The Parochet

October 08, 2019
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove


This summer marked the seventieth anniversary of the reinterment of Theodor Herzl in Israel. Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, died in 1904 at the age of forty-four. Though he died in Vienna, Herzl made clear in his last will and testament his wish to be buried in the Jewish homeland – a dream to most but in Herzl’s mind, a foregone conclusion. When the State of Israel was founded in 1948, Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, saw to it that the physical remains of its founding ideologue – Herzl – would be brought home. Ben-Gurion’s words that August day of 1949 framed the import of the moment for Israelis and for us today at this moment of Yizkor. “Only two people,” noted Ben Gurion, “have had the privilege of having their remains brought to Israel by their liberated nation. Joseph from Egypt and Herzl from Vienna.” (Doron Bar, Landscape and Ideology: Reinterment of Renowned Jews in the Land of Israel (1904–1967), p. 36). Ben Gurion understood that this moment was not just about physical retrieval, but spiritual as well: the honoring of the past, the creation of collective conscience, and a meditation on how the values of our forebears inform our own lives. Just as Joseph commanded his kin, just as Herzl instructed his descendants, as we recite Yizkor today, we fulfill the mitzvah, the obligation, of retrieving the memories of those individuals without whom we would not be here – neither individually nor as a community.

Today, I want to share with you another aspect of the Herzl story – not about Herzl’s final resting place, but about the cloth, the funeral pall,– the parochet – that covered Herzl’s casket on August 17, 1949.

In the decades immediately following Herzl’s passing, there was no way anyone could act on Herzl’s request to be buried in the Jewish homeland. In 1935, the Zionist movement saw a window of opportunity and, at the 19th Zionist Congress in Lucerne, Switzerland, agreed to move Herzl’s remains to British-controlled Palestine. A Viennese artist, Arthur Weisz, was commissioned to design the parochet for the occasion. It was a gorgeous achievement: two meters long, one-and-a-half meters wide, with two biblical verses and the final passage of Herzl’s famous book Der Judenstaat embroidered on it. A blue and white motif, gold stitching, the image of a lion inside a star of David, and seven gold stars reminiscent of Herzl’s original proposal for the flag of the imagined Jewish state. That window of opportunity, however, did not last. The situation of European Jewry grew precarious, priorities shifted, and the plans to reinter Herzl were postponed indefinitely. In 1939, Arthur Weisz’s parochet did make it to Mandatory Palestine, to be stored in the JNF building in Tel Aviv. Weisz, however, did not. He was murdered in 1942 in Auschwitz. His wife and children survived the war hidden in France, saved by righteous gentiles.

One can only imagine the emotions that August day in 1949 when Herzl was reinterred in Jerusalem. “If you will it, it is no dream” – Herzl’s last will and testament fulfilled by burial in the sovereign state of Israel. Curiously, at the conclusion of the ceremony, the parochet, which was meant to go on display in the “Herzl Room” at the JNF building, was lost. In the next decades, though good will efforts were made and conspiracy theories abounded, the parochet, alas, was never found.

Arthur’s son Yitzhak was only three when separated from his father. He grew up in France, trained as an endodontist, met his wife Isabelle, and made aliyah to Israel in the early 1970s, going on to raise three children and then twelve grandchildren. Yitzhak has no recollection of his father, his only knowledge of him constructed by way of his late mother’s stories. He knew that his father had been an artist. There are haggadot and woodcuts with his signature, but no evidence of a link to Herzl. His mother had once made mention of something, but Yitzhak Weisz dismissed it. As far as he knew, the parochet was created in 1949 in Israel for the reinterment service, and his father Arthur had been murdered in 1942.

And that is where things stood until one day in 1998 when Yitzhak and Isabelle took a vacation to Kibbutz Hagoshrim in the Upper Galilee. Isabelle decided to take a dip in the pool, and Yitzhak, lying in the sun on his chaise lounge, woke from his nap and picked up the book Isabelle had been reading. The book was Altneuland, Herzl’s utopian fictional romance. Yitzhak read it cover to cover and, to Isabelle’s astonishment, read it over and over again. Something about the book prompted Yitzhak to reconsider the story of Herzl that he – and all Jewish kids – had been taught growing up. His intrigue became an obsession and over the next seven years, he spent every moment that he was not in his clinic deep in the Zionist archives writing a new assessment of Herzl and his relevancy for Israel today. Dedicated, appropriately, to Weisz’s now late wife Isabelle, it was published in 2005 in French and has just been translated into English: Theodor Herzl: A New Reading, available on Kindle for a modest $7.00. In all those years, Yitzhak had no idea of the connection between his late father and Herzl. The thought never crossed his mind.

Which is where things stood until December 14, 2005 – a day that Yitzhak shares as one of the most important days of his life. Having spent years in the Zionist archives researching Herzl, and having submitted his book for publication, one morning Yitzhak found himself with a few spare minutes before his day at the clinic began. He wandered into a Jerusalem bookstore where the front page of Haaretz from August 17, 1949 was on display, complete with a picture of the reinterment ceremony, with Herzl’s casket center stage, draped in the parochet. What caught Yitzhak’s attention was not the picture – an iconic image that every Israeli has seen many times. What stopped him in his tracks was the journalistic footnote that the parochet had been made not in Israel in 1949, but in Vienna in 1936. Yitzhak’s mother had long since passed, but he remembered her offhand comment, and he dove back into the Zionist Archives to examine all the files pertaining to Herzl’s reinterment. It was there that he discovered (Central Zionist Archives S/10/426) that it was his father, Arthur Weisz, who had designed that parochet, together with Oskar Strand. Just imagine how Yitzhak felt at that moment of discovery. Not just that his father, murdered in Auschwitz, was, as it were, a posthumous participant in the Zionist narrative; but that Yitzhak had spent seven years researching the very topic that connected him to the father he never knew. Yitzhak got involved in the anniversary planning, and a replica of the lost parochet was made. One can only imagine how Yitzhak felt this past summer, when the replica of his father’s original parochet was presented at the ceremony on Mt Herzl – with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Rivlin present. It was an expression of kibud av/honoring one’s father – in the words of the son a reminder to all, “that one of those six million murdered in the Holocaust was a Jew named Arthur Weisz.”

And that is where things stood until the day after the ceremony. Some time ago, it was decided that the JNF warehouse buildings in Tel Aviv would be sold and turned into a boutique hotel. Which meant that this summer was when everything had to be cleared out of the building. You will never guess what they found on the day after the seventieth anniversary ceremony! There it was: folded-up under a cupboard, a little gray, untouched for seventy years – the missing parochet of Arthur Weisz. At that point, I decided to stop imagining and start asking. I called Dr. Yitzhak Weisz, now eighty-one, still a practicing endodontist. Dr. Weisz shared with me the indescribable feeling that came with seeing his father’s original handiwork, touching the very cloth that his father had touched, brushing it against his cheek . . . in his words: “to feel the fingerprints of his father,” the man he never knew, as close to him at that moment as he had ever been – in life or in death.

In case you are wondering, I did ask Dr. Weisz about the plans for the parochet now that it has been found. It is sitting in the town of Modiin, the JNF (Jewish National Fund) and WZO (World Zionist Organization) in the midst of legal proceedings over which Zionist organization it belongs to. The story, it would seem, continues.

Friends, ours is the moment of Yizkor. Now is the time to enter the cupboards, the warehouses of memory. Some of the loved ones we recall were intimates, people with whom we journeyed through the chapters of life – brothers and sisters, spouses, children, parents, and friends. Some, we only knew from a distance, the stories of their lives relayed to us by others. The project of Yizkor, of remembering, is nevertheless one and the same for us all. We hold the memories close, as close as a cloth brushing against our cheek, and we look to connect. We ask how the lives of our loved ones inform our own. What were their values? What were their triumphs? What were their setbacks? What can we learn from them? How can we honor them in our own lives? How shall we fulfill the unfinished legacies they bequeathed to us? We have been diminished by their passing, and our loss can overwhelm; but memories . . . can still teach.

One final thought, one last image, one last loose end. Aside from the passage from Herzl’s Der Judenstaat, what were those two biblical verses that Arthur Weisz chose to embroider on his parochet in 1936? The first, from the book of Ezekiel, speaks to Weisz’s commission of 1936: “Behold, I will open your graves and cause you to come out of your graves, O My People; and I will bring you into the Land of Israel.” (Ezekiel 37:12). The second, more familiar to us, is from the book of Psalms: “Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy.” (126:5) Always, and especially at this Yizkor hour, we know that the tears of sorrow flow freely. But as Yitzhak Weisz came to discover, from those tears of sorrow can come comfort, redemption, and sometimes even joy. May that be our blessing this Yizkor. May the tears we shed today bring with them the gift of memory, the gift of comfort, and one day – in the unknown future – the promise of joy.