Sarona: From Templers, to Nazis, government, terror and, hopefully, to tranquility
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Sarona: From Templers, to Nazis, government, terror and, hopefully, to tranquility

The extraordinary history of an urban oasis that was founded as a Christian agricultural community, changed hands as the Holy Land did, made bloody headlines this month, and has been determinedly reclaimed by the public

  • During Israel's War of Independence, aircraft parts salvaged from the British were reassembled in Sarona's winery. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    During Israel's War of Independence, aircraft parts salvaged from the British were reassembled in Sarona's winery. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Sarona's Weller House dates back to the 1930s and was used by the Haganah after the British left in 1947. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Sarona's Weller House dates back to the 1930s and was used by the Haganah after the British left in 1947. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Templer bakery was set up by early German colonists who named Sarona after the Sharon Plain of central Israel. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Templer bakery was set up by early German colonists who named Sarona after the Sharon Plain of central Israel. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Sarona market at night, with Tel Aviv's ultra-modern Azraeli tower in the background. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Sarona market at night, with Tel Aviv's ultra-modern Azraeli tower in the background. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Sarona was first settled by German Protestants in 1871. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Sarona was first settled by German Protestants in 1871. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Sarona's first residents harvested oranges and produced wine. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Sarona's first residents harvested oranges and produced wine. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Sarona's indoor market area is popular with residents and tourists. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Sarona's indoor market area is popular with residents and tourists. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Sarona's indoor market area. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Sarona's indoor market area. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Sarona's original residents produced wine and stored it in underground cellars. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Sarona's original residents produced wine and stored it in underground cellars. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Early settlers planted over a thousand Eucalyptus trees in what is now the Sarona complex. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Early settlers planted over a thousand Eucalyptus trees in what is now the Sarona complex. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • At the end of the 19th century hundreds of German settlers had made their homes in the area. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    At the end of the 19th century hundreds of German settlers had made their homes in the area. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Sarona's community center. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Sarona's community center. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The well outside of Sarona's winery was built by Arab residents of the area. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The well outside of Sarona's winery was built by Arab residents of the area. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Wilhelmine House was built in 1872 and housed the colony's first radio, which residents used to listen to news from Germany. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Wilhelmine House was built in 1872 and housed the colony's first radio, which residents used to listen to news from Germany. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

The day after the horrific act of terror on June 8 in Tel Aviv’s Sarona Market, things seemed to be back to normal. Or maybe abnormal. For more Israelis than usual — thousands, in fact — were wandering the complex, eating in the restaurants and shopping in the stores.

One shocked European film crew asked an Israeli correspondent if this resumption of normal activities wasn’t rather callous. The correspondent responded that this is how we do it in Israel: Life goes on, and we refuse to live in fear.

Sarona is a uniquely Israeli site that had its start in 1871. Indeed, more than 30 years before Theodor Herzl published a visionary volume about a utopian Tel Aviv, a group of Germans Templers settled in what is today the heart of that lively modern metropolis.

They called their new home Sarona, for the Templers were devout Christians and were thrilled to be living near the biblical Plains of Sharon. Way stricter than other German Protestants, they planned to establish a spiritual kingdom of God in the Holy Land together with the People of the Book.

Israeli security forces at the scene where two terrorists opened fire at the Sarona Market shopping center in Tel Aviv, on June 8, 2016. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Israeli security forces at the scene where two terrorists opened fire at the Sarona Market shopping center in Tel Aviv, on June 8, 2016, killing four Israelis. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

We toured Sarona a few months ago with Paule Rakower, a wonderful guide who knows the complex from top to bottom. She pointed out that these days, visitors munch on hamburgers inside the community center where the Templers once congregated to worship. Bustling boutiques fill charming former homes, a gourmet restaurant operates at the site where German colonists gathered around their first radio, tourists traipse through tunnels leading to the former winery, and the Sarona story is presented to the public inside what was once a lovely Templer residence.

What in the world happened to transform a thriving agricultural colony founded by an evangelical German sect into one of Israel’s sought-after and exciting tourist spots?

Sarona was the first agricultural Templer community in what is now Israel. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
Sarona was the first agricultural Templer community in what is now Israel. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

The third Templer community to set down roots in the Holy Land, Sarona was the first to be based on agriculture. After a slow start, the community flourished and expanded so that by the end of the 19th century, hundreds of settlers lived in Sarona. They planted over a thousand eucalyptus trees, farmed fertile fields, introduced the Jaffa orange, produced excellent wines and labored in dozens of workshops.

But in 1917, the British conquered Palestine and British troops took over Sarona. They transformed the community house into a field hospital, used other buildings for storage and expelled most of the Templers to Egypt. When several hundred Templers returned in 1920, they found the colony in ruins. Hard work, a new emphasis on trade and an influx of immigrants requiring services and goods helped Sarona to recover, and even to thrive.

With the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, many Templers (they were of German extraction, don’t forget) swore fealty. Indeed, Sarona was the first community outside of Germany to operate a Nazi party chapter complete with military marches. Many a young Templer from Sarona joined the German army.

The British reacted by turning Sarona and several other colonies into camps surrounded by barbed wire fences. Thousands of German Templers were confined in the camps. Later, Sarona was occupied by the British, who expelled most of the Germans to Australia.

Sarona was the first community outside of Germany to have a Nazi party chapter complete with military marches. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
Sarona was the first community outside of Germany to have a Nazi party chapter complete with military marches. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

After the British left the Tel Aviv area at the end of 1947, the Haganah established a military camp in Sarona that later held Israeli government offices and headquarters for the Israel Defense Forces. For the next half a century Sarona was known as HaKiriya (literally, “the campus”).

Plans for demolishing the compound and filling it with commercial and residential towers began rearing their ugly heads in the mid-1990s. Fortunately, a fierce struggle led by the Society for the Preservation of Historic Sites was successful and a new preservation-oriented plan was adopted in 2006. Thus, while it stands on a background of high-rise structures, the Sarona Market Complex opened in 2014 with 36 fantastically restored houses hosting restaurants and shops, a tranquil and beautiful urban park, and a market to rival Boston Commons that was inaugurated last year.

One of our favorite guides, Rakower began our tour of the compound by showing us the few houses that had to be moved in order to widen Kaplan Street – a bustling east-west thoroughfare that was the main byway even back in 1871. From there we visited the first public building in Sarona: a community center, erected in early June of 1872, hosting communal gatherings, prayers and a school. A clock on the exterior wall is a copy of the original that helped them keep time.

One of the three bells on the rooftop was used for emergencies; a second rang every round hour and the third every 15 minutes. Since they were out in the fields cultivating oranges, potatoes and vegetables, they used the bells to help them figure out when to start for home.

During World War II, the former community center housed the headquarters of the British army. Later, after the founding of the State, the building held the Israel Philatelic Services and a post office used by everyone in the Kiriya.

The museum traces the site's history from World War I. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
The museum traces the site’s history from World War I. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Sarona’s museum is located in a German residence complete with ground floor, basement and attic. Walking through the building, we viewed its handmade, stenciled walls and the floor tiles – produced long ago at a factory in nearby Neve Tzedek.

Rooms at the museum are divided into different eras: one illustrates the settlement’s neglect during World War I, another the period preceding World War II, when the country’s Jews boycotted the Templers because of their Nazi sympathies (and the young Templers tried to convince their parents to boycott the Jews. . .)

A third room is full of photos and memorabilia related to the British Mandate and a fourth is filled with drawers and file cabinets. It is here that the Minister of Police had his office, and later the room hosted the Prime Minister’s archives. On display is a copy of the Declaration of the State of Israel, for the original was probably stored in this room.

A crowd outside the Wilhelmina restaurant in Sarona, Tel Aviv. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
A crowd outside the Wilhelmina restaurant in Sarona, Tel Aviv. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

The first radio in the settlement was set up in a house built in 1874 by Wilhelmine and Andreas Schmidt that now hosts a successful restaurant. Café Beit Habad (Oil Press Café ) is situated in an old house next to – guess what – an oil press! A wonderful and exciting presentation inside the site tells the Templer story (diners at the café see it for free; others pay a small fee).

When the Templers required recreation they bowled in the colony bowling alley, which was located next to the beer garden. The alley is still here, alongside a modern-day restaurant.

Wine production was the main agricultural enterprise in the colony for over a century, and a visit there includes a cool underground walk in the cellars. During the War of Independence, parts from aircraft that had once belonged to the British Air Force were moved to the winery and assembled there for flight.

Just outside the winery, there is an old antilia well built by local Arabs who utilized a donkey for turning the wheel. The Germans had more modern methods: an engine turned the wheel and a chain moved up and down carrying boxes that came up from the well full of water and descended upside down.

The indoor market hosts 91 shops and eateries. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
The indoor market hosts 91 shops and eateries. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

A favorite attraction is the indoor market, which hosts 91 shops and eateries of every conceivable kind. It is fun to wander around breathing in a vast variety of aromas and trying all kinds of delicious treats. (N.B. several restaurants in Sarona are kosher.)

You can wander around Sarona seven days a week. The Visitors’ Center offers daily tours of the museum and winery tunnels at round hours, in English and Hebrew, but you must reserve in advance (if there are only a few of you, you will be added to an existing group). Phone: +972 3 604 9634.

Our thanks to guide Paule Rakower (krpaule@hotmail.com)

Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.

Shmuel Bar-Am is a photographer and licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.

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