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A Welcoming Ceremony, getting more fibre, another museum, and some dancing.

As mentioned in a previous post, the days here are stupid crazy. The brilliant crew from HUST have our days so action packed that our brains barely have time to keep up. Fortunately, in the midst of all the adventure, our beloved hosts had the foresight to slow things down somewhat and, four days into our visit, ran an opening ceremony.

The who’s who of HUST!

The ceremony was a chance for the boys to see just how much importance the university places on these cultural exchanges. The opening ceremony was a veritable who’s who of the academic hierarchy of the Confucius Institute, and the HUST College of Languages. After listening to some speeches from the Chinese hosts and Mrs Kennedy, the students were invited to perform their number one hit, Mò lì huā (the jasmine flower song) and God Defend New Zealand, which they did with great gusto. This was followed by a rousing haka to acknowledge all the dignitaries and the fantastic work that they had put into making this trip a possibility.

The boys at the beginning of the Haka, doing the College proud.

Once the morning’s antics concluded, it was time to get a little more fibre in our diets, and we were taken off to the Yangtze Optical Fibre and Cable Company. The O-F double C (for those cool cats), is China’s premier producer of fibre optics and operates in many countries around the globe. We were lucky enough to have the company’s General Vice-Secretary (at least I think he was) show us around. An extremely knowledgeable and humorous man, our tour guide extolled the virtues of his company, his products, and the good that his company was doing around the globe. Peering through darkened windows into the sterile environments where the optical fibres were being produced, one could only stare blankly as terms such as 80 gigabits per second, and 3.17 million meters of optical fibre per month, were bandied about. Nevertheless, we somehow got the strange feeling that despite all of our own governments talk about high speed cabling, New Zealand is a little behind the times!

The General Vice something-or-other, getting very enthusiastic about optical fibre.

The students on the tour through the Yangtze Optical Fibre and Cable Company.

From the O-F double C to another museum, we soon found ourselves at the HUST History Museum. Here in an old redbrick building, we learnt how the university has its roots in the old Tongji Medical Hospital, established by Erich Paulun, a German living in Shanghai over a century ago. During the Japanese invasion of 1937, the medical school moved around the country, eventually merging with the Wuhan School of Medicine in 1950. From there, with the assistance of the Central Government of China, the university as it now stands began to develop. The government in 1952, had the goal of developing a higher education programme for the rapid development of the country, and Wuhan was to become a major centre of this ideal. Eventually, after surviving the cultural revolution, the Dot-Com bubble burst, and Y2K, the former Huazhong University of Science and Technology, Tongji Medical University, Wuhan Urban Construction Institute, and the Wuhan Science and Technology Vocational College combined to form the new Huazhong University of Science and Technology, or HUST for short. So, to keep a long story short, HUST has an incredibly impressive pedigree of some of China’s top academic institutions and the scary thing is, it is only going to get bigger and better.

Spot the odd one out at the HUST museum.

Finally, to top of the night, the boys were treated to a lecture by one of China’s premier dancers, Vivian Yan. A stunningly tall, slender and intelligent woman, Vivian described the origins of Chinese cultural dance, and its manifestations throughout the regions. She then taught the boys some simple Chinese movements that were performed with great gusto, and maybe a little less refinement than the demonstrator anticipated. If you’ve ever watched a new born camel take its first steps, you’ll get what I mean. Nevertheless, the boys worked hard on their ‘Chinese dance hands’ and Jack Hurley came away with the prize for best male dancer. The boys also had the chance to watch a traditional Chinese dance from one of Vivian’s students and before we knew it, another day had come to a close, and with it, the promise of the following day and a trip to Malong Middle School.

Vivian Yan cajoling the boys into a false sense of security, before pouncing and making them dance!

Fraser Buckley and Jack Pugh doing their best impression of a baby camel’s first steps.

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A school visit, a trip to the Yellow Crane Tower and a performance.

Timothy Preston looking both bold and beautiful in Wuhan.

Here at HUST, the students are beyond spoiled. Sheltered from the frenetic activity of the outside world, the university sits on 1,153 Acres with 72% green coverage. Trees, parklands, ponds and gardens have earned HUST the title of “The University in the Forest.” Unfortunately, one of the down sides of this is that the tree that is most in abundance is the Oriental Plane. Most Kiwis are familiar with this, though probably without knowing it. In our youth, the fruits of the tree formed the fibrous and prickly ‘itchy-bombs’ that we used to rub down each other’s backs. Here in China, the fruits are far more sinister. In full season, the fibrous fruits begin to disintegrate and form a fine cotton-like substance that floats through the air, mercilessly attacking airways and eyes with complete abandon. Many in HUST resort to wearing glasses and medical masks to avoid the irritants, and avoid them you must. Getting some in your eyes feels like someone is deliberately putting needles into your iris, and breathing the floating evil into your airways results in a hacking cough and an ample production of phlegm.

The fruit of the Oriental Plane – floating death at its finest.

Apart from the evil floating death, classes have continued to be enjoyable for the boys. After finishing class the other day, the boys were taken to HUST Middle School, which sits just outside the university. The school consists of 3,000 students from intermediate to senior level. Each class has up to 50 students and there was not a single laptop to be seen! Broken into their groups, the boys visited an intermediate class where they were treated to singing, poetry readings and musical recitals. The boys also did a bit of Q&A and each class enthusiastically quizzed the boys about their lives back in New Zealand. We finished the visit with the boys doing a spectacular haka to several hundred of the students.

The boys posing with two students from HUST Middle School.

Members of Team Tiger explaining Kiwi life to Middle School students.

A day or two later (we are all quickly losing track of time due to all the activities on offer), the group found itself on a bus, fighting its way through the day time traffic in Wuhan. Driving in China is an experience in itself and the Chinese drivers are nothing short of spectacular. There seems to be no real enforceable rule other than the vehicle in front gets to do what it wants. Because of this, drivers are hyper vigilant and also extremely considerate. Horns are used as a simple positional warning and no one seems to get upset when cars cross lanes or cut into traffic. Because of this chaos, drivers are aware of the traffic around them and ensure that everyone gets to where they want without too much trouble. In our time so far, despite the quantity of traffic, we have yet to see a single accident.

Our adventure through Wuhan’s traffic culminated with a stop at the magnificent Yellow Crane Tower. The tower that stands is the most modern of approximately 12 plus iterations of the building that have existed since 223 CE. Build in 1983, the tower now sits more than a kilometre from its original position.

On top of Snake Hill sits the stunning Yellow Crane Tower.

For those who like a good yarn, The Legend of the Yellow Crane Tower follows:

“According to the books “Retribution Record” and “A Biography of Immortals,” there was an immortal named Zi’an. One day Zi’an transformed into the image of a poor man and went to Xin’s wine shop. Xin did not judge Zi’an by his appearance and offered wine to him for free. This happened day after day, and it continued for several years.

When the immortal was about to leave one day, he used an orange peel to draw a crane on the wall and said, “Upon clapping, the crane will come down and dance.”

The immortal’s words were true indeed. The crane started to dance amid heavenly music, and it attracted many customers to the wine shop. Within ten years, Xin became a wealthy person.

One day Zi’an returned to the wine shop. Xin was very thankful to him for the crane. Zi’an took out a flute to play. A white cloud descended, and the crane on the wall flew to Zi’an. The immortal rode on the crane and left.

Thereafter, Xin built the Yellow Crane Tower on the site where the immortal had left.”

The tower itself is immaculate and its five stories rise 51.4 metres above Snake Hill, providing stunning views over all of Wuhan.

Overlooking Snake Hill from the top of the Yellow Crane Tower.

The Tower is one of the Four Great Towers in modern China and consequently, it draws large numbers of Chinese tourists. In this environment, our boys quickly found themselves the centre of attention as flocks of middle-aged Chinese women jostled to get photographs with them. Amidst the entire bustle, one student reluctantly found himself the centre of a huge amount of attention. Much like Harry Stiles among a group of tweenagers, Christian McCoy – with his fantastic hair – proved to be almost too much for the Chinese to comprehend, and people crowded around him, tugging his hair and pushing him into photographs. Standing on the sidelines, it really was quite hilarious watching how uncomfortable Christian was with all the added attention. After telling him to enjoy the fame and go with it, it soon became clear that Christian had no real desire to have flocks of people following him around and our group quickly moved on.

Our very own celebrity Christian McCoy mugging for photographs.

While Christian avoided the attention, some other boys, particularly Jakob Hoogenboezem and William Topham, made full use of their new-found fame and mugged for as many photographs as possible. Will was unarguably the most One Direction of the outing, winning the daily competition by getting a photograph of himself with the most women possible (13 by his count).

Bowen Hodgson mastering the art of Metallica and the Guzheng.

After the trip to the tower, some of the professional musical students from HUST treated the combined group to a musical performance. Here, a range of eloquent singers and musicians performed a variety of traditional songs on instruments that typified the beauty of Chinese culture. Many of the boys were taken with the attractive young women and spent a lot of the performance staring doe eyed at the performers. Despite the obvious genetic quality that was on display, I don’t think that the boys will be cranking traditional Chinese music through their iPods anytime soon. However, all these experiences serve to broaden their appreciation of some of the finer aspects of the foreign culture.

The two host performers explaining the night’s proceedings to the students.

A trio of the extremely talented traditional performers.

Tomorrow we are off to Malong Middle School, for the boys to further their cultural experience in a more ‘real’ China.

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The Nazi Hunter and a Trip to Bethlehem.

By and large, there is always an adventurous sentiment attached to the concept of someone hunting Nazis; the lone character, working against shadow figures to try and bring a sense of purpose and truth to the world. Yet, after meeting Efraim Zuroff, the real notion of enforcing justice and retribution is about as adventurous and romantic as getting hit in the face with last week’s used underwear.

Chris Harris, the New Zealand Yad Vashem lead Educator and Efraim Zuroff, Nazi Hunter.

Zuroff works for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the centre made famous by its namesake who is responsible for the capture and trials of some of the worst perpetrators of the Holocaust. Despite his height and imposing stature, Zuroff comes across as extremely personable, his sense of humour and his ability to weave stories easily capture one’s attention and ingratiates him to whoever is in his company.

Now, 60 odd years after the defeat of Nazism, justice seekers like Zuroff are facing a harder and harder quest for justice as former instigators and collaborators of the Jewish genocide pass away with age.

One of the first obstacles in Zuroff’s attempts to force prosecution of former Nazi’s are the attempts of the Nazis themselves to convince people that their trails are a waste of time and that they’re not capable of facing prosecution.

Zuroff, in his time with us, explained that when faced with potential prosecution, Nazis suddenly become extremely aged and incoherent, and their legal teams claim that they are unfit to stand trial. A classic example of this is the SS medical orderly Hubert Zafke who has consistently avoided trial for his role at Auschwitz. Despite being physically capable before his attempted trial, the minute that his defense team became aware of the charges against him, he suddenly required full time care and the use of a wheel chair. He also managed to develop dementia.

So then, with it becoming increasingly more difficult to imprison or bring former Nazis to trial, why is it so important for men like Zuroff to continue his campaigns to find these criminals? To answer the question, Zuroff got straight to the point. The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the perpetrators and the fact that they have alluded punishment does not change the nature of their crimes. In this vein, Zuroff reiterated the notion that time and age cannot create innocence. Many of these criminals, who at the time of the Holocaust were often at their physical peak, ambivalently executed many people who are as old, if not older, than they are as they face prosecution. Just as they gave their victims no justice, so justice should hold them accountable.

Perhaps most importantly, nations around the world owe it to both the victims, the survivors, and the ancestors of the Holocaust to pursue and hold accountable those people who perpetrated the largest systematic destruction of any group in history.

So how does Zuroff ‘catch’ Nazis? Smiling, the man himself said that finding them in the first place was often the hardest thing. Many Nazis, not caught in the original Allied advance, often slipped through Europe under assumed identities which they maintained, often right up until their capture. Many also fled to South America where they were often protected by the countries that they had fled to. Some criminals like Erich Priebke and Dino Šakić, made no attempt to hide their identities and their openness lead to their day in court. Other criminals like the infamous Adolf Eichmann, escaped to Argentina where they engaged in civilian life under new identities. In these cases, extensive work by the Israeli government, Simon Wiesenthal, and other intelligence services managed to identify and then work towards extradition and prosecution.

When a suspected Nazi is found, nowadays often through tip-offs (these people are still, even now, bragging about what they did), it is the job of Zuroff to build a case against them. This is a tedious and extensive process as the teams have to prove that they have accurately identified the criminal. Once done, Zuroff then lobbies the local governments to prosecute the criminals. This is because the Wiesenthal Center has no power to prosecute criminals and must rely on the goodwill of individual states to accept and then instigate the criminal proceedings against the former Nazis.

Unfortunately, not all countries work alongside the Nazi hunters, New Zealand being a prime example. In 1990, the Wiesenthal Center sent the government a list of 46 war criminals that were thought to be living in New Zealand. On that list was an Auckland man presumed to have been a member of the Lithuanian Police Battalion which contributed to the liquidation of some 165,000 Jewish Lithuanians. Unfortunately, the New Zealand Bolger government threw out the list of names claiming that the Wiesenthal Center had provided insufficient evidence.

Yet, despite the roadblocks that the Center has faced, it has been successful in bringing multiple high profile murderer to justice as well as many other lower level conspirators who all aided in the Holocaust. Now that the surviving body of Nazis are reaching the literal end of their shelf life, the Center has grown its goals in an aim to foster tolerance and understanding through community, education and social action.

Bethlehem.

Following our morning with the Nazi Hunter, we had what was essentially our first afternoon off. This gave a group of us the opportunity to venture into the Palestinian West Bank and visit the birth place of Jesus. Bethlehem is slap bang in the middle of the Palestinian zone of control and is one of the areas enclosed in the Israeli built wall. Bethlehem is both a zone in which Christians and Muslims live alongside each other and where tourism is one of the city’s biggest money earners. Historically, within the Muslim Jewish conflict, Bethlehem has been a melting pot of terrorism with many suicide bombers leaving the city to blow themselves up while riding buses in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem during the Second Intifada.

Nowadays, Bethlehem is controlled by the Palestinian Authority who enforce law and civic control through the area. However, Israel intelligence monitors the situation in Bethlehem very carefully and often Israeli military or policing units will enter Bethlehem to combat any rising threats.

To enter Bethlehem, our bus travelled out of Jerusalem and through a military checkpoint. This was pretty plain sailing for a bunch of Kiwi’s and nothing like what the Palestinians have to go through. The Palestinians, when entering and exiting the West Bank, must go through extremely vigorous security checks with metal detectors, bag searches, and extensive questioning. The Israeli Defense Forces who operate the check points do so from behind bomb proof glass and are very cold and efficient and do not tolerate any larrikinism.

Catholic Chapel in Shepherds’ Field

Once through into Bethlehem, we had a long drive through the narrow streets of Bethlehem to the Shepherds’ Field. This field is reportedly the place where a posse of shepherds were told by the angels that the Messiah had been born. This Catholic site consists of a beautiful little chapel, a cave church and the remnants of a former monastery. There is much controversy as to whether or not this is the actual field where the shepherds received their visitation as – with all things in the Holy Land – the different Christian denominations all have their own version of events and specific sites.

As with many of the religious areas in Israel, each church/chapel is a combination of stunning beauty and garish trinketry. The stunning architecture and art of the main chapel is juxtaposed by the cave just below it. In the cave, a fully equipped chapel accommodates little nativity pieces scattered around the various holes in the walls that look as if a bunch of five-year-old interior designers had been let loose after visiting the two dollar Christian megastore. Nevertheless, it was interesting to look around the cave in which, for several millennia, shepherds used to farm their goats and sheep.

Two dollar shop merchandise in the Shepherds’ Cave Chapel.

Entrance to the Milk Grotto.

Following the Shepherds’ Field, our tour guide then took the gaggle of New Zealand educators to the Milk Grotto. Now as a Catholic and a Christian, I will confess to being completely ignorant of the place. The traditional mythology of the grotto follows: After the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph found refuge in the cave in which the modern grotto resides. One day, in a boom of exuberant light and glory that left Darth Vaders’ big entrance somewhat lacking (Gloria in excelsis Deo), an angel told Joseph to hightail it off to Egypt. Being a man of action, Joseph insisted that they leave straight away. Unfortunately, Mary was in the middle of instigating her own ‘free the breast’ campaign with the young Jesus and her let-down occurred before the young messiah could latch properly. In the ensuing explosion of breast milk, the now lactate enriched rocks in the grotto suddenly turned milky white. Now I’m no geologist and cannot attest to the miraculous convergence of mammary excretion and sandstone, but word on the street is that powdered forms of the rock can help couples to conceive. So being one who loves to test a theory, I purchased a small packet of the powdered rock for experimental purposes. So if anyone out there wants a bit of divine help to conceive, I have some ancient Marian boob juice for your procreational requirements.

Mary before the lactate explosion.

Leaving what could arguably be the best kept secret in the world of aphrodisiacs, we found ourselves at the much vaunted Church of the Nativity. Similar to the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, the church is built slap bang over the place of importance, in this case the point on which it is thought that Jesus was born. On arriving at the rather monolithic church – stone blockwork with not much decoration – you are instantly shocked by the size of the entrance door. Standing perhaps even lower than five feet in height, the door forces you to bend right over to enter the church. Our tour guide said that it was designed to force pilgrims to bow on entry to show reverence. However, the tour guide behind us said that the door was built so small to prohibit the entry of camels and horses into the building. Now I’m not going to get into any arguments, but I certainly know which version I like better.

The monolithic Church of the Nativity, with the main entrance in the lower right of the pic.

As with the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Nativity’s grandiosity is severely negated by the extensive renovations occurring throughout the complex. Masses of scaffolding limit views and hide much of the intricate art and architectural features. However, that does little to prohibit the hoardes of varying Christian traditions who all have altars here and who all parade through the structure.

Cave of the Nativity where Jesus’ birth is reputed to have occurred.

Some highlights of the Church, include the cave underneath the central altar. This area has areas marked out that display the‘actual’ birth place of Jesus. A long low cavern, blackened through two millennia of candle and oil fumes, houses dozens of stunning paintings and icons of Jesus’ life. Also impressive is the main altar run by the Orthodox Church. Here, lining the isles, are a collection of some of the most exquisite iconography in the Christian world, many images of which are copied extensively. Finally, on exiting the Church, one can find an incredible wooden sculpture of St George slaying a dragon which was gifted to the Church in 1926 by a Christian family.  As for the significance of the statue, it makes as much sense to me as green tea ice-cream, but in this land of contrasts, well hey, everything goes.

Image retrived from, http://www.wolffchronicles.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/20150222-05.jpg

St George

Finally, having finished with the Nativity, we ventured home via the West Bank Barrier. This was an impromptu stop that was primarily the result of several shrieking women and a complaint bus driver; the goal, find a real life Banksy. Viewing the wall, one can understand both the Israeli and the Palestinian views. But rather than get political at this lengthy stage, I will limit my thoughts to the wall itself. Along the wall are stories sponsored by the Palestinian Youth Media House that describe the Palestinian Struggle against the Israeli State. The stories are often provocative and heart wrenching, but as with all things Palestinian/Jewish, only tell one side of the story. All along the wall are smatterings of heavy graffiti and fully legitimate street art. Here, below the Israeli observation towers, the stories of struggle are played out and the history of Palestine is sketched in paint. Some of the images are not only provocative, but intrinsically beautiful and speak of liberation, oppression and armed conflict. Unfortunately, the wall we ran along never revealed any works of Banksy, but did reveal the famous image of Leila Khaled, the face of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s (PFLP) movement. Khaled is most well known for being the first female involved in one successful hijacking of a plane and another unsuccessful attempt that ended with the death of her accomplice.

Leila Khaled, the best known Palestinian terrorist and Political campaigner (possibly after Yasser Arafat?).

In all, the day was long, tiring, but unforgettable. To delve through ideas of justice, nationalism, self-determination and religion was unforgettable, painful, but also stunningly human. It was a day of contrasting extremes that I shall not forget.

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Surviving Extermination

Throughout Europe in the 1940s, the complete annihilation of European Jewry was one of the foremost goals of any of the German occupied states. To minimise the Holocaust and claim that the planned murder and execution of the Jews was completely a Nazi responsibility is nothing short of a lie. The Holocaust was supported not just by the Nazis, but by local body governments, by everyday peoples, by housewives and even children. The indoctrinated hatred of the Jewish peoples throughout Europe was rife and many people, legitimised by the Nazi government, harassed and murdered Jews. The most infamous death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, or Auschwitz Camp II, received Jews from Upper Silesia, Slovakia, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Yugoslavia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Italy, all of which would not have been possible without the explicit help of everyday citizens within those cities.

Once in Auschwitz, just as it was in any of the other death camps, death was inevitable. In the original documents that J.A. Topf und Söhne (J.A. Topf and Sons was the construction company responsible for the crematoriums at Birkenau) provided to the German Command, is the statement that the furnaces they designed would effectively cremate 4,756 corpses per day.

Yet within the vast figure, of almost 6,000,000 executions, there were people who managed to escape the German killing apparatus. Eventually these people, often a long time after the fact, began to tell their stories. Yesterday I had the privilege to meet three of these people and listen to their harrowing tales.

Daniel Gold (Lithuania).

Daniel was born in Šiauliai, Lithuania in 1937. In 1941, the Germans occupied Lithuania, and the Jews of Šiauliai were enclosed in a ghetto. Two years later, the German Aktions were carried out and people not strong enough to work were taken away and liquidated, this included all the old as well as the children. Amazingly, Daniel managed to hide in a potato cellar with his cousins during the Aktion. Daniel spoke about the fear that he experienced that day. The tiny space that they were hiding in was so cramped that David, who was six at the time, and his cousins had to stand, pressed into each other in silence throughout the day. They could hear the drunk Lithuanian soldiers clearing the properties around them: furniture breaking, dogs barking, crying mothers and their children, gun shots, soldiers singing and celebrating their successes. Trapped in silence, with little air, the children who were unable to leave were forced to defecate where they stood.

Hidden away for the next year within the ghetto, Daniel managed to escape alongside his two cousins and his aunt and uncle, two days before the ghetto was fully liquidated. Hiding with a Lithuanian family, Daniel survived the Holocaust and was eventually reunited with his father who was liberated from Dachau by the US 7th Army. His mother did not survive.

Yehudit Kleinman (Italy)

Yehudit was an Italian Jew living with her mother and grandmother when one night, her mother received a phone call that left her ashen. Without telling Yehudit what was happening, her mother packed several suitcases and then took Yehudit, alongside her grandmother to the local civic offices. Once there, Yehudit – who had still not been told anything – described the oppressive nature of the room. German officers stood around a man seated at a desk who was writing down information. There was a very real sense of fear and panic in the room, but people were for some reason, following the orders they were given. When Yehudit and her family arrived at the desk, she was very surprised to see her Christian neighbour standing alongside the man at the desk. Suddenly, the desk clerk looked at Yehudit and asked her who she wanted to go with, pointing at both her mother and the neighbour. Yehudit was only 6.

Yehudit looked first at her mother and was confronted with a fear and look that she could never forget. Her mother’s face was grim and determined, ashen and deathly, hostile and unwelcoming. In a split second decision, Yehudit somehow knew that her mother was no longer an option and signalled that she wanted to go with her neighbour. Immediately German soldiers forcibly removed Yehudit’s mother and grandmother from the room while holding back the six year old. Amid the cries and panic, Yehudit was pulled in by her neighbour. Without even an embrace or a goodbye, Yehudit found herself without her family. She would never see her mother, or her grandmother, again.

Dropped off at a Catholic convent, Yehudit pretended to be a Christian and once the war was over, was found by a Jewish organisation who relocated her to an orphanage in Israel.

Rena Quint (Poland)

As a three and a half year old girl in Poland, Rena was one of the first people to encounter the Nazi ghettoisation of the Jews in 1939. Originally from a family who owned a nice house in Piotrkow, the forced settlement of the Jews in her area meant severe crowding with very little food, medicine, and heating. With entire families forced into single rooms, typhus soon became rampant. Within these conditions, the families were held together by the women as many men were forced into the labour camps.

Just before she turned six, she experienced her first German Aktion. Sometime after midnight, German troops rounded up the families and herded them through the streets, whipping the women and children like they were animals. They were then crammed into the local synagogue with 2,000 other people and Rena can remember the sounds of shooting and crying in the streets around her. Anyone who couldn’t fit into the room was taken out into the Radomsk forest where they were forced to dig the ditches that ultimately became their graves. While in the synagogue, Rena noticed a man, Rena wasn’t sure if it was an uncle, motioning for her to run out the door. Despite the fear that was engulfing her, Rena ran out the door with the man. She doesn’t know how she ran, or whether her mother pushed her, but that was the last time she saw her mother, brothers and her extended family. They were taken to Treblinka and the gas chambers where their bodies were piled into open pits and burnt. To this day, she still wonders what her mother was thinking as ran out the door.

The man she had run out with eventually took her to her father, but what was he to do with her? Girls were useless. So her father cut her hair short and dressed her in boys clothing. He changed her name from Fredgia to Froyim and told her that she was to say that she was ten and could work. She then spent the next while working in the class factory as a boy until she was taken to Burgen-Belsen where, sitting amongst a pile of copses, she was liberated by the British in 1945.

During the Holocaust, all of Rena’s family were killed by the Germans. Remarkably, she eventually found herself in the USA with a loving family who renamed her Rena.

Daniel, Yehudit and Rena

In all, these survivors were the lucky ones. In many areas of Europe, no Jews survived the atrocities that befell their people. Yet in spite of all the horrors that Daniel, Yehudit and Rena faced, there remains within them a beautiful expression of humanism. While I am positive that many survivors succumbed to the evils they lived through, these three people exhibited a remarkable sense of peace that belied their journeys. Humour coupled with pessimism, and a journey defined by hope was evident in all of their stories, but by far the greatest light that shined from these people was their successes. Ultimately, Yehudit – whom I spent the afternoon with – found her ultimate success in revenge. The ability to marry and have children became symbolic of her victory over the Nazis who tried to destroy all the Jewish children. In this way, every Jewish child born became symbolic of the Nazi failure and the hope of a new Jewish nation.

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Dealing with the Holocaust

Felix Nussbaum, “Self Portrait with Jewish Identity Card”, 1943

Dealing with the Holocaust has always been a numbers game for myself as someone who loves history. But the problem with numbers are that they hide the grave realities of the people who made up those vast figures. When one speaks in millions, the individual, the personal story, the private grief and anguish gets lost in the figures. So it has been the goal of Yad Vashem to delve past the numbers and reveal the people behind the numbers.

Over the past few days, we have been taken on a personal journey into the lives of the Jewish people, the people destined for liquidation, whose choices were ultimately choiceless. On this journey, we have read poems, diaries and literature, all of which reveal the people and their struggles as the faced the inevitable – death under the Nazi apparatus.

Needless to say, it has been a struggle. How did an almost entire group of people seemingly go willingly towards death and the deaths of their families? Where was the fight, where was the resistance, where was the resolve to try and avoid death? The brutal tragedy of the Holocaust is that there was no room to fight. Survival often depends on our ability to compromise, and for a people whose deaths were ultimately unavoidable, compromise existed through a variety of facets alien to us today. But for the Jewish people caught deep within the folds of the Third Reich’s industrialised executions, constant compromise was all they had.

However, deep within these actions and the fingers that clawed at life, the Jewish people still found humanity within their plight. To defy a regime with violence often only ended in the senseless murder of families and neighbourhoods. To defy a regime with life was a revenge that was far more fulfilling. In this fashion, many Jewish people chose to confront their impending doom through a concerted effort to remain human, to remain Jewish.

It is within this quiet confrontation that we are able to witness the real beauty and humanism of a people who were in an environment where death fast became a normalised part of life. A diary, prayers throughout the day, a smuggled instrument, a poetry reading, a comforting embrace all became avenues through which the doomed Jewish nation managed to hold onto their humanity and resist – even for brief moments – the dehumanisation that was afforded by the Nazis.

Through reading the literature and viewing the art, we are gifted the voices of those who were silenced in crowded, blackened rooms where every breath betrayed life. Here within the words of the living, we encounter the victim and we shrug off the narrative provided to us through the Nazi administration. By viewing the literature, we pay homage to the memory of not just the artist or author, but the people and populations that they represented. We ensure that those condemned and left voiceless can be heard and understood.

Night – Elie Wiesel (September 30, 1928 – July 2, 2016)*

The beloved objects that we had carried with us from place to place were left behind in the wagon and, with them, finally, our illusions.

Every few yards, there stood an SS man, his machine gun trained on us. Hand in hand we followed the throng.

An SS came toward us wielding a club. He commanded:

“Men to the left! Women to the right!”

Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight simple, short words. Yet that was the moment when I left my mother. There was no time to think, and I already felt my father’s hand press against mine: we were alone. In a fraction of a second I could see my mother, my sisters, move to the right. Tzipora was holding Mother’s hand. I saw them walking farther and farther away; Mother was stroking my sister’s blond hair, as if to protect her. And I walked on with my father, with the men. I didn’t know that this was the moment in time and the place where I was leaving my mother and Tzipora forever.

I kept walking,

my father holding my hand.

* Elie Wiesel survived the Holocaust having been interred in both the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. His mother and sister were murdered in Auschwitz while his father died in Buchenwald. He is the author of 57 books.

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Independence, Fighting Fit and Peanut Butter

The start of our day began with a trip to Tel Aviv where we visited Independence Hall, the place where the State of Israel was declared back on May 14, 1948. The sight of the announcement occurred in the house of the first mayor of Tel Aviv, Meir Dizengoff who had converted his own house into an art gallery after his wife’s death. Eventually the gallery was renovated and served as the Tel Aviv museum until 1971.

A sculpture of Dizengoff outside his former house.

However, in 1948, the museum was to serve a more important purpose. The Jewish people were in the middle of a bitter civil war with the Arab peoples of Palestine who had laid siege to Jerusalem, and the British Mandate was set to expire the following day. Unable to declare independence from their spiritual capital, the Jewish leadership decided to use the Tel Aviv Museum on account of its ability to also act as a safe house in the event of a bombing. Invitations were sent out to important members of the public asking them to show up at 3:30pm the following day and to keep the meeting secret. Nevertheless, the next day crowds camped out in front of the museum and welcomed the leaders as they entered the building.

At 4:00pm, David Ben-Gurion began to recite the scroll of the Establishment of the State and approximately sixteen minutes later he asked Rabbi Fishman to say a traditional Jewish blessing. 25 members of the Moetzet HaAm (the Provisional State Council) signed the document – 12 members could not as they were trapped in Jerusalem. Once the members of the Moetzet HaAm had signed the document, the anthem Hatikvah played, following which Ben-Gurion announced to the world, “The State of Israel is established! This meeting is adjourned!” This then turned what was essentially a civil war into a war of independence as the neighbouring Arab nations of Trans-Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq all declared war against the new Israeli state.

David Ben-Gurion’s Place Marker and microphone (centre) in Declaration Hall.

Ignoring the political, military and social consequences of the signing, the site of the declaration is still a huge part of Israeli pride. Within the museum, the room in which the scroll was signed still remains in its original state (after being recreated by David Gafni, the man who had originally set up the hall). Around that walls are reproductions and originals of the art works that stood in the room as the declaration scroll was signed, including works by Marc Chagall and other Jewish painters. Finally, above the main table and sandwiched between two banners that would become the Israeli flag is a massive portrait of Theodor Herzl, the man who dreamed the Israeli state into being.

Declaration Hall within the Independence Museum, the place where the State of Israel came into being.

Following our time at Independence Hall our next port of call was the stunning Palmach Museum. The Palmach – established in 1941 – was the attack wing of the Hagana, the armed force dedicated to the defence of the Jewish communities prior to the establishment of the State of Israel.

The Palmach was made out of youthful conscripts, both male and female in their late teens and early twenties. These recruits received vigorous training to prepare them for the armed conflict and sabotage missions that they would be exposed to. Early on in their creation, weapons and equipment were in short supply and units might only share one pistol or a rifle between them. This changed when the British Army recruited the Hagana to help them in their defence against the German forces under Rommel in North Africa. Suddenly, the Palmach had weapons and equipment at their disposal and used this to effectively train the youthful soldiers.

However, after Rommel’s defeat in May 1942, the British no longer needed the support of the Palmach and Hagana and requested their equipment back. Unsurprisingly, the British equipment wasn’t exactly forthcoming. The loss of British support also meant that the Palmach could no longer support itself and it faced the threat of disbandment. This was remedied by Yitzhak Tabenkin, the head of the Kibbutz Union (a kibbutz was a communal farm in British Palestine), who helped to keep the Pulmach alive by assigning platoons to the various kibbutzim. The Pulmach then worked a monthly schedule that involved 8 training days, 14 work days farming the kibbutz, followed by seven days off.

The Pulmach continued to exist and engaged in operations against both the British – in an attempt to force them out of Palestine – and the Arabs, in both a defensive and offensive capacity, oftentimes against civilian populations. The museum attempts to recreate the experiences of a Pulmach platoon from its inception during World War II through to the Pulmach’s assimilation into the Israeli Defense Forces in 1948 and the end of the Israeli War of Independence. As an experimental museum there are no normal displays or photographs. Instead groups are led on a journey that is seen through the eyes of the individual soldiers during the existence of the Pulmach. This journey includes watching battle scenes and listening to the stories of the soldiers as they experience both triumph and tragedy.

Members of the Israeli Defense Forces strutting their stuff in Tel Aviv. The Pulmach and Hagana were the forerunners of these modern units.

The actual museum is run by the Israeli Defense Forces and we were guided through our tour by two young female soldiers. Unsurprisingly, the extreme nationalism evident in the museum failed to mention some of the more questionable actions of the Pulmach, especially incidents in which they deliberately attacked Arab residential zones with the sole purpose of destroying them. Atrocities aside, the museum was a fantastic experience and really brought to life the fears and desires of a blossoming Israeli nation.

Following a visit to the Pulmach Museum, we then took a quick ride out to the city of Jaffa. To cut a long story short, we used the opportunity to frolic ankle deep in the Mediterranean and eat a vast quantity of caramel and peanut gelato. It seems that the residents here have a particular fondness for peanut butter flavour and it can be found in just about any snack, including chips, and I for one, cannot complain!

Standing ankle deep in the Mediterranean. The locals thought we were nuts, we thought the water was warm!

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In the Footsteps of JC.

A walk in Jesus’ footsteps but with the advantage of not having to walk through all those damnable hills and valleys? Count me in! What better way to see the primary sites of Jesus’ early life and ministry than to get on a vivid orange bus and travel north from Jerusalem through Nazareth, past Magdala, and then stop off at Capernaum and go boating on the Sea of Galilee…

Showing the ancient Egyptians how it’s done at Tel Magiddo.

The exploration of Jesus’ footsteps began with a trip north from Jerusalem to Tel Megiddo, one of the most valuable archaeological sites in the world. A tel is basically a hill created by consequent layers of civilisation placed one on top of another over an extended period of time. The tel of Megiddo is a massive example of one of these, rising 60 metres above the plain of the Jezreel Valley and comprising of an area of 15 acres. The Tel itself dates back to the seventh millennia BCE (the early Neolithic period) and hosted the Canaanites, Egyptians, Israelites and Persians before finally fading from history sometime around the 3rd Century BCE.

What made the city so valuable was its tactical location. Located at a major strategic point on the Via Maris – the main trading route that travelled from Egypt northwards along the Mediterranean coast before turning east and heading into the modern day areas of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Basically, whoever controlled Megiddo controlled the trade route and the wealth of the region. It is little wonder then, that the town itself was primarily a military base and the remains of many stables testify to the large chariot armies that must have emanated from the city during times of hostility.

The excavations at Megiddo revealing the temple area from the Early Bronze Age.

One of the more amazing aspects to Megiddo is the city’s water supply. Originally water was taken from a spring outside the hill of the city, but sometime in its ancient past, the ruler of the city had a vertical shaft dug 36 metres straight down within the city walls. The vertical shaft then had a connecting horizontal shaft dug 70 metres through solid stone to meet up with the spring and channel water into the city. The spring itself was then covered over and hidden, allowing the city a permanent water supply during periods of siege. One can only imagine the amounts of hard labour, presumably slave based, that worked to create this massive irrigation system.

Looking down the main water shaft at Megiddo.

In more modern biblical history, Megiddo is foretold in the Revelation of John as the place of the final battle between good and evil. The actual Hebrew name Har Megiddo was corrupted by the Greek translation of the bible and, with the dropping of the ‘H’ and the addition of an ‘E’ or two, became the more recognised word, Armageddon. So the end of days will be apparently be fought here within the Jezreel Valley out in front of Tel Megiddo.

Following our encounter with Tel Megiddo, we modernised a bit (going from 300BCE to 3BCE) and travelled to the Palestinian city of Nazareth. Nazareth stood in stark contrast to the Jewish quarters we had previously seen. Narrow streets and a lack of civic maintenance really had a few of us questioning just how the Israeli state allocated funds within its territories. Nevertheless, we made our entrance into the hilltop community and walked towards the Basilica of the Annunciation. As someone who has previously struggled with Marian theology, and who has only really begun to explore it in the last few years, I was questioning how I would feel or respond spiritually to the place. The basilica itself is believed to have been built over the place in which Mary was told by the angel Gabriel that she would bear the son of God. The structure which stands above Mary’s home is a stunning example of architecture. Designed by a Jewish architect for the Roman Catholics and built by Muslims, it really is a testament to the diverse cultures that exist within the region. This cultural theme is then further emphasised by the numerous mosaics and images of Mary that adorn both the basilica and its grounds. These images, gifted by Catholic communities around the globe, depict Mary in the cultural traditions of that region. From African, to Chinese, to Russian, the art works and depictions are stunningly beautiful. One image hard to miss is the American depiction of Mary. This picture is three dimensional and created from glass, bronze and aluminium. Our tour guide told us that the image is composed of materials from the Apollo Missions, but I found nothing to support that so will take that information with a grain of salt. Interestingly, the site was spiritually uplifting and really prompted a questioning of the role and importance of Mary within the Catholic faith. This is certainly an area that I will continue to explore.

The Basilica of the Annunciation, the place where Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel.

Following the experience at the Basilica of the Annunciation, we headed off to the Church of St Joseph, a structure little more than a hundred metres from the Basilica of the Annunciation. This church is built on the remains of a Jewish home dating back to the time of Christ and while there is no evidence to support the notion that it is the home that Jesus was raised in, it is interesting to see the ritual bath, storage areas and beautiful church that surrounds it.

The church which sits above the presumed home of Jesus and his father Joseph.

At this point we were hurried back to our bus and experienced the joys of the underdeveloped Nazarene street system. Facing a traffic jam of moderate – but extremely slow – proportions, we were astounded as drivers took liberties around the bus, around each other, and around the foot path. Not to be deterred, our bus driver pulled a U-turn in the middle of the traffic jam and proceeded to another one where regular horn use, dramatic gesturing and enthusiastic posturing from locals was the order of the day.

After escaping the hustle of Nazareth, we headed off to lunch at Magdala. Magdala is a small town on the shores of Galilee and is most famous for its connection with Mary Magdalene, the female disciple from Jesus’ posse. Mary in the Gospels is famous for having seven demons exorcised, but there was no demonology to be seen as we settled into the local restaurant for lunch. Here we were introduced to the local experience of service. While Mary was faced with demons, we were faced with staff who made every effort to serve us well, but with language and cultural barriers and a limited amount of time in our pocket, the experience was one of the most confusing I have ever had. With most of us looking awkwardly at each other – and the odd sideways glance – we ate a relatively sumptuous meal; unless you ordered steak. Meat in Israel must be kosher, which means bloodless and salted, in other words, killed beyond belief.

From lunch, we then travelled north up to the town commonly associated with Jesus’ early life and ministry, Capernaum. Capernaum was a small Jewish town on the northern shore of Lake Galilee. It was from this small town that Jesus is reported to have recruited the fisherman Simon, better known as Peter, the apostle on whom Jesus’ new church was founded upon. It is also the place where Jesus performed twelve miracles including the healing of Simon-Peter’s mother. The town is now just a series of ruins, but central to the city are the rebuilt remains of a white Jewish synagogue. This building is actually built upon the original synagogue contained within the city and is likely the synagogue that Jesus drew massive crowds to as he preached. The New Testament acknowledges that sometimes the crowd was so big that Jesus needed to speakoutside the synagogue and archaeological evidence has revealed a massive courtyard on the western side of the temple. It is assumed that this is the area in which Jesus delivered his message to the gathered crowds.

The White Synagogue in Capernaum, residing over the remains of the original Synagogue dated to the time of Jesus.

Once finished with Capernaum, we headed off to Ginosar where we boarded the slightly infamous Jesus boats. These boats are large vessels that take tourists on trips around Galilee to see sights such as Tiberius, Capernaum, the Mount of the Beatitudes and the area where Jesus performed the miracle of the fish and the loaves. Hilariously, the boat ride began with the raising of the New Zealand flag and the singing of the New Zealand national anthem – beginning with the Te Reo. From there, the boat began to crank out happy clapper church songs, with a bias towards Hillsong styled Christian hymns. At this point, the boat’s First Mate headed out onto the deck and promptly initiated a call to arms which resembled a local folk dance. Never one to miss an embarrassing opportunity, I dived into the local dance and proceeded to get my white boy dance moves into gear. Fortunately, my impression of a dying flamingo did not jeopardise the ability of the boat to sail, and nor did it promote feelings of sea sickness in the observant passengers. Following what is probably the worst example of communal dancing ever witnessed in both the Eastern and Western Worlds, the boat returned to shore and released us for the long ride back to Jerusalem.

The Jesus Boat on the Sea of Galilee at sunset.

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Shabbat and the Old City

On Friday morning I woke and trotted off to the gym. Little did I know, but being the day of Shabbat, Israel tends to run on a different time, and despite my enthusiasm, I was too early for the gym and was forced to go for another run around the city. If I knew how much walking I would have to do further in the day, I might have foregone the running option.

Leaving our hotel, we – the New Zealand group of educators – were introduced to our guide for the day. Our guide, Amir is an archaeologist from the Hebrew University with a plethora of knowledge and dad jokes that he spreads throughout his commentaries with great gusto (Why do archaeologists need counselling? Because their lives are in ruins.).

It was Amir’s job to oversee us for the next two days and introduce us to the historical side of Israel. First up was a trip to the Old City, past the Lions and Golden Gates, through to our entrance, the stunningly named Dung Gate. On the way past the Golden Gate, we got our first look across the Kidron Valley (Valley of Jehosafat) to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane. Next to these significant Christian landmarks is sited the oldest Jewish cemetery on Earth. Jewish tradition states that in the Final Judgement, the people buried here will be the first raised to new life, effectively giving them all a front row seat to the dawning of the New Jerusalem.

Looking out from the Old City to the Mount of Olives and the oldest Jewish cemetery.

From the Dung Gate, we side stepped the numerous Hasidic Jews begging for coin, and entered into the Ophel Archaeological Park. The park itself sits south and south-west of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and is a live site, meaning that parts of it are still being explored. So far the site has managed to unearth the remnants of the Temple Mount, dating back to the period of the Second Temple, 530BCE – 70CE.

The place is incredible and the depth of the digging to reveal the ancient stones is extensive. Here, with some imagination (helped in part by a range of videos, sketches, and photographs), one can imagine how the city must have looked and felt around the time of Jesus. One of the more special aspects of the park are the steps that reach towards the Al-Asqa Mosque. These steps are the original steps that Jewish people walked upon when taking sacrifices up to the temple. They are also the place where Jesus himself would have walked during his time in Jerusalem. Indeed, so significant are these ruins that Neil Armstrong, while touring the Park in 2007, said to his tour guide, “I am more excited stepping on these stones than I was stepping on the moon.”

The original stairs of the temple during the Second Temple Period, the same stairs that Jesus would have used.

Viewing the Al-Asqa Mosque from the archaeological park.

From the park, we walked up and around to the most spiritual place for modern Judaism, the Wailing Wall. This part of the exposed brick work of the original Temple Mount is the last link that the Jewish People have to the Great Temple which housed their Holy of Holies. Here, thousands of Jews and Christians gather to pray and seek intercession from God. On the day we visited, the Muslims were having their big prayer services up at the Al-Asqa Mosque and there were riot police wandering around in a heightened state of tension. Apparently, the Muslims can sometimes get a bit worked up and begin throw stones off the Temple Mount down onto the Jewish people praying below. At that point, the riot police have to run up a causeway into the Muslim zone of control to contain the violence. It is a job that is fraught with danger and the Israeli authorities do not take any chances. Just as the call to prayer began to ring out, our tour guide and armed guard decided that for safety reasons, they would escort us out of there and into the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.

Israeli riot police prepare for any outcomes at the Wailing Wall.

Getting spiritual at the Wailing Wall.

To cut a long story short, we then spent the afternoon wandering through the stalls, ancient streets and building of the Old City, learning about how the city may have looked and functioned two centuries ago. After a proper tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (where I finally got to learn what all the rooms I had previously visited were), my mate Pete and I ambled back to the city and through the markets to pick up some snacks. Now if you haven’t had the privilege of visiting a Middle Eastern market, then you should put it on your bucket list.

The entrance to the markets – insanity at its finest, a treat not to be missed!

The markets are action packed avenues of every imaginable nut, candy, piece of clothing, and odds and ends. Muslim, Christian, Jew, and tourist all jostle and bump as they navigate the throngs to argue with the store owners and try to secure the best dollar for their products.

The process of securing the best price for their product is an art in itself. Store owners go through a range of emotions in their attempts to sell produce. Initially they are extremely positive, insisting that their *name of produce* is the best in all of Jerusalem. On naming a low price, they then look almost insulted, before reminding you that they need to feed their families and that they couldn’t possibly part with their item for that price. A brief exchange then follows with the shopkeeper parrying away lower prices while thrusting pricier options under your nose. While this is all going on, there are arms waving, dramatic posturing and gesturing, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and emphatic points of order. From a social perspective, it is literally something that requires an overdub of David Attenborough…

“And here we have the Armenian store keeper attempting to sell a Christian Cross to an unsuspecting American tourist. Note how the Armenian assumes a lower stance than the tourist, a cleaver trick designed to make the tourist think that they have the upper hand; meanwhile, the store keeper knows that they have forty other identical blessed-by-the-Pope rosary beads and that with the tourist reaching for their wallet, a sale is guaranteed.”

Following the markets, we rushed back to the hotel just in time to ensure we were ready for the Shabbat.

In the Jewish faith, the new day starts at Dusk in the early evening, and the celebration of Shabbat begins in earnest when three stars become visible in the night sky. Once dressed, the group headed out onto the nearly empty streets – Jews are forbidden from creative work during Shabbat and driving is included in this – and walked to the local synagogue. Here I was treated to what can best be described as organised chaos. The actual service follows a very strict schedule, but it is what goes on around that schedule that is the fun part of participating in a Jewish service. Men wander around, shaking hands and making plans on the sly. People bob up and down to the rhythm of the Hebrew prayers giving the congregation the impression of a slow motion mosh pit. Men eagerly sing jaunty tunes while the odd man ad-libs with clapping and scat and children run around like there is nothing going on.

Showing off my colour coordinated ensemble for the service at the synagogue. Note how the kippah more than hides my bald patch!

At the conclusion of the service, there is a lot of catching up between men and women (who sit separately from the men during the service), before everyone rushes off to dinner. Now meals over the Shabbat period have to be all pre-prepared as people are not allowed to work. So when we got to the hotel, we sat down for a series of Jewish prayers and blessings before we got stuck into the richness of the Jewish religious foods. Must haves here are the gefilte fish and the chopped chicken liver. I won’t go into detail here, but these two food are completely in the realms of the love or hate relationship. I for one had no problem with them, but I am firmly of the belief that if it breathes, then it is edible. Unfortunately, the gag reflexes of some of my colleagues indicated that my approval of the Jewish customary foods was not shared by all. Yet, after a long and tiresome day, with a few beers to wash down the pulped fish and chicken livers, I went to bed suitably full and happy.

 

 

 

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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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Operation Chromite and arrival in Israel

Incheon at night looking over the Central Park

As I prepared to board the Korean Air 747 in Christchurch, I couldn’t help but think about the age of the global 747 fleet and whether or not I was actually boarding a plane old enough to be a grandparent. However, images of engine failures and lengthy plunges into the cold ocean were soon overcome as the professionalism of the Korean crew and pilots put any fears to bed. I mean, if we were to crash, it would be so precise and controlled that the air hosts would probably provide all the passengers with seaweed soup as we exited the crippled plane.

Anyway, regardless of my initial fears, some quick research showed me that the plane was in fact a 747-8i and as such, was probably built no earlier than 2012. After sitting through a safety video that left me somewhat cold (Air New Zealand’s are soooo much better), I found myself – four movies and eleven hours later – touching down in Incheon, South Korea.

Incheon, for those who find the name unfamiliar, is an ancient Korean city most famous (in the West) as the scene of the American General, Douglas MacArthur’s most decisive military victory. As the primary organiser behind Operation Chromite, MacArthur led a UN amphibious force into Incheon where he captured the city and the port, and ultimately gave the UN army the necessary advantage that allowed them to defeat the North Korean Army during the Korean War.

Northeast Asia Trade Tower, Incheon (305m)

Needless to say, South Korea is a stunning place. In Incheon, massive skyscrapers dwarf the pristine city streets and everything seems to be designed with thought and splendor in mind. Even the gardens, trees, walkways and rocks appear to have been perfectly placed to enhance feelings of peace and beauty.

One of the highlights of the Korean leg would have to be the Korean toilets. Now in various situations in life I have often heard mention of these fantastical devices. Mostly, those telling the tales do so with a kind of wide eyed awe coupled with a knowledge of adventure that we mere mortals could only grasp at. I now believe that I can join that club, but in the interests of honesty, I will endeavor to describe these marvels of the art of ablutions.

The first thing I noticed about Korean toilets was the amount of buttons that one can push. Needing no further encouragement, I positioned myself on the toilet and began to do what any rational male would do when faced with so many buttons with Korean glyphics – I hit every button possible in no specific order to see what would happen. Well, after some initial surprises, I came to the following conclusions. The first button, it would seem, initiates stage 5 water blasting and high pressure colonic irrigation (I was not a particular fan of this and immediately began to push every button within reach to end the suffering). Button two was much more civilized – a warm cleansing spray of water provided a much more relaxed pathway to nether region hygiene. Finally, button three seemed to be reserved for women only – either that or I was sitting incorrectly on the damn thing which possibly meant that I needed to revise buttons one and two. Finally, there was a series of small buttons that I eventually worked out controlled the heat of the bottom cleansing water and the seat itself. Now call me soft, but after sitting on a heated toilet seat, no other toilet experience will ever be comparable. This is something that all New Zealand toilets need.

Giant bed. Like MASSIVE bro!

After a stay in a hotel where the bed seemed made for a giant and the food was oustanding, groups of us managed to brave the -7 degree Celsius morning for a walk around the city before we once again boarded another Korean Air plane and strapped ourselves in for another 11 hour flight. This flight was a little different as we knew that we would be passing close to zones of conflict and there were a few bets as to which route the plane would take. Obviously, Korean airliners and Russia don’t have the best track record (Russia has shot down two Korean passenger planes, one in 1978, the other in 1983), and we would want to avoid the skies around Syria for obvious reasons. Thus, no one was too surprised when we almost avoided Russia completely and flew the long way into Tel Aviv by flying out across Cyprus and the Mediterranean via Turkey.

Just hanging out with the Emperor and Empress of Korea

Once in Israel we quickly attempted to get through customs but were slowed down by a massive influx of several planes all at the same time. We had heard stories about the Israeli security and we had become apprehensive in the long queues. By the time I got to customs, I was sure that I looked like a suicide bomber to any number of the airport security who were wandering around ensuring that we played by their rules. Once I got to my customs officer I did my best to look charming and innocent; I needn’t have bothered as the woman behind the counter didn’t say a single thing to me and ushered me through with as much disdain as is humanely imaginable. Heading off to our hotel in Jerusalem, the night hid the wonders of the ancient city and its stories. With almost the whole tour party falling over with exhaustion, the tangible expectation of what we would see, learn and discover over the next few weeks had everyone participating in various levels of stupid.

Tomorrow would be our first day in one of the most influential cities in Western history.