'Thousands Simply Got Up and Left'

In a section on the outskirts of the Yavne'el cemetery lie dispersed dozens of basalt tombstones, without names. Only one is engraved with a few clear lines, recounting a terrible tale that nearly disappeared into oblivion: "In memory of my dear parents, Yaakov and Creina Klein (Keter) aged 35-38 and my brother Yehoshua Yona (z"l) aged 5, among the deportees from Tel Aviv-Jaffa, in World War I 1917, who lie interred in this section and whose place of burial is unknown."

The year 1917 was difficult for the Jews in pre-state Israel. The British army, pushing northward from Egypt, had conquered the southern part of the Land of Israel, and the Turks were waging fierce rearguard battles. The Turks were afraid Jews would help the British conquer the northern part as well. On March 28, 1917, the Ottoman military governor, Jamal Pasha, ordered the expulsion of Tel Aviv-Jaffa's residents. On Pesach eve, April 6, 1917, the first Hebrew city emptied out. Among the thousands expelled was author Yosef Haim Brenner, who was inspired by those days to write the short story "Hamotza" (The Way Out).

Dr. Gur Alroey, who chairs the Land of Israel Studies Department at the University of Haifa, says there was nothing heroic about that expulsion. "It's almost impossible to grasp today," he said. "Thousands simply got up and left, without resisting, and maybe that is why nobody likes to remember or recall that expulsion."

They scattered to Tiberias, Safed, Kfar Sava, Petah Tikva, Zichron Yaakov, Jerusalem. Some 2,500 of them, mainly the poor, wandered as far as the northern moshavim, or small farming communities. They had to contend with the climate, hunger, poverty and typhus. They survived the first few months, but in the winter of 1917-18, hundreds died of exposure, disease and hunger. Most of the dead were buried hastily, in unmarked graves around the country.

Their descendants have been trying for years to persuade the Tel Aviv Municipality to commemorate those who died in the expulsion, or as a result of it, but to no avail. One of those recently rebuffed is Yaakov Keter, 80, of Hadera, grandson of the couple buried in Yavne'el.

Yaakov heard about the deaths of his grandparents and uncle from his father, Efraim. Now Hadera's "Khan" Museum is issuing a collection of articles, which includes Efraim Keter's detailed account of his family's expulsion from Tel Aviv when he was an adolescent of 12. Efraim's testimony, taken down by museum director Nina Rodin, describes the expulsion 70 years after the fact with remarkable vibrancy and clarity. His parents, Yaakov and Creina, and two sons, Efraim and Yehoshua Yona, reached Yavne'el in the spring of 1917.

The family wandered in the fields of the Lower Galilee, subsisting on fava beans and field grass, Efraim recalled. At the end of the summer his mother died, followed a month later by his father. Each was buried secretly in the Yavne'el cemetery. Efraim was not permitted to attend either burial. As the war drew to a close, the orphans from the expulsion were gathered at Sejera Farm, including Efraim and his little brother. There, Yehoshua Yona contracted rubella, was forcibly separated from Efraim and taken to the hospital in Tiberias, where he died. His burial place is unknown.

Efraim's account depicts in detail the horrors of that period: the cruelty of Ottomon soldiers - "They would slice off murderers' ears and private parts in front of the crowd"; hunger; disease; the 1914 locust plague.

Alroey, who has researched the expulsion from Tel Aviv-Jaffa, says that its small Arab population was also expelled, but returned after a few days, whereas the Jews wandered for a year and a half.

Alroey discovered lists at religious burial societies specifying who was buried in which cemetery, but with hundreds of tombstones unmarked, it is impossible to connect names to graves.

"The dead from this expulsion are dispersed in cemeteries throughout the country, without families having any monument to visit," he lamented.

According to Alroey, Kfar Saba has 224 such graves. In Haifa, where 15 were buried, the plot has been obliterated, and the same goes for Tiberias (321 people) and Safed (104 people). Another 75 people are buried in Damascus, to which some had fled.