Focus on Zionism

The Central Zionist Archives contain a wealth of information on the Israeli saga and of day-today life in the country.

Immigrants from Kurdistan (photo credit: COURTESY CENTRAL ZIONIST ARCHIVE)
Immigrants from Kurdistan
The Central Zionist Archives are one of the country’s largely unknown treasures. People walking along Jaffa Road toward the Bridge of Strings will see a signpost for the archives, but the building is not visible from the street and is therefore difficult to find the first time around.
Indeed, when I went there and got lost on one of the paths, I asked several people if they knew the way – and with one exception, none had even heard of the CZA, which was only a few meters away.
Though I had passed the sign many times before, I had felt no need to explore the archives until an email arrived at The Jerusalem Post from Rochelle Rubinstein, a senior archivist and one of the veteran and dedicated employees at the CZA. Rubinstein wrote that the archivists there would occasionally come across documents that they felt would be of interest to the English- speaking public. She instanced a letter from American poet Sylvia Plath to Dorothea Krook-Gilead, a literary scholar and professor in Israel whose papers the CZA hold.
At that time, though, we were in the midst of the Hadassah controversy, and I suggested that something related to the women’s Zionist organization might make a more interesting story.
Many years ago, I was assigned to interview Recha Freier, the founder of Youth Aliya, which she conceived when the Nazis came to power. She wanted to get as many Jewish children as possible out of Germany. She wrote to Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold, asking her to arrange for entry papers to Palestine for the children.
However, Szold, who was then in charge of the Jewish Agency’s social welfare services, initially refused. Freier then approached Dr. Siegfried Lehman, the founder and director of the Ben-Shemen Youth Village, who agreed to take 12 of the children.
When Szold was informed of this, she had a change of heart, especially as further correspondence from Freier carried the threat that she would write to everyone of influence in the Zionist Movement. Szold convinced Hadassah to take up Youth Aliya as a project, and the relationship between Hadassah and Youth Aliya became a permanent one. As such, Szold received much of the credit for the rescue efforts, and Freier was thrust into the background for many years.
When I interviewed Freier shortly before her April 1984 death, she was still bitter about Szold’s initial refusal.
The CZA hold the archives of Hadassah as well as the personal papers of both Henrietta Szold and Recha Freier, and an in-depth search unearthed two letters that Freier had written in Berlin in June and July 1939, addressed to Szold, and another from Szold to Freier, in which the Hadassah founder contends that Freier could not claim to be the founder of Youth Aliya, because the Alumot nucleus of young immigrants had come to the country in 1932 independently of Freier, whose activities in this direction had not begun until 1933.
Initially established in Berlin in 1919, the CZA moved to Jerusalem between 1933 and 1937, where they were stored in the Jewish Agency complex. The actual building that houses the archives today was the brainchild of the late Arye Dulzin during his 1978-1987 tenure as chairman of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency. Dulzin believed that what had been preserved of the documented history of the Zionist Movement should have a central home of its own so that future generations could have access to the personal papers of prominent figures in Zionist history. During his final year in office, the archives moved to their permanent premises.
Unlike many other public institutions, which are situated on land belonging to the Greek Patriarchate, the CZA stand on land owned by the WZO and the Jewish Agency.
Anyone who wants to conduct research in the CZA can do so free of charge, though there is a nominal fee for printed and scanned copies of any material taken from the archives. On average, 10 to 15 people come to do research at the archives each day, according to Rubinstein, but there are more in the summer, because overseas students are free to travel during the summer vacation. The CZA have no marriage or birth certificates, but they do have a lot of material on immigrants and immigration.
The CZA are one of several resources for Jewish genealogists, and they will likely gain a lot more visitors in July of next year, when the 35th International Conference on Jewish Genealogy convenes in Jerusalem.
The country has a number of other archival resources, such as Yad Vashem; the Israel State Archives; the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, which are housed in the National Library on the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus; the Jezreel Valley Regional Archives; the Haifa Municipal Archives; the Historical Jewish Press; the Jerusalem Municipal Archives; the Jabotinsky Institute; the Petah Tikva History Archives; the Netanya Municipal Archives; the Archive of the History of Rehovot; and the Historical Municipal Archives of Tel Aviv-Jaffa.
There are very few Israeli archives that are online, though most of them have made the descriptions of the material available online. But that has its positive side – an Internet site doesn’t generate quite the same kind of emotion as handling an authentic document and inhaling the musty aroma of history.
The archives primarily contain the documents of the Jewish Agency, the WZO, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, Keren Hayesod and the World Jewish Congress. There are more than 1,500 archives of people active in Zionist matters or in the building of the Yishuv.
There is a whole room dedicated to Theodor Herzl, including an invitation to his bar mitzva, postcards that he sent his parents from Palestine, and the original hand-written copy of his Zionist manifesto Altneuland.
Documents in the CZA are from 1880 onward and include not only institutional and individual papers, but also maps, settlement plans, a collection of handbills and posters, press clippings on issues pertaining to Zionism, a Zionist literature library, an enormous photographic collection, and an audio collection of recordings made at Zionist Congresses and major Zionist meetings, as well as some Zionist artifacts and a micro-film collection from the pre-digitalization era. One of the archives held at the CZA is that of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who revived Hebrew as a living spoken language.
Remembering some of the marvelous old documentary films of early settlement that I had seen during the brief period when I worked as a freelancer for the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, I asked Rubinstein if these had been transferred to the CZA. The CZA do not collect film material, leaving that task to to the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive at the Hebrew University.
The genealogical material derives, by and large, from the period after World War I when the Immigration Department of the Jewish Agency began recording the arrival of new immigrants to Palestine.
After World War II the Jewish Agency set up a search bureau for missing persons – newly arrived Holocaust survivors looking for relatives who had come before the war, and people already living here who were searching for surviving relatives or people from their hometowns who might be able to tell them about the fate of their families. The Search Bureau continued to operate until the 1990s, and its material, along with the Immigration Department material, is a vital source of genealogical information.
All in all, the archives contain a wealth of information on the Zionist saga and of day-to-day life in the country. There are more than a million photographs, some of which are of fashion and sports, and some of places that no longer exist. Among the more striking photos are one of Herzl riding a bicycle, one of former defense minister Moshe Dayan playing in the snow, and one of British high commissioner Herbert Samuel with Albert Einstein.
There’s also a handwritten newspaper produced by Stern Group and Irgun exiles whom the British sent to Eritrea – among them Meir Shamgar, who later became president of the Supreme Court.
To guarantee the preservation of the original documents, the temperature and humidity in the storage areas have to be controlled. At the CZA, these documents take up 16 storerooms.
Out of a little egocentricity, I asked Rubinstein if I could see the files on Shimon Peres, about whom I have written extensively during his presidency.
There weren’t any. She explained that presidents, prime ministers and government ministers have their office material stored in the Israel State Archives, along with the archives of the various government offices. The CZA do have the personal papers of former presidents Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and Yitzhak Navon and former prime minister Moshe Sharett.