The Templar legacy

In the Jezreel Valley, a memorial to the victims of Nazi crimes stands where German Nazi sympathizers once dwelled.

templar memorial 88 224 (photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
templar memorial 88 224
(photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
In a pastoral corner of the Jezreel Valley stands a memorial to victims of the Holocaust. Its six large marble slabs lean forward, as if struggling to keep their pride and stay erect under the heaviest of loads. Engraved on the memorial are the names of Jews snatched from their homes, transported and murdered by the Nazis. The names of the European towns and villages in which they had lived for generations are also etched deep in the stones, which seem to strain under the weight of memorializing so many thousands of murdered Jews and their annihilated communities. The victims whose memories are honored on the six marble blocks, unveiled last year, are extended family members of today's residents of the pleasant, upscale community of Beit Lehem HaGlilit. A smaller block of marble at the side of the memorial boasts an inscription reading: "Erected by the community of Beit Lehem HaGlilit, second generation since the Holocaust, in recognition of our parents who survived the Holocaust, made aliya to Eretz Israel, participated in the founding of the state and amongst the founders of Beit Lehem HaGlilit, our home and in memory of our family members who were murdered by the Nazis in Europe during the years of 1939-1945." The memorial stands adjacent to an attractive building that served as a community center for a group of German nationals who lived in an agricultural community on the same site in the 1930s.The building and a row of elegant stone houses in the one-street village of Beit Lehem HaGlilit and small neighboring village of Alonei Abba (Waldheim) were built by the Templars, a German-Christian sect and Nazi sympathizers who were rounded up by the British in 1939 and deported out of Mandate Palestine. Some chose to return to Germany, but the majority of the Templar community's members emigrated to Melbourne, Australia. The sect originated in southern Germany and carried a holy mission known as the Tempel Gemeinde, or Tempelgesellschaft. The sect's name was later shortened to just "Templars," often confused with another group, the Crusader-era Templer Knights. The Templars arrived in the Ottoman-controlled Holy Land in mid-l880 and began to build communities in different parts of the country: Haifa, Jaffa, Jerusalem, Sarona (Tel Aviv), as well as the two communities Beit Lehem HaGlilit and Waldheim in the Jezreel Valley. After World War I, the British sent the Templars packing, but members of the sect were later allowed to return. They were banished for a second and final time when their Nazi connections were discovered in the late 1930s. Templar youth from Palestine had been sent to attend "educational" youth activities and family visits in Germany, where they met with top Nazi officials. Photographs on display at the Beit Lehem HaGlilit home of the Fleischman family depict Templar sect members wearing swastika armbands and congregating in one of the large courtyards between the two-story buildings and outhouses. The Templars of Beit Lehem HaGlilit (Galilean Bethlehem) and neighboring Waldheim (meaning "Forest Home" in German) were eventually rounded up by the British and sent to detention camps until their deportation, after which British Mandate soldiers and police were billeted in the Templars' former homes. When Jewish refugee families later moved into the Templar houses in Beit Lehem HaGlilit and Alonei Abba, they discovered hidden Templar belongings that attested the sect's support of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. Items discovered in the community's homes included Nazi party pennants, badges, banners, pamphlets and flags, in addition to photographs. Waldheim was eventually renamed Alonei Abba after Abba Barditchev, a Jewish paratrooper from Palestine trained by the British and a contemporary of Hannah Szenes and Haviva Reik. The Romanian-born Barditchev - a descendant of hassidim - was an ardent Zionist and member of HaNoar HaZioni (The Zionist Youth). When he finished his studies, he moved to Bucharest to work for the movement and prepare to make aliya. He was working on a farm used for hachshara (pre-aliya training) when World War II broke out. Barditchev turned down the opportunity to make aliya legally, in the form of a certificate already made out in his name, preferring to join his movement comrades on an illegal immigrant ship. The ship was stopped by the British and the ma'apilim (illegal immigrants), including Barditchev, were taken to internment camps in Mandate Palestine. They were first imprisoned in a camp near Acre and then transferred to Atlit. In Atlit, Barditchev helped form a group of fellow movement workers who would later spend time on Kibbutz Geva in the Jezreel Valley. In November 1943, Barditchev volunteered to train as a parachutist and four months later, joined Szenes in a sortie behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia. Apart from helping the resistance and saving Jews wherever possible, Barditchev and his fellow fighters also had another mission: to assist Allied airmen who had escaped the Nazis or had parachuted behind enemy lines and were being hidden by local partisans. Eventually, Barditchev - under a British name - joined a special team of British and American officers that was sent on a dangerous mission to rescue imprisoned airmen. On their way to the Hungarian border, the group walked into a German ambush and during the fighting scattered in different directions. Two months later, all the team members were captured and sent to Mauthausen, where they were interrogated, executed and their bodies burned. Beit Lehem HaGlilit, once home to pro-Nazi German expatriates, is now a Jewish community, whose members honor relatives who were murdered by a regime whose ideology the settlement's founders espoused. Even today, the Templar building casts a shadow over the marble memorial.