Their history was being lost," says Magda Barnea, unlocking the door to her Archive and Exhibition museum near Merhavim in the Negev.
"Someone needed to document what happened, to preserve as much of the story as possible before it was too late. No one stepped up to do it, so even though I myself never lived there, I decided to do it. Someone had to."
The history Barnea feared would be lost was that of the Hunger Road settlements, a group of 15 tiny moshavim created during the years 1949-1958 west of Ofakim in the northern Negev.
"Most of the physical evidence of these settlements is already gone," Barnea laments. "Big new houses stand where the small 28-meter adobe homes once stood and the original settlers from Hungary, Tunisia, Yemen, Iraq, and other Arab countries first pitched tents, determined to eke out a living amid the sand and heat. They were heroes, those people. Their names won't appear in history books, but they were the people who built this country."
Even the name Kvish Hara'av - Hunger Road - is losing ground. "Officials don't want us calling it that anymore, but that's what everyone called it then," says Barnea.
In fact, the "hunger" memorialized was not that of the Jewish settlers but rather that of the Beduin during the last years of the British Mandate.
"There was a drought and the Beduin were starving, so the British had them build a road from nowhere to nowhere, a make-work project so they could eat. When the Jewish moshavim came along many years later, the name still fit."
Barnea recounts a short history of the Hunger Road: Virtually no Jews lived in the Negev before the 1948 War of Independence because the British forbade it. But when the new State of Israel included the Negev, the gates opened. In the late 1940s Levi Eshkol - who later became prime minister - was in charge of the Jewish Agency's efforts to settle new immigrants, with which Israel was flooded.
A total of 684,201 Jews arrived in Israel between May 15, 1948, and December 31, 1951. Many were European Holocaust survivors, but many more were Jews fleeing for their lives from Arab countries such as Yemen, Tunisia, Iraq, Morocco, and Egypt. Both groups of immigrants arrived almost empty-handed, having lost everything except their own distinctive languages, lifestyles, and customs. None of them knew anything about agriculture. In fact, many saw agriculture as primitive work, unsuitable for them.
"Remember, they were refugees. They didn't come for the idealistic Zionistic reasons like some of the earlier groups. These people loved the idea of a Jewish homeland but, for the most part, their passion didn't extend to working in the fields, tilling the physical land," says Barnea.
Eshkol's highly controversial plan - to turn these ethnically diverse, inexperienced refugees into farmers in the Negev - was nothing short of audacious. At the time, nothing existed where they were sent - not a tree, building, or water supply, let alone a house, school, or doctor.
"They didn't come to the Negev, they were sent. As refugees, they'd been put into transit camps. Officials would come around and explain that farms were being established in the Negev, and then they were sent out to build them. At first they lived in tents, like the Beduin. Then they built 28-meter houses with their own hands. To grow their food, they had a few primitive pieces of farm equipment, horse- or mule-pulled single-row plows, and handmade pitchforks and hoes. In their homes, they crafted small clay ovens to bake pita or bread. Everything was accomplished with a tiny oil stove: heating water for warmth in the cold winter and for all cooking. Life was unbelievably harsh. Many didn't stay long. They left and were replaced by newer immigrants. Imagine sitting in a tent in the middle of the Negev in August, with three little children and a granny, knowing your weekly water supply won't arrive for another four days," says Barnea.
Relatively quickly, in succession, Eshkol's Negev settlements came into being. The first was Tiferah, settled by Hungarian refugees in October 1949. Gilat was second, in December 1949, settled by refugees from Yemen. Five more settlements were established in June-July 1950, and another eight between 1953 and 1958. After that, the official policy began moving toward development towns instead of moshavim. The era of the Hunger Road was over.
As life in the Negev improved, people started to forget the years of hunger and hard work, says Barnea. "Very few of the little houses remain, and those are mostly used for storage. Some were expanded, and disappeared inside bigger houses. Others were demolished. What worried me was that all traces of their existence were being lost. I couldn't let that happen," she explains.
The original idea for historical preservation came from Magda's late husband, Dov Barnea (1916-1998). Hanging on the museum wall is a framed letter in which Dov Barnea outlined the project.
"Dov had retired from the Beersheba department of education," she says. "He took a part-time job as a counselor to the education department at Merhavim and suggested the idea. They agreed and a protocol was written, but no one jumped on it. Nothing happened. Some time after that, I retired myself. I had taught kindergarten for 20 years and then moved on to special education. I had too much time and not enough to keep me busy, so I went to the Merhavim regional council and said, 'You suggested it, now I'll do it.' I didn't ask for any money. I said I'd do it as a volunteer."
Barnea took the mission seriously. "I studied museumology and took another course in archives. It's not enough just to love something; you have to have some knowledge, too."
In the meantime, she began collecting documents relating to the area, "but eventually collecting just paper was boring. I decided to also collect pictures. Then people gave me a few small artifacts - things they'd saved or found, items that had been used on the Hunger Road. From there, it just grew. Soon I had enough to open a little museum. Well, we can't really call it a museum. It's really an archive and exhibit. But it tells the settlers' story and preserves a few of the things they left. Now we won't forget what they did for us."
Barnea's museum has moved several times and is now housed in a building adjacent to the Merhavim community center.
Inside the museum are three large, bright rooms filled with photos, objects of every kind, chairs for the occasional lecture and, in the back, several old closets she's converted into cabinets that hold thousands of documents and pictures. "Everything you see I did myself," says Barnea. Pointing to the display cabinets, she explains, "I took old school desks apart, rebuilt and painted them, and then put a piece of glass on top. They work just fine."
Three large photos catch the eye. First, the Negev as it was - barren, harsh, and forbidding. Next, a photo of a cloddy, roughly plowed field. Finally, the finished product: a tiny white house with an attached chicken shed, a few trees, and a few people. Everything in the museum is as authentic as she can make it.
All the mounted photos were, at one time, in frames with plastic covers. No more. "I realized that they didn't have plastic in those days, so I replaced it all with glass. It's for the children, isn't it? We can't confuse them by using plastic here."
When the first museum finally opened, Barnea needed financing. "I went to the regional council. I needed to pay for electricity and basic supplies. They allocated me NIS 200 a month. Everything here was produced from that funding."
The museum touches every aspect of the settlers' life. There's a primitive plow and thresher, hand-carved tools, buckets and implements, all clearly labeled and displayed.
"They experimented with many different crops," Barnea explains, "but it was trial and error. Sometimes, even if it grew, there were other problems. They produced a reasonable crop of onions but then found they had no way to transport them to market. So they tried something else."
One burlap-covered wall reads, "Yesh mayim!" - There is water! The display contains photos and tools relating to the laying of the water pipes, another Levi Eshkol project.
On an inside wall hangs a clipping from the New York Times, dated March 26, 1955. "Israel Wedding Bombed!" the headline screams. "The Egyptians attacked a wedding," Barnea recounts. "One person was killed and several were wounded. I have a small area dedicated to people who died, but this museum is about the ones who lived - the heroes who came, stayed, worked, and didn't run," she says.
Attacks like the wedding bombing were infrequent, she adds. The real problem was theft. "They came in day or night to pinch whatever they could carry away. They stole pipelines, tools, cows - anything they could haul away. That part was heartbreaking."
Housewares are displayed in the museum's Daily Life section: several tiny oil burners used for heating; glass-domed lamps; the rough, handmade pita ovens; and pots and buckets. A few toys are also displayed.
"The children didn't have much. See the 'football' - it's just a roll of rags. The doll is rag, too; and they used pebbles to count, play games, and trade."
An original bed also contains a pillow, split to show the stuffing. "They stuffed the pillows with sheep wool, not feathers," she says.
Nearby is a baby's crib - a wooden packing crate lined with a blanket. "They had very little, and made use of everything."
In an adjacent building is a room dedicated to the origins of the Hunger Road settlers.
"Several years ago, a small Yemenite museum was disbanded. Most of their artifacts went to another museum in Netanya, but some remained here. I added several books and photos that had come my way. What's most interesting is a wall of information about the ethnic backgrounds of the various people who lived here. They were very diverse, from Europe and many Arab countries."
Where did Barnea learn so much about the settlements?
"I'm a foreigner. Since I hadn't lived it, I knew very little when I started. But I researched and read, and then I interviewed about a dozen of the people who did live here. I talked to them for hours to get their memories recorded so they won't be lost."
A curious synchronicity is at play here, similarities that connect the Hunger Road settlers and Magda Barnea herself. Barnea is of Czech origin. She survived the concentration camps of the Holocaust. In 1948, she came to Israel as a young woman and married Dov, whom she had known in the dark days in Europe.
"At first we lived on kibbutzim, and then Dov began teaching in a boarding school near Netanya. One day, I read a newspaper article written by the superintendent of education in Beersheba. He was pleading for educators to come south, saying that they were desperately needed. I showed it to Dov, and we decided to go. At the boarding school, we were teaching 'banana kids' - rich kids. We wanted to go where we could make a difference."
They arrived in Beersheba in 1953, and both made their marks in the field of education, with Dov also achieving considerable fame as a photographer.
The settlers who set out to conquer the Negev and make it bloom were heroes. Widows who strike out on their own to create museums must fall into that category, too.
"We really aren't alike. The settlers sacrificed; but for me, creating the museum was a challenge, not a sacrifice. One thing we do share, though: When I talked with the older ones, they'd tell me about the disasters and hardships. But every one of them said it was worth it because they knew that they were creating something for the generations that will come after. In a very small way, that's also what I wanted to do - to create something for our children and grandchildren, forever."