Recreating history

Visitors to the Palmach Museum in Ramat Aviv experience being part of an elite combat unit.

palmach 88 (photo credit: )
palmach 88
(photo credit: )
Mind your step and don't trip over the tree trunks," said the guide as we wound our way through a dark forest in the Palmach Museum. While keeping an eye on the floor, it was difficult not to compare in amazement this museum with the museums of my youth. "Museum" is really not the right word to describe Orit Shacham Gover's latest creation on Ramat Aviv's museum boulevard. Visitors virtually enlist in the Palmach when they step into the world of these idealistic, brave and sometimes foolhardy youngsters. As you enter the state-of-the-art multisensory Palmach experience, you join seven new recruits starting their training as underground fighters in this elite unit of the Hagana, the pre-state underground army. The word "Palmach" is an acronym for Plugot Machatz, the strike force. While hailing from various parts of the globe, the common denominator among all these volunteer recruits is their determination to beat the murderous Germans; get the anti-Semitic, trespassing British off their land; and bring into being a state for the Jews. Of course, they also know that this would involve war with the millions of surrounding Arabs. Visits to the museum must be arranged in advance, and visitors are organized into groups of up to 25 people. Many who arrive at the museum know very little about the Palmach, so the first stop is a short talk by one of the IDF soldiers who work at the museum. He gives a brief overview of the history, aims and operations of the force. The Palmach was not always an underground army. It was founded in 1941 with the consent of the British ruling in Palestine at that time, to fight with the British against the German army that was approaching Egypt frighteningly fast. Once the German threat disappeared, as far as the British were concerned the Palmach was ordered to dismantle itself. But the fight against the Germans was far from over from a Jewish point of view, and the fight against the British had hardly begun, so the Palmach fighters went underground. There were many units, each with its own special task. Some paratroopers were dropped into Europe to help save as many Jews as possible from the Nazi inferno. Some were involved in bringing over 65 ships full to the brim with thousands of illegal immigrants through the British blockade into Palestine. Others engaged in guerrilla warfare against the British, while still others were already training in preparation for a war against the neighboring Arab armies. Our first stop as we went down into the depths of the building was the Memorial Room, a tribute to the 1,135 fallen Palmach soldiers. Then the doors in front of us opened, and we're on a Tel Aviv street in 1941, watching a newsreel broadcast about Nazi Europe. This set the mood for the next scene, a eucalyptus grove in the middle of a dark night, where a group of youngsters are meeting to discuss joining the Palmach to help fight the Germans. As we stood among the trees, we watched them discussing how they wanted to help save their fellow Jews left behind in Europe. As we moved from one underground chamber to another, from scene to scene, we watched their camaraderie grow and saw them form into a cohesive fighting group - independent, yet interdependent. We sat in a cave and watched them singing the old favorite Palmach songs around a bonfire, and we sensed their frustration as, despite their eagerness, willingness and training, the right job was not found for every one of them immediately - and they wanted action. The landscape changed, and now we were walking with them through the desert, feeling the hot air blowing on us. As we watched our Palmachniks, who have developed into real personalities, we were also shown actual newsreels and newspaper reports of Palmachniks during those years, and were reminded constantly that although this was not exactly true to life, all the events and operations portrayed really happened. At one point we found ourselves on a boat with the illegal immigrants, while a computer-generated model talked to us and explained what it was like helping the frightened refugees escaping from Europe. Suddenly, BOOM! The lights all went out, the boat we were standing on started to shake, and we heard the loud voices of the British soldiers over the bullhorns. The boat has been attacked by the British blockade. But the British were not the only ones doing the attacking, Soon we were with another member of the platoon as he hid in a ditch near a bridge he had been ordered to blow up. By now we visitors knew we were going to notice when the bridge was destroyed, and we found ourselves holding our breath waiting for the explosion. Sure enough, BANG! A piece of wood came crashing down on the set next to us. We felt so involved with the group that as we sat and listened, we were almost as nervous as they were, waiting to hear the UN vote on the Partition plan that would mean a state of our own. As the tension mounted and the numbers were counted one by one as each country voted, it was almost possible to forget that we actually knew the outcome. After the short joyful singing, dancing and celebrations, the real war began. We sat in an auditorium and around us, from one screen to another, we watched the fierce battles that made up the War of Independence. Names and places of battles that are familiar from history books flashed around us: The Battle for the Negev; the siege of Jerusalem, Latrun. As the battles raged, we occasionally saw our recruit friends in contact with one another, asking about fellow soldiers they hadn't heard from. Inevitably, of the seven volunteer recruits we had joined just 90 minutes before, not all lived to see the new state... We left the final chamber in a somber mood and emerged once again into the Memorial Room, where we had started our journey. If an hour and a half ago it was history, now it's something personal. We knew some of the fighters and feel the loss. The Palmach Museum is open on Sundays, Mondays and Wednesdays from 9:45 a.m. to 5 p.m; Thursdays from 9:45 a.m. to 7:30 p.m; Fridays from 9:45 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. It is closed on Saturdays. Tours start every half hour, and each tour lasts 90 minutes. Visits must be booked in advance, even for individuals. The tour is accessible to disabled visitors as well; this must be mentioned at the time of booking. Entrance NIS 25 for adults; NIS 15 for schoolchildren. Children under six years old are not admitted. 10 Rehov Haim Levanon, Ramat Aviv Tel: (03) 643-6393