All tour guides study the same curriculum and take the same tests to get their license. They all understand and convey how the topography of the land influenced history. They all have a mastery of the history of the land that I envy. But each one also has a special interest or develops a specialty. It is these specialties that make them stand out from each other. Eitan Morell tells stories that make the past come alive. As he takes groups to different places he slowly builds his story of seemingly unrelated events until it all comes together. He makes a convoluted history seem like a straight line.
He called a recent tour “Tales from the Road.” All that those of us who signed up for the Orthodox Union (OU) sponsored tour knew was that we were going to be staying fairly close to Jerusalem. Most of us had been on one of Eitan’s tours before, and we knew it would be interesting.
Our first stop was Ya’ar Hulda, Hulda’s Forest, less than a half hour outside the city. It’s not too far from where Road One, the main highway from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, crosses Road 3, one of the main east-west roads in the country. We would also visit Mishmar David, Latrun, and the Har-El monument. All the names were familiar to me, but aside from visiting the Tank Corps museum and monument at Latrun, I had never been to any of them. They are so close together, they would be a nice day’s hike for a youth group learning about the rise of the state and the battle for Jerusalem. However, the OU tours cater to a distinctively older clientele, and we traveled from site to site by bus.
At Hulda, we entered a large walled courtyard. This, Eitan informed us, was once an agricultural school. Founded in 1908, on land bought from the Arab landowner, it was a place for Jews from Europe to learn agricultural methods before going out to settle the land. Started two years before the founding of the first kibbutz, Hulda served as a model for both kibbutzim and moshavim throughout the land.
World War I severely stressed the whole Middle East. Shipments of food and money to Israel stopped. A drought at the beginning of the war resulted in food shortages. The 1915 locust plague demolished all that year’s crops. People starved all over the country. Most of the people at Hulda left, but a few hardy pioneers remained.
We had driven through a forest to get there, which is not unusual in the environs of Jerusalem. Today the Jerusalem forest forms a broad ring around the city, but in the early 20th century, no forest existed anywhere in the country. Israel’s forests are man-made, every tree planted by hand on land bought by the Jewish National Fund (JNF-KKL) with money contributed by Jews all over the world. Scattered through those forests are trees I paid for as a child by collecting dimes from all the grown-ups I knew.
The JNF had planted its first forest of olive trees here, but because of the drought and other unsuitable conditions, most of those trees had died. Following the war, Hulda reestablished itself and by 1929 it was a thriving agricultural settlement. However, the dusty courtyard where we stood was at that time still surrounded by dusty hills.
Nothing happens in isolation. In Jerusalem, the ongoing dispute for power and influence between the Nashashibi and Husseini families was about to spill over and affect the rest of the country. At that time the Nashashibi family held political power—Rajib Nashashibi was mayor of Jerusalem. Haj Amin al Husseini was the mufti, the Muslim religious leader. He knew the way to gain power was to gather the people to him. The best way to do draw them together was to preach violence against the Jews, whose population had been steadily increasing. Husseini was a superb orator, and he knew how to use his skill. On Friday August 23, at services in Al Aksa mosque he promised that anyone who killed a Jew would go straight to paradise on his own death. He then continued, falsely claiming that the Jews planned to burn down Al Aksa, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. At the end of the service, the worshipers streamed out of the mosque, down from the Temple Mount, and out the Damascus Gate into the new city. They destroyed the neighborhoods of Nissim Bek and Eshel Avraham. As they approached the walls of Mea Shearim, Aaron Fishler pulled out his rifle and shot several times into the air. The unarmed mob dispersed.
The rioting spread from Jerusalem. Over the next few days, Arab mobs killed 67 Jews in Hevron, leaving mutilated corpses in looted houses. In Tsfat, the Arabs murdered 20 Jews, wounded 40, and looted and burned 200 houses. As a result of the rioting and looting, people fled from the Jewish neighborhoods of Jaffa, Haifa, Acco (Acre), Nablus, and Gaza, never to return.
The residents of Hulda, a small settlement surrounded by Arab villages, realized they were in danger and appealed to the Haganah for help. The Haganah sent twenty fighters, led by Efraim Chisick. Some of these men could stay only one day.
When the Arabs attacked on September 4, the people at Hulda quickly realized the wall around their courtyard would not hold for long. One by one they crawled across the courtyard to the stone house, which was protected by an additional wall. Efraim covered them and would be the last to go. With no one to cover his retreat, he was killed by the Arabs only a few yards from the house. The 13 remaining Haganah fighters and the 24 residents of Hulda continued to defend themselves through the afternoon into the night.
Somehow word of the attack was relayed to the British army, who came and dispersed the Arabs. The soldiers said they had been sent only to rescue people; they refused to take Efraim’s body with them. He was left lying on the ground between the courtyard and the empty house.
A week later, the British allowed Efraim’s brother and sister to go to Hulda for a short time. Without shovels or other tools, they dug a grave with their hands and buried him just outside the courtyard.
Two years later the Chisick family built a memorial at the site of Efraim’s grave. The sculptor, Batya Lishansky, wanted to carve it from one large block of stone, but the stone was too large to move, and had to be cut in half horizontally. Nonetheless, it is impressive—over 12 feet high, and about 5 feet wide. It is called “Defense and Labor,” and depicts three people. The man at the top has his left arm outstretched, like a wing protecting the two people below. He has never been definitively identified, but is believed to be Benny Munter, one of the people who died nine years earlier defending Tel Hai in the north. The other man is Efraim Chisick and the third person is his sister, Sarah Chisick, who also died defending Tel Hai.
The agricultural school was abandoned for two years. When it was reopened, it thrived as a farm and a center of reforestation. But it was abandoned in 1937, when Kibbutz Hulda was founded nearby, on a hill better situated for agriculture.
Its location remained strategic. During the 1948 Arab siege of Jerusalem, the kibbutz served as the point from which convoys carrying food left to try to break the blockade of the city.
But that’s another story. One for another day.