Pillars of the community

Tour the monuments commemorating those who gave their lives for the Jewish nation.

April 27, 2006 12:29
Pillars of the community

Scrolls of Fire monument. (photo credit: )

This drive for Remembrance Day and Yom Ha'atzma'ut will take you to three memorial sites and monuments in the Jerusalem region. Each has a different message, yet all feature some of the beautiful scenery of the Judean hills. The Israel Air Force Monument at Har Hatayasim Getting there: At Kerem traffic circle (past Ein Kerem) take Road 395 in the direction of Beit Shemesh. Pass Har Eitan (Sataf) circle and after 4 km. a brown sign reading "Air Force Monument" points left to a side road. The parking area is 300 meters away. Road 395 from Ein Kerem to Eshta'ol is one of the most scenic in the Jerusalem mountains. This initial section of our tour, on a range between the valleys of Nahal Sorek (to the south) and Nahal Kesalon (to the north), reveals hilly scenery that is still largely unspoiled. After parking, proceed to the modest monument nearby. A propeller engine of a 1948 airplane, mounted on a stone column in front of a semi-circular plaza, is the central memorial site of the Israel Air Force. During the War of Independence, these hills, with numerous Arab villages and a very sparse Jewish population, were the scene of wrenching battles that lasted for months. Jerusalem was under siege, the road to the city blocked by Arab forces. Operation Maccabi was launched to conquer the villages and reconnect the city. On May 10, 1948, a small plane with a crew of six took off from the coastal plain to provide air assistance for a Palmah unit attacking the large village of Beit Machsir (now Beit Meir) nearby. The air force was then in its infancy. Since the skies were overcast, the single-engine plane returned to its base twice. On the third attempt it reached the area but suddenly dived down and crashed on Mount Eitanim. To this day, the circumstances of this crash, in which the entire crew was killed, are a mystery. Months later the remains were found and the bones interred in a common grave at Kiryat Anavim. The engine, with its twisted propeller arm, attests to this early sacrifice by Jewish airmen. The story is told in an audio recording that can be activated at the site, in Hebrew and English. In a forested corner nearby, four columns were erected on which the names of all fallen Air Force personnel are inscribed on glass, arranged chronologically according to the year of death. An additional column displays a single word: "Yizkor." This memorial was erected later, while the plaza with the engine symbol dates back to the early 1950s. The Air Force's annual memorial ceremony is held here. This carefully maintained mountain-top, aptly called Har Hatayasim (the Pilots' Mountain), is a lovely area to explore - it's small and you can't get lost. (There is a trail marked in black leading down to a spring, but it is not part of our tour.) Try to make your way to the lookout point with expansive views to the west, south and east. Engraved boards provide geographical information. The main feature is the deep valley of Nahal Sorek which lies ahead, with the mountain range of Ness Harim and Bar-Giora on the opposite side. The lookout can be reached by car as well, but walking is more satisfying. If not, on the way out you can branch left for a short drive to this very point. The Scrolls of Fire Monument near Kesalon Return to Road 395 and turn left, passing the main entrance to Moshav Ramat Raziel. At the traffic circle turn left toward Moshav Kesalon and the Scrolls of Fire site. A brown sign 500 meters from the circle points left to Martyrs Forest and Scrolls (straight is to Kesalon). Turn and travel down a side-road for more than 2 km. to reach the site. Turn right for a short loop around, reaching roadside parking. The road here is narrow, probably to protect the Nahal Sorek reserve, the largest nature reserve in the Judean Hills. The altitude is still 700 meters, and the railroad tracks laid out 120 years ago are way below in the valley. On the surrounding hills, and toward the Nahal Kesalon valley to the north, the Jewish National Fund has planted forests in memory of communities, families and individuals who perished in the Holocaust. Thus these hills, so precious an asset in our shrinking natural environment, also bear the names of thousands of victims of the Nazi era. "Scrolls of Fire" (Megilat Ha'esh) - a large bronze monument, eight meters high and weighing 12 tons - was erected on a wide wooden platform at this site overlooking the coastal plain. It is the work of sculptor Natan Rappaport, known for his famous sculpture in Warsaw commemorating the Ghetto uprising, an exact copy of which is also featured at Yad Vashem. The scrolls take on the form of the number eight. Take your time walking around, to identify a variety of images in relief depicting ancient and modern Jewish history. The theme is From Shoah to Redemption, from exile to pogroms, to the horrors of World War II, and then to the rescue of the remnants and the reclaiming of Jewish sovereignty with the establishment of Israel. Words by the Prophet Ezekiel on the revival of the dry bones are quoted in bronze. The Mahal Memorial Monument at Sha'ar Hagai Drive back to Road 395 and make a left. (Before you reach it, be sure to turn right and not left at the Yield traffic sign.) Now the curving road begins its descent, passing through a short and narrow stretch that looks more like Europe than our own Middle Eastern terrain. Road 395 joins Road 38 at Eshta'ol junction - turn right to Sha'ar Hagai. Pass the entrance to Mesilat Zion - after 500 meters there is a Paz gas station on the left. Fifty meters farther on the right a sign points "Mahal Memorial" - make a safe right turn to a dirt road leading to large picnic grounds and the memorial to the left. Highway signs erected recently now draw attention to this site in a shaded area close to the major road intersection. A concrete casting, in a curved shape, consists of the Hebrew letters mem - het - lamed, an acronym for Mitnadvei Hutz La'aretz, Overseas Volunteers. Before, and especially during, the War of Independence, about 3,500 Jewish and non-Jewish volunteers assisted the Yishuv (the Jewish population) in its fight to establish the state. Of those, 119 lost their lives here, and their names are engraved in stone. They came from nearly 30 countries. Most hailed from English-speaking countries, but far-away places such as Spanish Morocco and Cuba are also listed. Most of them were veterans of World War II, whose military training, expertise and experience significantly contributed to the successful outcome of the 1948 war. In the pre-state period, they joined the Hagana and underground forces and manned the rickety ships of the "illegal immigration." After the Declaration of Independence they served in all branches of the fledgling IDF. The insignia of these units are part of the plaza around the monument. Most of the "Mahalniks," as they were known, returned to their homes, but a good number stayed on and others came back over the years. In all, about 500 settled in Israel. The words of Yitzhak Rabin in 1976 are inscribed in stone: "They came to us when we needed them most, during the tough, fateful days of our War of Independence." Sha'ar Hagai, where the road to Jerusalem begins its narrow climb up the Judean hills and the site of charged confrontations during the war, is surely an appropriate location for this dignified memorial. This, too, is the area of the "Burma Road," the clandestine route to the city under siege. Today, the picnic area accommodates families and friends.

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