Friday, November 09, 2007

Israel Diary-II

India can learn from Israel
Kanchan Gupta

Hidden in the mountains, the stark, grey concrete structure of Yad Vashem looms before you as you approach the Avenue of the Nations dedicated to brave individuals who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Sycamore trees line the avenue, and crowd the rugged space around Yad Vashem, each planted in the memory of men and women who defied Adolph Hitler's 'Final Solution' programme. A gnarled tree recalls memories of Oscar Schindler's valiant efforts to save Jewish men, women and children, using every possible skill, including bribery and lies, often escaping detection by the skin of his teeth. Those who have seen or read Schindler's List would connect easily to the bravery of the few who stood up to the murderous majority in Hitler's Germany and the Third Reich.
It is only fitting that Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, should look like the innards of a soulless concrete jail. Life in ghettoes and concentration camps could not be captured in a different setting. It is equally fitting that a visit to the memorial, which can be at once intensely personal and educative, should begin with an encounter with the first two dark deeds of the Nazis that paved the way for their subsequent brutality. The first was the burning of books which were perceived to be contrary to Hitler's supremacist theory that denied space to intellectual dissent and discounted the non-Aryan's right to flourish (later it would be the right to exist). The burning of books was to result in the burning of bodies -- the pathetic, decrepit remains of millions of Jews gassed to death. The second was the organised attack on Jewish property, business and synagogues on the night of November 9, 1938. The mass vandalism by Hitler's hoodlums was to be later known as Kristal Nacht: By dawn the next day, the streets were littered with shattered glass, charred shops and the burnt remains of any hopes that may have survived Hitler's coming to power.
The story of the Holocaust, in which six million Jews perished, the 'Final Solution' which nearly wiped out Europe's Jewry, is brought alive in the most telling, touching manner in the stone cold chambers of Yad Vashem. The evidence, painstakingly put together, largely stems from the Nazi obsession with documentation. The Nazis would photograph the horrific medical experiments, the wretched degradation, the mass executions, the cattle train rides to concentration camps, the stripping of Jews, the final journey to the gas chambers and the burning of bodies. Each detail would be documented and logged. Children's rag dolls, their shoes and the little things that symbolise life only serve to heighten the scale of the brutality that was perpetrated as the rest of the world slept. Till now, Yad Vashem has documented details, on the basis of testimonies that are bound and filed in alphabetical order, of three million Jews who perished during the Holocaust. These are stored in the last chamber where the only other display is a well which symbolises the dark void of life after the mass murder conducted by Hitler.
The numbing horror is further magnified in the memorial hall dedicated to children who perished in the Holocaust. Inside, in the pitch black darkness, a candle flickers, its image reflected and refracted a million times while a voice chants the names of those whose lives were snuffed out by a mad man and his criminal regime. Shades of that madness are visible in the rant of Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his ilk who deny that the Holocaust ever occurred. I am told that a very senior member of the CPI(M), a comrade we often see on prime time television, refused to visit Yad Vashem when he was in Jerusalem this summer to attend a conference of the Israeli Communist Party. He is believed to have told his local guide that he had no intentions of "legitimising Israeli propaganda about the Holocaust" by visiting Yad Vashem. Such concerns did not bother him when, accompanied by his wife, he visited Al Aqsa and Dome of the Rock.
The most amazing thing about Israel is the country's sense of history. Apart from investing huge amounts of resources to restore and preserve antiquities that connect the modern state of Israel with its Biblical past, the Government also ensures that people do not forget their cultural and civilisational identity. At every historical site you can find soldiers and school children: They are taught about their past and encouraged to treasure it. The slogan 'Never Again', which is as much to do with the massacre at Massada as with the mass extermination at Auschwitz, gains significance with the inculcation of a sense of history. Children grow up proud of their heritage; soldiers defend not just Israel's territory but the very idea of a Jewish state. Across the political spectrum, people are resolute about doing whatever it takes to ensure the Jewish nation is not endangered again. No sacrifice is big enough, no contribution too small.
On Thursday night I visited the magnificent home of Frida and Arek Steinberger at a moshev. Frida is a ceramic artist, Arek a gentleman farmer. Their 21-year-old son Itay was killed in last year's war with Lebanon: He was hit by a missile on the battlefield while trying to rescue a fallen fellow soldier. He was among the 119 Israelis who did not return home from a battle that has caused tremendous political upheaval in Israel. What was his first reaction on hearing the news of his son's death, I asked Arek in the sprawling patio of their ranch. "I was stunned, I could not think. Later, I was consumed by anger. Now I have reconciled myself to this fact," he told me. There's a huge poster of Itay in uniform, the last photograph of him with his comrades-in-arms. But tragedy has not deterred either Frida or Arek, nor lessened their passion for Israel. Their daughter has just finished her stint with the Israeli Defence Forces. Their second son is in the Army. Their youngest son, a 16-year-old boy, will follow in the footsteps of his elder siblings.
A nation can be forged by tapping emotion. But for the nation to survive, you need determination and commitment to the national cause. There is more than a lesson here for us Indians.

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