Today was one for disturbing our equilibrium, a day of unashamed emotions. At its core is a paradox which is very hard – some might say impossible – to resolve.
As we settle in the coach and Ali moves us smoothly away we begin, as we have begun every day, with Bishop Stephen leading us in prayer. We are on a pilgrimage, not a holiday, and that is important to keep in our minds today.
Our first visit is to the Yad Vashem Memorial to the Holocaust, a 45 acre site in West Jerusalem. It is too large for us to tour the whole site in the time we have available so we have to be selective about what we can accomplish on this visit. As we
move around the site we see a mixture of individual memorials and gardens. There is the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations and the Hall of Remembrance; there is Warsaw Ghetto Square and Janusz Korczak Square, and much more. Our path takes us to the Children’s Memorial. One million children died in the Shoah and their memorial is a large hall where the blackness is only relieved by a million points of candlelight. It is a hall of mirrors because all the light comes from just one candle, reflected and re-reflected until the hall resembles the sky on a clear, starry moonless night. As we walk through the maze, barely able to see where we are going, first a male voice then a female recites the names of the children who were killed, their place of origin and their age: four years, one year, two years; Paris, Warsaw, Poznan. It is incredibly moving and I am physically unable to take a photograph of the interior. As we exit the building some of our group are visibly weeping.
Moving on from the Children’s Memorial we come to the place commemorating Janusz Korczak, a Polish doctor and orphanage director who, rather than abandon his charges and seek the safety which was offered to him, went with the children into Treblinka concentration camp where, it is believed, he met his death because nothing was ever heard of him again.
We were rather a subdued group as we climbed back on the coach for our next visit to Bethlehem. This entailed going through the security wall which now surrounds Bethlehem. Several times we were told that it is like living in an open prison.
Our first port of call was the Shepherds’ Fields in Beit Sahour. This is a place of caves where shelter could be had for both flocks and shepherds, and provided the perfect visual aid for Jesus’ comment about him being the door to the sheepfold. We then moved to a craft co-operative where the hospitality included coffee and soft drinks. The main products on display were olive wood, but there was also jewellery, silverware, vestments, clothing and ceramics. Some of the items were of exquisite beauty, some less so. Sadly we were the only coach party booked in that day, where there would normally be at least three. It appears that many of the Israeli guides tell their groups that it is “too dangerous” to visit Bethlehem, and consequently the shops there lose much of their trade.
Lunch was taken at the Shepherds’ Tent Restaurant. Although obviously of a modern construction it was again a visual aid because the Tent of Meeting that God told Moses to build would have been erected in much the same way. Refreshed by our lunch, and having recovered from the morning’s emotions we moved to Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity, where after much queuing we were able to go down into the Grotto of the Nativity where the traditional birthplace of Christ is marked with a star.
Here I had the privilege of reading the Nativity story to the group.
In the places enclosed by the Church there are the Caves of St Jerome where “traditionally” Jerome stayed when he was translating the Bible into Latin, but somehow I am unconvinced!
Our final visit of the day was to the Al Shurooq School for the Blind in the part of Bethlehem known as Beit Jala <http://tinyurl.com/k9odapr>. Although most of the children had gone home for the weekend there were still a few there who could not go home because their parents could not easily obtain passes. One was a young girl who told us of her hopes for the future. Our equilibrium was once again upset when she recited, in clear English and with a deep understanding of the rhythm of the text, Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’.
The school does important work, not just for the support it gives to blind children whilst there but the ongoing support when they go back into the community, and for the production of Braille books and materials. Our day had given us much to think about as we travelled back to Jerusalem.