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Ayalon Institute Hill - Rehovot

Text & Photos: Lydia Aisenberg

Attempting to keep an underground clandestine arms production facility from being discovered by British Mandatory Palestine soldiers stationed nearby, members of a unique kibbutz, basically a decoy constructed on a hill near Rehovot, operated a very noisy laundry and bakery in order to drown out the 24/7 sounds of heavy machinery manufacturing bullets desperately needed by the pre-State Jewish military organization, Haganah.

The laundry, as a business, became such a success in not only drowning out the cacophonic machinery under their feet but also as a viable business that a branch was also opened up in the nearby town of Rehovot.

However, prior to that development, British Officers began to bring their uniforms to the kibbutz, somewhat dangerous for the inhabitants but solved by the Israelis in setting up a collection and delivery service before branching out to the town.

On what one could call a designer built kibbutz, a system of pipes inside the laundry also went underground, some to pump air into the 24 hour a day, seven days a week production facility where 45 people worked two shifts, whilst another part of the system sucked polluted air topside, unnoticed above ground as there were clouds of heavy steam also emanating from the laundry itself.

In a mere 22 days a huge underground chamber comprising 300 square yards at a depth of 13 feet, with 2 feet thick concrete walls and ceiling, was completed, successfully concealed from the British soldiers as the hill became a hive of activity with the building of community housing, work and agricultural buildings for the new kibbutz, all going on at the same time.

The men and women of the kibbutz were in fear of unexpected visits from young British soldiers stationed nearby who sought the company of, and share a bottle of beer with, other young folk. The quick thinking Israelis found a novel way of developing an early warning system after the beer loving Brits complained about the beer being too warm. It was suggested that they should let them know ahead of their planned visits and the Israelis would obligingly put the beer in the fridge and the British soldiers complied!

"That ploy worked excellently but they had to make sure there was a good supply of beer in stock – and room in the fridges," quips the present day Ayalon Institute guide accompanying this writer around these days open to the general public site.

During the 3 years before the end of the Second World War and the foundation of the State of Israel, young Jews belonging to a number of pioneer Zionist organizations outwardly created this fully functioning but basically camouflage kibbutz on what became known as Kibbutz Hill, seemingly conducting their daily working and family lives like all other communities of that nature whilst producing an unbelievable over 2 million bullets (40,000 a day) in the underground manufacturing facility.

The code name of the kibbutz was the Ayalon Institute and in the late 1980s the above ground buildings and the 4-meter underground manufacturing complex was declared a National Heritage Site by then Minister of Defense, the late Yitzchak Rabin, and the same year opened as museum and visitors center under the auspices of The Council for Heritage Sites in Israel and a wide range of public and private benefactors, including the JNF.

The various Jewish underground groups that operated during the British Mandatory Palestine period were quite adept at smuggling weapons into (and hiding in) the country and also in creating small secret arms factories, the latter able to build Sten submachine guns, but not the large quantities of 9 mm bullets needed for the firearms.

In the late 1930s, Yosef Avidar, head of a secret organization that would become the forerunner of the Israel Military Industry, organized the purchase of necessary machinery built and sold in Poland in the late 1938s, but with the British having spies everywhere and all shipping being carefully watched, those machines could only be sent to Beirut. It took almost four years for the much awaited machinery to be smuggled from the Lebanese capital into Mandatory Palestine – the smugglers were actually Jewish British Army servicemen!

That machinery, much of which in present times having been renovated and restored to working order, is displayed at the Ayalon Institute museum and visitors center, some in the original underground facility and some out in the open area of the small, nowadays also renovated, buildings that made up the kibbutz on the hill's modest housing, kindergarten, dining-room, chicken coups and barns for the dairy farm and vegetable garden.

The kibbutz 'members' at the time were made up of young Jewish folk who were waiting to form kibbutzim of their own but needed to go through a form of training. Although the kibbutz itself was a cover, the trainees who lived and worked there in the laundry, bakery, agriculture and large number who went underground to manufacture bullets, eventually moved on to found successful kibbutzim such as Ma'agan Michael, Ein HaShofet, Ramat HaShofet, Ein Dor, Hatzor, Tel Yitzhak and Ma'aleh HaHamisha.

A visit to the Ayalon Institute in present times enables visitors, after a highly interesting introductory video, to enter the laundry and at the press of a button, see the enormous somewhat ancient washing machine gruntingly swing around from its base, revealing the secret metal ladder leading down to the underground area and, as they did way back then – and it is not for the faint hearted - go down into the bullet making of yesteryear arena.

A majorly important component for the bullets was copper and, to conceal the purpose of buying large amounts of this commodity, Israelis applied to the British to allow the import of copper for what they explained would be the manufacture of Kosher lipstick. Permission was granted and many a British officer or official received gifts of lipsticks in order to maintain the ruse but the majority of the copper went toward bullet production.

The story of the Ayalon Institute, and all that is to be learned of this incredible feat of deception, production and important contribution to arming the Jewish underground groups in British Mandatory Palestine, is fascinating and beggars belief that until the late 1970s it was kept relatively secret.

In 1953, David Ben Gurion commented on the underground production of arms taking place in various parts of the country, including the Ayalon Institute. He said:

"Less known is the modest operation carried out under unusually hard conditions – the first production of Jewish weapons in Eretz Israel. I doubt if there was a braver operation in the Yishuv, one of constant danger, that the hidden work of the underground arms industry (Ta'as), and I do not know what was greater: the modesty of those involved or their valor."

 

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Sunday, 25 February 2024

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