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Hidden Castle Quietly Crumbles Between the Palms

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Text and photographs: Lydia Aisenberg

Wedged between two flourishing coastal kibbutzim, Shefayim and Ga'ash, hidden on all sides by foliage- covered palms and other trees, Beit Litvinsky, a former salute to the 1920s pioneers' dreams and indefatigable spirit, is slowly but surely succumbing to rack and ruin, out of sight, out of mind, unfortunately not for the first time in its 100 years of colorful existence.

Cynics might say that the dilapidation of the starkly architecturally beautiful eclectic building, constructed by the Litvinsky brothers during the British Mandate period, signifies the sorry state of present-day Zionism - but believe, certainly hopeful, that it can still be saved from collapse.

The once regal but nowadays abandoned 3-storey villa that many years later became known locally as HaTira (the castle),is situated a few minutes drive south of Netanya, a short walk from the sea and quite close to the heavily trafficked Tel Aviv-Haifa coastal road. The building nowadays stands forlorn, dejected, disrespected, and cruelly vandalised, the structure completely hidden by the trees and bushes that have grown untamed along the perimeter wall and metal hoardings surrounding the large property.

The outbuildings now lay derelict, the once well-kept gardens and stone forecourt all but disappeared under layers of dead undergrowth, rubbish and broken glass scattered everywhere, the latter crunching menacingly underfoot as one approaches the main building itself, lower windows of which covered by crudely banged into place ugly strips of grey metal. The attractive once admired second storey decorative ornamental verandas and balustrades, now languishing under layers of bird poop, still seem quite solid and in your face majestic from below.

Large flaps of paint-covered plaster gingerly cling by their corners to the outer walls – swinging to and fro in the gentle breeze, seemingly beckoning the onlooker to come closer, to fleetingly share in the heart-breaking process of the gradual, cruel decaying of a once proud symbol of Israel's struggling against all odds yesteryear.

However, on the top floor of the building, a red roofed parapet and adjacent capola appear to be in relatively good condition, together forming an architecturally featured finger pointing straight up toward the clear blue sky in a silent and strangled plea for recognition of the fact that the castle is still here, still standing, still proud and still relevant.

Clinging to one side of the building, creeping its way up the side and over a metal boarding, a lemon tree has almost reached the ceiling level of the first floor, lemon fruit glistening in the noon sunshine, a sign that a struggle for survival under the hardest of conditions can be achieved.

Many years ago this writer visited the charismatic building after it had been renovated to be used for weddings and other events after Kibbutz Ga'ash and The Association of Restoration and Preservation of Historic Sites in Israel took over the then-dilapidated building that had become a 3-storey eye-catching from the main road hoarding for political messages, especially during the 1980s post First Lebanon War period.

Stark in my memory, colorful, decorative ceramic tiled as well as smooth stone floors, some painted black and white, arched doorways and ceilings, high lead trimmed windows with wide ledges – all lodged in the memory box as all so reminiscent of the homes of my extended family members, including Yiddish-speaking religious Polish immigrant grandparents, living in the Welsh valley towns of Ystrad Mynach, Merthyr Tydfil and Nelson around the same period as Beit Litvinsky was rising out of Middle Eastern sand dunes.

The extremely wealthy Litvinsky brothers, Raymond, Emil and Morris, initially intended the exotic building to be a summer home for their extended families. Their father, Ya'acov Elhanan Litvinsky, made aliyah from Odessa in 1886, and became one of the founding fathers of Tel Aviv, building a home in the city's Ahad Ha'am Street and purchasing tracts of land in both the Sharon Plains and Rishon Lezion. His extensive and diverse business interests also included a soap factory in the ancient port town of Jaffa and a steam driven mill in Gaza.

Upon the death of Ya'acov during the First World War, the Litvinsky wealth passed on to his three sons, one of whom left the region to live in France. The Litvinsky's massive business interests included being major suppliers of goods to the British Army in the region, founding a highly successful construction corporation concentrating on development in the center of the country, and regional representatives of the British energy company, Shell.

Emil Litvinsky also purchased a large piece of land east of Jaffa, initially intending to build a new Jewish town - named Ganim (Gardens) – to be designed by the talented German born and trained successful town planner and architect, Richard Kaufman, the designer of many a cooperative agricultural and urban settlement in the country including Nahalal, a moshav founded in the Jezreel Valley, 1921 where Moshe Dayan was raised and buried.

A few dozen houses were built on Emil's land outside of Jaffa site, but further development activity ceased with the outbreak of World War ll when the land was appropriated by the British Mandate forces -who constructed an army camp there instead.

At the request of the Americans,the British at a later stage designated them a portion of the land in order to operate a small clinic and hospital for their own troops in the region.Following their withdrawal from the region in the spring of 1943, the British took over the medical facilities for their own use until 1948, after which it was further developed by Israel, becoming the Sheba Medical Center at Tel HaShomer.

It was Morris Litvinsky who eventually built the sumptuous house in the sand between Shefayim and Ga'ash, planted citrus orchards in the surrounding area but the family's fear ofarmed marauders in the area brought about the property's eventual abandonment. Over the years the exotic building became hidden from view, except for the small pointed roof top and upper portion of the cupola peeking between the palms, trees and dense foliage, the latter having also over-run the orchards sufficiently that in the mid-1940s illegal immigrants who had managed to reach the nearby coast, hid from the British in the building and surrounding orchards.

Litvitsky family heirs sold the building in the 1960s to an Iranian Jewish community leader and resident of Teheran who was later murdered, rumor says, by the henchmen of Ayatollah Khomeini. The family of the murdered man successfully fled the country and, like many other Iranian Jews, eventually settled in Los Angeles. In the 1980s they, in turn, sold the decaying property and surrounding land in Israel to the Kibbutz Ha'artzi Federation of Kibbutzim on behalf of Kibbutz Ga'ash – and a new lease of life began.

Very quickly, with a sizable portion of the trees and undergrowth removed, the Litvinsky building became a sizable billboard for anti-war political activists following the 1982 Lebanon War. An impossible to miss from the main road gigantic sign stating the number of days Israel remained in Lebanon was draped across the upper part of the building, local folk changing the numbers each morning.

In May 1985, HaTira - as Beit Litvinsky was already being known – was entirely wrapped in red material to honor International Workers' Day by local kibbutz artists, causing quite a stir at the time.

Israeli artist and historian Yuval Danieli, a member of Kibbutz HaMa'apil, was one of the many artists who exhibited works in those days at HaTira, one of which an impressive large iron cut-out of Morris Litvinsky on horseback, set on a large pedestal in the forecourt of the building facing the coastal road and where it remained during and after the 1980s renovation; still standing proudly in place all those years ago when this writer wrote about HaTira and then attractively developed grounds.

The iron frame of Danieli's cut-out sculpture still stands in present times outside the Shared Art Center at Givat Haviva where Danieli is the Director of Arts at the Hashomer Hatzair Archives and galleries of the movement.

However, the inner portion of the frame, that of Morris Litvinsky on horseback, I remember well from years ago, seems to have bolted from his former proud place seemingly guarding the once illustrious Litvinsky abode at Ga'ash.

Asked about the whereabouts of the heavy metal horse and rider cut-out in present times and curious to know what happened over the last twenty or so years since I had visited the site of Beit Litvinsky, Danieli replied that he did not know.

"I was told that the horse and rider are somewhere in the kibbutz," he replied, then added, deep sadness detectable in his voice, "apparently it is tied to a tree although I hardly think it would be likely to run away!"

Approaching a number of Kibbutz Ga'ash members out of curiosity to know what happened to bring about the present day sad state of Beit Litvinsky affairs did not shine much light on the situation, although one did mention that it was brought about a dispute over land rights. 

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Wednesday, 20 October 2021

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