The architect who pioneered the way Israel remembers its fallen soldiers

Military cemeteries hold a unique importance in Israeli society, while the architect who planned the formal tombstone is almost forgotten.

On a Friday in the fall of 1951, a large delegation of representatives from the Israel Defense Forces, the Defense Ministry and the “Yad Labanim” museum gathered for a memorial service in the small cemetery of Kfar Malal. The fallen soldier who was brought to burial, Hanoch, the son of Shlomo and Lea Blubstein, was killed in Israel’s War of Independence while serving in the Military Police. The ceremony was led by the Chief Military Rabbi, Shlomo Goren. A few journalists also attended the service.

The unusual attendance was not for the rank or the heroic actions of the soldier, but because of the grave he was buried in: Blubstein’s grave was the first to be covered by a military tombstone, similar to thousands that were built since.

The issue of military cemeteries was preoccupying Israel almost since the day it was founded. The high number of casualties in the War of Independence compelled the state to address the question of the burial and the memory of the fallen. As part of the memorial efforts, in 1949 a contest was announced for planning a formal tombstone and two new Israeli military cemeteries in Afula and in the Nahalat Yizhak neighborhood in Tel Aviv. Dr. Asher Hiram (1897-1973), an architect of Hungarian origin, won and was made the architect of the Memorializing Soldiers Unit in the Defense Ministry.

The military plot in the cemetery on Mount Herzl, 1954 (GPO) The military plot in the cemetery on Mount Herzl, 1954
Photo by: GPO

In the years to follow, Hiram planned the military cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, formed the first plan for the burial plot of the state leaders and built a long line of memorial monuments in Israel; two are the Davidka in Jerusalem and the monument for the fallen soldiers of 1948 in Golani Junction in northern Israel.

The newly published book “Bemotam Tzivu”, authored by Professor Maoz Azaryahu of the University of Haifa and Menashe Shani, describes for the first time the history of Israel’s military cemeteries as scenic and symbolic. Military cemeteries hold a unique importance in war torn Israel; for the families it is a place of communion with the memory of their beloved, for Israeli society it is a silent but powerful pantheon for heroism in battle.

The first military cemeteries were built in the United States following the Civil War. In Israel, the first military cemeteries were constructed in the 1920s and were used for British casualties of the First World War.

Hiram had precedents of military cemeteries, but none included the Jewish narrative. His proposal in the 1949 contest caught the judge’s eyes because it was simple but symbolic and showed hidden strength. Hiram chose a uniform design for the graves of fallen soldiers, of all cores and ranks: a rectangular flowerbed, 30 centimeters off the ground, covered in stone from all sides. At the top there is a stone engraved with the name, personal information and the date of death.

Every component in the planning and constructing of the military tombstones is loaded with deep political significance: the choice of stone (and not cement, for instance) symbolizes the local traditional constriction. The flowers planted on every grave express the continuity of life – even though in many cases religious families dislike the idea and ask for a marble slate instead. The tombstone’s construction also has a political significance. After the Six Day War, the stones were brought from quarries near Ramallah and Hebron, in the West Bank. Today, the tombs are produced by Bedouin and Druze stonemasons. The only requirement to get the job is a record of service in the IDF.

The historian Zvi Elhyani of the Israel Architecture Archive says Hiram outlined the new nature of Israeli memorialization and distinguished the military cemeteries from the civilian ones.

“It’s a horizontal memorial, modest, and lacks the vertical expression of a tombstone. His proposal was precisely what the renewed nation desired and different from the way Holocaust victims were remembered, for example, which was mainly figurative and personified scenes of bravery and death,” he explains.

Hiram’s name was known in the Memorializing Soldiers Unit long after he left. However, he is almost completely absent from the limited history books concerning Israeli architecture. Maybe it’s because his most significant work remains in the land of the dead and not in the discipline of public architecture and urban planning – themes that until recently were in the center of historical architectural research in Israel.

::Haaretz