Jerusalem's New Remembrance Hall for Fallen Soldiers Sparks Debate

Architect says effect is 'not a shout, but a whisper,' while critics say it's grandiose

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Israel's new National Remembrance Hall in Jerusalem.
The Israel's new National Remembrance Hall in Jerusalem. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

Ayelet Zinger, project director for the new National Remembrance Hall at Mount Herzl national cemetery, said the project, which was dedicated on Memorial Day, was conceived 12 years ago to have these attributes: “an impressive and unique structure with elements that had not been seen before in Israel or abroad, mention of all of the fallen [soldiers] in one place and a memorial flame that would be lit next to each name.”

Zinger oversaw construction of the project, which serves as a central memorial for all of those who died in the defense of the country, on behalf of the Defense Ministry. Although work on the project was expedited so it could be dedicated on Memorial Day (falling on May 1 this year), another month or so of work is required to complete it, after which admission to the site will initially be limited to relatives of those memorialized there. It is slated to be opened to the general public in three months.

The project got its start in 2005, when the Defense Ministry invited bids from a closed list of architects and chose Etan Kimmel and Michal Kimmel-Eshkolot to design it. They were joined by two newly-minted architects, Liran Chechik and Nitzan Kalush. Actual construction began about two and a half years ago following lengthy planning. The final budget for the project was 89 million shekels ($24.7 million), of which 14 million shekels was for software and multimedia installations. This impressive project is proof that Israel too can build fitting public buildings.

Back in 1950, poet and author Edna Pinkerfeld-Amir promoted plans for a national remembrance hall designed by her brother, architect Ya’akov Pinkerfeld. She even managed to meet with Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, to discuss the idea, but it was shelved in 1955.

In the 1990s, a proposal was made to create an official memorial on Mount Eitan, west of Jerusalem. That project too never got off the ground, but it was followed by the concept of a remembrance hall on Mount Herzl. The planners had at their disposal a plot of just two and a half dunams, a little more than half an acre of land that was on a slope. They were entrusted with the task of planning for a memorial that would contain more than 23,000 names, with room, sadly, for additional names, and space for ceremonies and other gatherings.

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

Monuments exist elsewhere around the world featuring the names of the dead, including the Vietnam War memorial in Washington with 58,307 names, and a war memorial in the Australian capital Canberra with 102,000 names. The names on those memorials, however, are highly compressed, while at the Mount Herzl remembrance hall, each name is engraved on a separate brick, along with the date of death according to the Hebrew and Gregorian calendars. And Zinger notes that the bricks are positioned in a way that they can be easily viewed and touched and that the names of the dead do not include the soldiers’ rank or where they died.

One of those names is the brother of Aryeh Mualem, who heads the Defense Ministry’s Family and Commemoration Department, and who initiated and promoted the project. He called the bricks “an expression of the duty to remember that every fallen [soldier] has a name and a life story.” When asked why it wasn’t possible to suffice with local memorials around the country in schools and municipal and military sites, the Defense Ministry said one of the goals of the National Remembrance Hall was to create a memorial in one place for all of the dead, including about 3,000 whose names do not appear on memorials anywhere else.

The internal space in the memorial – which is reminiscent of the cylindrical Shrine of the Book housing the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Israel Museum – was designed in response to the demands made by the Defense Ministry. “Because it was not possible to build a 300-meter wall on the plot, it was clear that this was the solution,” says Chechik.

The first sketches for the project had the structure built underground with grass on the roof, but gradually it evolved into a project with two parts, the first of which was open and above ground, consisting of an outdoor esplanade and stairs leading down to the entrance of the hall. The second part, inside the entrance gate, includes a path indoors from which visitors can view the names of the dead, beginning with those who died most recently. Another room is devoted to disabled veterans who later died of their wounds. And on the path upwards, there is a bell-shaped structure bathed in natural light. The path and the bell are encased in a stone hill that on the outside features steps reminiscent of a terraced cemetery and which provides access to the bell of light from above.

‘Parade of the Fallen’

The separate portions of the site were inspired by the Haim Hefer song “Misdar Hanoflim,” (“Parade of the Fallen”), translating each stanza into another element of the design: darkness, the transition from darkness to light, light and approaching the exit. Despite the memorial hall’s iconic appearance, it is not intrusive nor visible from the street.

The architects of the Israel's new National Remembrance Hall. From left: Eitan Kimmel, Michal Kimmel Eshkolot, Ayelet Singer, Limor Amrani and Liran Chechik.
The architects of the Israel's new National Remembrance Hall. From left: Eitan Kimmel, Michal Kimmel Eshkolot, Ayelet Singer, Limor Amrani and Liran Chechik.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

“It doesn’t shout. It whispers,” says Kimmel-Eshkolot. “A lot of memorial projects deal with darkness and light. You can call it a cliché, but we sought to do something out of the ordinary.”

The bell of light is comprised of 7,000 bricks that are a bit larger than the bricks on which the names are engraved. After the shape was developed, the designers and the Defense Ministry sought to figure out how it could be engineered. Initially, with the help of a Swiss firm, they thought it would be constructed with concrete bricks, but the design did not meet earthquake safety standards. After looking for the appropriate design around the world, they hit on a solution generated through a chance conversation with the head of the ministry’s Merkava tank project administration in an elevator, explains Zinger, the project director. The Merkava director asked for the plans and provided a solution. It was the first time his department had been called upon to plan a building that was not more directly related to combat.

It was the Merkava administration that proposed the bell-shaped cone of light made of aluminum but featuring material resembling bricks. The aluminum pieces were numbered and then assembled on site. “Construction of each row near the bottom of the bell took a week,” says architect Limor Amrani of the Kimmel-Eshkolot architecture firm. “The upper rows went much more quickly.”

Equal status for everyone

There are other memorial monuments at Mount Herzl. In his book about military cemeteries, Prof. Maoz Azariyahu noted a monument in the form of a ship, for example, dedicated in 1954 as well as the burial section reserved for the country’s top leadership. More recently a memorial was dedicated to Ethiopian Jews who lost their lives on the way to Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the opening ceremony of the National Remembrance Hall in Jerusalem, April 30, 2017.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the opening ceremony of the National Remembrance Hall in Jerusalem, April 30, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

“It’s true that there are a lot of monuments and there are people commemorated in more than one place, but at the National Remembrance Hall, there is a list of equal [status for everyone] in one place,” said Azariyahu. Chechik, one of the hall’s architects, surmised that by bringing together all of the names, the new hall will lessen the prospect that new memorials will be built.

Prof. Doron Bar, a historical geographer and president of the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies, expressed the view that the other monuments on Mount Herzl are modest, “telling the story of the dead in a way that is appropriate to the topography,” which is hilly and terraced. “I’m afraid that now a monument has been created that could overshadow the cemetery.”

Bar has written about a plan, later scrapped, to build a dome over the grave in the cemetery of its namesake, Theodor Herzl, father of the Zionist movement. “It’s fortunate that the dome wasn’t built,” Bar said recently. “Memorial and commemoration projects need to be delicate and conservative.”

In addition to the Remembrance Hall, there were plans, which were halted for lack of funding, to build a pavilion at the main entrance to the Mount Herzl cemetery. And then there are the plans that have not been carried out to expand the burial section for the country’s top leadership.

There is other refurbishing work that Mount Herzl could use. There are stone slabs that were installed in a slapdash manner, using Jerusalem stone that is not in keeping with the impressive original landscape architecture. The entrances to the national cemetery are also not clearly marked and require better signage. The site should also be connected in a better fashion to the street. Defense Ministry staff say they are aware of deficiencies and hope to pursue other improvements in conjunction with the Jerusalem Municipality.

The Israel's new National Remembrance Hall in Jerusalem.
The Israel's new National Remembrance Hall in Jerusalem.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

When the Holocaust memorial in the center of Berlin, consisting of hundreds of stone slabs reminiscent of gravestones, was dedicated, it became a landmark in memorial design since it told the story without ornamentation, without words and without names. Anyone looking at the original simulations for the National Remembrance Hall in Jerusalem would see that here too the designers sought to create a place with a minimum of words. Its final contours remained true to the original concept and from the outside, the lines of the building have remained relatively clean.

But the space inside the building was supplemented by a lot of applications and digital software. Each brick is connected to a system that illuminates the individual brick, with a light engraved with a candle, on the anniversary of the soldier’s death. Along the walkways inside the hall are computers to help visitors locate the names of loved ones and two other installations with digital displays. The result is heavy, creating a place that is not only a memorial but also a museum and even a website. Architect Etan Kimmel calls the architecture “strong,” saying, “It can do the work without accessories,” and adding that his team tried to keep out some of the installations. For his part, however, Mualem, head of the Defense Ministry’s Family and Commemoration Department, says the monument also must meet the needs of those who have difficulty with abstract messages.

Prof. Azariyahu, who has studied military cemeteries, said the following: “There is an attempt here to integrate an archaic concept of memory and something contemporary and the result is the use of a lot of screens. But this combination doesn’t always work well and all of the initial enthusiasm could become antiquated.” One question, he said, is what it will be like in a decade. Meanwhile, he said, “Its interactivity begins to be hyperactivity.”