In Israel

5 July 2019

We were in Radauti (pronounced Radautz), Romania a couple of years ago, where my grandmother was born. For me it was closing the circle, started three years before, when I found the town where my grandfather was born…Medzilaborce, in Slovakia (formerly Czechoslovakia and before that Austria-Hungary). And so, Roberta and I found ourselves in Romania (near Ukraine) in an area called Bukovina…a land of painted monasteries and shuttered synagogues. My grandmother, whose family was nearly wiped out in the Holocaust, had come to America in 1900 for reasons unknown, since life in Radauti seemed to be less threatening than in other areas of central or eastern Europe. But life obviously deteriorated and by the end of WWII, most of the Jews in the region had become victims of the Holocaust or had emigrated.

Searching through pictures on the Internet, I had stumbled on a picture of a memorial in a cemetery to the Jews of Radauti on which names of some of those lost were inscribed. It seemed to us that it would be in Radauti. But no, we found, after the trip that the memorial is in Israel in a cemetery in Holon, south of Tel Aviv. Some Radauti Jews left for Palestine in the early decades of the 1900s and built a memorial to the ones who didn’t leave. It seems only right to acknowledge people who were the victims of savagery, more poignantly since there is a family connection to many of them. And so we turned through an entrance in a nondescript stone wall, blinking into a noontime, sun-scorched hillside of above-ground graves…areas separated by the narrowest of lanes for cars to maneuver…not a place to take a rented car, but we did. It is the largest cemetery in Israel, so it’s not to be trifled with on foot with temperature in the mid-nineties.

Of course, there was no one at the small entrance building to give us an idea where the memorial might be, so, Lewis and Clark-lite, we set out to find it ourselves. We were armed with a picture in memory of what it looked like…how hard could it be. After the better part of an hour, nearly skinning the paint off the car on gravesites that defined the edge of the road, we admitted defeat and sullenly found our way to the entrance/exit. But now we saw two people there, one with a hardened face of a pirate, the other a youngish ultra orthodox, who had shed his coat, but not his hat and looked the worse for the heat. The pirate, who earlier had motioned us away from a place where we idled the car, came over now offering help…but in Hebrew. English he understood only a few words, but they, luckily, were the ones needed to tell him what we were looking for. He in turn translated to the Haredi, who made a couple of calls on his cell phone and then motioned us to follow him.

So here was an ultra orthodox twenty-something presumably there to help lost visitors. Nearby was a modern electric bike, lying on the sidewalk that turned out to be his…the embrace of modernity by one whose community questions things extensively to make sure there is no biblical trespass. In this case our cemetery guide (who volunteered enthusiastically to help) had an unusual Haredi look…undershirt fringe and peyot, trailing in the breeze behind him, hand on hat, so it wouldn’t blow off…in pursuit of the elusive memorial. Even more dissonant, the bike’s motor stopped working a few times and he got off, smacked it…a true technocrat…and got it going again. I’m not sure why it worked, but it did. The Lord’s ways are indeed mysterious.

The whereabouts of the memorial still eluded him, even with the calls. So he stopped at a caretaker’s shed and in 10 minutes emerged armed with new directions and took us to a memorial that looked like the right one, but wasn’t. Some things aren’t meant to be. So I thanked him and watched as he flew off, pleased I’m sure for the breeze in his face. But two memorials from the wrong one we found the right one. We stayed for a few minutes to bask in victory and  to be respectful. We took pictures and finally succumbed to Mideast heat and sought water and a breezy beach in Tel Aviv.