My trip with the Carmelim

A youth band in Macedonia

10 AUGUST 2016,
Berovo Lake. Ph. Pierre H. Lavi
Berovo Lake. Ph. Pierre H. Lavi

We stood with the Israeli ambassador to Macedonia, Dan Oryan, in the Jewish cemetery in Bitola which is currently undergoing renovation, including exposure and cleaning of the gravestones. The Carmelim band sang the Israeli song "Ima Adama" ("Mother Earth") and the Israeli national anthem "Hatikva" ("The Hope"). Young Red Cross volunteers from Bitola, arrived to help the band members to clean the gravestones and stood beside them. I wondered why cemeteries sometimes suffer from vandalism, and why we have to fight to protect and preserve them. The Jewish cemetery in Bitola is the sole and silent witness to an entire community that was exterminated in the Holocaust, and while the young boys and girls were digging and cleaning, more gravestones were discovered. You can imagine the excitement.

This was one of the high points of an emotion-laden ten-day trip in Macedonia this past July, with Israeli pupils from high schools in Haifa (Israel), the members of the Carmelim band, which took place at the initiative of the Israeli ambassador to Macedonia and the Director of the Israel Foreign Office Balkans Department, Dan Oryan. During the trip with the Carmelim band they screened my film, "My Class," which documents from a personal viewpoint the tour of the Habimah and Cameri Theaters in the Balkan states with the play "Our class," which took place during July a year ago. My film was screened in several places, and I must admit that in some small place in my heart I felt satisfaction with the fact that I had fulfilled a dream. And on the trip with the Carmelim band I also came armed with my camera in order to make another film.

We crossed the Bulgarian border and came to the town of Berovo in eastern Macedonia, to a small and picturesque hotel located on the shore of a spectacular lake. On the morning of the second day I wanted to stretch out my hand from above and stroke the mists which sailed slowly over the frozen waters. I inhaled the cool, clean air, and strolled among the houses scattered in the vicinity of the hotel, wooden houses next to which were placed cut tree trunks, organized in piles, and drying out in the warm rays of the sun, in anticipation of the cold winter that would arrive within a few months, so that the occupants of those houses would be able to heat their homes with them. During the whole of the trip, starting with Berovo, via Stip, Vevcani, Ohrid, Prespa, and Bitola, I encountered this marvel, nature's gift to this green and fertile land, rich in water and trees.

The additional marvel lay in the band members themselves and the crew accompanying them. At the end of the numerous performances many people came over to me and asked me in amazement whether these were really high school students. I answered in the affirmative. They, the performers, high school students worked at times in difficult conditions, and due to the demands of the journey they had to hold rehearsals and lineups also in their bus, and sometimes even in the lobby of the small hotel or in a stair-well, and even in the wild. Everything was executed with a professionalism which would not have disgraced an adult band, or even a well-known rock group.

I looked at them and felt a pang in my heart. I wished that my 16-year-old son, of the same age as most of the boys and girls, and even my eight-year-old daughter would be with me in those wonderful moments when they delighted handicapped children and special needs children in Stip, or the children in the youth village in Skopje which includes some 60 children waiting for foster families. In this village my attention was caught by a little boy who was wearing a shirt of the footballer Ronaldo. He was playing with a frayed football, with delight and dedication, as if anticipating that one of us would discover him and carry him on the wings of his imagination to a richer, more established world, full of glory. I thought at that moment about the footballer Ronaldo, who every minute that he played probably earned what this child might receive in a year, and I hoped that one day perhaps he too would discover this boy and other children in the world requiring warmth and attention and would give them the benefit of his goodness.

When the Israeli youth gave the village children a hearty embrace, I felt proud to be an Israeli and felt pride for them, in my eyes at that moment they were representing the State of Israel at its most beautiful, without ceremonial protocols or politics, children embracing children. What could be more wonderful than that? However, this trip also sharpened within me the feeling of kinship which I felt for the Macedonian nation on the two previous occasions I had visited this country. Everywhere they welcomed us warmly, and everywhere they evinced interest in Israel and the Jewish people. When the Macedonian Minister of Defense stood for a joint photograph with me, and suggested that we shake hands, I saw this as an expression of the warm relations between our two countries.

The mayor of Stip also showed exceptional awareness of everything to do with the State of Israel and the Jewish people. I found a man of culture, wise, highly educated and loving culture, who also spoke about the shared destiny between our peoples. These sentiments accompanied me also when I sailed once again on the boat of the Mayor of Ohrid on the beautiful Lake Ohrid, as the waves of foam streamed and swirled as the boat's propellers churned the water. As I watched the final of the Euro Soccer Cup with Kire, the devoted driver who accompanied us, with his brother in law the priest and other friends, when Dare, the owner of the restaurant, plied us with beers and other delicacies, I was happy. Comradeship between people passes via the fields of food, culture, sport and the mutual aspirations for a quiet and happy life. I found new friends who I will be happy to meet again and again and play host to in my country. Therefore, when we were staying in the local resort village next to Lake Prespa, the muse came upon me and I composed the following poem:

Prespa
If you would escape with me
To the blue lake,
I would flatten for you
The furious waves
And listen with you to the twittering birds
While we lived our dream
,

Even if we got wet…

In my opinion, our young people represented the uniqueness of our state. Youngsters from comfortably-off families, who were born in the State of Israel, a boy whose parents, grandfather and grandmother immigrated from Ethiopia, a Christian Arab girl, and others. A merging of different nations and cultures, all of them under a common flag, the flag of the State of Israel, standing on this or that stage, singing in Hebrew, in English, and also even in Macedonian, and sweeping the audience with them as they close the show with a rousing rendering of "Hevenu Shalom Aleichem" ("We have brought peace unto you").

As for me, when they screened my film in Bitola, in full and with Macedonian subtitles, before spectators who had come to the town cultural center, I sat in the hall and sent an SMS to my son and daughter to tell them that I was deeply moved and that I had not felt this way for very long. I said to a local acquaintance who was with me at the screening, that as far as I was concerned even if only a single spectator would come and would not like the film, this would not make the slightest difference. I had created a personal film in which I had given expression to my creative abilities, both in the field of photography, of writing and also of philosophy, and it was not at all clear how an obscure Israeli came to be accorded such an honor, and even more so in view of the fact that the film is also due to be shown on the Macedonian national TV. When, at the end of the film, an 86-year-old lady came over to me and told me excitedly that my film had flooded her with memories of her class and of the Jews who had been taken from her town to the death camp of Treblinka, I felt that I had won her love even if for just a brief moment.

This lady represented the most compelling evidence that compassion, empathy and love still have a place in our world.