Every item tells a story

Netanya has established a museum to recount the city’s past.

‘Illegal’ aliya during the British Mandate (photo credit: MUSEUM OF NETANYA)
‘Illegal’ aliya during the British Mandate
(photo credit: MUSEUM OF NETANYA)
Netanya recently opened a museum that houses a unique collection in which the history of the city is told through research, photos and maps.
However, what makes it special is that the city’s history is related primarily through the personal stories of Netanya residents.
These stories, which museum director Chava Apel and the staff of trained volunteers have been carefully collecting and researching over the past five years, form the basis of the permanent collection housed in the Netanya City Museum.
“The stories, documents, letters and photographs come from individuals who have lived here a long time or whose narratives have been shared with us by their children, family or friends,” says Apel.
She stresses the importance of the stories that go along with each exhibit as we walk through the modern and comfortable viewing areas.
“In their teachings, our rabbis say that each story is important, and worth telling,” she relates. “Stories make history come alive in a way that dry information lacks. People in Netanya and the adjacent communities are involved in our endeavor, and interact by bringing us information. Their stories breathe life into the history of the city.”
The Netanya City Museum is located in a historical building on McDonald Street, named after James Grover McDonald, the first US ambassador to Israel, who was very fond of Israel and fought against all forms of tyranny. The building, constructed before the establishment of the state, was a textile factory whose workers were blind. Blindness was a common affliction, explains Apel, because many of the new immigrants came from Arab countries where medical care was poor. Other individuals lost their eyesight in the first wars fought for the State of Israel. Nevertheless, they wanted to work and contribute to society.
In return, Netanya provided them with gainful employment.
Apel recalls that when she was growing up in Netanya, it was a tradition to buy presents on the holidays for the workers at the Factory for the Blind.
The textile factory was moved to the old industrial area of Netanya in 1991, and the building remained empty until the Netanya municipality decided to create a museum in it.
Apel and the museum’s curators, Hagai and Anat Segev, were faced with a challenge, because the building is relatively small. They and the municipality chose Tucan Design Firm, which specializes in designing for small spaces, and its expert designer Eyal Schoenbaum.
The results proved very successful.
The colors on the walls emphasize openness and, coupled with well-conceived design and placement, the museum appears larger than it is. Visitors can follow a path that takes them from the earliest days of settlement in the region to the bustling and growing Netanya of today.
With ample items of research to display, the design firm and the museum staff used their expertise to display the stories and memorabilia in ways that make them clearly visible without looking cramped. Pictures, videos on a continuous loop and shadow boxes are positioned on wall displays. Letters, photographs and quotes are displayed in large dimensions on the walls. Other reference items are available in the museum’s computerized archives, which contain more than 5,000 entries.
Many of the interesting stories and snippets of history are conveyed by guides trained in the art of storytelling.
Guided tours are available in Hebrew and, by appointment, in English, Russian and French. Apel says that soon more stories and explanations will be displayed in English. She adds that the museum has relatively few artifacts, as the emphasis is on the people.
Chochi Silverberg, the municipal councilwoman in charge of cultural activities in Netanya, says that supporting and generating cultural and musical programs for all ages is her No. 1 priority.
She says that the museum is another step toward establishing Netanya’s role of cultural leadership in the Sharon area, in addition to its respecting and honoring the people who established the city.
One of the first exhibits on the exhibition route are maps of Netanya from 1926, 1936 and 1980, titled “From Dreams to Reality.” The city was founded in 1929 by a group of men who were members of an organization called Bnei Binyamin, who were given the task of buying land in Israel for settlement.
There is a large picture of this group, and among them is the sheikh of Umm Khalid, a local Arab village, from whom the men purchased the land. According to research done by the municipality for Netanya’s 50th anniversary celebration, the sheikh told the prospective buyers that he and his predecessors had watched over the land until the Jews came, and he wanted payment just for the guard duty they performed. He sold them 1,400 dunams (140 hectares, or 346 acres) of land in a strip that was bordered on the east by swamps and on the west by the Mediterranean Sea and received four Palestine pounds per dunam, which was a handsome sum at that time.
The members of Bnei Binyamin had to seek funding outside Israel to develop the property they had bought.
They sent representatives to the US and approached Nathan Straus, a wealthy businessman, who pledged a generous amount of money. The museum displays a letter written in English in 1930 by the first mayor of Netanya, Oved Ben-Ami, addressed to Straus. The mayor thanks him for his generosity and points out that they received the first payment but had not heard from him since, and requests that he kindly honor his pledge. He complied and the city is named after him.
Situated in the strip along the sea, Netanya did not change much geographically over the next 50 years. Tourists regarded Netanya as a mini-Riviera resort, a veranda on the sea. Tourism became a viable business, and hotels and pensions (smaller, less expensive hotels, where guests sometimes had to do their own cooking and cleaning) flourished near the beach. And the rich and famous came as well. The guest book of the Metropol Hotel from 1948 is on display, containing the names and signatures of such luminaries as actress Hanna Rovina and painter Marc Chagall.
On one entire wall in the museum is a breathtaking photograph of the sea.
The Mediterranean was not only a draw for recreation but also the gateway for Jews to enter Israel during the British Mandate when immigration was illegal.
Through the Museum of Clandestine Immigration in Haifa, Apel found a compelling story of illegal entry by Dov Koestricher, a Holocaust survivor who came to the waters off Netanya on a ship called Katina. The ship was forbidden to come near the shore, so the passengers, who were not allowed to enter legally, had to swim. Dov jumped off the ship and made it to the shores of nearby Kfar Vitkin barely alive. He was found by Jewish rescuers. Tied to his body was a small sack containing the pair of tefillin his father had given him for his bar mitzva.
Via the Internet, Apel found that Dov’s son, Micha, had recently moved to the Netanya area, and she contacted him.
He lent the museum the sack and tefillin to be copied and displayed so that his father’s story could be added to the narratives of Netanya’s history.
The museum displays pictures of the British military camps located on the edges of the city and pictures of the British soldiers. Close by are the pictures and stories of the famous caches of illegal weapons called “sliks” that the resistance groups used in the fight for independence.
One story mentions the slik that was hidden in the Holy Ark of the Hesed V’Emet synagogue on Petah Tikva Street.
The synagogue, located on the outer edge of the military cemetery, was built by Rabbi Menahem Talbi and was one of the first in the city. Although the synagogue was searched repeatedly by the British, they never discovered the slick.
Talbi was born in Jerusalem’s Old City. His married sister, who lived in Netanya, told him that this city had potential and it would be easier for to make a living here, so he came.
In addition to his position as rabbi, he opened a food market in Netanya’s Ben Zion neighborhood where many new and poor immigrants lived. Stories of his beneficence and kindness, are documented in the book Ben Zion – My Neighborhood (in Hebrew), compiled and edited by Prof. Avshalom Mizrahi.
The museum records how the British presence in Netanya was both a blessing and an impediment. The soldiers bolstered the city’s economy, as coffee shops and restaurants such as Café Eden and Hershele’s flourished.
However, a letter on display written by a group of Netanya mothers to a British military official urges him to keep his “Tommy Boys” out of the city and away from their daughters.
In the 1930s, the country’s first diamond cutting and polishing factory was established in Petah Tikva in the cowshed of Zvi Rosenberg, a Hungarian immigrant who had learned the trade in Belgium. During the years of World War II there was a world scarcity of diamond cutters, and the industry grew from its humble beginnings, expanding to Tel Aviv and Netanya, which became known as the world capital of diamond polishing and cutting from 1939 until the end of the ’70s.
It may sound like a glamorous profession, but through the stories and pictures in the museum, one gets an idea of the laborious, exacting and often tedious work it entails. Nevertheless, there was a time when the majority of Netanya’s residents worked in the diamond profession. In tribute to them, Apel found an original diamond workers’ station and set up a diamond cutting device exactly as it was used.
The museum displays pictures and stories of how culture blossomed in Netanya.
Parlor concerts were given regularly.
There was a youth orchestra and one visitor recognized her brother in a photo and remembered what a fine musician he was.
Netanya had the largest movie theater in the region, called the Sharon.
The magnificent building had a lavish interior and painted frescoes on the ceiling, and the exterior was illuminated at night with blue lights. What was playing at the movie theater was always a popular topic of conversation, and people had to buy tickets early in the week because the cinema was always sold out for the Saturday night show.
There are photos of the Firemen’s Orchestra, which gave “mobile” concerts in the city and nearby immigrant camps, performing from the back of their open truck.
Today, the Netanya Kibbutz Chamber Orchestra plays in the city’s Heichal Hatarbut, and movies and cultural events abound.
“The museum provides a nostalgic and historical tour of the city,” says Apel. “Sometimes we have to look back and enjoy and appreciate where we came from.”
The Netanya City Museum is located at 3 McDonald Street. Entrance is free. Hours: Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Monday noon to 7 p.m.
Guided tours are available in English, Hebrew, French and Russian. For more information, call (09) 884-0020.