Michal and I have been traveling through Israel while enjoying this spring’s excellent weather. My last article – https://israelseen.com/steve-kramer-on-the-trail-of-the-sanhedrin/ – described touring through parts of the Tuscan-esque Lower Galilee near Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). On the way home from Zippori that day, we made just one stop, in Zichron Yaacov.
Zichron Yaacov, nestled on the slopes of the Carmel Mountains, is adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea. This village, built by pioneers in 1882 with funding and vision from Baron Edmond James de Rothschild, has turned into a thriving and charming town, with a center featuring many original structures along a pedestrian walkway (midrahov in Hebrew), alongside of boutique-style shops, cafes, and restaurants. The first winery in Israel, the Carmel-Mizrahi winery, was established there in 1885. It remains Israel’s largest wine producer.
With fabulous views from the town towards both the sea and inland, Zichron Yaacov has about 25,000 residents, who were attracted by its scenic location, relaxed atmosphere, and the railroad station in nearby Binyamina. There are a relatively large number of English speaking residents and other olim (immigrants) among the town’s residents.
The First World War brought exciting but tragic times to the town. The famous agronomist Aaron Aaronson, a discoverer of wild wheat, lived there with his wealthy family. Ottoman Turkish rule (1517-1917) caused great hardships for the residents, especially during the “Great War,” and as a result in 1915 Aaron founded the NILI. It was an undercover intelligence group that supplied information on Ottoman troops and maneuvers to the British government. His assistant, Avshalom Feinberg, and his sisters Sarah and Rebecca were among its members.
Two years later, the Turks captured one of Sarah Aaronson’s carrier pigeons en route, broke NILI’s code, and arrested and tortured her. The 27-year-old spy, who had traveled widely through Ottoman territory collecting information useful to the British, managed to shoot herself when her guards let her make a brief stop at her home. She chose suicide rather than giving the Turkish authorities the spectacle of hanging her in Damascus. Sarah is buried in the Zichron Yaacov cemetery. Her story is symbolic of the NILI members, who mostly met tragic ends.
Aaron Aaronson himself was killed in a plane crash on his way to the Paris Peace Conference at the end of World War I. We revisited the Aaronson House, a well-preserved family home, now a museum. It was recently revamped in today’s interactive style, including two films and a guided tour. Afterwards we did some people watching while we enjoyed our coffee before getting back on the road.
Another day, I and a few friends visited the nearby Migdal Tsedek National Park. It is located on a hill overlooking the Tel Aviv suburb of Rosh HaAyin, a city of about 75,000 on Israel’s coastal plain. Its name, “Head of the Spring,” derives from the town’s location by the sources of the Yarkon Stream, which enters the Mediterranean via Tel Aviv. For thousands of years, this location was a major fortification guarding the Via Maris, the “Way of the Sea” which led from Egypt to Mesopotamia. It also served as an entrance to the northern Judean Hills and the Samarian Hills, where Israelite tribes had settled.
We explored the remains of the Mirabel (Wondrous Beauty) Fortress, which was built in the Middle Ages by a royal Crusader family. Not long after, a Muslim army conquered the fortress and eventually an Arab village grew up around it. In the 19th century, the village sheikh built a commodious estate house on the fortress foundations for his family.
Of course, we watched an interesting historical film, but we were unable at that time to roam around the upper section of the mansion house. Beside the ruins, the site is excellent for bird watching in the the spring and fall and there are rock-cut cisterns and olive oil presses, burial caves, the sheikh’s tomb, kilns used for the adjacent limestone quarries, and great views of the Tel Aviv metropolis. There are numerous trails of various lengths for easy hiking and most of the park is accessible. All this, about a half hour from our home in Kfar Saba.
Several days later, when a few couples joined us for lunch, we learned that neither couple had taken advantage of the excellent rail connections which Israel is busily constructing. As 75+ “elderly citizens,” we enjoy free travel on all public transportation. With a rapidly growing population of both people and vehicles, it’s a pleasure to enjoy sitting in a comfortable coach while being transported fairly quickly and definitely quietly to locations around the country.
We explained how we had just recently visited the museum at Lohamei HaGeta’ot, the Ghetto Fighters Kibbutz, in northern Israel. The kibbutz was founded by Holocaust survivors in 1949 on the coastal highway between Acre (Akko) and Nahariya. Its location is on the site of an abandoned British Army base and a small Palestinian Arab village whose inhabitants had fled a day ahead of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. “John Bagot Glubb, the [British] commander of Jordan’s Arab Legion, was quoted: ‘Villages were frequently abandoned even before they were threatened by the progress of war.’” (London Daily Mail, August 12, 1948) See many similar quotes at (https://www.swuconnect.com/insys/npoflow.v.2/_assets/pdfs/flyers/biglies06.pdf)
Most likely, the villagers and townspeople expected to return after the Jews were swept into the Mediterranean Sea – as many had been told by Palestinian Arab leaders. Read more about this phenomenon, in which about half (700,000) of the Palestinian Arabs removed themselves from their homes, here: (https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/history-and-overview-of-the-palestinian-refugees)
Of course, the renovated museum on the kibbutz provided an insightful view of the Holocaust from the perspective of survivors who made the rocky transition from DP camps (often in disused concentration camps) to an Israel which was a brand new state with no natural resources, little money, and a population which was to double in just a few years. Not only that, most of the survivors went from a DP camp in Europe to the British DP camp in Cyprus. It took those unfortunates several years before they reached the Promised Land. Ironically (or not) it was the only place which would take them.
“The Ghetto Fighters’ House – Itzhak Katzenelson Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Heritage Museum– known as the ‘House’ – is not only the first Holocaust museum in the world but also the first of its kind to be founded by Holocaust survivors. Since its establishment in 1949, the museum has told the story of the Holocaust during World War II, emphasizing the bravery, spiritual triumph and the incredible ability of Holocaust survivors and the fighters of the revolt to rebuild their lives in a new country about which they had dreamed – the State of Israel.” This is an experience which shouldn’t be missed. Read about it here: (https://www.gfh.org.il/eng/About_the_Museum) Several excellent cafes and restaurants are an added bonus on the kibbutz, one of which provided us with a delicious afternoon meal.
Our friends were surprised how easy it apparently is to leave the car at home and utilize the train and/or bus transportation. We decided, on the spot, to go the next day to Jerusalem to visit the Ammunition Hill Six Day War Heritage Center. Michal and I had been planning to go for a few years (after it had been renewed) but hadn’t got around to it. So, we all took the train from our various locations and met in the excellent, new Central Train Station in Jerusalem. A short ride on the adjacent light rail system took us to our destination.
Ammunition Hill proved to be a pivotal conquest in the fight to reunite Jerusalem during the Six Day War (1967). Many Jewish soldiers died in the protracted battle there, but the well-trained Jordanian soldiers were defeated in the end. Visitors from Israel and from abroad can gain, at firsthand, an understanding of the historical importance and emotional depth which occurred there.
The site includes the original intact battlefield maze of trenches & bunkers as well as state-of-the-art museum facilities. Of course there was a film, and then a lot more besides that in the on-site museum which greatly amplified and explained what the film had previewed. The battle ground and museum are a Jewish National Fund enterprise, which you can read about here: (https://my.jnf.org/ammunitionhill)
After our visit to Ammunition Hill, we took the tram back towards the train station, stopping at the world famous Mahane Yehuda Market, home to scores of fruit and vegetable stands, nuts and dried fruit stands, meat and fish stands, innumerable assorted stands, as well as many eating and drinking establishments. We had a great lunch at the Azura restaurant, where we zestfully enjoyed generous portions of Mizrahi (eastern) food. (https://en.machne.co.il/)
We then caught another tram to the train station, where we soon found ourselves in the rush hour crush heading home. As we’ve come to expect, courteous younger passengers came through and quickly provided seating for all of us. With just one train transfer (which we accomplished with impeccable timing) we soon arrived at our various destinations. A quick 15-minute walk from the station and we were home.
C’est la vie in Israel! In a few days time we’ll be heading to NJ and NY for a few weeks, where it’s highly unlikely that we will transport ourselves in anything other than a rental car.