Teddy, the formative years

In a 1941 article, the man who went on to become Jerusalem’s best-known mayor recounted his role in the founding of Kibbutz Ein Gev.

Teddy Kollek, Kibbutz Ein Gev_521 (photo credit: Naftali, Jerusalem Post Archives)
Teddy Kollek, Kibbutz Ein Gev_521
(photo credit: Naftali, Jerusalem Post Archives)
May 27 marks the 100th birthday of former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, one of the most daring and valuable leaders in the country’s tireless struggle for independence.
Describing his pioneering days at Kibbutz Ein Gev, of which he was a founder, he once said, in dramatic understatement, “We came to an empty land; we started growing trees and we fished in Lake Kinneret. We saw our dreams materialize.”
Kollek, who spent his early years as a halutz (pioneer), matured into a visionary who helped transform Jerusalem, after the Six Day War, into a formidable center for the inspirational development of Judaism and culture – not just within the city, but as an example for the entire world.
On May 27, 1911, Kollek was born in Nagyvazsony, a small town in the Austro- Hungarian empire. His parents named him after Theodor Herzl, since they were active Zionists and because the late Herzl had been a friend of the family. When he was young, they moved to Vienna for educational and security purposes.
Growing up, Kollek met Sigmund Freud and many other Jewish intellectuals of the city. He always referred to that early period of his life as formative in providing him with a worldview on the political structure of a thriving Europe – which, sadly, was to fall under the heel of Hitler.
Kollek was filled with a deep love for Eretz Yisrael and came to believe it could only become a true, Jewish homeland through the efforts of a strong, vibrant and creative Zionist movement. His activities in the various Zionist youth movements brought him and other young Austrian Jews into the noted Blau-Weiss, the Blue-White association, which sought to encourage members from Austria and Germany to make aliya. Kollek had the ideology, but his parents knew more was required, and in 1934 the whole family moved to Palestine.
AN ARTICLE he wrote, “Fishermen of the Northern Frontier,” now in the National Library in Jerusalem, helps illuminate, in part, the formative period of his life. It appeared in English in May 1941 and indicates that the “American scene” was where the action existed for young and old Zionists.
Young Judaea, formed in 1909, was the earliest Zionist youth organization to survive in America and is still active today, both in the US and in Israel. Its monthly publication’s circulation is not known, but copies have survived around the world.
In surveying issues of this publication from 1940 to 1945, one can find a large range of articles dealing with life in Eretz Yisrael, brief essays on various kibbutzim, Zionist leaders, European Jewish figures, American Jews and the tragedies of the Holocaust as young people experienced it. There are also many drawings by teenagers from the group; over 100 images of this nature are to be found on the magazine’s cover and on its inner pages. So it seemed natural that Kollek’s article on the 1937 establishment of the Ein Gev kibbutz should appear in this publication.
“At the peak of the 1936-1939 disturbances,” he began, “the Jewish pioneers in Palestine neither turned back nor halted; they went forward to new conquests in the struggle to redeem the fallow places of the earth for the welfare of mankind. This is the story of one of those attempts, one in which I have the honor to share.”
The words “disturbances,” “pioneers” and “struggle to redeem the fallow places of the earth for the welfare of mankind” would have touched a Jewish teenager in 1941. At the great World’s Fair in New York, there was a Palestine Pavilion, which opened in 1939 and was visited by over a million people in the next two years. The “disturbances” of the ’30s between the Arabs and the Jews were now in the past, but they were recalled with great anguish in America, because kibbutzim had survived but many “pioneers” (halutzim) had died.
What Kollek knew, even back then, was that American Jews wanted to help in securing the “welfare of mankind.” “Fallow places of the earth” was a code word for kibbutzim and other settlements waiting to be established and built.
How he would have loved to see Americans come on aliya in droves. Some did come, with some credit due the Young Judaea organization for instilling in its members the importance of living in Palestine.
Kollek described how he and his fellow kibbutzniks had moved boldly into the construction phase. Initially, he pointed out, of the 60 settlements built since 1936, Ein Gev was in an “exposed position, where the frontiers of Palestine, Transjordan and Syria met,” so making it work was “an even more arduous venture than most of the others.”
“We had to clear the land of deep-rooted brushwood and heaps of boulders and stone,” he recounts. “We had to discover the species and varieties of vegetables, grain, fruit and other crops most suitable for the climate and the soil.
“We had to master occupations hitherto unknown to us, and unfamiliar to Jews throughout the world for centuries, learning to be longshoremen, stevedores, coxwains, boatbuilders. We had to ship our produce across the Sea of Galilee because we are situated on the Eastern Shore. Our only other link with the outer world was by a rough track, which only in the first flush of pioneering exaltation could be called a ‘road’ – a track, moreover, which was in troubled times, exposed to intermittent rifle-fire from the hills across the frontier.”
MANY HISTORIANS have compared the early kibbutzniks with the American pioneers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Kollek spoke of clearing the soil of roots and rocks so as to plant what was “suitable for the climate and the soil.” When you drive by Ein Gev today and see how lush the vegetation is, you just assume it was always that fertile. Kollek also expanded on the vision of the kibbutz founders: “We became fishermen, mastering the lore of wind and water, and the methods which have not greatly changed since the days of Josephus. We added modern knowledge to those methods, learning boatbuilding, repairing and sail-making. Our first wooden dwellings were gradually replaced by concrete houses and farm buildings. We tried, with some measure of success, to make friends with our Arab neighbors on both sides of the frontier.
And when, after many setbacks and disappointments, our vegetable gardens produced good yield, our banana crop ripened, our sheep grew fat and our nets brought in the harvest of the sea, we knew that we were on the right road.”
He and his fellow kibbutzniks were pleased with their success, “but to our impatient spirits progress was too slow,” he noted. Seventy years ago, Ein Gev needed money for a chicken-run and funds for “our own bakery, which would relieve us of the trouble and expense of bringing our bread from the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.” He emphasized that the horse and mules required “more substantial quarters.”
And then he stressed what was a pattern on these new settlements: “Many of our members have been obliged to seek work and wages wherever they found an opportunity, for Ein Gev could not yet provide gainful work and sustenance for all.”
Kollek’s article offers a description of this budding kibbutz, but the main insight here is that this information is placed in the public Jewish domain and not kept as an internal record. It is possible this tale of a kibbutz, as it rose to fulfillment in its early years through the members’ hard work, became a paradigm in Jewish circles for emphasizing how Eretz Yisrael was becoming fruitful after centuries of barrenness.
Hadassah groups, ZOA chapters and synagogue groups utilized Kollek’s verbal flourishes as part of their campaigns.
WHILE THE building of a kibbutz was most critical, taking part in the war effort was fairly significant for these robust young Jews. They wanted to do their share and understood they must first focus on what could be done at home.
“When war broke out, we realized that it was imperative for the settlement to be developed and consolidated so that we could stand our ground through any difficult period.” Kollek was already part of British secret service, but his information about who would attack was not too accurate.
“Believing that Italy would enter the war much earlier than she actually did, we had to face the possibility of being cut off and we had to safeguard our sources of production so as to ensure a supply of spare parts for tractors and other machinery, building materials and pipes for the areas which had to be irrigated in order to increase our output of vegetables, fodder and wheat.”
A key ambition for these youthful settlers was to be warriors. They wanted to fight against Hitler, Mussolini and all the Axis forces.
The British, however, would not draft Palestinian Jews into the service so quickly.
Kollek wrote, “The members of the settlement volunteered for war service at once, but only a few selected members were accepted. There was much heartburning amongst those who had to stay behind, some because they were perhaps 1.25 cm. below the required height! Those who are serving tell us stirring tales of their experiences.”
Those who stayed behind dealt with the food problems, supplies and setting up a defense system that could truly protect against attacks. The greatest desire was to know what was happening: “Every available scrap of information that may throw light on the general war situation is eagerly seized upon; the radio, evening lectures, books, films, maps and periodicals are closely studied.”
In addition, these settlers wanted to know what the British were doing about the recruitment of the Jews. Allowing too much armament to become available to the settlers was still a great fear of the Mandate rulers.
Kollek concluded, “We are facing stirring times, perhaps even the testing-time for the survival of our whole work. But in Ein Gev, as in every other settlement in the Yishuv, we are going on unafraid with the work we have begun; whatever happens we shall continue to build and defend.”