On Mount Herzl, with the keepers of the graves
A look at how the national military cemetery was founded, how it has changed, and how its staff strives daily to ease the unending pain of the bereaved
You don’t think about the flowers. You don’t notice the splashes of purple petunia or the yellow balls of rose or the mournful, silvery droop of the cedar’s limbs. On Remembrance Day, if you are at the national military cemetery on Mount Herzl, you think of the dead – of the 25 acres of soil filled with the bones of the young. Of the families and the unfillable voids in their lives.
For 22 years I thought predominantly of one family. Every year the father revealed more of the anatomy of his bereavement: the son’s phylacteries that he daily straps to his own arm; the extra seat he buys in synagogue for the High Holidays; the horror of being offered wine on the dreadful flight back to Israel once he had been told, back in the summer of 1991, that his son had been killed while charging to the front of his troops in south Lebanon to assume command under fire. But only last year did a family member mention, shortly after turning away from the grave, that the older sister, a pediatrician, is incapable of eating rosemary – the herb that lies like a carpet across nearly every soil-topped grave in Israel’s national military cemetery on Mount Herzl.
The comment, made offhandedly, threw the flora into focus: who founded the national military cemetery’s captivating aesthetic ethos? How has it changed over the years? And in what way does the work itself, among the graves and alongside the families, affect those who toil daily in the cemetery?
The answers, which shed some light on the changing nature of Israeli society, date back to the late days of the War of Independence.
Several months before the formal end of the war in July 1949, and days before the end of the final battle of the war, in Eilat, in February, Defense Ministry officials met to discuss whether the state should establish military cemeteries; where; and what they might look like. The April 1949 Request For Tender for cemeteries in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Kfar Warbourg, Netanya and Nahariya, according to a 2012 Defense Ministry publication, “B’motam Tzivu,” by Professor Maoz Azaryahu and Menashe Shani, stated that the architects should, “while considering the past, the present, and the Jewish tradition,” submit plans for a Jewish military cemetery – a notion which, the board members knew well, was without modern precedent.
The winner was Asher Hiram, an architect born in Budapest, in 1897, with the name Sigmund Kerekes. A leader of the modernist style in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in the thirties, Kerekes had ducked out of the country after its surrender to Germany in March 1939 and arrived in Palestine, at latest, in 1942.
Living in the Mamilla neighborhood of Jerusalem and working as an architect who, Azaryahu and Shani noted, won the right to build Damascus’ City Hall in 1944 – his plans were not used in the end – he took the name Hiram, in homage to the man King Solomon summoned from Tyre for his “wisdom, and understanding, and cunning to work all works in brass.”
While the biblical Hiram built some of the First Temple, the Hungarian Jewish architect left his imprint on Israel’s military cemeteries: he determined that the graves would be low to the ground – 30 centimeters, one foot – so that mourners would be forced to their knees before the dead; he dictated the size and positioning of the headstones [but not the material from which they are made, as he preferred bronze]; he formed the ancient-seeming font; he advocated for a uniformity of graves, despite age or rank; and he, among many other things, decided on the garden bed, rooted in soil, over the graves.
In August 1949, while Israeli soldiers were still being buried in the temporary cemetery in Sheikh Bader (Givat Ram), Theodor Herzl’s remains were brought to Jerusalem. The founder of modern Zionism had no particular affection for the holy city – “When I remember thee in days to come, O Jerusalem, it will not be with pleasure,” he wrote in his diary on October 31, 1898 – but it was deemed proper, despite petitions from Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Herzliya, for him to be buried in Israel’s capital.
Haim Giladi, the legendary landscape gardener who worked alongside Hiram in shaping the aesthetic ethos of the cemetery, wrote in 1956, in an article describing the establishment of the military cemetery, that “at the peak of Mount Herzl is buried the great seer, Dr. Benjamin-Ze’ev Herzl; and along its flanks – the warriors of Israel, the fulfillers of his bold dream.”
The notion of the military’s fallen buttressing Herzl’s grave was not self-evident. “We expressed our doubts as to the desirability of linking Herzl Hill with some other project, particularly the establishment of a cemetery,” Jewish Agency official Yosef Kroitner told the organization’s head in 1949.
Nonetheless, on November 17, 1949, the first of the military’s dead – the remains of those who fought in Latrun, in Kfar Etzion and the Convoy of 35, along with those buried in Sheikh Bader – some 300 people in all – were buried in a communal grave in the cemetery.
Hiram, over the following few years, left his mark primarily with rock: the long, low horizon of uniformly rectangular graves and the bleak and beautiful terrace walls, crowned with a row of sharpened stones that are meant, Hiram said, to evoke Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones. The enormity of the sacrifice, and the egalitarian nature of its commemoration, were at the forefront of his mind.
Giladi, a Hungarian-born Jew who studied gardening, despite his family’s derision, in his native land in order to immigrate to Palestine, sought to soften the impression left by the man he always called “the architect artist,” who “poured poetry and artistry into every stone.” He initiated the idea of bringing hundreds of Atlantic Cedars (from France via Algeria) to the once-bald mountain. And he, when speaking of the common ivy, which covers some of the graves, wrote in 1956 that, “this climbing plant, a citizen of the land…would seem to be guarding with motherly hands, from rain and burning heat, over those who sleep an eternal sleep.”
Today there are 3,400 graves in the cemetery. The notion of uniformity, in the newest sections, where the tide of modernity tugs toward individualism, is under assault. This bothers some of the workers and supervisors, who remain devoted to the preservation of Hiram and Giladi’s vision, but all of them, from the national director of landscaping in Israel’s military cemeteries to the elderly man who keeps the Yom Kippur War plots in immaculate condition, is devoted to an unending task: soothing the pain of the families.
The Avenues of Heroes
“This is not a botanical garden,” Tomer Katz, the regional director of landscaping for cemeteries and monuments in Jerusalem and southern Israel, said in Mount Herzl’s parking lot. But the entrance way, he submitted, should be marked “with large stains of color.”
He pointed to the blotches of purple petunias, the sculpted clusters of red and pink geraniums and the yellow macarena roses, which thrive in the sun, often bloom around Memorial Day, and, as opposed to their English cousins, require little in the way of upkeep.
As a general rule, he said, the gardening strives to conform to “a minor key.”
He and Fabian Rynkowski, the national director of landscaping in Israel’s military cemeteries, walked through the hulking steel doors, which are open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, and pointed out some of the major themes: the Santolina, which is soft and green or gray and “doesn’t need a lot to drink and will bloom in yellow”; the gray and purple balls of Lavandula officinalis, which require little upkeep and “can’t be killed”; the ivies, which are “green and solid and work well in the shade”; the snapdragons, the red evergreens known as Blood of Macabees, and the occasional, smooth-barked Madrone trees native to Jerusalem. But above all, standing at attention along the 250-meter-long path into the cemetery, are hundreds of cypresses, cedars and pines.
Both men said that the cedars, “which are a little hot here” since they are used to a higher altitude, are the dominant feature of the mountain, one of Jerusalem’s highest points. Thinking of how the father of the officer mentioned earlier mourned the loss of the cedar over his son’s grave – “the tree that cried and dripped its tears of sap over your grave, has, like you, come to the end of its life prematurely, living around the same amount of years as you did” – I asked both if gardening and landscaping could alleviate a family’s pain.
“There is something weepy about the cedar,” said Rynkowski, a father of two, who immigrated to Israel from Uruguay as a child, “but I don’t look at it from those perspectives.”
Katz offered a different perspective. “I think that order and cleanliness can be comforting,” he said. “The green, the shade, the cool temperature, it creates a sort of tenderness. Something is wrapped around you. You are not exposed at the grave.”
Rynkoswski, walking along the avenue of trees that funnels mourners toward the haunting, shallow-water memorial to the 140 men killed on the Erinpura ship and the first of the burial plots, said that the primary comfort, in his opinion, was in the knowledge, for parents, that even long after they are gone their children’s graves will be meticulously kept.
Six plots, holding the dead of the Yom Kippur War, are an example of what the cemetery strives for in its commemoration efforts. “Look at the beauty and symbolism of the uniformity,” Rynkowski said, pointing to the low stone graves, simple headstones [each includes the soldier’s name, parents’ names, place of birth, date of death, identity number and rank – and nothing else], and the gray, red, and green of the lavender, roses, and rosemary.
These plots are considered models not just for the families’ accordance with the rules, but also on account of the gardener. His name is Daniel. He wouldn’t let me use his last name or take his picture. He wore a faded pinstriped shirt and work pants and the beard and head covering of an ultra-Orthodox man. He seemed close to 70. Despite his seven and a half years on the job, he assured me he had little to say. “I was looking for a job, they sent me here,” he said of how he began working in the cemetery. “I come in, I take out the weeds. I trim the plant life. I plant flowers, rosemary.”
Daniel is in charge of eight specific burial plots. They are his personal responsibility. He clears out the fallen trees and branches in winter. He blows his section clear of pine needles – every day the 20-man crew disposes of 10 cubic meters of conifer foliage – and distributes compost where needed. He trims and shears and weeds, and, yes, “I am familiar with the families,” he said. “They ask me for certain things and I try to oblige to them.”
Many of the people who come to the plots he is in charge of – mostly from the Yom Kippur War – are the children and spouses of the fallen. Many of them were reservists, he explained.
He knows their stories, but keeps his distance. He can point to a grave and tell of the fallen soldier’s journey from a monastery in war-torn Europe to Israel, but has never discussed it with the direct family members. For the past several weeks he has watched a woman who used to come to her son’s grave every Friday. She was always accompanied by her husband and she always put fresh flowers on her son’s grave and the ones flanking it. Now, after a two-month absence, she has started coming alone. “I am sure she is very broken up inside,” he said. “She doesn’t talk to me right now. I don’t know what happened to her husband but she is very broken up inside.”
Sometimes the families thank him for his labor, and “sometimes they can’t talk and I have no hard feelings about that at all.”
On Memorial Day he comes to work at six in the morning. After a year of toil, his last act is to hand-wash each headstone to make sure there are no bird droppings on the pale slab of stone. “That’s very important,” he said. “They can get upset about something like that.”
The last things they have
Farther up the hilltop, near a 500-year-old olive tree that Rynkowski said is not merely a symbol of peace and of rootedness but also “a tree that overcomes adversity in the face of time,” and therefore a crucial piece of landscaping in a military cemetery, Dedy Harmon, the foreman in charge of the gardening crew, spoke briefly about his work.
Asked if he has a background in gardening, the native of Kibbutz Baram in the north said, “Let’s just say I’m a kibbutznik of the sort who knows how to reverse [a vehicle hitched to] four or five trailers.”
He came to Mount Herzl 11 years ago after his house was burnt down “and my world was destroyed.” He chose not to elaborate on his personal tragedy. It likely played a role, though, in his most significant contribution to Mount Herzl: his decision to give people from halfway houses a second chance in life. At least half of gardeners on the grounds, he said, are “ex-cons who don’t want to be a number but want to be a person.”
Working for the Defense Ministry “gives them points, whether in court or elsewhere,” he added.
The fact that each gardener, ranging in age from 21 to 78, works the same plots every day, he said, “gives me quiet.” The bereaved parents recognize the worker and solve problems together. “This the kid liked,” he said of a typical request about flowers, “don’t touch it.”
Harmon’s boss, Hagai Admon, the director of the cemetery, is a slim 66-year-old. He wore a faded gray T-shirt, blue work pants, and a battered straw hat that was adorned with a porcupine quill. Also a kibbutznik, from Alonim, he answered an ad in the paper in 1993 and has been working at Mount Herzl ever since. “As soon as you get into a place like this, you can’t get out,” he said, “I don’t know why. I have no explanation. But I know that you get very tied to this place.”
On his first walk around the grounds, he stopped randomly next to a grave. After taking in the view, he looked down and saw, engraved on the stone beside him, the name Cpt. Ehud Shani – his company commander during the Six Day War.
Today, no one knows the ground more intimately than Admon. Winding past the graves of the prime minister’s brother, Yoni Netanyahu, and the IDF Chief of the General Staff during the Yom Kippur War, David “Dado” Elazar – both identical to those surrounding them – he arrived at the newest plots.
The departure is startling. Flags and guitar necks protrude from the soil-topped graves. Pieces of corral and stalagmite, in one instance, have replaced the traditional bed of rosemary. There are colorful headstones and citrus trees and rose bushes and plastic sunflowers. There are group photos and metal-backed bibles; berets, rifle straps, unit insignias, and sun hats. “Hiram would be rolling over in his grave, in my opinion,” Admon said.
And yet, while he complained about an absence of backing from the Defense Ministry, which left those who opted to keep the uniform graves seem “like they are not okay,” he is unable to staunch his urge to help the families. Standing alongside the grave of a husband and wife who were killed together in a terror attack during the Second Intifada – the husband was a soldier – he pointed to an arc that connects the grave stones. The couple’s parents wanted them to be buried together. The Defense Ministry did not allow it. The woman’s mother asked Admon if he could, though, somehow symbolically link the graves. Knowing it is against regulations, he went to a friend’s work studio, had the arc welded together, set it in concrete on top of the graves and then told his bosses that the mother had had the work done and that she asked that he put in. “I said the mother wanted it, and no one said another word,” he said.
He has, over the years, pruned the pine branches over Rechavam “Gandhi” Ze’evi’s grave because his ultra-Orthodox son, Benny, was concerned about a possible halakhic complication called sochech; he helped the father of a fallen helicopter pilot plant a shoot from the white willow on which he crashed; and he has spoken to a father who held daily, all-day vigils by his son’s grave and encouraged him to return to his living wife and kids. Pointing to the grave, he said that the father, who brought a lawn chair with him every day, has died, but that he has kept up the man’s tradition by lighting a candle beside his son’s grave every other day.
Rather than despair, though, he said he feels a spiritual “uplifting” in the graveyard, “and an intertwining with history.”
Katz and Rynkowski, speaking above the stark memorial to the lost seamen of the Dakar — both younger than Admon, both with young children in the house — were more burdened by the constant proximity of death.
Both said that their phones were more than half full of numbers of bereaved families and that they are in touch with them at all times of day. Both said they give out their cellphone numbers and attend the bereaved familes’ celebrations and that they see their jobs as a sort of service, but neither allows the daily reality of their jobs to enter their homes.
“I personally never talk about my job at home,” Rynkowski said, adding that “it is far more than just gardening. It is not just technical. It is tons of emotions. It trickles in.”
Katz described a dividing line between those who empathize with the bereaved and those who have the misfortune of experiencing bereavement. “There is a fence,” he said. “There’s us and there’s them. And you don’t want to be on that side. You see that their pain is unbearable. It’s unbearable and it never passes. It never subsides.”
The rules, he said, might theoretically allow them not to be involved with the families. There are other branches of the Defense Ministry that handle such things. “But we cannot say, you deal with the families and we’ll deal with the gardening,” he said. “In the most personal manner, as soon as you realize that this is the last thing that they have – then you give your all. These graves, when all is said and done, are the last things they have – of their sons, of the memories of them.”
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