King Albert? Never heard of him

King Albert I of Belgium was the first royal to visit the nascent Hebrew city of Tel Aviv. After a delay of 75 years, he finally received recognition when a commemorative plaque was unveiled in the square that bears his name.

tel aviv cemetery 88 (photo credit: )
tel aviv cemetery 88
(photo credit: )
Many Tel Avivians are aware of the existence of King Albert I Square. It’s a small, oval-shaped traffic island, with a large tree at each end and two back-to-back benches in the center, that is located at the intersections of Montefiore, Nahmani, Bezalel Yaffe and Melchet streets. Located in one of the early sections of the city, the spot – despite the encroachment of modern architecture – is still characterized by gracious old-world buildings.
But ask just about anyone passing by in King Albert I Square for whom the square is named, and most people won’t have a clue.
As of this week, people who bother to read plaques will be better informed. The plaque – which was unveiled recently by Belgian Ambassador Benedicte Frankinet and Ron Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv-Jaffa – was scheduled to have been unveiled by Belgian Foreign Minister Steven Vanackere, who was forced due to ill health to cancel his visit to Israel at almost the last minute.
There had already been a 75-year delay in the engraving of the plaque, so Frankinet and Huldai decided to go ahead with the unveiling ceremony, even if it lacked the more formal presence of Vanackere.
It was at Frankinet’s initiative that the plaque – which is affixed to a metal lectern beneath one of the trees – came to be created.
“A lot of people don’t know who the king was,” she told Metro. “He was the first king to visit the first Hebrew city.”
Several Belgian expatriates living in Tel Aviv were disturbed about the general ignorance about the late monarch, so they approached Frankinet to do something about it.
She in turn approached Huldai and the Tel Aviv Municipality. It all worked out very well because people in the municipality were already researching the city archives for material relevant to Tel Aviv’s centenary.
They found an appreciable amount of information related to the visit, including a report by Meir Dizengoff, who was the first mayor of the city, in which capacity he hosted the king who arrived there on April 8, 1933, which coincidentally happened to be Albert’s birthday.
Also coincidentally, Albert I became king in 1909, the year in which Tel Aviv was founded. He reigned until 1934, the year in which he was killed while indulging in mountain climbing, one of his favorite sports.
The king received a lengthy and detailed obituary in The Palestine Post, which was the forerunner of The Jerusalem Post.
The dedication of the plaque said Frankinet represented a renewed opportunity to commemorate Albert’s visit to the Holy Land in general, and to Tel Aviv in particular.
KING ALBERT I became a figure on the world stage at the outbreak of World War I, when he refused to allow the passage of German troops through Belgian soil. His refusal to capitulate to the enemy and his courage as commander in chief of the Belgian army earned him the appellation of “the Knight King,” said Frankinet.
In 1933, she continued, Meir Dizengoff was not only the mayor of Tel Aviv but also the honorary consul for Belgium. It was therefore understandable that he was eager for the royal couple to visit his city.
The king arrived in Tel Aviv without Queen Elisabeth, and Dizengoff invited several local dignitaries to meet him at the mayor’s private residence in Rothschild Boulevard. Later they toured the city and even visited the Art Museum where the king was delighted to find a painting by the famous Belgian artist Ensor.
In his report Dizengoff wrote that the king wanted to know everything about daily life in the city. He asked questions about the education system, the language problems, the economic welfare of the population, the industries, the cultural life, the citrus fruit trade and more.
During the conversation, according to Dizengoff, “the king often expressed his empathy for the rebirth of our people in its native land.”
Following the visit, Dizengoff received a letter from the Royal Palace in the name of the queen. The letter expressed thanks for the hospitality that had been extended to the royal couple throughout their visit, and mentioned that both their majesties had recently begun to study Talmud in order to become better acquainted with Jewish tradition.
Following the king’s death, the municipality, at Dizengoff’s suggestion, approved the creation of the Albert 1 Square which was inaugurated in 1935. A year later in 1936, Dizengoff, acting on the initiative of the Zionist Federation of Belgium, inaugurated a forest in memory of the king in Kfar Hahoresh. The event was attended by numerous secular and religious dignitaries, including some who had specially come from Belgium for the occasion.
This was not the end of the connection of the Belgian Royal House with the Jewish People. Their paths would cross later under much more somber circumstances, said Frankinet. A German by birth, Queen Elisabeth was approached in 1942 by members of the Association of Jews in Belgium who told her of the atrocities that were being perpetrated against their community. She promised to do all in her power to prevent Jews who were Belgian citizens from being arrested and deported, and through her influence and connections in high places succeeded in rescuing hundreds of Jews.
“Such intervention by a member of a royal family in Europe on behalf of Jews was unparalleled,” said Frankinet.
In May, 1965, Yad Vashem honored Queen Elisabeth by naming her as a Righteous Gentile. She died in November of the same year.
The place known as Albert 1 Square was visited by the king during his tour of the once small city which is now a burgeoning metropolis. It was there that he stopped to rest, which is why Dizengoff chose this venue to memorialize him.
The most dominant building facing the square is the famed Pagoda House on the corner of Montefiore and Nahmani streets. Designed by architect Alexander Levy in 1925, it is a blend of Asian and European styles, and just as eye-catching as it was when it was first built. Another nearby house of the same vintage is in the process of restoration, and will be converted to a boutique hotel to be called the Hotel Albert.
Huldai said that one of the side benefits of Tel Aviv’s centenary celebrations was learning about the personalities and events that made the city what it is today.
Following the unveiling of the plaque, the officials all crossed the road for coffee and cake at the charming Ben Ami coffee shop, which the ambassador said was “a very Belgian thing to do.”