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Jet lagged and straight into lectures.

After arriving late into Tel Aviv and making the quick trip into Jerusalem, we were treated to a rather average dinner by the hotel before slumping our way to bed at 23:30. Not to be outdone by twenty-two hours of travel and a morning spent in the cold sun in Korea, the body clock continued to emphasise the fact that it was still on New Zealand time, exactly 11 hours earlier than Israeli time. This had the direct result of one lying in a blackened room, staring at the ceiling, fidgeting from side to side, and praying for sleep that just wouldn’t come. After literally four hours sleep, my alarm went off and I slunk out of bed, ready for my first day at Yad Vashem.

I will put my breath into you and you shall live again, and I will set you upon your own soil… Ezekiel 37:14

Yad Vashem is the Holocaust memorial centre, established to immortalize the memory of the six million Jews who died as a result of the Nazi’s Final Solution. The name, as with everything important in Israel, is derived from the Jewish scriptures and is found in the book of Isaiah, “Even unto them will I give in my house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off” (Isaiah 56:5).

The centre itself is designed to not only immortalise the memory of the six million Jewish victims, but also document the historical nature of the Holocaust, continue research into the victims and the event, and educate people globally about the most destructive and planned genocide to ever occur in world history.

Thus, with the weight of little to no sleep, and the goal of understanding one of the most horrific events in the last one hundred years, I boarded the groups merry orange bus and steeled myself for what would be two and a half weeks of intensive lectures and activities.

The New Zealand contingent at the entrance to the centre, about to start our journey.

Our first lecture, attended with the help of triple espresso Americanos and bleary eyes, was run by the incredibly charismatic Stephanie McMahon-Kaye. Steph’s job was to broach the immensely difficult practice of presenting the Holocaust to our students in a manner that allowed them to understand both victim and perpetrator and look at the human elements of the event. For this purpose, we were introduced to the concept of referring to the Holocaust by the Hebrew term, Shoah. The Shoah is an important idea because within our culture the Holocaust has come to refer to not only the mass extermination of the Jewish people, but also the mass killings of homosexuals, gypsies and other peoples considered inferior by the Nazis. Yet by thinking of the atrocity with a Jews and others mentality, we lose sight of what the Holocaust actually was by practice.  At the heart of the Nazi plan, the Shoah was a completely planned and implemented attempt to destroy global Jewry in its entirety. In all its documentation, from the initial implementation of The Final Solution at Wannsee, to the various orders given to the officers in charge of Jewish detention and execution, the only acceptable outcome in the eyes of the Nazi party was the complete eradication of the Jewish population in its entirety. Thus, while other people groups were caught up within the mass exterminations, the Holocaust remains an essentially Jewish experience, and it is from this angle that we must approach our understanding of the event.

We must also broach the horrors of the holocaust in a humane and empathetic manner. How can we create empathy if a child’s first experience of the Shoah is seen in the photographs of the bodies at Bergen-Belsen? To do this, Steph introduced our group to the softly in, softly out approach. This pedagogy implements the idea of creating an early connection with the audience before taking them into the horrors of the Shoah, before finally bringing them out of the experience in a way that they can relate and discuss their experiences. To this end, an understanding of the Shoah begins with an understanding of the Jewish people; seeing and hearing them in a way that develops a form of kinship. This understanding then develops further when individual stories are related to the audience – the fifteen year old boy who loved sport witnesses his father’s execution before he is taken to a death camp where he stays alive by helping to remove the gold fillings of the dead. Finally, the narrative ends by drawing the students out of the darkness of the Shoah and provides positive narratives of survival or rescue stories that helps each student to see that true evil can be countered by compassion and humanism. In this way, the weight of the atrocity can be managed in a way that allows students to not only connect with and see the evils of the Shoah, but also understand that there is always hope, and it is this hope in liberation that we want all our students to fight for.

A young soldier swipes right during some down time at Yad Vashem.

Soldiers of the Israeli Defense Force outside Yad Vashem. The soldiers, as part of their training, receive instruction through Yad Vashem’s education centre.

Following Steph, our two other lecturers over the following days were Rabbi Zvi Hirshfield and Rivkah Duker-Fishman. Rabbi Hirshfield was an engaging and thoroughly entertaining lecturer who opened our eyes to the historical concept of the Jewish faith and its idea of Godly covenants with both the people and the land. Rivkah was equally engaging as she discussed the historical identity of the Jews following the destruction of the Temple in 70BCE through to the middle ages. Rivkah’s sense of humour and dry wit made a very lengthy subject that revolved around historical sources and narratives extremely engaging and her ability to shine a light on Jewish persecution under both Christian and Muslim rulers was outstanding.

Homat Shemu’el – Har Homa. A Palestinian enclave within the Israeli territory.

Surrounding the lectures were two events that really expanded on our appreciation and understanding of the Jewish landscape. At the end of the first day we took a bus tour around the city of Jerusalem. The bus tour revealed several things including the Southern Part of the city, some of the disputed settlements and a stop at the British War Cemetery on Mount Scopus. The first thing that stood out was the very mountainous nature of the land around Israel. Everything is either a valley or a hill with a sparse array of gnarled olive or Cyprus trees. Looking at the land, I couldn’t help but think about Jesus and his disciples. If those guys wandered around preaching regularly in the hills, they would have been either extremely malnourished and tanned, or extremely strong with the ability to fight off attackers. Regardless, a trip into the wilderness here requires some good fitness and a desire to walk for great distances over hard, rocky ground.

Finally on Tuesday morning, we were taken on a guided tour of the Yad Vashem Museum by Ephraim Kaye. The museum itself has to be seen to believed. After the Old City and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the museum hosts the second most amount of tourists with over one million people walking its halls annually. The museum itself forces people through a chronological journey that takes them through both the history of World War II Europe and the experience of the Jewish people during that time. Needless to say, the experience is both extremely personal and harrowing at the same time. Although I am familiar with many of the photographs and stories on display, seeing the actual clothing of victims, particularly the clothes that were worn by children as young as my daughters really brought the reality of the Jewish suffering home.

At the end of the Yad Vashem Museum, the building opens out to a view of the countryside, emphasising the idea of hope and revival.

Despite the weight of the seminars and tours, the group I am with is really beginning to bond and moments of hilarity are helping to humanise the whole experience that we have engaged with. While I am running on empty, simple things like a beer in the centre of Jerusalem, or a bit of banter in the back of a bus makes the whole experience more approachable. I look forward to the following days and the new learning that will run alongside them.

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Jaffaville and a few light refreshments.

So after much toing and froing I managed to finally pack the ‘mid-sized’ suitcase borrowed from my in-laws. By midsized, I mean large enough to store a body in as long as you had some good butchering skills and a few power tools you wouldn’t mind getting a wee bit unsanitary. However, I have seen videos of migrants squeezing themselves out of similar size suitcases, so providing you were inclined to put a hit on someone, you would need to ensure that either they were very flexible, or that you had the aforementioned power tools.

Regardless, having the medium sized case and a desire to face any eventuality, I arrived at Christchurch Airport with a slight feeling of trepidation. Glaring at my medium case with the kind of hostility usually reserved for career criminals by judges, the Air New Zealand staff only saw my case as an occupational health and safety risk and quickly questioned the weight of the case. With a quick smile – designed to overcome any hostility and bag inspections – I cheerfully replied that my bag only weighed 18kgs. Begrudgingly, the staff at the bag check motioned to the conveyer belt and signaled that I should put the bag on myself. Maintaining my air of pleasant charm and grace, I managed to nonchalantly hoist the case onto the ramp and sauntered off as if it were the lightest thing in the world. Meanwhile, my back and arms were doing their best impressions of Arnie’s Pumping Iron and I felt the need for a deep tissue massage the following morning.

Once on the plane, I was impressed to discover myself seated next to a four bar captain of Air New Zealand. Here I was, little old Captain Undertraveled, seated right next to a man who could – in theory – rescue the occupants of a plane experiencing any number of major difficulties. Yet here also was a man, who despite his intricate knowledge of aeronautical endeavors, listened in complete rapture to the inflight safety instructions from the crew. His perfect example has left me suitably educated and I will now no longer browse the inflight magazine during the safety videos. Instead, I will scrutinize meticulously the intricate features of the videos, paying particular attention to any of the minor Kiwi celebrities and who-was-thats that feature in the safety demonstrations. For the record, I did recognise glimpses of Scott Dickson, Eliza McCartney and Rachael Hunter in the clip. Some of NZ’s greatest children!

After a rather uneventful flight – I say that because the windshear caused by the mountains only rocked the plane like a boat and didn’t throw the crew and food around the plane like I was hoping for – I arrived in the temperate economic capital of Aotearoa. After a quick walk to the Budget Ibis, where I was staying, I acquainted myself with the local shops and came to two conclusions. Firstly, Christchurch is a ridiculously Caucasian city, and secondly, my arteries and general health do not work in a symbiotic relationship with Carl’s Jr.

Settling in for the night, I found the stark, almost medicinal qualities of my tiny room unbelievably welcoming (though a few BrB Stouts may have helped). Tomorrow I  would start out on the first leg to South Korea, the home of Hyundai and the 39th Parallel. Following that, a flight to Israel and the opportunity to immerse myself in a culture and history that has been 3,000 years in the making.

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A road frequently traveled (but just not by me).

As interesting as life can get, mine always seemed a little less interesting than my peers. Forgoing the big OE after University, I watched as friends discovered the US, Britain, Africa and countless other destinations. I listened in rapture as they spun colourful tails of European nightlife, of escaped muggings, of escapades that surely even Dorian Gray would have been proud of. Yet here I was, trapped at the arse end of the South Pacific, in the semi-colon of beauty that most of the world would struggle to find on the map.

Don’t get me wrong, my choice not to travel and sate the wanderlust that dwelt within wasn’t all grim memories and despair. While my contemporaries were off gallivanting and seeking fame, fortune and a warm bed for the night (sometimes two if they were lucky), I did manage to snare a beautiful woman, trick her into marrying me (John Cadbury – I owe you one) and together we have been fortunate enough to create two wonderfully trying bundles of venomous energy.

Eventually, I found myself at the point in life where a mortgage, two sprightly bundles of joy and a job were severely limiting my prospects of travel. Moreover, my wife had already experienced Disneyland, safaris in South Africa, and I couldn’t help but think that she found a certain joy in laughing at her backwater husband. But then I came up with a master plan… why not use my skills and my profession as a teacher to seek other avenues that could possibly be more beneficial to a traveler on a budget? Most importantly, I needed to further educate myself to ensure my continued inclusion in the local pub quiz team.

It was with this in mind that I stumbled across the Yad Vashem Educator’s Seminar and scholarship. For those in the know, Yad Vashem is the organization responsible for ensuring that the Jewish Holocaust (Shoah) is not forgotten. As a history and religious education teacher, I was already teaching students about the Holocaust and it had impacted me and my studies through university. It seemed like the travel gods had heard my plea and had opened a door for me. Needless to say, after completing a whole bunch of paperwork and getting some good references (wine works best), I applied and was eventually awarded a Yad Vashem scholarship.

So, here I am. The night before I leave to Auckland to connect with my flight to Israel and I’ve never been on a flight longer than three and a half hours. What do I pack? What do people even wear in Israel (yarmulke, check!)? Is deep vein thrombosis even a real thing? What if I have to go for number twos on the plane and there’s a queue behind me? Arghhh, the nagging doubt of uncertainties!

Nevertheless, I will try to pack light and keep a notebook so that any forgotten items or essentials unthought-of will be rectified the next time I travel.

Escapades loom.