Soon after the United Nations voted to partition Palestine, Arabs laid siege to the four tiny kibbutzim located in the Etzion Bloc (Gush Etzion). On January 15th, 1948, when the situation was desperate, a platoon of 35 young men set out for the Bloc with supplies and weapons for the settlements’ defense. Leading the group was 25-year-old Palmach commander named Danny Mas.
No one knows for sure how they were discovered the next morning, but some believe that not long before reaching their destination they encountered an Arab shepherdess. Leaving her untouched, they continued on; she ran off and sounded the alarm.
During the bitter, blatantly uneven battle that followed between Palmach troops and thousands of Arabs, every single Jewish soldier in the platoon was killed. Known as the “Lamed Heh” — the number 35 in Hebrew letters — the men are buried together in a common grave in Mount Herzl’s military cemetery.
The plot is located along the Military Heritage Visitors’ Trail, inaugurated on the centenary of Herzl’s death in 2004 and encompassing both old and new memorials. Prepare yourself beforehand, if you can, for this emotional trip. For here, monuments and gravestones are mute testimonials to the selfless courage and desperate sacrifices that made it possible to realize the Zionist dream of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. Near the end of the trail you are painfully reminded of the price our nation continues to pay, day in and day out.
Five-hundred-thousand Soviet Jews fought with the Red Army against the Nazis in World War II. Over a third of them — about 200,000 Jewish troops — were killed on the battlefield, a number written out in enormous, abstract numerals on the red-tinted wall of the memorial where the trail begins.
Prominent in the second monument, also from World War II and adjacent to the first, is a wall with an engraved menorah whose base is a Star of David. Three poignant stone reliefs remind us of that war, and the inscriptions tell us that nearly half of the 150,000 Jews who fought the Germans while serving in the Polish army were taken prisoner or killed on the battlefield.
Thousands of Jews who lived in Palestine volunteered to serve in the British army during World War II. Hundreds of them, killed in battle, were buried in British cemeteries in Europe and North Africa, but their names appear on one of the most striking monuments along the trail. Here, a memorial wall is topped by a stone mass with a carved-out center in the shape of a Star of David. Its heart is empty, and, depending on your vantage point, the center fills with either the sky’s rich blue or the verdant green of the trees that grow behind it.
As you proceed along the trail, you look down to see a large pool and know, of course, that at least one disaster occurred at sea. Part of a “ship” protrudes from the waters and bears the inscription: “The Lord says, “I will bring them from Bashan; I will bring them from the depths of the sea.” [Psalm 68:23].
This monument honors the memory of 140 Jewish volunteers from Palestine. They were lost at sea while aboard the British transport ship Arinfora, sunk by German fighters on May 1, 1943. Their names are written around the rim of the pool, and covered by water.
A jagged stone wall above a pool of water lists the names of 23 Palmach soldiers – and their ages — on one of the mountain’s oldest monuments. The young men left Haifa together with their British commander on May 18, 1941, and planned to attack Lebanese oil refineries supplying fuel to the Nazi war machine. But their motorboat never reached its destination and was apparently hit — and sunk — near the Lebanese shore.
Often, the tales are more heartbreaking than the memorials themselves. That is the case with the common grave in which the remains of 12 courageous men rest for eternity.
The men were in the lead vehicle of a convoy that had brought supplies to the besieged Etzion Bloc after the Lamed Heh battle and two months before the establishment of the State. As they returned to home base in Jerusalem, the convoy was attacked by Arabs and many of the men in the first vehicle were wounded or killed. In order to avoid capture, their commander decided to blow up the entire vehicle with the men still inside.
Called the Garden of the Missing in Action, the next memorial was created in 2004 and includes over 200 stones dedicated to soldiers who fought in the Yom Kippur War, the War of Independence, and others whose bodies have never been recovered. Below the sculptured everlasting flame are inscribed the following words: “But when the sun rises, no one knows where they are.” [Nahum 3:17].
Perhaps the most unusual monument on Mount Herzl is a tribute to the men and women (and children) who defended the Old City of Jerusalem during the War of Independence. The memorial is arched and walled, like much of the Old City, and two prophetic biblical phrases have been joined together over the entrance: “I will . . .gather them from the ends of the earth. . .” “. . .and your bones shall flourish like the grass” (Jeremiah 31:8; Isaiah 66:14).
One of the plaques on the walls tells the story of Nissim Gini, ten years old when he fell, and the youngest soldier to participate in the War of Independence. Defenders of the Old City, including Nissim, were hastily buried inside the Jewish Quarter before it fell to the Jordanians and were re-interred on the Mount of Olives after the Six Day War.
The Dakar Monument nearby was originally dedicated to the crew of a submarine lost 31 years ago, somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea. Now, however, it has taken on new meaning. That’s because the Dakar was discovered in 1999, sunk in three-kilometer-deep waters halfway between Crete and Israel. And even those of us who had never known, or who had forgotten, the Dakar’s tragic story saw it replayed in the media. We watched as sailors happily waved goodbye before setting sail for home. And we learned that sometime after midnight on January 25, 1968, the Dakar mysteriously disappeared.
This memorial is a cement representation of the Dakar, and you descend steps into a submarine-like tomb, dark and scary. Each of the names of the 69 men who sailed in the Dakar is inscribed on the walls.
Sometimes a tombstone can say it all. Parachutes are engraved on the tombstones of Hanna Szenes, Haviva Reich, and Raphael Weiss. They were three of seven pre-State paratroopers who jumped into Europe for the Allied Forces and were caught, tortured, and executed. It was sensitive young Hanna Szenes who wrote the words for the haunting song “Eli, Eli” – “My Lord, O Lord, that these things may never end. The sand and the sea, the rustle of the waters, the flash of the heavens, the prayer of man.”
Inaugurated in the year 2000, one unusual monument consists of an enormous plaza surrounded by white walls that are almost covered with black plaques. On each one is inscribed the names of dozens of civilian victims of Arab terror. Frightening, indeed, are the still empty walls waiting for the next plaques to be erected.
Just above Yad Vashem, a simple white monument is called the Last of Kin Memorial. It is dedicated to 275 men and women whose entire families perished in the Holocaust and who fell in battle during the War of Independence — the last of their line.
From here the trail leads to plots for the Leaders of the Nation, Zionist leaders and, of course, the grave of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who was assassinated in 1995. Theodor Herzl is buried in the very center of the mountain.
But it is as you near the end of the trail that you realize how far we have to go before the battle is finally won. For this is where you reach the well-tended burial sites of hundreds upon hundreds of soldiers who fell in the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, and the wars of the late 20th and early 21st century.
The military cemetery is accessible all day, seven days a week.
For a comprehensive guide to Jerusalem see Aviva’s book “Jerusalem Easywalks”, available off her web site.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a private tour guide.