Kiryat Shmona municipal museum
Yarden Erlich, Dr. Amir Goldstein and Haim Eliaz in early Kiryat Shmona living quarters. Photo by Gil Eliahu
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Most Israelis associate the northern city of Kiryat Shmona with two things: closing factories and Katyusha rocket explosions. The city doesn't even seem to have a strong pull on its own 24,000 in residents.

"For years, people in Kiryat Shmona have dreamed of escaping the city, and they still do today,” says Yarden Erlich, a graduate student at Tel Aviv University who plans to return to his hometown after five years along with his wife Almog. "Whenever someone hears that we are coming back, he asks, 'Why? What are you going to do here?'"

Erlich's decision surprised friends and family who were certain that he, like many of the city's native sons, would choose to settle and pursue a career in Israel's economic and geographic center. Instead, together with Amir Goldstein, a lecturer at Tel-Hai Academic College and the former principal of the city's Danziger High School, he plans to open a museum and visitor center in the city, dedicated to people who founded it: the immigrants who made the Great Aliyah and residents of the transit camps.

Both Erlich and Goldstein grew up in Kiryat Shmona. Erlich is the grandson of Jewish immigrants from Iran who moved to Israel and settled in the city, while Goldstein's family moved there when he was a baby.

The two acknowledge that Israel is already quite abundant in museums, but believe that their initiative will address a real need.

“To this day, Israeli society hasn't told the story of the Great Aliyah that arrived in the country after it was established [in 1948] and throughout the '50s,” says Goldstein. “During those years, hundreds of thousands of Jews immigrated to Israel. Starting in 1951, these were primarily immigrants from in Asia and Africa. Most of them were sent by the government to the Galilee and the Negev in order to populate the Israeli frontier...

“The immigrants who came in Great Aliyah established communities in the north and the south and dealt with geographic, economic, social, cultural and security challenges. Working hard day after day, they paved the roads, forested the hills, built neighborhoods and homes and designed their communities."

Kriyat Shmona, Goldstein continues, was the northernmost community established in those years, and as such it served as a landmark for many other communities that sprouted up in the '50s.

Erlich is managing the museum project in collaboration with many institutions, including the national heritage department in the Prime Minister's Office and the Kiryat Shmona Municipality.

Some of the necessary work toward establishing the new museum is already underway. As part of a project called "The City Revealed to the Eye," which was founded by the Prime Minister's Office and is run by the Yad Ben Zvi Institute, volunteers and 11th graders from the city's Danziger High School visit homes of long-time residents and try to collect photos from family albums. The images are scanned onto a website, and transferred to a municipal photo bank that will serve as a foundation for the new museum's archive.

Soon, students from Tel-Hai Academic College will begin recording interviews with long-time residents, and foreign volunteers will join the efforts to scan historical documents and photos.

The museum initiative came up at the very last moment, says Haim Eliaz, an employee of the Kiryat Shmona's current municipal museum; if the pictures and interviews are not collected soon, they could be lost forever.

The old museum is located in a structure that once housed the mosque that served Arab town of al-Khalisa. Kiryat Shmona was built upon the land of that town, which was depopulated in Israel's War of Independence in 1948. There is a small archive in the municipal museum and not much in the way of exhibits.

"The materials collected here are meager and were gathered with great effort, in part because, for many years, every mayor would throw away the history that preceded him."

Goldstein goes farther to note that the first residents of the city lacked a "sense of history… They city wasn't aware that the stories of the past contribute to fabric of the community."

“The second and third aliyahs consisted of pioneers who tore themselves away from their past. They built something new and understood that there was a need to document it. The members of the aliyah of the '50s … weren't aware of the importance of expressing this story in words. They didn't feel like they did something heroic that needed documentation."

Erlich and Goldstein say the museum won't only serve Kiryat Shmona residents but also draw in hundreds of thousands of visitors from across Israel. “The museum will place the anonymous pioneers – those who settled the developing towns – in the center of the Israeli collective memory as partners of real value to the building of the land and society," Erlich says.