hatira 88 298.
(photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
Barely visible from the coastal highway behind a row of tall trees, a palatial building stands majestically alone in the fields of Kibbutz Ga'ash, south of Netanya.
Until recent years, the 1920s-constructed building was highly visible to drivers whizzing past.
Nowadays used as a functions venue, the building - in the past known as Beit Litvinsky and then simply Hatira (the castle) - was taken under the wing of the Public Council for the Restoration and Preservation of Historic Sites in Israel in the early 1990s, together with Kibbutz Ga'ash. It was successfully renovated, maintaining intact the charm, character, original tiled floors and many other architectural elements incorporated into this unique, spacious and special building.
A landscaped garden now surrounds the property, with a trickling brook and small water fountain. Trees planted not so many years ago but already two stories high make the building less noticeable to those traveling the heavily trafficked highway a few cotton and wheat fields away.
The exotic building has a tumultuous past. Hatira was built with the intention of being a summer/weekend abode of one of the extremely wealthy Litvinsky brothers, almost three decades after their father, Ya'acov Elhanan Litvinsky, made aliya from Odessa in 1886. The elder Litvinsky, the oldest and richest of Tel Aviv's founders who lived at Rehov Ahad Ha'am 22, one of the city's first homes, died during World War I. He had bought extensive tracts of land in Rishon Lezion, in the Sharon plain where the kibbutzim Ga'ash and Shefayim now stand, and Gush Dan, and among his business interests were a steam-driven flourmill in Gaza and a soap factory in Jaffa.
The Litvinsky empire was passed on to the three sons, Raymond (who left Palestine to live in France), Emil and Morris. Having relocated to Egypt during World War I, the business-minded Litvinskys became the main suppliers of goods to the British Army serving in the region. Following the British victory over the Turks, the family returned to Palestine and continued with their business interests, which now included representing the British energy company Shell and running a construction company involved in housing and commercial projects in the center of the country.
East of Jaffa, Emil Litvinsky bought a sizeable tract of land where he intended to build Ir Ganim (Garden City), a new Jewish town to be designed by the industrious and talented architect Richard Kauffman. Only about 40 houses were constructed, purchased in the main by German immigrants who, although out on a limb and in mortal danger during the Arab uprising in the late 1930s, stood their ground.
The plans for Ir Ganim remained eternally on the drawing boards, as with the onset of World War II the land was appropriated by the British Mandate forces and a British army camp sprang up instead of the Jewish town envisioned by Litvinsky.
At a later stage a request from the US to the British forces to set aside an area for the Americans to operate a small clinic and hospital in Palestine for their wounded soldiers led to another part of "Tel Litvinsky" being handed over. After the Americans pulled out in the spring of 1943, the British moved into the medical facility and stayed until their departure from the shores of Palestine in 1948.
These days a small neighborhood is still known as Tel Litvinsky, and the former American and British medical facility developed into the present-day Sheba Hospital at Tel Hashomer, the largest medical center in the Middle East.
When Morris Litvinsky built his house on the sand dunes between Ga'ash and Shefayim, he had fruit plantations laid out around his country mansion. After a few years the building became almost obscured from view, only to be rediscovered in a totally dilapidated state in the early 1980s when the Ha'artzi Federation of Kibbutzim bought the land on behalf of neighboring Kibbutz Ga'ash. The orchards were uprooted to be replaced by field crops.
Beit Litvinsky saw little use as the Jaffa-based Morris and family became apprehensive of spending time in the then-isolated spot where he had built his dream home, the area being frequented by none-too-friendly bands of armed marauders.
Already in a state of ill repair, the castle - at that time hidden among the thick foliage of the plantations - was used in 1945 to hide illegal immigrants who beached on the nearby coast having successfully run the British blockade of Palestine.
In the 1960s, the Litvinsky heirs sold the property to an Iranian family living in Teheran, the head of whom, a leader of the capital's Jewish community, was later murdered by supporters of the Ayatollah Khomeini. The murdered man's family fled the country, settled in Los Angeles and in the 1980s approached the kibbutz movement with an offer to sell the crumbling castle and surrounding land.
Following the Lebanon War in 1982, when in a state of abject disrepair, the building was used as a political billboard plastered with anti-war slogans. A massive sign declaring "xx days in Lebanon" straddled the building, and the number was changed every morning by local, vocal activists.
On May 1, 1985, Hatira was wrapped from top to bottom in red material by two local artists from Ga'ash, a special feature for International Workers' Day.
Renovated in 1990, the three-story building with its many high windows (12 lead-trimmed panes in each and covered with wrought iron grating similar to the original), attractive stone balustrades surrounding open rooftop verandas, and colorful decorative ceramic interior floor tiles coupled with black and white flagstones, somehow reminds one of Alice in Wonderland or a favored fairy tale from one's childhood.
"The Tira was constructed during the romantic period of the 1920s and in many ways almost like a real-life Nahum Gutman painting - the eclectic style of building, the sand, sea and sun coupled with the staunch Zionism of the Litvinskys almost made to Gutman order," says Yuval Danieli, an artist and Director of Arts at the Hashomer archives and galleries of Givat Haviva.
Danieli pulls out item after item dealing with the kibbutz connection to the Litvinsky property from the vast archives of hundreds of thousands of documents, photographs, posters, books and other kibbutz movement memorabilia.
A large iron cut-out from Danieli's artistic work depicting Morris Litvinsky on horseback stands in the landscaped gardens of the present day Ga'ash events center. Danieli, a member of Kibbutz Hama'apil, was one of the kibbutz artists who exhibited their works in the Tira following its purchase by the kibbutz movement, when the building was used as a gallery prior to its renovation during the heady days of the Eighties.
The iron frame of Danieli's cut-out sculpture stands in the forecourt of the Givat Haviva Art Center. Fittingly in the background and seen through the frame, a round stone-turreted building erected by the British in what had been a British Mandate army camp unintentionally connects the Litvinsky and British past.
Although by European standards the Litvinsky castle might only make a matchbox series, in historical and political terms Hatira ranks with many an interesting family castle over the other side of the Mediterranean waters that lap at the base of the cliffs a short walk from the kibbutz castle in the cotton fields.