Children dancing in the mud-brick building in the 1940s.
Children dancing in the mud-brick building in the 1940s. Photo by Courtesy of Kibbutz Gesher Archive
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Abdallah Shama
A mason working on the Kibbutz Gesher kindergarten reconstruction project last week. Photo by Abdallah Shama

Naomi Zohar was 26 years old when she came to Kibbutz Gesher. The rest of her family had died in the Holocaust, and she was able to start a new life at the young kibbutz on the banks of the Jordan River in the burning-hot northern Jordan Valley.

Four months after her arrival she married a native-born kibbutznik, Azriel, and during Passover 1947 their eldest daughter was born. A year later, the British left the police post near the kibbutz and Gesher members took over its defense. However, the Jordanian Arab Legion did not stand idly by. Its soldiers launched a major attack on the kibbutz, considered Israel's first battle against a regular Arab army.

After 30 hours of unrelenting bombardment, and the rejection of Gesher's request to evacuate its children and wounded, it was decided to take the children out under cover of darkness and bring them to nearby Kibbutz Ashdot Ya'akov. There were 52 of them, some just infants.

"Two years after my mother escaped the inferno, and after she had managed to start a new life, all she could think of was that she might never see my big sister again," said Avraham Zohar, Naomi's son, who was born after the War of Independence ended.

Gesher withstood the Legion's attack and a subsequent Iraqi assault. The kibbutz was destroyed, and it was two years before the children - and some of the parents - returned from "exile" in Haifa to rebuild their community.

Nirit Bagron, the director of the Old Gesher heritage site, says: "At the heart of the ethos of Kibbutz Gesher, before and during the War of Independence, stands the story of the children."

To restore a symbol of the unique life the children led in those days, the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites has brought in experts to restore the community's original kindergarten, which was completely destroyed during the war.

The work is unique because of the material the structure was built of - mud bricks. It was constructed in 1924 by Jewish pioneers from Jerusalem who later went on to settle Ashdot Ya'akov.

According to Eitan Hefetz, director of physical conservation for the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites, "mud-brick construction is the simplest form of building and relatively quick as well. The bricks are made out of local soil, quarry sand and straw. The walls were about 60 centimeters thick, of two rows of bricks. Mud bricks also provide thermal insulation and are stronger than regular bricks and not too heavy," he says.

The first order of business in the Gesher project was to document the original structure. Considering that all that was left was the floor and a bullet-riddled wash-tub, the work relied mainly on photographs.

Sigal Har-Tzion, who is in charge of the project for Kibbutz Gesher's tourist site, Old Gesher - the Naharayim Experience, interviewed the people who grew up in the kindergarten. "The children lived in their own world; all their activities took place in [this] children's house - children's kitchen, bedrooms, playroom."

But Har-Tzion says the people she interviewed remember mainly the elements outside the kindergarten - the Jordan River, the cowshed, the poultry run. The train, which passed nearby four times a day, was also central to their lives. "In the middle of nowhere, to see such a sight was a real attraction and a strong memory for those children," she says.

The group at work on the reconstruction, all from the former Soviet Union, are part of the society's regular heritage-building reconstruction team. Before beginning work at Gesher, they took a course in mud construction at Kibbutz Netiv Halamed-Heh.

For team member Sasha Yeshiov the work is not new. When he was a child in Dagestan, 45 years ago, he helped his father build a mud house for the family. "Mud construction is a good thing. When it's cold outside, it's warm inside, and in the summer - the opposite. This work takes me back to my childhood," he said.

Avraham Zohar, who works as a guide at the Old Gesher site, says visitors are surprised to know that there were mud-brick buildings there 70 years ago. "Because it's environmental, it seems like something trendy. People think it's modern, but clearly it was always that way here. The settlers simply copied the style of construction they saw around them," he says.

The story of the children, who lived in a kibbutz that was built under hardship, and their dramatic evacuation, will be told in the building when it is finished, "in a way that is close to a child's world," Har-Tzion says. "Our site tells enough war stories. This will be a place for children where there are happy activities," she adds.