We have all heard stories about the hardships that early settlers had to face when they arrived in the Land of Israel in the late 19th century. But do we really understand what they went through?
The earliest pioneers to settle Zichron Yaakov came from Romania. Mainly traders, they knew very little about farming and nothing at all about growing things in the boondocks. But they had little choice: they had lost their Romanian citizenship and had to try and stick it out.
Then, when things were as black as they could be, a miracle occurred: Edmond de Rothschild, known in Israel as the Great Benefactor, decided to lend a helping hand. Not a philanthropist, but rather a banker who had lots of ideas for making money in the Land of Israel, he was thrilled to be contributing to its redemption. Unfortunately, many of his European underlings were snobs and bullies who had no idea how to deal with Romanian settlers and a Middle Eastern wilderness. They did, however, know how to live well: they resided in a fabulous villa. The settlers lived elsewhere.
In the end, after many often ludicrous failures, they did discover what the Land could generously offer: grapes. And so, de Rothschild set up a fantastically successful winery in Zichron Yaakov.
The land on which the pioneers of Zichron were to settle was purchased from a wealthy Christian Arab who lived in Haifa. Before they arrived, a dozen or so fallahim (poor farmers) had been squatting on the land, called Zammarin, in huts made of dirt and branches and mainly living off wild produce. Zammarin in Arabic means “shepherd’s flute”, for the reeds growing in the region produced a flute-like sound.
When the pioneers arrived in Zammarin, the name sounded so much like Samaria that they were certain they were living in that biblical region. Indeed, they continued in this belief for years, although soon after he became involved, the Baron asked that it be renamed after his father Jacob (Zichron Yaakov — a memorial to Jacob).
The First Aliyah Museum in Zichron Yaakov offers visitors a graphic, gripping description of those first pioneer years and the revolution that changed the face of Israeli settlement. Located in a historic building in the center of the oldest portion of Zichron — actually the villa that housed the Baron’s clerks — the First Aliyah Museum tells the story of the earliest modern-day immigration to Israel.
You might think that economics, disease, living conditions and rocky soil would be the only problems the pioneers had to face. Not so. Indeed, among the displays is a wonderful production in which settlers, passionate about learning Hebrew and getting a rounded education, are soundly opposed by Yiddish-speaking pioneers who were just as passionately opposed to this approach.
Lively short movies, multi-media exhibits and unusual displays take visitors directly into the lives of these early pioneers, demonstrating what life was really like in the wilderness in which they landed, how they suffered, and how finally — some of them at least — persevered.
A favorite attraction at the museum is a movie, viewed in the auditorium, whose contemporary stories are interspersed with actual footage of the pioneers. These short items are from a film produced in 1913 for presentation at the Zionist Congress held in Vienna; over the next few years it was also shown in Europe and the US.
After World War II, the film disappeared, along with the original negatives. Fortunately, in 1997 the negatives were discovered in Paris’ National Cinema Archives: 4 cartons containing 172 reels. Eventually, the whole hour-long movie was restored by Yaakov Gross, famous director, researcher, and preserver of Hebrew films, under the auspices of the Israel Film Archives.
Although the first settlers set up housekeeping on a lovely hill, the Baron moved them to the area of today’s pedestrian mall on Founders’ Street. The transfer allowed construction of the Carmel Winery, the cellars, and the winery shop, open to visitors.
Zichron has one of the country’s most colorful and lively pedestrian malls. Hidden behind charming galleries, coffee shops, restaurants, and boutique stores is a paper shop called Tut-Neyar. The shop is located next to a Paper Mulberry tree — tut-neyar in Hebrew — whose bark provides raw material for the cottage industry owned by a couple that produces fine quality paper in a shed next to their home.
The process begins with steaming the branches after the leaves fall off, cooking the result with soda bicarbonate, and eventually ending up with fibers used to manufacture stunning wall hangings, lampshades, invitations, and a variety of other items available in their shop.
One of Zichron’s main attractions is a museum that tells the story of Nili, the acronym for “netzah Yisrael lo yishaker” (1 Shmuel 15:29). Figuratively translated as meaning “the Jewish Nation will live forever”, Nili was a tiny Jewish underground organization operating during the First World War. Heading the group was Avshalom Feinberg, along with famous agronomist Aharon Aharonson and his sister Sarah, whose parents were among the first settlers in Zichron Yaakov.
The several dozen men and women in the group believed that the British would be better masters than the Turks. Aharon Aharonson, who in 1906 had made the momentous discovery of a wild grain called the “mother wheat”, was prominent enough to hold special travel permits. The permits were crucial in helping him pass vital military information to the British; Aharonson’s experimental farm near Atlit served as communications headquarters for British ships off the coast. Sarah headed the spy ring in Palestine when her brother was away, traveling throughout the country collecting useful information.
Nili was discovered after a carrier pigeon sent from the farm to the British with a message on its leg ended up in the front yard of the Turkish governor. Sarah Aharonson was captured by the Turks in 1917 and tortured, but refused to reveal information on her comrades in Nili. When she heard that she was being sent to a military tribunal in Damascus for trial, she attempted to commit suicide, hitting her spinal cord with a bullet and dying four days later.
Avshalom Feinberg, who was engaged to Aharon’s sister Rivka, disappeared in the Sinai sands after traveling to Egypt to make contact with British Intelligence. Aharon died mysteriously in 1919. He was on a peace mission between London and Paris when his plane crashed over the British channel.
The Nili Museum was one of the first historical museums in Israel. Renovated just over a decade ago, it encompasses the house in which Sarah, Rivka, and Aharon were born and raised, the home in which Aharon lived as an adult, and a third structure built in the courtyard in 1956. That’s when Rivka, who had lovingly preserved the Aharonson family homes, founded the museum.
Visitors discover when, where, and under what circumstances Feinberg’s body was found — an incredible story — and read the poem he wrote to his fiancée that was transformed into a well-known and heartbreaking Israeli song. Learn how Sarah managed to kill herself while in Turkish hands and, of course, hear the riveting story of a few dozen young people who helped change the course of Jewish history.
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.