ATA dreamin’

The ATA factory was looked upon as the flagship industrial enterprise of the Zionist state. Now, its short but colorful history is on exhibit.

ATA textile 521 (photo credit: ATA)
ATA textile 521
(photo credit: ATA)
The Story of ATA: Factory, Fashion and Dream exhibition, which opened at the Eretz Israel Museum in Ramat Aviv on October 10, is probably one of the most emotive shows the institution has ever held. There is a tendency in the more hyperbolic areas of the media to describe certain episodes as “rocking the country.” The long drawnout closure of the ATA textile company in Kiryat Ata in the 1980s was indeed a painful milestone in this country’s history. In fact, it probably wouldn’t be stretching things too far to say that Israel has never been the same since..
The exhibition was curated by Monica Lavi and Eran Litvin and is evidently a labor of love. “We have been working on this show for around two years,” Lavi said during a press tour at the museum last week.
The show is divided into the two principal parts of the company’s marketing and production ethos: the long initial period when ATA primarily produced textiles, khaki (including uniforms made for the British army during World War II) and work clothes, and the period when the company began venturing into the more fashionable areas of the clothing business as well as attractive bed linens and other domestic accessories.
ATA, an acronym for Arigei Totzeret Artzeinu (woven textiles made in our land), was founded by cousins Erich and Hans Moeller in 1934. The two were already highly experienced in the textile industry due to the fact that their family had owned a weaving plant in the Czechoslovakian village of Babi since 1855. Erich grew up in an assimilated family but developed strong Zionist feelings during a long sojourn in Siberia after being captured by the Russians during World War I. He vowed that, if he ever got out of Siberia in one piece, he would establish a textile concern in the Holy Land. And so it came to pass.
The Moellers arrived in Israel with much fanfare and, out of necessity, came very well prepared.
“At the time there simply weren’t the facilities here to put together a project of that scale,” notes Litvin, “so they brought the entire construction over from Czechoslovakia.”
A 100-dunam (25-acre) site was acquired and ATA was built very much in the manner of the old baronial style companies, with housing for the employees on the same plot.
For Hagai Eival, ATA was very much a family affair, and he eventually became one of the company’s longest-serving workers. Now 84 years old, Eival’s first job there was to help ensure the staff received nutritional sustenance.
“My father worked there, as did a couple of my uncles and my aunt was the cook,” he recalls. “I went to a school at Kibbutz Yagur [about 10 km southeast of Haifa] and I’d cycle there and back every day. In the evening I would come back at about 6:30 p.m. and I would take food on a cart to the workers’ houses. The food was put into three-level mess tins. I’d wait a couple of hours and then go back and collect the empty mess tins. There was no dining room at ATA back then. Later they built one out of some of the crates that contained factory construction parts.”
THE MUSEUM exhibition features evocative black-and-white photographs from various stages of the factory’s evolution. We see dedicated workers hard at work in the sewing department and women sorting out raw materials in the spinning department. There is a palpable sense of Zionist endeavor and the pioneering spirit leaps out from the frames. There is also a 1954 picture of an instantaneously recognizable figure decked out in ATA-produced khaki shirt and pants. “David Ben-Gurion was the company’s best ‘model’ at the time,” laughs Litvin.
There are some delightful graphic posters and ads in the exhibition, including some with what now look like cute and naively crafted attempts at conveying the idea that wearing ATA clothes would give you the definitively “cool” look. One shows a very youthful and studiously funky-looking magician Uri Geller surrounded by a gaggle of admiring young ladies as he lounges in his best ATA outfit. The caption on the 1970 ad states unabashedly “So many admirers!...”
Young men of the late 1960s and early ’70s are exhorted to leave the khaki behind. “This was after the Six Day War and ATA wanted to move into more trendy markets,” explains Lavi.
Over the years ATA established a nationwide network of retail outlets, and stores like the one on Tel Aviv’s Allenby Road began stocking clean-cut suits and pants and attractive shirts – and not just the traditional checked variety.
Besides the photographic documentation of the company’s history, the exhibition includes some examples of ATA haute couture. There is a late 1960s green corduroy coat-dress lent to the museum by rock musician Tal Gordon, who found the garment in the Jaffa flea market, and a Jaffa orange-colored dress from the mid-Sixties made by iconic Czech-born designer Lola Beer.
ATA was far more than just a large textile company; it was looked upon as the flagship industrial enterprise of the Zionist state. Prime ministers, presidents and government ministers all beat a path to Kiryat Ata to pump a few hands and take full advantage of what they knew could be a highly effective PR exercise.
BUT IT was not all sweetness and light. Erich and Hans Moeller didn’t always get along and there were some scenes between them. “We sometimes hid behind our machines when they came past because they were fighting,” recalls Eival. “They were tough cookies.”
There were also industrial disputes; for example, there was a strike in 1957. Back then the Histadrut was a force to be reckoned with and it often supported ATA workers’ demands. By the early 1980s things were far from well at the company. “There was a lot of competition from places like Jordan and the Far East, and there were sewing shops in Druse villages in the Galilee which produced clothes far more cheaply,” explains Eival. “Even so, no one really believed that ATA would close down. It was unthinkable.”
But the inconceivable eventually happened. Newsreels of the time showed heated and often violent exchanges in and around the ATA plant, and head of the workers’ committee Pini Groobe became a ubiquitous feature of Mabat, the main news program on the country’s only TV channel. There were all sorts of promises of help, and then-finance minister Yitzhak Moda’i smilingly assured Groobe and his fellow workers that ATA would be saved.
But it was not to be.
Eival was one of the longest-serving members of staff and even carried on after the ATA gates were closed in 1985, working with the receiver to help sort out the affairs of the company and the stores dotted around the country.
“ATA was a very successful company,” notes Eival.
“They worked three shifts, around the clock. At its height, with all the outside sewing workers and retail outlets, there were about 3,700 people in the company.
We outsourced sewing work all over the country, including in Nablus. I often traveled all over the country to check on the sewing work. We also exported all over the world and we supplied companies like [British retailer giant] Marks and Spencer.”
More than anything, Eival says that people were happy to work at ATA. “We were proud of what we were doing and there was a sense of work together as a unit. The pay wasn’t so good but the company took care of us and we felt we were doing something for the good of the country.”
There is a handsome book, in Hebrew and English, that goes with the exhibition. The book includes lots of atmospheric photographs and illustrations, data and fascinating historical and anecdotal information. In the book, the curators muse that “ATA symbolizes roots, the roots of all of us… the ATA factory should have lasted even after work ceased. The ATA complex should have remained accessible to the public, and a textile and fashion museum should have been set up in one of the factory buildings.”
Lavi and Litvin, like many who lived through the company’s heyday and witnessed its demise, believe that “the ATA factory was one of the dreams of the Zionist Movement: the dream to found Jewish industry in Eretz Yisrael.”
For more information about The Story of ATA: Factory, Fashion and Dream exhibition: (03) 641-5244 and