Israel: A solemn day in Tel Aviv

By Kevin Pilley

Visit Israel and you swiftly adjust to the solemnity with which its people honours its history, as Kevin Pilley found

Israelis stand still as a siren marking Holocaust Remembrance Day sounds in Tel Aviv. Photo / AP
Israelis stand still as a siren marking Holocaust Remembrance Day sounds in Tel Aviv. Photo / AP

At 10am, just as I was having my third coffee of the morning, the siren went off. It wailed and went on wailing.

Was Tel Aviv under attack? Was I meant to run as fast as I could to the closest underground shelter? Wherever that was.

The back of my hotel door only had directions to the fire escape. It said nothing about the nearest bunker. It said nothing about war. It only asked me to conserve water.

The siren was still blaring shrilly like some giant clearing his throat prior to making an important announcement. I rang reception to ask what was going on and what I should do. The phone rang and rang. No one picked up. No one answered.

I gave up and switched on the television, turning up the volume to hear what was being said. Nothing was being said on CNN about any kind of attack. Only a lot about Syria. And quite a bit about sport. I was told that the MAOF Index was up.

But nothing about an attack. I switched to the local channels. There seemed to be something wrong with the signal.

The siren whirred on. I looked out of the window at the street below. All the traffic had stopped. No car was moving. Nothing moved apart from a flag. No one on either side of the street was moving.

Everyone was perfectly still. Totally motionless. Frozen to the pavement. Adhered to the tarmac. I saw one man standing in the middle of the road. Another paralysed in the middle of a pedestrian crossing.

A man stood beside a car parked at the kerb. He was staring nowhere with his hands crossed over in front of him. His mouth seemed to be moving. He seemed to be talking to himself as if in prayer.

Behind shop windows I saw faces that didn't move. They seemed mesmerised into a trance by the wailing siren. Two schoolchildren, hand in hand, stood on the corner of the road neither speaking nor moving. Only their ponytails flapped in the breeze. The sun was hot but no one wiped their faces or the backs of their necks or blew out their cheeks at the heat. Nobody moved. They listened to the siren not wanting to miss a note.

To my right I saw an old man staring into a butcher's shop. I watched him. He didn't move at all. He stared into the window. He had just stopped what he was doing. Everyone had. Everyone did the same. Nothing.

On top of one building, amid scaffolding, I saw workmen who had stopped working. They looked glued to the planks that supported them. Away in the distance, I saw some movement. But it was only traffic-lights changing.

A bus stood at a bus stop, its door open to passengers. But the people at the stop refused to get on. There were 10 of them. Was it the wrong bus for them all?

They stood, straight-backed and chins held high looking at the bus, not saying a thing, not moving a muscle and stubbornly not getting on.

A dog barked and pulled at its lead. Its owner was expressionless and statue still.

The dog sat beside him and waited. Like him, like everyone, listening to the siren, as if reflecting on it. They looked asleep with their eyes open.

Then the siren stopped. The silence was deafening. And life resumed. People suddenly recognised each other again. They started talking to each other, smiling, laughing happily.

The schoolchildren skipped on and disappeared around a corner. The workmen went back to what they were doing. Cars moved off down the street, their delay over. The old man walked into the butcher's shop. Animate again, the butcher served him, smiling and wishing him well. Asking about his family. And business.

The man on the zebra crossing got to the other side of the street passed by two old ladies and the man walking his dog, the lead once more stretched tight. The figures at the bus stop got on the bus and it moved off.

I rang reception to see what had been going on and was told it was the Holocaust Memorial siren. The voice was flat and calm.

"Today is Yom Hashoah, sir. Holocaust, Devastation and Heroism Remembrance Day. It was first inaugurated in 1953 by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. The nation remembers. Candles will be lit and Kaddish will be said." The voice paused. "For the six million."

There seemed nothing else to say.

Israel Checklist

GETTING THERE: Korean Air connects Auckland to Tel Aviv with a stopover in Seoul.



Next year's Yom Hashoah on April 27-28, marks the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto rising. Eighteen governments observe the day. The UN's Holocaust Memorial Day is on January 27.

- NZ Herald

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