A bleak mood descends upon the House of Israel with the annual onset of Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day.

For aging survivors, their families, and the country at large, it’s a siren-pierced 24-hours of collective, agonizing sadness.

Grief over the incalculable loss, bitter anger over the perpetrators and abettors of their heinous deeds, and strident public resolutions of “Never Again” proclaimed to ourselves, and to an all-too-indifferent, and often hostile world.

But – and difficult as it is to write these words – as the decades go by, for some, like me, a slowly growing distance numbs the memory of the Shoah, despite all the public mourning.

Distant perhaps until – ironically – I happened to attend a joyous wedding held near Safed recently. There, amid the elation and promise, one particularly ghastly obscenity perpetrated on our people became heartrendingly real for me.

In a building housing the tomb of Mishnaic-era scholar Rabbi Yehuda Bar Ilai, the male guests gathered for evening prayers and impromptu festive dancing in the study hall. Such events are not uncommon at the site, as are similar events held at tombs of other notable sages that dot the area.

After the dancing subsided, I descended several rough-hewn stone steps to the sage’s underground family burial chamber, and crowded in with several other worshipers into the narrow, soot-blackened, candlelit alcove.

Jewish worshipers at the underground tomb of Mishnaic-era scholar, R' Yehuda Bar Ilai, near Safed, Israel.

Jewish worshipers at the underground tomb of Mishnaic-era scholar, R’ Yehuda Bar Ilai, near Safed, Israel. (Click on the image for a full-sized photo in a new window.)

As you enter, to the left, as tradition has it, lies Bar-Ilai’s half-buried tomb; to the right, either his students or family members.

Tall memorial candles flicker alongside the underground tomb of Mishnaic-era scholar, R' Yehuda Bar Ilai, near Safed, Israel.

Tall memorial candles flicker alongside the underground tomb of Mishnaic-era scholar, R’ Yehuda Bar Ilai, near Safed, Israel. Click on the image for a full-sized photo in a new window.

Murmured voices in fervent prayer filled the sacred space, which, while physically smaller than the inside of a van, seemed to contain more of the numinous than the five senses could comprehend.

Prayers and holy petitions wedged into stones at the underground tomb of Mishnaic-era scholar, R' Yehuda Bar Ilai, near Safed, Israel.

Prayers and holy petitions wedged into stones at the underground tomb of Mishnaic-era scholar, R’ Yehuda Bar Ilai, near Safed, Israel. Click on the image to see a full-sized image in a new window.

And, alongside the tombs and guttering votive candles, near minute scraps of prayer-laden paper wedged into the stony crevices, a sentence engraved on a simple plaque on a wall read:

Interred in this place are bars of soap made from Jews. May God avenge their deaths; murdered by the Germans – may their names be erased.

Worshiper at the underground tomb of Mishnaic-era scholar, R' Yehuda Bar Ilai, near Safed.  To the left is an engraved plaque signifying the site where remains of Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust were interred by survivors in the Israel, in a public ceremony in 1949.

Worshiper at the underground tomb of Mishnaic-era scholar, R’ Yehuda Bar Ilai, near Safed.
To the left is an engraved plaque signifying the site where remains of Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust were interred by survivors in the Israel, in a public ceremony in 1949. Click on photo for full size image in a new window.

Stunned, I sat quietly, hunched over among the flickering candles and read and reread the harrowing revelation. Not prone to claustrophobia, I nevertheless sensed the sacred space, somehow, contract in on itself.

While there exists a debate over the extent of the industrial attempt to produce soap from the remains of the Shoah victims’ bodies, David Afnezer, a Safed Religious Council member tasked with maintaining the site, confirmed to me in a phone call the existence of the remains of the body fats interred there.

“I had the plaque mounted close to 20 years ago,” he noted, adding that death camp survivors also interred similar remains at the nearby grave of Rabbi Tarfon.

I prayed the souls of the slaughtered found some comfort in the efforts made to bring their remains to rest in the holy soil, alongside the venerable sages of the Land of Israel.

Interment ceremony of Holocaust victims' remains at R' Bar Ilai cave, 1949. (Photo: courtesy Yossi Stepansky)

Interment ceremony of Holocaust victims’ remains at R’ Bar Ilai cave, 1949. (Photo: courtesy Yossi Stepansky)
In the photo: Safed Rabbi Dov Zilberman (center), and members of the Upper Galilee Hevra Kadisha Burial Society (taken from ‘Holy Sites and Graves of the Righteous in the Galilee’, 2nd ed., which Stepansky co-wrote)

A short time later, after concluding my own murmured pleas for respite from the horror, and tefilla for the soon-to-be-wed couple, I arose from the suffocating shock and grief, and ascended the steps to rejoin the celebrants.

Back outside, I closed my eyes and breathed deep of the bracing mountain air to clear both my head and heart.

Meanwhile, the bride and groom readied to smash a glass symbolizing both the ancient destruction of Jerusalem, and the beginning a new life, and home, in the sovereign State of Israel.

Click on the photos below to view full-sized images in a new window.

(Hat tip to The Muqata for background material)

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