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George W. Bush Administration:
President Bush Visits Yad Vashem and Galilee

(January 11, 2008)


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The president left the King David at 8:07 a.m. Police and other security personnel outnumbered pedestrians on the very quiet streets. The motorcade reached Yad Vashem at 8:18 a.m. For much of the visit the president was out of the pool’s sight. We encountered him in the Hall of Names—opened in 2005 to memorialize Holocaust victims as individuals. It is a conical room, with a viewing floor built around a deep hole carved into the hillside. It evokes the interior of a smokestack.

At the bottom is a black pool. Along the sides are hundreds of binders containing the testimony of survivors and relatives of victims, giving the names, and life details, of the victims, “to restore to the victims the identities” that the Nazis tried to take from them in the Holocaust, said Mark Ginsberg, a museum guide, who is originally from Hollywood, Fla. The recorded information—covering about 3 million Holocaust victims--and photos on the round wall are intended “to let the world know these are individuals who lived,” Ginsberg said. Above the binders are photographs of 600 victims: snapshots and portraits, here 5 small children and a young woman, there a wide-eyed boy perhaps six years old. A teenager on a motorcycle. An old man with white beard. A man in a Navy uniform. A pilot in old-fashioned leather helmet and with goggles.

Ginsberg said the hole and jagged lines cut into the rock wall beneath the viewing platform symbolized “the scabs and wounds that will never be healed.” But the photos above represent the “names that go up to the heavens.”

Bush arrived in this room at 9:11 a.m., stood briefly at the entrance, taking it in. Throughout, his expression was almost a grimace, lips clenched, mouth turned down at the sides. He looked at the pool beneath him. He looked at the pictures. He spent about two minutes there, as a guide spoke to him—out of pool earshot.

The pool encountered him next in the Hall of Remembrance—a cold room—in temperature and appearance--about 100’x100’. On the floor are the names of 22 concentration and extermination camps: Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Majdanek, Mauthausen, Theresienstadt-Terezin among them. The walls are rounded boulders, the floor a dark brown mosaic, the low ceiling made of cement. It is lit—except when tv lights are there—by one square hole in the ceiling, that lets in a stream of light that on Friday caught the wisp of smoke from an eternal flame. Two dozen teen-aged girls, the Ankor Children’s Choir, sang a haunting Hebrew song written by Hanna Senesh, who was identified as a parachutist who died behind enemy lines in Hungary during World War II. Two U.S. Marines carried a wreath of red and cream Gerber daisies and placed it on a stone slab that covers the ashes of victims from six extermination camps. The president, wearing a yarmulke, stood at attention with Olmert and Peres, who accompanied him the tour. He then walked several paces to the wreath, bent down to move it slightly, and then stood back in silence. The program ended with a cantor reciting/chanting a Jewish prayer for the dead, El Maleh Rachamin, described by the m.c., Benny Hendel,  as “a prayer for the souls of the martyrs.”

You have the only words the president spoke in a public setting. They were delivered just before he boarded the limo. He spoke outdoors, just outside a doorway. Carved in the wall behind him was this sign: “This memorial to the one and a half million Jewish children who perished in the Holocaust was erected through the generosity of Abraham and Edita Spiegel of Beverly Hills, Calif. in memory of their son Uziel, killed in Auschwitz in 1944.

The visit lasted about 75 minutes.

The chopper ride took the president over a landscape in which the arid hills near Jerusalem gave way to flat green fields and eventually the Sea of Galilee.

The motorcade from the LZ to the first stop, Capernaum, took the president along a winding hillside route, past a group of about a dozen children waving U.S. and Israeli flags, and a sign—not yet at the bottom of the drive—indicating the route was crossing below sea level.

At Capernaum, the president walked onto a stone and cement pier, accompanied by two friars in brown robes. There was a lot of pointing south toward the sea, and apparently quoting from a Bible one of the friars held and had marked with what looked to be yellow Post-Its. Later, we were told that it was there that Jesus is said to have walked on water.

Next stop: The ruins of the synagogue of Capernaum, dating to the 4th or 5th century AD and believed to have been built over the ruins of another synagogue that a sign said dates “either from the time of Jesus or later date.” More reading from Biblical passages, citing the history of the location.  The president also stopped in a church built over what are believed to be the ruins of St. Peter’s house.

Last stop: Mount of Beatitudes, overlooking banana groves. We first saw the president as he walked down stone steps, first pausing to take the hands of two elderly sisters and help them down the stairs. There was much laughter, which went unexplained (until later: see upcoming Air Force One pool report).

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” the president said of the setting.

Asked why the laughter, the president said “This isn’t an every day occurrence.” This apparently referred to his presence.

And finally, the key quote: He was asked how it felt to walk in Jesus’ footsteps.

“An amazing experience,” he replied.

He spent about 10 minutes, at noon, inside the Church of the Beatitudes, before emerging onto a balcony—again with the nuns, again with more giggling. As he left, six sisters presented him with a small slab of crystal on which was carved: “Blessed are those who are peacemakers for they will be called children of God.”

The president spent about an hour-and-a-half in Galilee. All told, from the time he left the hotel until his arrival at Ben-Gurion, the president was touring about five hours, including time in transit.


Sources: The White House

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