Resting on a Hillside Near Jerusalem

A serious reader advised me today that he had decided to subscribe to this blog. Flattered, honoured, I dedicate this post to Jesse.

Our car flies down the highway, down the great hills from Jerusalem. Jerusalem, she is builded upon hills.
Beautiful city, too greatly beloved. O, beauteous vista, joy of all the earth.
The hills swoop down, around, down. Forests of green rise above us on our left, falling away beneath us on our right. These treetops are lower than we! Our car is an aeroplane.

Abruptly, we land. This is Beth Shemesh, House of the Sun, a town that might have tumbled off the edge of Jerusalem, falling halfway down, coming to rest on a hillside. For me, for my family, this is a town without shops, without noise or busyness, without time. We come here to visit the cemetery at Beth Shemesh.

This cemetery does not speak of sadness. Not a place of wrenching grief. A place of quiet, a place to feel the peace, to think and remember. In this place the dead lie beneath their uniform headstones, of cream – Jerusalem stone. No pretentious texts, no display: modest memorials only in the democracy of the dead.

Graves cluster on small levelled paved areas, discrete suburbs, each one looking over forest into the green and the blue. There are many of these minute suburbs, each out of sight of all the others. When you stand on one of these secreted spots, you cannot see or hear the world. The cemetery is called Beth Olamim, the house of eternity. A good place to spend eternity, especially if you like the countryside.

The narrow roadway within the cemetery climbs and twists. Spiralling up, up, our car stops above the small semi-circle of stone where Helen and Henry lie.

Helena emerged from Auschwitz, a great spirit within a pixie body, a witness to the worst, a stranger to hatred. Like an ancient mariner fired to teach us all, she lived to teach, to champion the forgotten and to fight racism.
Helena – to the end – formidable for the good.

Henry, previously a tall athlete and distinguished international jurist, weighed just six stone after Auschwitz. He never noised his role in the camps where his fellows elected him as their judge. He heard cases where the currency in dispute might be a crust of bread, quite literally death or life to the parties.

Engraved on the tables of stone in Hebrew text are brief epitomes of these people whom we knew and revered.
Helena Mann – “a branch plucked from the fire”, she revived the oppressed.
Henry Mann – “Justice, only Justice, shall you seek, that you may live.”

Their only son, a man now in his sixties, prays quietly at their gravesides. His wife lays a pebble of each of the graves. No haste, no noise as they honour two of the great, townspeople of eternity. Not lost, not forgotten.
Their son completes his unhurried praying.
He has not finished here. He spends patient minutes wiping away the dust that the wind has deposited on the graves. Every unwelcome speck removed, the son polishes with his sleeve the stones that guard his beloved ones.

4 thoughts on “Resting on a Hillside Near Jerusalem

  1. Beautiful…… I work as a civil funeral celebrant, leading sometimes two, sometimes three, services a week. Yesterday I slowly drove through a Melbourne cemetery, past quite old graves when suddenly I realised that the ornate statues, the angels, the wreaths were no longer present – just rows and rows of dignified, solemn and plain headstones – “the Jewish section” explained the sign. I stopped the car and sat looking…. and wondered what stories of pain, of suffering and inspiration those stones represented. I got out, found a stone on the ground and walked across and placed it near the first row…. a small acknowledgement of appreciation and remembrance from a non-Jew….

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    • jan

      you write with a pen dipped in the deep inkwell of your humanity

      when i ponder your remarks i recall a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (famous for a very different poem in ‘Hiawatha’), where he stands as a gentile at the Jewish Cemetery in Newport, Rhode Island, with its dead Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition.

      Longfellow shows the same detailled biblical knowledge and historical insights that you show in his reverie on the stories of the silent Jews
      for this Jew it is as moving to read your remarks as Longfellow’s

      In ‘Out of Africa’, Meryl Streep made us all weep when she read from “To an Athlete Dying Young”, by A E Housman

      Today the road all runners come
      Shoulder high we bring you home
      And set you at your threshold down
      Townsman of a stiller town

      I visited the Jewish graves in Broken Hill in the far west of NSW
      Their location was indicated by the sign ‘Jewish Section’; nearby was the ‘Mohammedan Section’.
      I wrote a piece – which I’ll post on Friday for you – Sleeping with the Mohammedans

      Howard

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