Streetwise: Underground operations

Rehov Hamahtarot takes its name from the work of the underground resistance movements.

Rehov Hamahtarot 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rehov Hamahtarot 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rehov Hamahtarot (pre-state undergrounds) is a typical small-town street, running parallel with the railway line in Atlit, just down the coast south of Haifa. With little centralized planning for the eclectic architecture in that area, some houses have been renovated, even to hacienda-like proportions with exotic tropical gardens. Others remain as they were, the original square one-story houses and overgrown gardens awaiting the gentrification which has never quite arrived in this charming but neglected backwater. The greening of the street is entirely dependent on the efforts of the residents, for while some gardens are resplendent with beautiful trees, flowers and foliage, the local council made no effort to plant alongside the road itself. Yet Atlit is a town with a rich history both in the sea and on its shore. There is evidence of deep sea fishing found in artifacts and human remains dating back 8,000 years. Excavators have found a well of the pre-pottery Neolithic Period and it is thought that the area has been inhabited from the late Bronze period. On the hill at the entrance to Atlit are the ruins of a Crusader castle, Chateau Pelerin or Castram Perigrenorium, unfortunately inaccessible to the public. In 1187 when the Crusaders lost Jerusalem to Saladin, the Knights Templar built new bases at Acre and Atlit. At the beginning of the 20th century, the surrounding land was owned by Baron Edmond de Rothschild and the modern town of Atlit was founded in 1903 with only five families. Although the settlement grew with the establishment of the salt factory in 1922 and a railway station in 1930, Atlit has never been as popular or fashionable as Zichron Ya'acov or Binyamina just down the coast. WITH ITS improved transportation and rich history, its easy access to soft sandy beaches and its amazing views across the fields and banana plantations to the Carmel, Atlit should have developed as an ideal residential area. With a 10-minute drive on the highway to the modern industry of southern Haifa and a straight run in the other direction to Tel Aviv, the town has nevertheless never lost its rather forlorn appearance. A lackluster local council, which stayed in power unchallenged for years, failed to create an infrastructure of parks and leisure activities, and many young couples who bought low-price apartments or homes with renovation potential moved on to locations with better educational and social prospects. Recently the council was disbanded and Atlit is now within the area administered by the Hof Hacarmel Regional Council. Many families, however, have settled happily on Rehov Hamahtarot, renovating their houses, creating gardens, commuting to Haifa for work and ferrying their children to local kibbutz schools and kindergartens. Jonathan and Sigal bought one of the original houses which was so tiny that as one walked in the front door one fell out the back window. However there is ample land and they have added a security room and an extra bedroom. An electrician and plumber by profession, Jonathan is building a second story, and Sigal is busy creating a garden with a play area for the three children, dog and cat. Where Rehov Hamahtarot joins with Rehov Harduf is the picturesque railway station, a beautiful stone building which until the recent renovation of Israel Railways stations did not even have platforms. Back in the 1970s when I lived at the absorption center in Atlit, the train service to Haifa was fairly infrequent, with even fewer trains stopping at Atlit. At that time, a well-known MK from Atlit would ask the driver of the Haifa train to stop there just long enough for him to jump off. His efforts to get home after a long Knesset session benefited others too. When I missed the last train from Tel Aviv and was arguing in very basic Hebrew with a shared taxi (sherut) driver who insisted I pay him as a private taxi, along came the MK, got in the cab and not only persuaded the driver to take sherut fare but also got him to drive into the town to the absorption center instead of dropping me on the highway. During that journey, he gave me information about immigrants' rights that I never got elsewhere. Another claim to fame is the former agricultural station established in 1911 by Aaron Aaronsohn, the head of the Nili spies. It was from this station that messages were signaled to the British at sea during World War I, a system that significantly contributed to the end of the Ottoman occupation of Palestine. BUT WHAT gives Rehov Hamahtarot its name is the work of the underground resistance movements, particularly the clandestine immigration prior to and during World War II. Although the Museum of Illegal Immigration, proclaimed as a heritage site by the government in 1987 on the site of the original detention camp set up by the British, is situated at the entrance to Atlit, Rehov Hamahtarot would have been the main thoroughfare from the beaches where many of the refugees landed. Immediately after the successful and undetected landings, the immigrants were quickly led over the fields and absorbed in nearby kibbutzim. From 1934 until independence in May 1948, 130,000 Jews tried to reach these shores without valid British immigration permits. After the war, the majority of these refugees were survivors of the concentration camps. The passengers of the ships which were captured by the British, off the shores of Haifa and Atlit, were sent to detention camps at Atlit or Acre, and when these were full, a camp was opened in Cyprus. In 1940, when the Hagana bombed the deportation ship Patria to prevent it taking refugees to Mauritius, a tragic mistake which cost 216 lives, the survivors were taken to Atlit. For those survivors transported to Atlit, the nightmare was relived. Packed into cattle trucks, they were taken to the camp, sent into showers and deloused. Now open to the public as a museum, one can see this reception center and the barracks where men and women were kept strictly segregated. Ironically, chief rabbi Isaac Herzog managed to persuade the British to allow the building of a mikve in the camp. It is this camp which is famous for the great escape on October 10, 1945, when the Palmah broke into the compound and rescued the detainees. This was in protest of the British rejection of the Anglo-American Committee's proposal to immediately allow 100,000 Jews into Palestine. Prior to the rescue, Palmah soldiers were integrated into the camp as Hebrew teachers and sports instructors. At 1 a.m., Yitzhak Rabin and Nahum Sarig led the Palmah unit into the camp and using decoys on the approaching roads to distract the British patrols, they managed to release the 200 detainees and smuggle them up Mount Carmel to be dispersed at the kibbutzim of Beit Oren and Yagur. Climbing the Carmel in broad daylight is no easy feat, particularly the steep climb down Nahal Yagur on the other side. It is hard to imagine how these refugees, including the elderly and small children, managed that climb at night. Rehov Hamahtarot, like many of the original streets in this little town, was settled by generations of immigrants over the years, with an increase in population during the arrival in the 1950s of Jews from Arab countries. The absorption center just round the corner saw the beginning of the Russian aliya in the early 70s. The site was later used as a center for Ethiopian immigrants and then the apartments were sold by Amidar by lottery for young couples. Many young families renovated these units, transforming them into attractive cottages. An unpretentious street in a little backwater, Rehov Hamahtarot has many more stories to tell.