Backyard history

One family, one mission: To smuggle Jews out of Europe and Muslim countries to pre-State Palestine and prepare for the War of Independence.

By LYDIA AISENBERG
October 25, 2007 10:36
backyard history 88 224

backyard history 88 224. (photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)

 
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Jezreel Valley-born and bred farmer Ofer Avidov is an avid historian. Not surprising when one learns something about the family to which the boyish-looking 60-year-old was born. In recent years, Avidov has turned what was a serious hobby into a profession, becoming a certified tour guide combining cultivation of the land and sharing a fascinating family history with visitors to the "Emek," as the Jezreel Valley is commonly known. Avidov's grandfather, Yanni Avidov, was among the early settlers of Nahalal, one of Israel's showpiece agricultural communities. A fifth-generation agricultural worker in the Ukraine prior to his aliya, Yanni Avidov penned a couple of riveting books recounting some of his adventures both at home and abroad. "Grandfather was quite a character," deadpans Ofer Avidov, as he pulls out two well-thumbed copies of his grandfather's books from a corner cupboard in what was once a farm outhouse, converted into a family museum and snug, homely restaurant for special occasions. Ofer doesn't need to refer to either of the Avidov publications. He knows the family history chapter and verse. The third-generation Nahalal farmer takes one on an astonishing journey into the Avidov past, dealing with clandestine operations in neighboring Arab countries, the shocking murder of his uncle Eitan Avidov in Europe at the hands of other Jews from Palestine, the hoarding during the British Mandate period of illegal weapons in an underground chamber in his Nahalal backyard, and the smuggling of date palm saplings from Iraq. He recounts the experiences of his father Dov - an octogenarian who still puts in a day's work - and his mother Hanna who made aliya at age 13 in September 1939 with her Czech parents. Ofer Avidov is an enthusiastic walking, talking history book not only of his own family, but also of other well- and not-so-well-known people who farmed, fought and guarded the Jezreel Valley in pre-and post-state times. Grandfather Yanni Avidov and his wife Nessia left the Ukraine together with some members of their extended families in 1920. They initially joined pioneers from Gdud Ha'avoda, establishing Kibbutz Ein Harod in the shadow of Mount Gilboa. After seven years the Avidovs moved, together with their sabra children, across the valley to Nahalal established in 1921 by former members of Kibbutz Degania who wanted to build a collective agricultural community where each family would have a private home. Upon arrival at Nahalal, Yanni Avidov saw that the farmers were still harvesting crops using hand-held sickles. He knew of a machine that could do this back-breaking work more efficiently, purchased such a contraption and hired himself and harvester out to the other farmers. "He had extraordinary ideas," says Ofer rather proudly, and continues to boast about Grandpa Yanni having the first privately-owned motor vehicle in Nahalal in the 1930s. In 1943, Yanni Avidov participated in a Hagana-organized course that prepared him and others for highly perilous "clandestine" activities. He became a Mossad agent, and in his book Mysterious Ways describes daring and dangerous missions struggling through deserts and other unfriendly terrains, as well as by sea, as he and other dedicated emissaries engaged in running the British blockade by smuggling Jews into Palestine. Yanni Avidov was approached by the pre-state Hagana militia to build a secret bunker (known as a sliq) on his property in order to hide arms and ammunition, mostly "appropriated" from the British. There were some 20 such sliqim, mostly in kibbutzim around the country. Yanni Avidov's 25-square-meter hand-dug hole five meters under the ground was among the largest of the Hagana's secret weapons caches. Avidov's sliq was built underneath a cesspool that collected somewhat foul-smelling urine runoff from the cowshed above. "Actually there were only eight cows in the cowshed, but they basically became the camouflage for the sliq underneath," Ofer recounts. When the cesspool would begin to get dangerously full, a tap was opened and the urine diverted through pipes to the fields. "If anybody came to check, they were told that the urine was being used to fertilize the field crops," explained Ofer, who remembers as a child being told not to drink the water from the pipes in the fields because they "contained urine." In June 1946, the British raided Kibbutz Yagur across the valley on the slopes of the Carmel mountain range. In an operation known as "Black Shabbat," the well-stocked Yagur sliq was emptied and Jews arrested. Fearful that information about the Nahalal sliq might be extracted from a detainee, Yanni Avidov and Ofer's uncle Eitan sealed the entrance - a manhole underneath a large pump - by covering it with concrete. In December 1947, the pump was removed, the concrete seal broken and the contents distributed to Jewish soldiers fighting in the War of Independence. Between l943 and l946, Yanni Avidov undertook countless dangerous missions in neighboring and other none-too-friendly countries. "In '46 Yanni was almost caught in Syria, so the Hagana sent him to Europe to organize ships to bring ma'apilim [illegal immigrants], many of them Holocaust survivors, to Israel. Uncle Eitan, who was with the Hagana, was also working with refugees in Europe at that time," explains Ofer, standing under a large black-and-white photograph of his uncle. "Until this day we really do not know exactly what happened when Eitan was killed," he says, pointing to a photograph of the building in Austria where his 22-year-old uncle and other Hagana men had been sleeping when Jewish members of Etzel, the right-wing paramilitary pre-state organization with whom there had been "differences" over arms distribution, knocked on their door. "One of the Etzel men, who was known to one of those in the building, called out for him to open the door, which he did. The Etzel men poured inside and began beating the sleeping Hagana men. Apparently uncle Eitan woke up, saw one of the Etzel men with a gun in his hand standing nearby, made a dive for the gun and was shot dead." In Europe, at the time his son was killed, Yanni Avidov made his way to Austria to take his son's body home to Nahalal, where he became the first to be buried in the cemetery's military section. The cemetery stands on a hill overlooking Nahalal and a large portion of the Jezreel Valley below. "Eitan was the first military casualty to be buried here, but after a short time the War of Independence broke out and he was joined by another 14 in the military section," adds Ofer, sadly. Bent on revenge over the death of their comrade, members of the Hagana were planning an attack on the Etzel in Europe. Upon hearing about the plan, Yanni Avidov remonstrated with his Hagana colleagues. "Yanni told them that he would not tolerate a drop of Jewish blood being spilled in an act of revenge over Eitan's death," explains Ofer. After Independence, Yanni Avidov continued to undertake hair-raising missions involving the smuggling of Jews to Israel. Ofer tells of a mission in the early 1950s that saw his grandfather in Iran, checking possibilities of smuggling Jews out of the Soviet Union to Iran and then on to Israel - one of the few missions that did not see fruition. Not only did Yanni Avidov help to save Jews in distress and contribute toward building a strong state for the Jewish people, he also was responsible for helping realize the then-seemingly impossible dream of Ben Zion Yisraeli of Kvutzat Kinneret, who had visions of plantations of the finest species of date palms in Israel. However, the date palms were only available in Iraq. In 1955, Yanni Avidov returned from a particularly fruitful journey. Standing on the deck of a boat entering the Haifa port, the heroic former farmer and Hagannah fighter brought to a close one of the most exciting of his missions. The boat was carrying 75,000 date palm saplings that Avidov had been responsible for smuggling out of Iraq, put on a ship ostensibly heading for Italy. The precious cargo had been offloaded in Cyprus and put on board the ship to Haifa. "It was forbidden to take date palm seedlings out of Iraq, so Yanni smuggled them across the Sha'at al Arab waterway to the Iranian side, and from there through the Suez Canal to Cyprus. Of course the manifesto stated - for the eyes of Egyptian officials checking the cargo - that it was Italy-bound." A close friend of the popular poet Natan Alterman, Yanni Avidov died of a heart attack shortly after Alterman's death in 1970. "Yanni spent a lot of time with Alterman and was devastated by his death," recalls Ofer Avidov, who has developed fascinating tours of the Jezreel Valley, where one can walk or drive in the footsteps of the pioneers and hear more of the tales of the Avidov family and Nahalal - a never ending story in itself. For further details, contact Ofer Avidov, 'The Nahalal Sliq,' Nahalal. 052-3347194 or email: ofer@avidov.org

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