Hulda Forest and Herzl House

Close to Rehovot, this beautiful forest and restored villa contain more than a century's worth of Zionist history.

herzl house 88 (photo credit: )
herzl house 88
(photo credit: )
On Israel's 50th birthday its people received an extraordinarily precious gift. That year the Jewish National Fund, the Society for the Preservation of Historic Sites in Israel and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority began the painstaking restoration of 50 outstanding historic sites. Foremost among them was Herzl House, an early 20th-century villa oddly located in the middle of the JNF's very first forest. And what a delightful choice! Open to all, seven days a week, the beautiful villa and the splendid forest in which it stands are a terrific excuse for an excursion into the great outdoors. Begin a circular, one- to two-hour hike in front of a shelter decorated with a map and a picture of Theodor Herzl. You will be following the well-marked path to your right around the forest. As you near the end of your trail you will stop at one of Israel's most impressive memorials, visit Herzl House itself, and follow an unusual walkway back to your car. The forest dates back to 1905, when a company called Geula, or "Redemption," purchased 500 acres of land from the Arabs of Hulda village. The company intended to divide its purchase into sections and sell them to Jewish newcomers. Unfortunately for Geula, massive grazing had depleted the earth of its minerals and the soil at Hulda was completely barren - not a tree, bush or flower broke the dreary landscape. And it took hours to get to the nearest town. Years went by, and no one wanted the desolate plots. Geula officials, who had borrowed from the bank to acquire the land, began to seriously wonder how they would recover their losses. Salvation arrived in 1908, when the newly established JNF decided to plant a forest at Hulda in honor of Herzl. The great visionary had passed away just a few years earlier, and when told the money was for an olive-tree forest in his memory, donors generously opened their purses. Sadly, however, although commonly identified with the Holy Land, olive trees were wholly unsuited to the soil at Hulda. That wasn't the only problem. Accomplished German agronomist Louis Barish agreed to take on the Hulda project in 1909. However, the knowledge that had served him well in Europe was all wrong for the Middle East. Planting season in Israel differed from that of Europe - but he insisted on sticking to what he knew best. Most of Barish's laborers came from Eastern Europe. Idealistic Zionists, they objected to his employment of additional Arab labor, couldn't understand German, and greatly resented Barish's highfalutin' attitude. And no wonder: Barish lavished his resources on construction of a grand residence in honor of Herzl, appropriated all four large rooms on the top story for himself, and crowded the workers into the damp and stuffy basement together with snakes, scorpions and other creepy-crawly creatures. Barish was sent packing barely a year after he arrived, and the vast majority of olive-tree saplings sown at Hulda soon perished. Eventually the JNF completely revised its thinking, and in 1912 planted its very first pine forest at Hulda. Before you begin the trail, look to the left of the shelter. The olive trees that you see are all that is left of the original Herzl Forest and its 12,000 saplings. Herzl Forest today is encompassed within a much larger Hulda Forest filled with an unusually wide variety of trees. During your walk you will view oak, South American pepper, eucalyptus, Australian casuarinas (so named because the twigs resemble the feathers of the cassowary bird), cypress, all kinds of pine, sycamore, chinaberry, acacia and Washingtonia trees. You will also see plenty of fruit trees: carob, date, olive and pistachio and, in late winter, flowering almond. With Barish gone and the forests replanted, Hulda was turned into a training farm for pioneers. Jews in the Diaspora rarely knew anything about agriculture, and enthusiastic young people arrived singly and in organized groups to study farming and afforestation techniques that they would be able to apply to settlements all over the country. The large sign on your left marks the Tel Hai Grove, planted in 1920 after a famous battle. Among the fallen at Tel Hai was Binyamin Munter, who had studied farming at Hulda as a new immigrant before heading north to help settle Galilee. After the battle his bullet-ridden body was found sheltering a second pioneer, Sara Chisik. As a result of his action, although she too lay dead, her body was less ravaged than his by the hand grenade that killed them both. A grove was planted in his memory: look for the sign. Continue on, descending rather sharply to a T-junction. The natural green foliage directly in front of you stands in the path of the Shaham River, which overflowed frequently until pipes began redirecting the water a few decades ago. Mosquitoes from this swamp made life miserable for the Hulda farmers. Your trail takes you left, onto a road lined with tall, elegant spruce trees. Notice their rocket-shaped peaks, stretching towards the sky. Known as Lovers' Lane for nearly a century, this part of the woods is still a romantic setting. As the years went by, children were born, often to couples who met at the farm. A courtyard was constructed to hold the stables, chicken coops and cowshed; storerooms, a laundry, a guardhouse, a workers' residence and a water reservoir were built into its walls. Pass Rahel's Grove, planted in 1931 in memory of the famous young poet who died at an early age. Then continue on to a beautiful avenue of magnificent Washingtonia palms, with tall, straight trunks and a fanlike crest. You are standing at the grave of Ephraim Chisik and a monument in memory of fallen pioneers called "Labor and Defense." Chisik, whose sister was killed at Tel Hai, left Galilee to help defend Hulda in 1929. That year, following a campaign of wild incitement and in the wake of a dispute over the Western Wall, bloody riots broke out in and near Jerusalem. In the massacres that followed, Arabs murdered Jews at Motza and over 60 men, women and children in Hebron. Thousands of victory-drunk Arabs then attacked Hulda, which sat isolated in the forest with only a few dozen armed settlers. When the rioters set the farm's threshing floor on fire, the flames moved into the courtyard. Chisik and his reinforcements, in the woods, were forced to reposition in the yard. When their situation became untenable he commanded them to take shelter in the big house, covering them as they crawled forward. The last one to go, Chisik was hit with a fatal bullet as he ran towards shelter. Although the young farmers managed to hold off the enemy, the British who eventually arrived forced them to evacuate Herzl House - and refused them permission to take Chisik's body along. He was buried some days later, where you are standing. Built out of a mammoth block of hard Jerusalem limestone that was cut into two parts, the memorial was unveiled in 1937 after seven years of labor. Young sculptor Batya Lichansky lived in a tent adjacent to the site and traveled to Jerusalem once a week to sharpen her tools. Although she didn't specify who all the figures were meant to be, most people think that the imposing figure at the top is Ephraim Chisik, one arm spread out like a wing while the other grasps a grenade behind his back. The image below is thought to be Binyamin Munter, sheltering Ephraim's sister Sara. Carved into the monument are tools, a wagon wheel and sheaves of wheat - symbolizing conquest of the land by the plow. Herzl House, the yard and the forest were completely devastated by the Arabs in 1929, and the land remained empty for the next two years. But in 1931 the World Zionist Congress decided to encourage permanent settlement at Hulda. The group that came, young people from Poland, partly restored the house, rebuilt the courtyard and planted new trees. Six years later they decided to move to a more defensible site nearby, today's Kibbutz Hulda. Now move on to Herzl House, whose fa ade boasts an enormous portrait of the great Zionist. After Hulda kibbutzniks left the forest, and until the recent $2 million renovation, it stood alone and neglected. Not everything has been faithfully restored, and you won't see the stained glass panes that sat in the fashionable windows or the original, exquisite tiles. Over the decades, vandals stole everything they could carry, from the roof to the floor. Inside you can see Barish's desk, an exhibit of old pictures, and a fascinating display showing how potential donors were persuaded to contribute to the JNF. Look for postcards, sent all over the Diaspora, in which joyful pioneers plant trees amidst lush, green woods. When you leave, descend the gracious stairway and follow Exhibit Avenue, a paved path that leads back to your car. Lined on both sides with Washingtonias, it provides you with a charmingly innovative display of Hulda's history. n This article is an excerpt from Aviva Bar-Am's newest book: Israel Travels from Metulla to Eilat. You can see all of her books on her web site: