of one’s heart one might accompany them with. This is because for there to be such a place as this, or Yad Vashem, or any of the other memorials to the Holocaust and acts of genocide across the world – for these places that give testimony to terrible cruelty and inhumanity of which humanity is capable to even exist is a terrible tragedy. Each place stands a stinging indictment to human cruelty and no-one can possibly ever be pleased or glad to be in the presence of anything which gives testimony to such cruelty. I wished to express my sorrow at being present in this place... for filled with sorrow I truly was... that I was in such a place that the horror of human action had somehow caused to exist.

Beyond the entrance hall, the way continues into a darker room, with no windows and low lighting. Light filters through from the doorway and the windows of the next room – but there is a form of relief from the darkness – white stone tablets on the walls. In truth, these are not any form of relief that one wishes to see. Written in Hebrew, each tablet records the name of a city or town or village in which a Jewish community lived at the time of the Holocaust. The members of the community will have either been killed in the place where they lived, or been transported to one of the Concentration Camps. The plaques fill the walls of four rooms and a large external ‘garden’ area. So many communities blighted, so many lives lost.

Initially, this place was a place of mourning. Those who had lost their lives during the Holocaust through being gassed and burned or buried in mass graves have no proper grave where those who loved them may journey to mourn. This Chamber of the Holocaust was created to be such a place and, initially, was where the Jewish Community that travelled to settle in Jerusalem in the late forties and early fifties would come to mourn their dead. Yad Vashem has come to fulfil the purpose of remembering – on a larger scale, both nationally and internationally it is true and I imagine few international visitors to Jerusalem will visit the Chamber of the Holocaust as it does not have such international recognition. As those who maintain each place will say though, neither place stands in competition with the other, they each have their own story – as well as the wider story – to tell.

This place was a sobering and moving place to visit and I found that all I could do was simply to look and read the tablets on the walls and pray.

As  I made to leave I noticed a small book – a photograph album – on which was written the words, Pictures of the Holocaust. This is not designed for children. Indeed it was not designed for children and the images contained inside should not have been designed for anyone to see for there were the photographs of those who had been starved to the point of virtual death, as well as photographs of the dead whose bodies had been either heaped up in piles resembling a kind of human slag heap or laid (if they were lucky, but more likely tipped) in a mass grave. This was sickening. I found I could hardly breathe.

As I left, I spoke to the man on the door who spends hours of each day welcoming people. In our conversation he said that his Grandparents had died in Auschwitz. He asked where I was from and, when I said I was from the UK, told me that his mother and her sister had managed to escape from Belgium to London and that they had told him what the Blitz was like and how terribly the people of London and the UK suffered. How right he was.

In that moment, I received his heartfelt sympathy for the people of ‘my’ country who had withstood the horror of the might of Germany in the same way that my country – as well as other nations and races across the world – offer heartfelt sympathy to the Jewish people who suffered the might and terror of German forces too, in a most particular and horrifying way. Somehow, in his words, there was the insight that cruelty is cruelty, and horror is horror and that those who suffer these things deserve the pity and regard of others each as much as the another. For this shared insight, compassion and kindness of heart I am immensely grateful.

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