Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Israel trip evocative because of its strong ties to both faith and family

Our home in Italy is only about four hours from Israel by air, and Lucy and I decided to take advantage of this proximity to visit the Holy Land last week. We chose a highly rated tour called “Roots of Our Faith,” by American Israel Tours, and it lived up to its enthusiastic reviews.

Behind us is one of the caves where some of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.

This twisted olive tree in the Garden of
Gethsemane is more than 2000 years old.
Both Lucy and I have Jewish roots in our family trees, and of course our lives have been greatly influenced by our Christian faith, so it was only natural that we’ve long had an interest in seeing Israel. We visited many significant locations from both the Old and New Testaments, including Joffa (Joppa), Mt. Carmel, Caesarea, Megiddo, Nazareth, Bethlehem, Capernaum, Tiberias, Caesarea Phillippi, Masada, Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found) and Jerusalem. We took a boat trip on the Sea of Galilee, swam in the Dead Sea, prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane and at the Western Wall, and waded in the waters of the River Jordan. Many in our tour group took the opportunity to be baptized in the river as a sign of re-dedication to their faith.

On the banks of the Jordan River.
At most of the sites, someone in the group would read from the Scriptures about some historical event that had taken place there. We also shared communion at the site of the Garden Tomb, one of the two most likely sites where Jesus may have been laid to rest before his resurrection. Along the way, we also saw many ruins from civilizations that have occupied the region throughout the years, including the Canaanites, Romans, Persians, Byzantines and Turks.

Lucy at the Sea of Galilee, near Capernaum, where Jesus called Simon,
Andrew, James and John to be his disciples.
On our only free day, we went to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, an indescribably evocative yet disturbing experience. I made it about three fourths of the way through it before I just couldn’t handle my emotions and had to leave. I can’t imagine the strength it would have taken to survive the prison camps, and I also felt a flood of sorrow when I saw the looks on the faces of the young American soldiers who first came upon the emaciated survivors and had to remove the piles of dead bodies.

However, we also had the privilege to visit a much more hopeful, positive part of the museum, a memorial garden dedicated to compassionate non-Jews who assisted Jews during the horrific years of Nazi rule. In particular, we saw an olive tree planted in 1984 to honor Mathilde “Tilly” Smith Bonnist (1918-2015), the wife of Lucy’s cousin the late Ernst Bonnist.
Lucy at Tilly Bonnist's olive tree.

Tilly was named “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Yad Vashem organization, having been nominated by Maurits Houk, who survived the Holocaust with Tilly’s help. We learned only recently about this honor from her son Eduard and daughter Else, who live in Amsterdam, and we were thrilled to see Tilly’s tree thriving in a large olive grove, along with hundreds of other trees. In all, more than 27,000 people have been honored, although the tree plantings have been discontinued for lack of space.

We were also given a description of why Tilly was selected: “Mathilda Smith was the secretary of the textile firm owned by Mr. Hoek (the father of Maurits), who was Jewish, working out of his house in southern Amsterdam. In August 1942, after the extensive summer razzias, Mr. Hoek gave Mathilda a proxy to act in his name in matters related to the firm. Shortly afterwards, as the situation for Jews grew more and more precarious, the various members of the Hoek family—parents and three grown-up children—decided to go into hiding and hid in different places. Mathilda knew where they were all hiding and agreed to act as the intermediary between the family members, keeping them in touch with one another. From that time on and well into 1943, Mathilda made sure the Hoeks were safe in their hiding places. Each time one of them had to move for one reason or another, Mathilda, who still lived with her parents, hid them temporarily in her house until she found them an alternative address. She also arranged false identity papers for them. Unfortunately, only one member of the family, the son Maurits, survived the war. The rest of the members of his family were caught. Mathilda and her parents also hid another Jew, Ernst Bonnist, and his mother in their house. Mathilda and Ernst married after the war. Mathilda considered it her human duty to help the Hoek family and others, and never asked for any remuneration for her acts of bravery.”
Tilly is shown below planting the tree in June of 1984. Today this hillside is covered with mature olive trees. Photo courtesy of Else Bonnist.

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