How a Jewish engineer dared to leave Russia to build a new land

From the Russian Revolution to the earliest days of the State of Israel, a young man’s idealism and hard work continue to inspire today.

Motti,  Naharayim engineer (photo credit: Courtesy)
Motti, Naharayim engineer
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Many years ago I came across a reference in a Glasgow Jewish newspaper from the 1920s to my grandfather Solomon Collins, proposing a scheme for supporting Jewish settlement in British Palestine. At that time, growing up in Scotland, I had not been aware that my grandfather – born Shama Kagarlitzky in the village of Kovshevata some 60 miles from Kiev – had three siblings and his father living in Tel Aviv through the ‘20s.
During the calamitous civil war that followed the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, his father, Ze’ev, brother Motti (Avraham Mordechai) and sisters Clara and Ida had managed to sail from Odessa to Jaffa. A further sister, Ura, was to join them from Glasgow, where she had spent a decade with her two brothers.
Motti was 21 years old at the time of the Russian Revolution but he had already spent time acquiring the skills of an engineer, which would be required when more settled times came. After elementary schooling in Novomirgorod, where he was born, he attended high school in Odessa, followed by training at a technical college there. After leaving the college he began work as a maintenance engineer in a brewery just outside the city.
In 1919, an opportunity to leave the country became available. Just months before Odessa finally fell under permanent Communist rule, the British military government in Palestine announced that it was prepared to admit some new Jewish immigrants. The Mandate would not formally begin for another three years but this initiative gave some hope that the proposals inherent in the Balfour Declaration would be implemented.
Motti failed to get an immigration certificate but managed to get a place for himself under a separate regulation that permitted inhabitants of Palestine who had been displaced by the ravages of war to return. Motti, who had never left Russia, curiously man
aged to get a qualifying certificate in Russian, Hebrew and French, from a local Zionist body, with which there had been strong family connections. The certificate confirms that Motti had once lived in Petah Tikva.
Motti boarded the SS Ruslan and set sail for Jaffa in December 1919, leaving his sisters Clara and Ida as well as his father, Ze’ev, behind in the Odessa area. Ze’ev was only 64 years old but seemed like an old man dependent on his children for support. However, it would not be long before Ze’ev, Clara and Ida were reunited with Motti in Tel Aviv.
The Ruslan carried hundreds of young idealistic halutzim (pioneers) who saw their task as building up the Land of Israel. Thus, the passengers on the ship constituted the beginning of the Third Aliyah, the wave of immigration which lasted to the mid-1920s and brought around 100,000 Jews to the country. Unlike most of the youngsters on the boat, Motti did not seek to become a rural pioneer but hoped his technical ability would secure him a skilled job. Through a series of fortunate happenings, Motti’s life plans were sorted out within a few weeks, probably thanks to presence of the nephew of Ze’ev Jabotinsky on the Ruslan.
When the boat docked at Jaffa, Jabotinsky was present to meet his nephew Yoni. The nephew, like Motti, had a background in technical work but lacked some of the specific abilities that Motti possessed. It is likely that the two young men had met on the Ruslan, providing Motti with the vital contact with Pinhas Rutenberg, a close friend of Jabotinsky.
Within a week Motti had an interview with  Rutenberg at the Amdur Hotel in the Old City, and a few weeks later, the young men were working together mapping out the ground south of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), where Rutenberg planned to build a hydroelectric power station using the waters flowing through the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers. This was a large, prestigious and exciting project, and Motti threw himself into every aspect of it.
IN PICTURES of Rutenberg’s staff, one can see Motti with his colleagues, clearly a treasured and influential employee of Rutenberg. The ambitious plans to provide electricity for Palestine required considerable vision, ingenuity and political persistence, abilities that Rutenberg had in large measure.
With crucial support from the British colonial secretary, Winston Churchill, he brought Herbert, Viscount Samuel, the first high commissioner for Palestine, and Lord Reading, on to the board of his Palestine Electric Company. Power plants were built in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Tiberias but Rutenberg’s great achievement was the hydroelectric power station at Naharayim, which earned him the nickname “The Old Man of Naharayim.” Motti was working on the greatest industrial project of the early Mandate period.
After just a few months in Palestine, Motti received a laissez passer travel document, allowing him to make an extended visit to Britain, coming to Glasgow to visit his family. His half-brothers Solomon and Shimmol were well-established in the textile business, but his sister Ura, who had been in Glasgow for a few years, soon decided to join her father in Tel Aviv, perhaps persuaded by Motti, as the restless Ura was ready to move on. A magnificent mahogany head-and-shoulders sculpture of Ura, by Benno Schotz, later the queen’s sculptor in Scotland, can be seen at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow.
A cousin, Anna, was also living in Glasgow, but she, too, was to leave Scotland a few years later, deciding to marry her cousin Yosif, Motti’s brother, then living in Shanghai, and settle in Moscow. This decision was to have family ramifications for many decades. Motti sent Anna a letter warning her that settling in Moscow was a dangerous move and that she would be lucky to hold on to any possessions she might bring with her. Anna and Yosif were determined and their descendants still live in Moscow.
This was not Motti’s only visit to Britain, as he had a business trip to London around 1925. Given that he possessed several textbooks on concrete construction and the strength of materials in English, as well as some English-language engineering journals, he must have had some facility with the language. While Motti was adjusting to his new life in British Palestine, he was joined by his father, Ze’ev, and sisters Clara and Ida as well as Ura, who was attracted by the prospect that Tel Aviv seemed to offer during the 1920s.
Tel Aviv had expanded rapidly during the first years of the Mandate, and northern Jewish districts of Jaffa were added to the new municipality. It is in one of these districts, Neve Tzedek – now gentrified and enjoying some of its old ambience once more – that Ze’ev and his family now lived. The socialist ethos of the pioneers, the Mediterranean climate and the pavement café culture were a world away from Ura’s life in Glasgow but offered a strong family network.
Motti’s work took him regularly to Haifa, where the Palestine Electric Company was headquartered, and above all to Naharayim where the hydroelectric power station was taking shape. Motti had become one of the senior engineers on the project, and his mechanical training had been supplemented by a couple of visits to Switzerland to study hydroelectric plants and attend congresses of hydroelectric engineers.
As the decade progressed, the work at Naharayim continued apace and Motti remained very busy. He spent most of his time at the power station but continued to provide support for his father. Contemporary film of the construction process shows that although the building was, for the time, a technologically advanced installation, it depended on many procedures that looked decidedly unsafe. Thus, it was not surprising that four workers lost their lives during the building. Unfortunately, Motti was one of them, killed in 1930 when a heavy overhead beam, six meters long, fell from its position from a height of 4.5 meters directly on to his head, killing him instantly.
RUTENBERG HIMSELF was present at the funeral and arranged that a monument be erected in memory of those who had died during the construction process. With his attention to detail and style, a fine monument was erected adjacent to the power station, and designed by the same architects in identical Bauhaus style. The power station was built to catch the maximum water flow from the Kinneret and to utilize the different heights of the water in the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers. This meant that the power station was built not in British Palestine but a few hundred meters over the border in Trans-Jordan. Beginning in 1948, Motti’s grave was out of bounds.
Motti’s death was a tragic blow to Ze’ev. He had lost not just the breadwinner in his home but the son who had been at his side all his short but eventful life. He must have been inconsolable. Ze’ev immediately sought compensation from the Palestine Electrical Company and in due course, after much negotiation between lawyers, received P£500.
The news of Motti’s death spread rapidly through the family. Yosif wrote from Moscow in May 1930 to press the claim of Motti’s full siblings to any inheritance, counseling against any claims from the half-brothers and undertaking to provide all such support as was necessary for Ze’ev. It did not help much, as within a year Ze’ev, too, was dead. The only indication that the siblings did receive a share of the estate is a letter sent to Ura in Paris from the Palestine Electrical Company in 1935 enclosing a check for £50.
Though I have no proof, I suspect that Solomon paid for the fine marble tombstone for Ze’ev’s grave that was erected on the eastern side of the old cemetery on Trumpeldor Street in Tel Aviv. The stone also refers to the death of Motti and his burial at Naharayim.
On the other side of the cemetery are buried many of the early luminaries of Tel Aviv life, like the famous first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, and the Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik. The small cemetery was opened in 1905 in the distant desert to accommodate deaths from a cholera outbreak in Jaffa. With the growth of Tel Aviv, it is now in the heart of the city close to the Dizengoff Centre.
When the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan was signed in 1994, the grandson of one of the other workers killed during the power plant’s construction succeeded in persuading then-president Katsav to request that the Jordanians permit the exhumation of the men and their reburial at the Kibbutz Gesher cemetery.
In July 2001, the new monument was consecrated, provided by the Israel Electrical Company, with many family members present. At the exhumation, it was discovered that Motti had been buried with his watch.
Motti’s watch, now housed in a display case at the archives of the Israel Electric Company in Haifa, shows the weathering effects of being buried for 70 years. There was a story that when the watch was found at the exhumation, it showed the right time. However, as the hour hand is missing, this would seem to be a bit fanciful. The watch, an Omega, had most likely been bought by Motti during one of his business trips to Switzerland.
Motti’s legacy, the power station at Naharayim, is of course no more. It was attacked and looted by an Iraqi brigade on May 15, 1948. In any case, the reduced water flow from the Kinneret in recent years could not sustain a hydroelectric power station, and the electricity produced during its years of operation would not provide even 1% of Israel’s current electrical consumption.
The Naharayim Experience at Kibbutz Gesher provides visitors with a functioning model of the power plant and gives an insight into the challenges that building a hydroelectric plant at the Kinneret posed. So, Motti’s achievements, more than 80 years after his death, remain a powerful inspiration to Ze’ev’s many descendants, now living in Israel.
The help of the archives department of the Israel Electrical Company is gratefully acknowledged.