On the road going east from Rehovot, just past Kibbutz Hulda and the adjacent Barkan Wineries, lies the first forest planted by the Jewish National Fund – Hulda Forest. It was planted on 500 acres bought from a local Arab tribe in 1905 which were intended to be divided up into small farms, but overgrazing had rendered the land so barren that nobody wanted the plots.
In 1908 the newly established Jewish National Fund decided to plant a forest there in honour of Theodor Herzl who had died four years previously. After a failed initial attempt led by a stubborn German agronomist who tried to apply European knowledge to the unsuitable environment, a pine forest was finally planted there in 1912.
Hulda Forest also hosted a training school for newly arrived Jews wishing to learn agricultural skills and its pupils went on to found collective farms such as Ein Harod, Kfar Yehezkel and Ginegar. One of Hulda’s alumni was Binyamin Munter who was killed at Tel Hai on March 1st 1920, together with Sara Chisik, Joseph Trumpeldor and five others. Munter was found trying to shield Sara with his body from the lethal grenade attack which killed them both.
In 1929, when Arab riots broke out all over what was then Mandate Palestine, including the notorious massacre in Hevron, Hulda too was attacked. Sara Chisik’s brother Ephraim – a member of the Haganah – was sent to help the 24 defenders of Hulda resist the Arab attack on the isolated farm. Severely outnumbered and with their situation worsening, Chisik ordered his comrades to seek refuge inside the stone-built main house, Beit Herzl, providing cover as they went.
The last to go, Chisik was hit by a fatal bullet as he ran for the shelter of the house. The other defenders managed to hold off the attackers, but when the British police later arrived, they forced the residents of Hulda to evacuate the farm, refusing to allow them to take Chisik’s body with them. He was buried at the site some days later and in 1937 the sculptress Batya Lishansky completed seven years of work on the monument named ‘Labour and Defence’ at the site of his grave.
The Jerusalem stone statue shows Ephraim Chisik extending a protective arm over his sister Sara and another figure, presumed to be Binyamin Munter, all surrounded by agricultural tools and sheaves of wheat.
After the 1929 riots, Hulda forest lay abandoned for over a year until, in 1931, a group of young pioneers from Poland arrived there to study agriculture. In 1937 they founded Kibbutz Hulda on a more defensible site about a kilometre and a half to the west.
Not far from Beit Herzl and the monument to Ephraim Chisik lies another memorial which commemorates Lieutenant Tal Tsemach who was born on Kibbutz Hulda.
Tal was killed during the second Intifada on March 19th 2002, aged 20, when Hamas terrorists belonging to Izz al Din al Kassam attacked an army training camp in the Jordan Valley. In the ensuing gun fight, Tal was killed trying to defend his soldiers.
Connecting the two memorials is a beautiful long avenue of Washingtonia palm trees, surrounded by the vineyards which supply the nearby winery. The avenue is, however, more than just a dusty road; it links two young men who lost their lives seventy-three years apart – long before and long after Israel became independent – but for the same reason.
On Israel’s annual Memorial Day we remember all the men and women who, like Ephraim and Tal, gave their lives so that this country could become – and remain – a place of refuge for Jews from anywhere in the world in need of a haven.
יהי זכרם ברוך
May their memories be blessed.