Back to roots for the bar mitzvah boy: A memorable visit to Beit Hagdudim

The Jewish Battalions Museum in Avichail has meaningful memories.

THE SANCTUARY at Beth Hagdudim (photo credit: WENDY BLUMFIELD)
THE SANCTUARY at Beth Hagdudim
(photo credit: WENDY BLUMFIELD)
Before the total isolation from grandchildren advised during the corona crisis, I spent a meaningful day during Purim with my bar mitzvah-aged grandson at Beit Hagdudim, the Jewish Battalions Museum in Avichail just north of Netanya.
This was not my first visit, for once I had discovered that this museum recorded the history of my own father’s service during World War I, I had taken each of my children and then grandchildren to help them complete their “Roots Project,” which is given to schoolchildren during their bar mitzvah year.
This visit was especially meaningful because not only did Michael Blumfield’s paternal great grandad serve in the Jewish Battalions, but so did his great grandfather on his mother’s side. Michael’s mother, Sigal Nahari Blumfield, accompanied us and told us the story of Itzhak Elkayim, her maternal grandfather who had volunteered in the Zionist Mule Corps.
Itzhak Elkayim was the third generation in the Land of Israel, having arrived from Morocco in 1850. To avoid recruitment by the Turks in Palestine, he fled to Alexandria and volunteered for the Mule Corps, which was the first of the Jewish battalions in the British Army. He was already 27 years old, but his rich knowledge of many languages made him a valuable asset in his service. His daughter, Sigal’s mother, married a veteran of Kibbutz Givat Haim (which later split into Ihud and Meuchad), where Sigal was born and raised. Today she works as a social worker for children at risk in the Haifa municipality.
THROUGHOUT MY childhood in London, my father recounted to anyone who would listen the stories of his service with the 38th Royal Fusiliers Jewish Battalion of the British Army, which served in the Middle East during the First World War.
I am the youngest in the family and growing up in London after the Second World War, those reminiscences, these tales of desert treks, seemed remote and unreal.
It was only after my aliyah, as an adult living in Israel that I discovered Beit Hagdudim. I realized that my father had marched with the great – that together with Ze’ev Jabotinsky and General Edmund Allenby and with the fathers of Zionism, he had done his bit toward ending the Ottoman occupation of the Holy Land. These Jewish forces symbolized the birth of Jewish defense in the region for the first time in 2,000 years. 
Each time I visit, I stand teary-eyed in the sanctuary looking at the pictures of my father’s 18-year-old face and documents in his familiar handwriting in the memorial album of the 38th Fusiliers.
And each time I am humbled that I did not listen with more respect to his stories.
As a small child, he left Pultusk, on the Russian-Polish border, and came with his family to London. Growing up in poverty in the East End, he left school at 14 and was apprenticed to a tailor. Looking for adventure, he volunteered in the Jewish Battalions when he was barely 18. At an age when many young men are still in the Boy Scouts, he marched with Allenby from Heliopolis through the Jordan Valley and Judean Desert. He caught malaria in Jericho and by the time he recovered, Jerusalem had been liberated.
In the years that followed, he little realized that he had witnessed the rebirth of a nation. It was the most exciting thing he ever did in his life and he could not believe the extent of industrial and agricultural development in that region.
The approach to Beit Hagdudim, housed in a French colonial-style building, landscaped outside with beautiful gardens, is through the green and leafy village of Avichail. I still hear my father’s voice saying: “It’s all sand.” He had no wish to return, and sadly he never saw the next great battle for Israel, the conquering of the desert.
MICHAEL BLUMFIELD and the writer. (Sigal Nahari Blumfield)MICHAEL BLUMFIELD and the writer. (Sigal Nahari Blumfield)
From 1870 till the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914, every Jewish town and village in the Holy Land faced the necessity of protecting itself and there evolved a network of security organizations. Bar Giora, which combined labor and security, was founded in 1907 in the home of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who later became Israel’s second president. In 1909 this became the Hashomer, a countrywide organization that employed only Jewish workers. In addition, the Jaffa group provided security for Tel Aviv and the Jewish community of Jaffa. The leaders of these two organizations were Yisrael Shohat and Eliyahu Golomb respectively. It was as war was approaching that the villages around Zichron Yaakov formed the Gideonates, which evolved into the NILI group, under the leadership of the agronomist Aaron Aaronson. It was the NILI espionage group, an amazing story in its own right, that provided the British with valuable information, contributing to the success of the liberation from the Turkish Empire.
In 1915, the Zion Mule Corps was created under the command of Irishman, Colonel Patterson, and the legendary Joseph Trumpeldor.
In 1917, veterans of the Mule Corps joined with Jewish émigrés from Russia who had settled in Britain to form the 38th Fusiliers under the command of Patterson. They were originally stationed in Egypt, from where they led the British offense of September 1918. 
A second Jewish regiment, the 39th Fusiliers was formed from Jewish volunteers from the USA and Canada, and later the 40th Fusiliers which included David Ben-Gurion; Ben-Zvi, who had been expelled by the Turks; as well as Dov Joseph and Nehemia Ravin. This brigade absorbed some of the Hashomrim.
These brigades attracted thousands of Jewish youth from Britain, America, Argentine and from the Jewish community of Palestine.
ALMOST ALL of the Jewish regiments were disbanded immediately after the war. Although Lord Balfour signed the famous Declaration recognizing the rights of the Jewish people to make their home in the Holy Land, the Jewish veterans of these brigades who stayed on to form the First Judeans in 1919 were not supported by the British in any way to defend the Jewish community against the riots and violence of the next years. And it took another 30 years and the loss of millions of Jewish lives in the Holocaust before the British left Palestine and the State of Israel was born.
My father returned to London and as a reward for their war efforts, he and other immigrants who had served in these brigades received their naturalization papers. When Col. Patterson had first seen the volunteer soldiers, young tailors and cutters and cabinet makers, he had some reservations about their ability to serve usefully. But at the conclusion of their service he claimed that these young Jewish men had served loyally and bravely and were an asset to the British Army.
My father’s work as a Civil Defense Warden in the Second World War was tame by comparison, although he wept when, searching for my mother’s parents after an air raid that destroyed their house, he witnessed the destruction of the East End. 
Some of the veterans from abroad returned almost immediately to Palestine and bought land in Avichail, a wind-swept landscape of sand dunes on the Sharon coast. So how fitting it is that in this now-beautiful village, with its elegant homes and boulevards, the museum of Beth Hagdudim was built!
Open on Sundays to Thursdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Visitors are greeted by a film giving the history of the battalions. Videos, historical documents and maps show the routes of the battles and the people who led them. For those who have a family connection, the curator and staff are helpful in finding the records in the memorial albums and filling in some of the gaps in the information. There is now a new wing covering the Second World War and the Jewish Resistance fighters who were sent to Europe to save Jews during the Holocaust.
I think of my father who endured such hardships and danger, and as I wander around this museum with the next generation, I wonder how he could have left it at that. And Michael, who is not too keen on museums, was fascinated by the records and pictures of two of his great-grandparents. Something worthwhile to add to his “Roots Project.”