In 1937, just over 200 Jews resided in the German town of Rexingen. Some of them relocated as a group to Moshav Shavei Zion in the late 1930s — every other Jew there who couldn’t bring himself to leave his home, or had been too old or too ill to do so, perished in the Holocaust.
Jews had lived in Rexingen for over 400 years, first arriving in 1516 when the Knights of St. John – a Christian Order dating back to the 11th century – offered them protection. Most of the Jewish inhabitants were farmers or owned small businesses and the town boasted a variety of Jewish institutions.
For centuries, Rexingen’s Jews and Christians lived in peace and harmony. But in the 1930s, a swastika appeared on the four-meter tower that overlooked the village; Nazis paraded through the village, and the Nuremburg laws reared their ugly head.
We learned all this and more on a fascinating tour of Shavei Zion with moshav member and Archives Director, Judith Temime. She explained that almost half the Jews of Rexingen read the writing on the wall, and understood that they would have to leave their native country. But when they contacted organizations in England and Germany for assistance, it was suggested that they head for Uganda, or Costa Rica.
No way, they said – if we have to leave, it will be to settle in the land of our forefathers. And in 1937, with the help of a former German lawyer who had already immigrated to British-mandated Palestine, a small group was sent to check out the possibilities offered by the Jewish National Fund. In the end, they chose land near the beach in northern Palestine for what would become Moshav Shavei Zion.
Our tour of Shavei Zion began with the Archives building, the first permanent structure on the Moshav and at one time a Haganah outpost.
Next were the barracks, where we viewed pictures and a model of the early settlement. There we learned that the first group arrived from Rexingen at the end of 1937 and that Shavei Zion (Returnees to Zion) was founded on April 13, 1938 – overnight. The British objected to Jews setting up communities in Palestine but from 1936-1939 they were busy defending themselves from an Arab Revolt.
During that period, in a campaign known as the Tower and Stockade Operation, 52 Jewish settlements were established on land bought by the Jewish National Fund, each constructed in a single day and completed before nightfall. After that, according to a Turkish law that was still in effect, the authorities couldn’t demolish any building that boasted a roof.
Shavei Zion’s raw new settlement consisted of a double walled wooden stockade around the encampment meant to prevent bullets from hurtling through, wooden barracks, and a watchtower to help protect it from Arab attacks. The third Moshav shitufi – cooperative small farming community – in Palestine, Shavei Zion shared its assets with its members and each family received a stipend according to its size.
Unlike a kibbutz, however, families lived together. And as soon as the first houses were built at the end of 1938, the children, who were living in an institution elsewhere, moved in with their families. A year later, a number of members who were not crazy about communal life bought land on the beachfront and built new houses for themselves.
Today, like the kibbutzim, the moshav has become far less communal than in the past and employs very few of its settlers. Those who do work in the moshav are in managerial positions, farm the avocado and olive groves or labor in the plastics packaging factory.
Our tour included a number of the earliest houses, and the water tower built in 1939 and constructed in a single day to keep the cement from cracking. Serving both as a reservoir and a watchtower, it was high enough for the young people stationed there to keep an eye on the Acre-Nahariya road and to signal other settlements with semaphore and Morse when trouble lay ahead.
The synagogue constructed in 1940 was meant to resemble Rexingen’s house of worship, and was used as a community hall. Several decades later, one of the original settlers – now a businessman in America – donated money for a community hall whose stunning reliefs were created by German-Israeli sculptor Rolf Roda Reilinger.
On display in its memorial room is a Torah scroll, partially burnt and bearing marks left where it was cut by knives and axes in 1938 on Kristallnacht – when Jews were attacked all over Germany and synagogues were destroyed. The scroll was saved by a Christian policeman who understood that the community would be leaving and helped one of the Jews smuggle it out of Germany. It sits on a wall inscribed with the names of all of the Rexingen residents who didn’t make it to safety in Israel.
Seven young men that belonged to the Irgun (Etzel) are buried in a special section of the settlement’s cemetery. The youths were killed during a prison break staged by the Irgun in 1947 to free their comrades. Because the organization was considered extreme, only Shavei Zion – which has never had any political affiliations – felt it was a mitzvah (commandment) to bury then.
A surprise awaited us near the lovely beach promenade reaching as far as Nahariya: remains from a Byzantine-era church with a large mosaic floor. It serviced both the fishing village located nearby and pilgrims who stopped here on their way to and from Lebanon.
Along the shore stands a huge memorial to 12 naval commandos who fell during an ill-fated mission into Lebanon on September 5, 1997. It is composed of a dozen gigantic sandstone slabs leaning on one another, and a separate block carrying the names of the 12 casualties – including a young officer from Shavei Zion.
A 2-hour tour of Shavei Zion costs only NIS 50 shekels (altogether) for any group under 10 people. Call 0545641508 to reserve.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.