Real Israel: Collectively biting the bullet

A visit to the Ayalon Institute’s clandestine munitions factory is right on target.

bullets museum 311 (photo credit: Liat Collins)
bullets museum 311
(photo credit: Liat Collins)
The Ayalon Institute is still one of the country’s best-kept secrets. It is situated on Givat Hakibbutzim (The Kibbutzim Hill), close to Rehovot’s train station, but as my family searched for it on a scorching summer’s day, we only found giraffes.
A giraffe is the term for someone not in the know, like the animals that can’t see what’s under their own noses. We learnt the phrase soon after finally finding the site. The importance of it also became immediately clear.
This kibbutz housed a clandestine ammunition factory. It was built underground, beneath the laundry and the bakery, and operated in that particularly tense period between the end of World War II and the establishment of the state in 1948.
The bullet-building plant was deliberately situated near the station, which was teeming with British soldiers, on the assumption that that would be the last place they would think of looking. It was built when the Hagana realized that the British, who had forbidden Jews to possess weapons, would one day leave and the Arab population, including the surrounding countries, would immediately attack the nascent Jewish state.
The production line for 9 mm bullets (suitable for Sten guns assembled secretly elsewhere) was the work of a small but dedicated group of Scouts from the Gymnasia Herzliya High School, who later went on to realize their dream of creating a real kibbutz, Ma’agan Michael. First, they had to help the state come into being and survive, even if it meant risking their own lives by working and living in what has been described as “the kibbutz on a volcano.”
One of the leading members of the group was Shlomo Hillel – later the mastermind of the secret immigration of Jews from Arab countries, a diplomat, Knesset Speaker, minister and one of the triggers behind turning the site into a fascinating museum.
EVERYTHING ABOUT the site required secrecy and in the early years only those who actually worked underground, and a few others like Esther the washerwoman, knew about it.
Even other members of the kibbutz were not in on the secret. However, as the British planned to withdraw and the need to increase production grew, more and more members of the community were involved.
Some two million bullets were produced at the site, a 250 sq.m. area, covered with a fourmeter thick layer of earth. Among Esther’s jobs was to make sure nobody entered the laundry room as the young factory workers scuttled quickly up and down the steps hidden under an industrial-size washing machine at the start and end of shifts or – because of the need to keep up appearances on the kibbutz – when they went to and from the communal dining room for meals.
Another of her daily tasks, in between keeping a look out as she hung the washing outside to dry, was to regularly “accidentally” spill water on the floor, to put any British tracker dog off the scent.
The need for secrecy was paramount. And the group and its Hagana leaders had to be very inventive to preserve it. The underground workers (in more sense than one) had to make sure to remove all metal filings from their shoes and hair before going up for air.
The fields where they were meant to be laboring were often sealed with a warning of an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease to keep people away.
But the factory workers doing eight-hour shifts deep underground not only lacked vitamin D (which was added by the doctor to their diets), they also lacked the expected suntan.
Hence, near the subterranean testing range, the country’s first solarium was constructed, a quartz-operated booth where the Scouts could sit and tan themselves as part of their workload.
They probably welcomed the respite. The job was both dangerous and mind-numbingly boring. The man whose job was cutting off the tips of the bullet cases – naturally known as the mohel – once sliced his finger, for example, although by miracle there were no other accidents.
To pass the time, the youths would sing pioneer songs, one person starting at one end of the production line, and the tune being passed on like Chinese whispers from worker to worker, each unable to hear much above the noise of the machinery. On our guided tour, a former kibbutznik joined the guide in demonstrating the sort of songs, and briefly we could feel the spirit of those days fill the air.
Incidentally (or perhaps not), several marriages originated in the underground factory, giving a different connotation to the phrase “shotgun wedding.”
Those who were in on the secret resent being portrayed as having sacrificed their youths, we were told – their sole aim was helping establish a secure Jewish state: As David Ben-Gurion once declared, “I don’t know what was greater, their heroism or their modesty.”
The museum, under the auspices of the Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites, opened in 1987. (There are tours in English.) The tour guides are members of a Noar Oved Velomed movement “garin” who live on the modern-day kibbutz, working in educational projects and with disadvantaged youths. The work is more interesting, and definitely less dangerous, but something of that early Israeli idealism is still evident. The bullet building factory still seems to attract people of a different caliber.