Spielberg of the Underground

Aryeh Halivni hopes to record testimonies of 5,000 veterans of pre-state organizations and of the War of Independence.

Aryeh Halivni dreams of becoming Steven Spielberg. Actually, the young American-born Orthodox man, who immigrated to Israel a few years ago, has no pretensions of being a successful Hollywood film director and producer. He is merely interested in creating a documentary enterprise in Israel similar to the video archive the famous director has established, which contains interviews with Holocaust survivors. Copies of those testimonies, gathered by Spielberg's Shoah Foundation Institute at the University of Southern California, have been given to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Authority in Jerusalem.

Halivni's project, called Toldot Yisrael, has a slightly different twist: "I want to interview, film and perpetuate the memory of veterans of the [pre-state] Haganah, Etzel and Lehi underground organizations, of the clandestine immigration operation Aliyah Bet and of the War of Independence," he explains, noting that the name of his enterprise was taken from the last line of Natan Alterman's poem "Magah Hakesef" ("The Silver Platter").

"My object is to preserve the personal stories of veterans from that period for future generations, by capturing them on video," says Livni, who is 36. "The plan is to build an archive of unedited oral history accounts."

Halivni, who changed his name from Eric Weisberg , was born in Cleveland, Ohio, studied at Yeshiva University in New York and was a counselor in the Bnei Akiva religious youth movement and national director of its North American branch. Upon immigrating to Israel seven years ago, he settled in Gush Etzion.

Spielberg, he says, invested $50 million of his own money in his Holocaust testimony project, and within about five years his people had filmed interviews with 52,000 Holocaust survivors. For his part, Halivni hoped at the outset to raise $10 million, which would have sufficed to document about 10 percent of the 120,000 members of the 1948 generation still living, comprising 20,000 native-born Israelis and 100,000 new immigrants. He is receiving help in his complicated and ambitious project from Peleg Levy of Yad Vashem and Modi Snir, a tour guide who specializes in trips with a "battle-lore" theme.

"I spoke with several major institutions and archives in Israel - such as the Jewish Agency, Yad Ben-Zvi and the Jewish National and University Library," Halivni explains. "Everyone was enthusiastic, but said they had no money. I was told: 'You raise the required funds and we will be happy to cooperate.'"

With help from friends, relatives and a number of private foundations, Halivni has managed to raise a few tens of thousands of dollars so far, which have enabled him to record some 100 testimonies. Among the interviewees are former Israeli president Yitzhak Navon, one of the commanders of the Haganah's intelligence service; Yitzhak Avinoam, the Etzel's commander in Jerusalem; and Uriel Bachrach, one of the founders of the Science Corps of the Israel Defense Forces.

Although the project is currently experiencing difficulties, Halivni is not giving up and has set a relatively modest goal: to record the testimonies of 5,000 members of the generation in question.

"I am optimistic about promoting the idea," he declares.