Israel travels

In the midst of a forest, a house for Herzl

An early 20th-century villa built in tribute to the Zionist founder is nestled in the center of the Hulda Forest, surrounded by lush foliage of every variety. A training farm for pioneers, it proved an unlikely retreat during the riots of 1929

The view from Herzl House (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The view from Herzl House (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

While riding the train between Jerusalem and Jaffa Port, Theodore Herzl looked out the window. He had grown up believing that Israel was the Land of Milk and Honey, and was appalled to find the landscape barren and desolate. Suddenly, he made his famous declaration: “We must plant trees in the Land of Israel!”

A century later, on Israel’s 50th birthday, her people received an extraordinarily precious gift. That year, the Jewish National Fund, the Society for the Preservation of Historic Sites in Israel, and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority began the painstaking restoration of 50 outstanding historic sites.

Herzl House (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Herzl House (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Foremost among them was Herzl House, an early 20th-century villa oddly located in the middle of the JNF’s very first forest. The forest dates back to 1905, when a company called Geula, or “Redemption,” purchased 500 acres of land from the Arabs of Hulda village. The company intended to divide its purchase into sections and sell them to Jewish newcomers. Unfortunately for Geula, massive grazing had depleted the earth of its minerals and the soil at Hulda was completely barren – not a tree, bush or flower broke the dreary landscape. And it took hours to get to the nearest town.

Years went by, and no one wanted the desolate plots. Geula officials, who had borrowed from the bank to acquire the land, began to seriously wonder how they would recover their losses.

Salvation arrived in 1908, when the newly established JNF decided to plant a forest at Hulda in honor of Herzl. The great visionary had passed away just a few years earlier, and when told the money was for an olive-tree forest in his memory, donors generously opened their purses. Sadly, however, although commonly identified with the Holy Land, olive trees were wholly unsuited to the soil at Hulda.

Hulda Forest's Washingtonian boulevard (photo: courtesy)
Hulda Forest’s boulevard of Washingtonian palms (photo: courtesy)

That wasn’t the only problem. Accomplished German agronomist Louis Barish agreed to take on the Hulda project in 1909. However, the knowledge that had served him well in Europe was all wrong for the Middle East. Planting season in Israel differed from that of Europe – but he insisted on sticking to what he knew best.

Most of Barish’s laborers came from Eastern Europe. Idealistic Zionists, they objected to his employment of additional Arab labor, couldn’t understand German, and greatly resented Barish’s highfalutin’ attitude. And no wonder: Barish lavished his resources on construction of a grand residence in honor of Herzl, appropriated all four large rooms on the top story for himself, and crowded the workers into the damp and stuffy basement together with snakes, scorpions, and other creepy-crawly creatures.

Barish was sent packing barely a year after he arrived, and the vast majority of olive-tree saplings sown at Hulda soon perished. Eventually the JNF completely revised its thinking, and in 1912 planted its very first pine forest at Hulda.

Herzl Forest today is encompassed within a much larger Hulda Forest, filled with an unusually wide variety of trees. Among them, and along a lovely trail, are oak, South American pepper, eucalyptus, Australian casuarinas (so named because the twigs resemble the feathers of the cassowary bird), cypress, all kinds of pine, sycamore, chinaberry, acacia and Washingtonian trees. Depending on the season there are also lots of fruit trees to be seen: carob, date, olive and pistachio and, in late winter, flowering almond.

When the rioters set the farm’s threshing floor on fire, the flames moved into the courtyard. Chisik and his reinforcements, in the woods, were forced to reposition in the yard. When their situation became untenable, he commanded them to take shelter in the big house.

With Barish gone and the forests replanted, Hulda was turned into a training farm for pioneers. Jews in the Diaspora rarely knew anything about agriculture, and enthusiastic young people arrived singly and in organized groups to study farming and afforestation techniques that they would be able to apply to settlements all over the country.

One large grove is named for Tel Hai, and was planted in 1920 after a famous battle. Among the fallen at Tel Hai was Benjamin Munter, who had studied farming at Hulda as a new immigrant before heading north to help settle the Galilee. After the battle, his bullet-ridden body was found sheltering a second pioneer, Sara Chisik. As a result, although she too lay dead, her body was less ravaged than his by the hand grenade that killed them both.

As the years went by children were born, often to couples who met at the farm. A courtyard was constructed to hold the stables, chicken coops and cowshed; storerooms, a laundry, a guardhouse, a workers’ residence and a water reservoir were built into its walls.

A major attraction in the forest is a beautiful avenue of magnificent Washingtonian palms, with tall, straight trunks and a fanlike crest. Here stands the grave of Ephraim Chisik and an impressive monument in memory of fallen pioneers called “Labor and Defense”. Chisik, whose sister was killed at Tel Hai, left the Galilee to help defend Hulda in 1929.

That year, following a campaign of wild incitement and using a dispute over the Western Wall as an excuse, bloody riots broke out in and near Jerusalem. In the massacres that followed, Arabs murdered Jews at Motza and over 60 men, women and children in Hebron.

Thousands of victory-drunk Arabs then attacked Hulda, which sat isolated in the forest with only a few dozen armed settlers. When the rioters set the farm’s threshing floor on fire, the flames moved into the courtyard.

Chisik and his reinforcements, in the woods, were forced to reposition in the yard. When their situation became untenable, he commanded them to take shelter in the big house, covering them as they crawled forward. The last one to go, Chisik was hit with a fatal bullet as he ran towards shelter.

Although the young farmers managed to hold off the enemy, the British who eventually arrived forced them to evacuate Herzl House – and refused them permission to take Chisik’s body along. His burial took place only some days later.

Built out of a mammoth block of hard Jerusalem limestone that was cut into two parts, the memorial was unveiled in 1937, after seven years of labor. Young sculptor Batya Lichansky lived in a tent adjacent to the site and traveled to Jerusalem once a week to sharpen her tools.

A 1937 statue cut from a block of hard Jerusalem limestone by young sculptor Batya Lichansky (photo: courtesy)
A 1937 statue cut from a block of hard Jerusalem limestone by young sculptor Batya Lichansky (photo: courtesy)

Although she didn’t specify who all the figures were meant to be, most people think that the imposing figure at the top is Ephraim Chisik, one arm spread out like a wing while the other grasps a grenade behind his back. The image below is thought to be Benjamin Munter, sheltering Ephraim’s sister Sara. Carved into the monument are tools, a wagon wheel, and sheaves of wheat – symbolizing conquest of the land by the plow.

Herzl House, the yard and the forest, were completely devastated by the Arabs in 1929, and the land remained empty for the next two years. But in 1931, the World Zionist Congress decided to encourage permanent settlement at Hulda. The group that came, young people from Poland, partly restored the house, rebuilt the courtyard, and planted new trees. Six years later they decided to move to a more defensible site nearby, today’s Kibbutz Hulda.

After Hulda’s kibbutzniks left the forest, and up until the renovation, Barish’s villa stood alone and neglected. Today, one side of Herzl House features an enormous portrait of the great Zionist. But not everything has been faithfully restored, including the stained glass panes that sat in the fashionable windows or the original, exquisite tiles. Over the decades, vandals stole everything they could carry, from the roof to the floor.

What are on display inside (open weekends from 10:00 – 14:00) are Barish’s desk, an exhibit of old pictures, and a fascinating exhibit showing how potential donors were persuaded to contribute to the JNF. Postcards, sent all over the Diaspora, boast joyful pioneers planting trees amidst lush, green woods.

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.

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