The three days in Tel Aviv fly and I have to move on to Jerusalem. I choose the train, cheap and scenic. Like all Unwins I am horribly early and mooch around waiting. When it comes to board, I am not surprised that no one lifts a finger to help me, despite my limp and large unwieldy case, stuffed with Christmas cake, shortbread and gifts for cousin Helen. The scenery on the trip is pretty, in an arid sort of way, fertile fields, recently tilled, orange groves and vineyards bordered by magenta bougainvillea, giving way to a steep ascent thorugh rugged hills, larches and conifers before levelling out on the Jerusalem plateau. I have arrived!
The YMCA Three Arches is a bitter disappointment. My room is more like a nun’s cell with its sad single bed, beige curtains, brown carpet, iron window frames with chipped paintwork that let in cold air, and ancient cracked bathroom. It’s also freezing cold and getting the heating to work is a challenge. It’s still light so I set off for an amble round the Old City just to tell myself I am somewhere excting rather than in a rundown hotel, and four nights to go!
I decamp for a much-needed drink to the King David hotel opposite, bombed by Menachem Begin and his rebels in 1946, when it was the British HQ. Probably should have eaten there too as the Christmas menu – in November at the Three Arches – looked better than it tasted!
My other reason – aside from meeting cousin Helen Stransky again after 35 years, she who revealed the secret of my Jewish Heritage all those years ago – for coming here is to visit the Central Zionist Archive and view the Gustav Krojanker collection. He was my grandfather Hermann Ungar’s best friend, and came to Palestine in the 1920s. His grandson is a well-known architect and his wife, Leorah, found me via the Hermann Ungar website I set up. She has set the trip up well in advance but a couple of days before had broken her arm falling on a Liebeskind installation in Copenhagen (as you do!). So i am on my tod.
Getting to the Archives is an adventure. Get a cab and the driver, like the hotel receptionist, has no idea where it is, and finally drops me in the vicinity after several wrong turns. He is more interested in taking me to the the airport (650 shekels!), but I am keen on going to the Palestinian settlements while I am here. After a lot of argy bargy (he speaks no English and this involves ‘phone a friend’ – they are keen for me to go to Jericho and Dead Sea but I have to be back for lunch on the day in question) we agree on 100 shekels an hour, an agreement I later cancel when I find out the correct fare is 350 to the airport – nearly all the taxi drivers try to rip you off. It’s one of the less likeable aspects of Israel.
The next nightmare is finding the archive and someone, anyone, who knows where it might be to who speaks English. The younger generation here tend not to. I end up in the municipal buildings I think, when the penny drops and the concierge/security man points the building out – adjacent but not obvious as there’s only Hebrew writing in the signage. Personifies everything about Israel that I have experienced – if you are not ‘one of us’ ie speak Hebrew and can read it, then you are not worth much attention. Moreover, I am told the British are particularly disliked on account of ancient history (but surely not as much as the Germans?).
I make some amazing discoveries at the archive; proof of my grandmother’s (third) marriage to my grandfather’s cousin Richard Kohn, letters from her and Ungar’s bother, Felix, after Hermann’s death; original poems and drawings plus some old photographs; evidence that poor old Felix had received his emigration certificate in 1939 before war broke out but never used it and lost the opportunity to save his and his family’s life (heartbreaking); and much more. I manage to get some photocopies but not all as I am worried they won’t be ready….so lots of photographs of the documents which I hope will be of good enough quality (some of them maddeningly are not – AAARGH!). I am furious – but I simply couldn’t face the thought of returning the next day to pick up copies; how silly. The bureaucracy there was simply overwhelming however…
Later I go to meet an Armenian friend of fellow writer. He is rather grumpy on the phone and my friend has warned me that he will suss me out and decide if he likes me. We sit in the rather chilly reception room of the Armenian Library and he cross examines me about my book and my motives for writing it. He has not heard of Ungar, but is impressed with the Stefan Zweig connection; as an Armenian genocide survivor he resonates with my comment that jealousy plays a huge role in genocides and the Holocaust. He is shocked that there were Czech collaborators – he always thought the Czechs were nice people. Which, on the whole they are – you can’t generalise about any race or nationality. We have long debates about the meaning of Assimilation – whether it applies Jews in Central Europe or Armenians like him in Jerusalem.
Like me he finds it an uncomfortable place, even though he has been here over 50 years, and finds the local population aggressive and rude. ‘They live for today, not for the future’. But he is used to it, and I am not. He obviously likes me as he asks me for a ‘coffee’ – hot cider and a piece of carrot cake, which we share. He tells me, as we chat away, that his heart sank when he was told I was going to contact him as his days were full of ‘duty coffees’ and he is exhausted after a 10 day tour of academics. But he thought a friend of our mutual friend might just be OK and he was right! ‘I like you’ he says. ‘Your book will be very interesting. But you must come back here and interview the Masaryk kibbutz – Czech Jews – you can’t base your opinions on Assimilation on one or two sources.’ He is interested in sources and asks me how much have I read on the Holocaust – of course I haven’t read anything academic just memoirs and novels. I feel rather ashamed.
Then back to have a supper with my half sister Bonnie’s daughter’s in-laws (this is all about family!), who happen to be here on a visit. Very nice to be with simpatico people (he was Press Attache at the US Embassy here a while ago) who have lived and worked here and find the Israelis hard going too. We discuss my desire to see the other side – the Arab side – and many other things.
In the morning I join them for a trip to the Israel Museum – I am excited about this as it houses the Dead Sea Scrolls, But it is not to be – on the way we are alerted by the GPS that it is closed- but we think it is on US time. Alas, no! Closed for cleaning every Tuesday. So we head for the adjacent Bible Lands Museum, just in time for a fascinating tour of an exhibition In the Valley of David and Goliath, a reconstruction of Khirbet Qeiyafa, a village in the buffer zone between the Philistines and the Judeans, 3000 years old. Referencing the bible we are able to gain an insight into what life must have been like here 3000 years ago.
Speed back to the King David Hotel, laden down with the Christmas cake, shortbread and smellies for cousin Helen who is waiting for me. She is instantly recognisable, obviously older (I haven’t seen her since the 1990s), a little stooped and with bad legs (cellulites like my Dad) but her face is relatively unlined and smiley. She is wearing a pretty green embroidered cardigan, rather Tyrolean, and a long black skirt. I try to see whether she has a look of my grandmother about her, but I think I’m trying too hard to imagine it.
Its hard to know where to start; she kicks off by taking out some old photographs which leads to discussions about her family, my father, Kindertransport and her sad history in foster homes in Canada. Before we really get going however she tells me about her born-again Christianity and how she struggled to find her identity, either as a Jew or a Christian, and that her final coming to God was a blessing. Her new family is her bible class, and she has found much love and support from them, which is good as she has lost almost all her family, save her bother, who was only 2 when he fled Prague with her in 1939, on the last train. It’s hard to imagine how tough it was for the Kindertransport kids, cast adrift from everything they knew and invariably orphaned as a result.
Interestingly she, like many US Israeli American Jews, voted for Trump. I say we will swap notes in 4 years time and see who is right! Meanwhile we have to agree to disagree.
As the sun is going down – lunch has been four hours – I suggest we pay and have photo taken. Which we do. And arrange to meet for supper on Wednesday before I go. I am feeling rather tired now. Too much emotion.
In the evening I feel I need to escape from the room so set off for the American Colony Hotel where my journalist friend has recommended I try and find a driver to take me further afield and see the real Israel. However, I have already sorted that out – a trip on the morning of my departure with a driver arranged by the YMCA – so I am in search of alcohol and creature comforts. The cellar bar is thronged by a large group of Arab men at the bar so I disappear quietly round the corner, and am brought a large carafe of Israeli merlot and such a huge mountain of mixed nuts with a side of local feta, cucumber and olives, that I decide this will do for supper. I spend a very pleasant hour and half there, people watching as it fills up with Americans on expense accounts, and various tourists, German, French and Spanish, with a couple of very sophisticated Arab girls, smartly dressed, drinking alone. Israel is full of surprises.
The next morning I am collected by a friend’s brother-in-law for a tour round the Old City. He has an interesting history – former Colonel in the Israeli Police and head of the Old City Garrison; including running SWAT teams (members of which we bump into at Dome of the Rock) and his best friend is Palestinian. Very liberal views, but says: ‘there is no future here – for both sides’. I suppose that’s a major contributor to the hardness of the Israelis.
Everywhere we go he is greeted warmly by Armenians, Jews and Arabs alike, and we are feted with tea and good discounts as I do bits and bobs of shopping (now I have unencumbered myself from gifts!). It is great walking round with him, he is an accredited guide now he is retired, in addition to his role as a consultant advising governments internationally on terrorist know-how.
He tells some terrifying stories of the 90s, where 10 of his soldiers were trapped in the Lion Gate and had to be rescued, and how the Arabs would throw Molotov cocktails down on the Wailing Wall worshippers. Mind you some of the the behaviour is incendiary – like several Jewish families buying an apartment block and settling in it right in the centre of the Arab Quarter, and Ariel Sharon doing the same, with a house he never inhabited. A large group (30-40) youth – reminiscent of young pioneers, rucksacks and sleeping rolls on their backs – march rumbustiously down the central street in the Arab Quarter singing patriotic songs lustily. I’m sure this sort of behaviour can only be provocative. As one Palestinian taxi driver said, ‘we are under occupation’.
Nevertheless I enjoyed my morning – Dome of the Rock (the much disputed mosque at the heart of the Old City), the Via Dolorosa and Stations of the Cross ( we ‘did’ all 14), The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, marking the site of Golgotha and Jesus’s tomb, and seeing the old Roman shopping streets. The Old City really is a bustling place, although quiet at present, with few tourists apart from large groups of Chinese (they do get everywhere!).
There are 40,000 inhabitants spread over 1 sq mile om the Old City. At Ramadan up to 250,000 Muslims converge on the Dome of the Rock. Must be quite something. This latter is managed and maintained by Jordan and I made friends with some jolly guards who allowed me to have a picture with them. They were much more relaxed in their searches than the Israeli guards.
My guide is most interesting on the Orthodox Jews who, he says, many of the secular Jews (the majority of Israel’s inhabitants) disapprove of, as mostly they don’t work, therefore pay no taxes, don’t have to serve in the army, and have lots of children. They are everywhere in Jerusalem, their spiritual home. Several people said this to me. So in addition to tensions between Armenians, Catholics, Muslims, Copts, Falasha and other small sects, you have the divisions between the Reformists, the Conservatives and the Orthodox Jews.
A great contrast to the afternoon, where I visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Wasn’t sure what to expect really, and certainly not for it to be free – but I bought a map and rented the audio guide. The main exhibition snakes through a long thin concrete corridor to great effect. As you can imagine no expense has been spared and the exhibits, which take you through the chronological history of the Jews in Europe, from the late 1800s through to post-war, are simply superb – multi media, with films, photographs, paintings and ephemera.
For me, the most shocking rooms are those dedicated to the Lodz and Warsaw ghettos, the footage of the starving children and people dying in the streets is horrifying, equal to the sickening films and photographs of the liberation of the concentration camps, and the accounts of executions from survivors. The living hell of the ghettos and the slow death by starvation must have been excruciating for the inhabitants – who were still taken away in large numbers form time to time. A numbing and sobering afternoon. My only criticism is that there was little on the Czech Holocaust although its 350,000 Jews hardly compares to Poland’s 3 million. I was disappointed that there was so much emphasis (understandably) on Poland, although there was a Terezin room, which is were most of my relatives either perished or from where they were ‘sent east’ and were never heard of again.
I have one final meeting with Helen where she she produces some more documents, the import of which she hasn’t quite sussed. They shed light on the fate of her parents and help me in my quest to unravel the truth although there is more work to be done. My time in Jerusalem has been fruitful from a research perspective, and enlightening in my quest for a firsthand opinion on Israel. My visit to the Palestinian Authority, the next blog, will inform that further.