In the footsteps of the Templers

A historic house in today's Bnei Atarot brings its visitors back to Wilhelma of yesteryear at this cottage cafe.

January 21, 2010 17:51
3 minute read.

Templers 311. (photo credit: Uriel Messa)

The Templers were an evangelical Protestant sect founded in Germany in the middle of the 19th century. Large numbers of them came to settle in the Holy Land to await the second coming of Jesus which, they believed, would coincide with the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Incidentally it is easy to confuse the spelling of the Templers with the much earlier Knights Templar who were here in Crusader times, but there is a marvelous mnemonic which means you will never get it wrong again. The Templars who came first spelt it with an "a" and the Templers with an "e," and "a" comes before "e" in the alphabet.

The Templers established several colonies here - in Haifa, Jaffa, Beit Lehem Haglilit, Jerusalem and in what today is called Bnei Atarot. They called the settlement Wilhelma after the kaiser and for many years what is today Ben-Gurion Airport was called Wilhelma Airport because of its proximity.

The sect is credited with bringing many innovations in architecture, agriculture and industry to Palestine. The architecture, of which this is a typical example, certainly looked different from the other buildings of the period and had a definite European flavor. No less a personality than Yoel Moshe Salomon, one of the founders of Petah Tikva (he of the wonderful Arik Einstein song), wrote that walking in a Templer colony one might imagine oneself in Europe.

But much as one would like to love the Templers for their contribution to the country, all is not as cozy and gemütlich as one would have hoped. In the 1930s they became Nazi sympathizers, hung swastikas on their public buildings and greeted each other with the Nazi salute. Wilhelma became an internment camp for them until after the state was established, when they were deported to Australia.

Motty Goldman was six years old when he came to live in this house with his parents, and he and his siblings used to kick a soccer ball around the beautiful tiled floors without having too much awareness of their aesthetic and historical aspects.

After eight years of living on the ground floor, the family moved upstairs, and this is where he still lives with his wife, Gil, and three children.

He was at first a little reluctant to allow us up to the living area, which is not furnished quite as they wanted it yet, as they are busy hunting for art deco furniture which will fit in with the style of the house, frequenting flea markets and house sales until they find just what they are looking for.

However, a gigantic copper air-conditioning unit certainly merited a picture, even if the lounge suite didn't. And the living-room walls are painted a rich wine color, as if to emphasize the central role of wine-making in their lives.

The house was built in 1932, making it one of the more modern Templer buildings, and it combines the traditional modesty of other Templer structures with the art deco features appropriate to the period. According to the Goldmans, it is the only Templer building in the country open to the public.

The original Templer settlers lived in what later became the stable and, according to tradition, they said they would build another house when they had money and leave their first abode for the animals, which they did. Today the stable houses a cooking school run by another company.

On Friday mornings the public is invited to visit the home and taste some of Motty's excellent wines, while Gil serves cheeses, quiches, salads and good coffee.

"The idea is to present the house as a peaceful oasis, recalling another, more tranquil time," explains Motty. "We have quiet background music playing and, while there is nothing dramatic in the décor, we feel as though the house conveys something special with its simplicity and homey feeling."

The shapes of the windows, the stone balconies and rounded walls all testify to the 70-plus years the building has been standing, while the tiled floors, all different, have remained in remarkably good condition. The original frosted glass is still in the upper half of the doors which lead from the entrance hall to what is now the café. A crystal chandelier, an old restored chaise longue and ornate chairs of an undetermined provenance contribute to the atmosphere of another time. The original banisters with their carvings of stylized flowers and bubble moldings are still in pristine condition. Outside, a deck has been added for visitors to sit and enjoy the garden while sipping their wine, and it blends in seamlessly with the rest of the house.

The basement has been turned into a conference room and visitors' center where wine-tasting courses are given and some bottles of the prize-winning wine line the shelves. At the entrance to the room Motty has a quite extensive collection of farming tools and all kinds of utensils from another age in a wall-long display.

The village of Bnei Atarot contains many other examples of Templer homes, and every Friday a play is performed, in costume, for the benefit of visitors to tell the story of the place, recreating the life of the first settlers.

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