An App and a Virtual Candle: A Look at Israel's New National Remembrance Hall

Key aim of the site, set to open on Memorial Day, is to personalize each of 23,000 soldiers killed in battle

Work carried out at Israel's new National Remembrance Hall in Jerusalem.
Olivier Fitoussi

Visitors to the new National Remembrance Hall atop Jerusalem's Mount Herzl, which will be inaugurated on Memorial Day next week, will be able to read the stories of the fallen on an app, light virtual memorial candles and write dedications in an electronic guestbook.

But beyond the technological innovations to be offered at the new memorial site, the Defense Ministry also aims to use the site to change the way of memorializing the 23,000 soldiers who have fallen in defense of the country from the late 19th century through today.

“Memorialization at the site is not just collective, it’s also personal,” Aryeh Mualem, head of the Defense Ministry’s Families and Commemoration Department, said on Thursday during a tour for journalists. Every day an electronic candle will be lit next to the name of each soldier who died on that date, and his picture will be displayed on screens installed throughout the site. This way, each fallen soldier will receive personal attention in addition to the collective commemoration, said Mualem.

Another notable change here is that, for the first time, the state is memorializing the fallen from all of Israel’s wars in one place. Up to now, soldiers killed in battle were memorialized at different monument sites, depending on which unit they served in or in which battle they fell, at different locations throughout the country. As a result, there has been a lack of uniformity in the way each of them is memorialized. Additionally, the Defense Ministry says that approximately 3,000 of the fallen are not memorialized at these sites connected to the various military corps, because they were not attached to a specific unit at the time they were killed.

The uniformity at the new monument is also manifest in the way the information about the slain soldiers is presented – without mention of rank or medals of honor. On each one of the thousands of memorial stones displayed in the hall, only the person’s name and the date that he died appear. Anyone interested in reading more about the soldier can do so on the app.

Bricks carrying the names of fallen soldiers.
Olivier Fitoussi

The memorial hall is designed to resemble a stone mountain, and rises 18 meters high. The more than 23,000 bricks that comprise it each carry the name of one casualty. Together they create a wall of names 260 meters long that begins at the entrance of the hall and then winds through and around it in a spiral.

The site is built in chronological order, so that is easy to find the date that each person was killed and locate his or her name on the list. Next to each brick is an electronic memorial candle that is automatically lit on the anniversary of the soldier’s death. At the center of the hall is a huge metal bell designed and produced by the Merkava Tank administration.

Architect: 'Goal was to convey emotional experience'

The National Remembrance Hall was designed by architect Eitan Kimmel of Kimmel Eshkolot Architects, which has designed a number of other large public projects. “Planning the site was a huge challenge. The goal was to create a place that conveys to the visitor an emotional experience that is subject to each person’s individual interpretation,” Kimmel said at the press tour. When a visitor enters the Remembrance Hall, he will “leave the hubbub of the city behind and be transported into the sanctuary of memory.”

Kimmel says the use of memorial bricks was meant to express the way in which the collective memory is dependent on each and every one of the fallen, just as a wall is dependent on each brick from which it is constructed. The light bell, he says, “hovers within and over the hall, and creates an eddy of light that stretches skyward and also illuminates the space.”

A ner tamid, or eternal flame, will be lit in the entry hall, along with a flagpole with an Israeli flag. Official memorial ceremonies will be held inside the hall and guests of the state will be invited to lay a wreath in memory of Israel’s fallen. Each morning there will be a memorial service led by a military cantor for the soldiers who were killed on that date.

The Defense Ministry sees the site as “a profoundly meaningful national asset,” says Mualem, and also as “a work of art.” The site also contains a video installation by the artist Michal Rovner. A special musical work composed for the site will be heard there. And there is also a historic mezuzah whose story also relates to the 50th anniversary of the unification of Jerusalem.

“We wanted to find a special mezuzah. Eventually we located one of the mezuzahs that the military rabbinate affixed to the gates of the Old City in Jerusalem at the end of the Six-Day War,” said Yair Ben-Shalom, director of the site. “This mezuzah saw the soldiers entering Jerusalem and the Jews returning to the city.”

Construction of the site began in early 2015. The Defense Ministry says the total cost of construction and the exhibits was 90 million shekels ($24 million).

The dedication of the Remembrance Hall is marred somewhat by inaccuracies, redundancies and missing information in every possible category of the main database on Israel’s fallen, which is the database for the information displayed in the hall. For example, many soldiers are listed in the database as “burial site unknown” when that is not the case. Then there are some whose names are missing from the database even though they were killed in Israel’s battles, and meanwhile there are some names listed who are not in fact fallen soldiers. There are also some mistakes in name spellings, in ranks and in other biographical details, and too often there is no picture even though it could be found in other databases.

After Haaretz reported in February on the flaws in this database, the Defense Ministry assembled a special team of historians, researchers and database experts, and with the aid of other organizations and individuals, is working to correct these mistakes.

The Remembrance Hall will only open to the public after the bereaved families have visited and are given a chance to point out any errors in the information on their loved one, which is to be immediately corrected. The Defense Ministry will be arranging these visits after the official dedication on Memorial Day, and the general public will be able to start visiting the site in about three months.

The Defense Ministry says the memorial bricks can be easily pulled out “like Lego blocks” and corrected if necessary. However, some omissions may be harder to correct. For instance, if it is decided to include in the site the names of the 150 Jews of the pre-state Yishuv who fell while serving in the British Army’s tunneling corps during World War II, then 150 new blocks would have to be inserted somehow. The Defense Ministry says it would be possible.