_ Menashe : Ronit Mirsky

(this is quite a long narrative. For images, please scroll down).

Everyone Has a Name / Zelda

Everyone has a name
given to him by God
and given to him by his parents
Everyone has a name
given to him by his stature 
and the way he smiles
and given to him by his clothing
Everyone has a name
given to him by the mountains
and given to him by his walls
Everyone has a name
given to him by the stars
and given to him by his neighbours
Everyone has a name
given to him by his sins
and given to him by his longing
Everyone has a name
given to him by his enemies
and given to him by his love
Everyone has a name
given to him by his feasts
and given to him by his work
Everyone has a name 
given to him by the seasons
and given to him by his blindness
Everyone has a name
given to him by the sea and
given to him
by his death.

This poem, ‘Everyone Has a Name’, is read in every Holocaust memorial service in Israel. We are not numbers, we are names. People. Death gave us names. In every school and city in Israel, there is a wall of names. The names of fallen soldiers, sons of the community who died during military service, are engraved for eternity on a wall of memory. Every year, new names are added, shiny and freshly engraved, as the old ones start to decay by the passing of time. This act of engraving names in stone or metal is a way of personalising Collective Memory. Heroes become people, sons and neighbours. But before long the engraved names start to show the effect of time. Weathered memories go back to being collective, rather than remaining personal. How long will it be before a name on the wall is recognised by no one?
In order to undertake a more careful study of those walls of memory, I went to my homeland, Israel, to ‘collect’ them. I wanted to copy their tangibility, their materiality – their texture. Every town or city in Israel has its own place of memory, the town’s memorial site. In my hometown, this place is called “The Garden of Heroes”. It is a very small park, opposite City Hall, with a paved square. In this square every year, on the Memorial Day of the Fallen Soldiers, the town’s memorial ceremonies are held.
During my school years I attended the ceremony every year, as an active member of a youth group. I even continued to attend the ceremony for a few years after graduating from high school and leaving my hometown – it was a kind of reunion, a gathering, a chance to meet up with old school mates.
When I was about fifteen or sixteen years old, I participated in the Memorial Day ceremony itself. I was my youth group’s representative at the honorary guard for the ceremony, where a representative from each part of the community and all the youth and community groups stand in front of “The Wall of Names” during the ceremony. As a participant in this ceremony, I needed to attend the rehearsals, then on the day itself, stand still throughout the ceremony, wearing my youth group’s uniform: a worker’s blue shirt with a red string. I spent a great deal of time in front of this Wall of Names. When I started working on this research project, I wanted, as I mentioned, to go and “collect” textures of walls of names. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t remember if my hometown had one of those walls. I had no recollection of this place. Eventually, I called one of my childhood friends to ask if she could recall such a wall in our town. She immediately remembered the wall and reminded me of the “Garden of Heroes”. I had completely forgotten the place existed. So I went and copied the wall’s texture. This was my first attempt of doing so, and even though I did not see anything wrong in what I was doing, I went in the dark, to avoid anyone thinking I was vandalising or desecrating the wall: those walls are untouchable.
After this first trial, I decided to go to The Armoured Corps’ Memorial Site and Museum. Every army corps in Israel has its own memorial site, but the Armoured Corps’ Memorial Site is the most popular, possibly because of its fairly central location, or it could be because visitors are able to climb on tanks at that site. It is a tourist attraction. I remembered school field trips to this place. I also remembered the massive wall of names at the site. Before I left to Israel I tried, unsuccessfully, to contact the site management. As it is a closed site, there was no chance to visit unnoticed, in the dark. Instead, I travelled there one morning, paid the entrance fee, went inside and headed straight to the wall. It was as large as I had remembered. I started setting up my rubbings materials, attaching pieces of fragile tissue paper to the wall very carefully, starting to go over them with my pencil. There were a few soldiers passing by and I could hear rehearsals for some kind of a military ceremony from afar. Just when I was thinking it a bit strange that no one had approached me (for all they knew I could have been spraying a swastika on the wall) a man shouted, “What the hell do you think you are doing?” I stopped, and saw a civilian with a site worker’s identity tag approaching me. I tried to explain to him I was an art student, doing research about memorials, and would not do anything to harm the wall. The man was very upset, and ordered me to first take down my paper and only then answer him. I took down the paper and explained how I had tried to contact the site’s authorities before visiting and did not mean to offend anyone or anything. He said that on arrival I should have immediately headed to the management office. He would not accept my response that I was not aware that management offices were located at the site. Apparently, he was the site manager - the CEO of the Armed Corps’ Association, the managing association of the memorial site (it was obviously my lucky day) and the wall was sacred to him: no one could do anything with or to the wall without his prior approval. According to him, the soldiers serving their military duty on the site did not dare approach the wall without first checking that their uniforms were in order and that they looked spotless. After a few minutes of conversation he eventually softened, agreeing to listen to my account of who I was and what I was doing. I explained what my research was about and mentioned that I had come to Israel especially to work on this particular wall, and that I was leaving for London the next day. Eventually, he said although he was busy, if I waited an hour or two, he would see me. He showed me where the office was located and carried on his way. So I waited. Two hours later I walked into his office, only to find out he intended to book me in for a meeting the next morning.
I went back the next day, anxious to see if he would let me do the rubbings. I waited another hour for him. I was getting a bit stressed, as I had a flight to catch in a few hours, but tried to stay calm. Finally we sat down to talk. I apologised again for the misunderstanding of the day before. Menashe (we were now on a first-name basis) emphasized there was no misunderstanding: there was simply a lack of judgment on my part. We moved on and he asked what my exact intentions were, and how would I benefit from doing rubbings. We had a long conversation about my research interests and I explained in a very respectful way why I wanted to copy the wall’s texture. Menashe again explained the importance of the wall to him, emphasising its holiness and the respect I should show towards it. He stressed the respect of the soldiers serving their duty at the site show towards the wall and the importance of the wall to those families whose loved ones’ names are engraved on it.
Menashe told me that usually, he has a duplicate of the last plate of the wall stored away on site. Whenever there is a new casualty, which unfortunately happens too often, they engrave the new name on the duplicate, then change the plates over quickly, then engrave the new name on the other plate as well, keeping that one as the duplicate, ready for the next name to be engraved and so on. He said he was willing to let me do rubbings of the duplicate plate, out of sight of the public’s eye, but unfortunately (or maybe in my case fortunately) the duplicate plate was not at the site, it had been sent away for chemical testing. Apparently, families had complained about the visibility of the passage of time on the wall. They noticed their loved ones’ names had started to show signs of decay and wanted them to stay fresh and looking new forever, just like the wounds in their hearts. So Menashe had sent the duplicate plate to a specialist factory, where they were trying to find a solution to the visibility of the passing of time.
We had a very long discussion. I pointed out that at the opening of the 9/11 memorial in New York, the management had given pencils and sheets of paper to families of the victims, encouraging them to make rubbings of their beloveds’ names. Menashe said he was familiar with this and also mentioned rubbings were also encouraged at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. However, he saw things differently, and did not agree with the “activity” of making rubbings. In his view we should not follow the example of America, but aspire to be more like Japan, where seemingly the culture is more deferential and civil.
Eventually, after much discussion, I finally understood what was bothering Menashe the most about my deed: I had covered the wall, even though it had been only a small part, with white paper. We found a compromise: I would cut my paper down into smaller A4 sized sheets, I would not tape anything to the wall, I would only hold up one sheet at a time, I would make my body block the view of the covered wall and I would make sure there were no groups of people approaching the wall at the time. Only then I could do the rubbings. After that was settled, Menashe explained to me his view on memorialisation and the tangibility of memory. As interesting as it was, I did have a flight to catch, and I kept thinking how long would it take me to do the rubbings in the way we had agreed on. But I didn’t have a choice, so I went with Menashe for my personal guided tour of the museum.
The memorial part of the museum, The Archive of the Fallen, started with a dark corridor. Projected onto the walls were portraits of the fallen soldiers of the armed corps from the time the State of Israel was first established to the present day, randomly ordered. Every portrait was accompanied with the name of the soldier, his rank, the date he was born and the date he died. Menashe mentioned that there were two more rooms where the full profile of the soldier, details of his death and stories that his family wanted to be included could be seen. As we continued to walk, the corridor lead to the part of the museum Menashe wanted to show me after our earlier talk about my work, “The Tower of Tears.”
The museum building itself was a Tegart fortress from The British Mandate era and the tower we entered was the fortress tower. Today, it is an installation created by Israeli artist Dani Karavan. As I walked in, I was amazed. The walls were covered with rusty steel, tints of brown and red on crumbling walls. Menashe explained that Karavan had designed the walls to be covered with steel, taken from dissembled tanks damaged in past wars. He wanted the walls to cry, with tears rolling down them, collected under a glass floor to create a pool of tears. The tears would not start from the top of the tower but would start to roll halfway down. The installation was completed. But after a while the steel walls began to rust. Small rivers of tears started to form. Karavan was not pleased. Specialists all over the world were consulted in an attempt to find a solution for the decaying wall but no solution was found. Eventually Karavan, together with the site management (Menashe) decided to give up and live in peace with the decay. Today the steel has decayed to the point where pieces have completely fallen off. Menashe said he was astonished by the responses of the visitors. The rusted walls created a strong emotional reaction, compared by the visitors to bleeding walls. This part of the museum was created accidentally, as originally it was intended to be protected from decay and the process of time. However, it became to be the most moving part of the museum.
After my personal tour, Menashe went back to his office, assuring me that I could make the rubbings as we had agreed. Thankfully, I could now start my rubbings. I cut some A4 sheets and began, but soon realised that working this way would take me forever and I only had a short time before I needed to leave to catch my flight back. I looked over to check which way Menashe’s office was facing, and was confident he couldn’t see me from his window while also making sure no one was coming (I had to stop a few times as people were approaching the wall. It was a sunny sabbatical day and there were a lot of visitors at the site). I then began to work on bigger pieces of paper, without attaching them to the wall with tape. I worked very quickly, but could still only manage to do a very small part of the wall. When I decided I had enough rubbings for my research, I returned to Menashe’s office to say goodbye. He asked me to keep in touch and to send him my thesis when it was finished. Will you do this? While I was doing the rubbings, I’d noticed that even though the part of the wall I worked on was over 50 years old, I could barely see any marks of time on it. It was not like the “Tower of Tears”. Here Menashe had won the battle of memory versus time.