A rabbi and railway enthusiast

He studied for a year in Israel and has returned many times to gather material for his magazine and later for his thesis research.

An example of a train from the British Mandate-era Palestine Railways (photo credit: Courtesy)
An example of a train from the British Mandate-era Palestine Railways
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When one remembers the slow development of Israel Railways in the first 40 years after the War of Independence, and indeed the neglect of the existing infrastructure at that time, it may seem strange that a small but strong society of railway enthusiasts have discovered the historical significance of that era.
The Railway Museum at Haifa East station is a testimony to these enthusiasts who believed that researching the history of rail travel from the days of the Turkish Hedjaz and throughout the British Mandate would strengthen the vision of a viable fast and frequent passenger train service in the modern State of Israel. Indeed, even before the first railway track was set down, Laurence Oliphant, prophetic Zionist Christian diplomat wrote in his book Land of Gilead in the 1880s that he could foresee the development of the Holy Land through a flourishing railway system. They can be proud today for thousands of Israelis travel daily in clean, fast, streamlined double-decker trains, bringing work opportunities in the metropolis to residents of hillside villages and desert towns.
The history of railways in the Middle East is the passion of Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild, a British-born progressive rabbi now based in Berlin (only distantly related to the famous Rothschild dynasty). Since 1989, he has edited a quarterly magazine in English, “HaRakevet.”
He studied for a year in Israel and has returned many times to gather material for his magazine and later for his thesis research.
Since his student days, Rothschild has researched the history of European railways in World War II, not just the deportation trains, but also those that the military built, often with forced labor. He has translated many articles from German, Dutch and French publications and, on occasion, has been asked to research old wagons or sites for war memorials.
Turning this passion into an academic pursuit, Rothschild’s years of research and writing have culminated in a PhD from Kings College University of London. The subject of his doctoral thesis was Arthur Kirby (later knighted), the former general manager of Palestine Railways from 1942 to 1948.
“I was working in Leeds when I conceived the idea but later moved to Berlin and then to Vienna, so it was more practical to work through London University,” says Rothschild. He received support and practical assistance from Prof. Efraim Karsh and Dr. Rory Miller of the Mediterranean Studies department.
Asked why he chose this very specialized period of time, Rothschild replied, “I was fascinated to discover in the archives a copy of a Palestine Railways Rules Book of 1948. Who on earth had been interested in rules at that chaotic time?”
“This led me to learn more about Arthur Kirby who had died by this time,” continues Rothschild, who had followed the trail to New York to talk to his daughter and had discovered his step-daughter in England. This path led him to Kirby’s former colleagues and subordinates, and the discovery of private papers in St. Anthony’s College in Oxford and in Ginzach HaMedinah in Jerusalem. He searched newspapers of that time, including the archives of The Jerusalem Post.
“I built up a picture of a professional railway man, who was doing his best to run an efficient organization in wartime and then in conditions of civil war. I empathized with his efforts to impose some order at a time when Palestine’s neighbors, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and Transjordan were themselves in political turmoil.”
As the British prepared to leave the area, Kirby did his best to ensure a smooth handover of the railways. He had no patience for some of the British authorities who seemed to be trying to sabotage the efforts of the new Jewish state.
Arthur Kirby was a born railway man. His father had been a lamplighter and porter on the Great Western Railway at Reading, and his grandfather had also worked for the company. Arthur too joined GWR, but when World War I broke out, he served with the London Rifle Brigade and was wounded at the Battle of Flanders. He is described as tall with blue eyes and fair hair. He joined the Gold Coast Railway in 1928 taking his young wife with him, and after a bit of wife swapping, ended up in Mandatory Palestine in 1942, when he was appointed general manager of the Palestine Railways.
He filled this post for six years until the end of the Mandate. While some British political figures preferred to adopt a “scorched earth” policy when handing over to the new State of Israel, Kirby was meticulous in his efforts to maintain a fully functioning railway system. But first he needed to rescue the system from the verge of collapse in order to serve as an efficient wartime service and then to reorganize it to meet the anticipated peacetime needs and to ensure a smooth transition to the new administration.
Rothschild, already a prolific writer – his non-railway publications include Tales of the Chutzpa Rebbe – feels that his thesis is appropriate for Israel at this time, when the government is even considering building a railway through the Arava to Eilat.
Growing up in England, Rothschild’s father, also a train enthusiast, took him to visit railway depots, and they had a large model railway at home. His father was active on the board of the Bradford Synagogue, and for Walter, becoming a rabbi was a logical conclusion to his studies of history and religion at school, a theology degree at Cambridge, and a pedagogic diploma.
He entered the Leo Baeck College of rabbinic studies and was ordained in 1984, serving congregations in Yorkshire for the next 11 years. Since then, he has traveled to communities in Berlin and Vienna, and even the Caribbean. By this time his children were settled in school in Berlin, so today he is a “commuting rabbi” serving small communities in Germany. He is also coordinator for the Beit Din of the progressive communities of Europe.
“My father was born in Hanover and got to Britain in 1939, so there is a feeling of a circle closing.” He talks of the pastoral and healing work that is needed in the Jewish communities of central Europe. He was awarded the Knight’s Cross from the Republic of Poland for organizing and accompanying small groups of students from Germany on trips to Auschwitz.
And his passion for railways? Rothschild explains: “A book written in the early fifties by Canon Roger Lloyd, The Fascination of Railways, explains the phenomenon that many clergy are interested in railways and music, while many musicians are interested in railways and religion – and many railway men are interested in religion and music.”
After all, the creator of Thomas the Tank Engine was Rev. Wilbert Awdry.
Rothschild expands on this: “It has to do with a system in an enclosed world with its own jargon and uniform and structure.
“Through the study of railways one learns a great deal about specific countries, industries and society. It combines social and technological history and geography. When studying in Israel, I spent all my spare time tracking down relics and archives. I now have 250 box files with correspondence with former Palestine policemen, British military railway men and former Hagana members.”
He has been a frequent visitor to the Railway Museum in Haifa and was a close friend of the late Paul Cotterell, author of Railways of Palestine and Israel, published in 1984. Cotterell was a former British signalman, who worked for many years on Israel Railways and whose vision was the museum, which he curated after his retirement.
“Cotterell was collecting material at such a fast pace and had no prospects of producing a second edition of his book, so we created the idea of a newsletter to circulate free to the ten or so people who were interested. Since then it has grown enormously and is available on subscription. It is a success of hasbara and is sent to libraries and research centers to help counter some of the sloppy scholarship or plain untruths that otherwise get published.” Rothschild still subsidizes the publication of HaRakevet, which has recorded the entire history of railways since the establishment of the famous Hedjaz Railway at the beginning of the 20th century.
By researching the life and work of Kirby, Rothschild also answers a lot of questions for historians investigating the changing of the guard when Britain ended their Mandate for the establishment of the Jewish state.