Rehov Hatishim 88 248.
(photo credit: Laura Kusisto )
Two streets wend their way through the heart of leafy Kfar Ganim, a moving tribute by the area's first residents to the tragedies of the past among the fragrant orange groves of their new life. Yet while none are ignorant of the tragic story behind Rehov Anne Frank, the place in history of its twin street, Hatishim Veshalosh, as the roughly transliterated English sign reads, to most today is imperceptible.
Just a few minutes' walk from Petah Tikva's burgeoning downtown, the street's name is widely regarded as "just a number," incorrectly referred to by most residents and taxi drivers simply as "93rd street." But history tells a different story.
"Ninety-three choose suicide before Nazi shame" read the headline of a narrow column that appeared on page eight of The New York Times on January 8, 1943. The article reproduced a letter received by Rabbi Leo Jung, one of the early leaders of American Orthodoxy. It was written by the teacher of 93 girls, ages 14 to 22, in the Beth Jacob school in Warsaw, Poland, who committed mass suicide to avoid being captured by Nazi soldiers.
The letter reads: "Yesterday and today we were given hot baths and we were told the German soldiers would come tonight to visit us. We yesterday swore to ourselves that we shall die together. Yesterday one sent us to a big house with bright rooms and nice beds. The Germans do not know that our last bath is our last purification before death. All of us have poison. When the soldiers come we shall drink it... We have no fear." The letter is the last news that was ever heard from either the girls or their teachers.
To learn how this chilling tale made its way to a street thousands of miles away in the then-rural area of Petah Tikva is to revisit the first waves of immigration following World War II. "It was a farm, just a small village. There was not even a country yet," says Kfar Ganim resident Rina Edelstein, who was born in Petah Tikva 82 years ago, after her father came from Russia and her mother from Jaffa to farm the land in the growing rural town.
Hatishim Veshalosh's story is preserved in the minutes of the council meeting at which the new street was created. The document, dated August 4, 1946, and preserved in the Petah Tikva archives, records a dispute between one woman and her neighbor. Many of the details of the conflict are obscured by the ornate early Hebrew, but near the end of the meeting the problem is resolved when the council decides that a new road will be created between the disputed plot 6381 and subplot 1399. The road, the council declares, will be called "Hatishim Veshalosh."
Today this effort by the city's early residents to commemorate the tragic tale of the mass suicide of the 93 is fading. The street has undergone a dramatic transformation from its days as a roughly hewn path between two plots of farmland. It is now surrounded by coffee shops and pizza parlors, and the orange groves are largely a memory. Most of the original farmhouses have been replaced with new pastel-colored apartment blocks that tower above the few one-story homes that remain. The clearest reminder of early rural Petah Tikva is the way Hatishim Veshalosh loops sharply back and forth, defying the grid formed by most streets in the neighborhood. One can imagine this is because of the rough compromise negotiated between the landowners at the early council meeting, although no one knows for sure.
The composition of the street's residents is changing as well, according to Edelstein, a 30-year resident of the neighborhood. Kfar Ganim has become one of Petah Tikva's most desirable neighborhoods, and Hatishim Veshalosh, which is unusually wide and still retains a handful of the original orange trees, is one of its most appealing streets. Older residents are being replaced by younger people and newly arrived immigrants, especially from Russia. Many of these new residents no longer know one another or about the history of the area, Edelstein laments.
Part of that history is, of course, the story behind Hatishim Veshalosh.
"I have lived here 66 years - that is my age - but I have never heard anything about this street," says one cab driver. "I think it has something to do with the war, but I don't know which one." Then, visibly concerned this might undercut his claim to be an accomplished raconteur of local history, he hastily proceeds to recount the stories of all the surrounding street names in astonishing detail.
The street has a small but growing haredi population to whom the story is much clearer. Yet for them too history has been preserved imperfectly. For some the girls are Polish, for others German. The girls' fate, though always dire, is not always the same - sometimes rape, medical testing or death.
These inconsistencies are attributable to more than simply the shaky contours of memory. Dr. Jacob Schacter, a professor at Yeshiva University, says his research shows the story is almost certainly a myth. The letter published in the Times was a forgery, he notes, and he has found no other evidence of the alleged mass suicide. The Petah Tikva Municipality appears to have heeded his reservations, which he first publicized 15 years ago, and it has added a note to its archives suggesting the story is likely a myth and can be supported only by oral stories from the past.
Whether the story of the 93 will survive all the forces that are now allayed against it - time, distance, truth - is uncertain. But what is clear is that Hatishim Veshalosh will remain, a reminder of the rich history that can underlie even the most unassuming of this country's streets.