When she was 13 years old, Linda Salameh gathered together her clothes and joined a group of children leaving the Jewish quarter in Damascus for what they were calling their "annual field trip" to Beirut.
She later recounted the story to her daughter, Riki Baruch, recalling the group of frightened children, loaded on a truck and deposited in southern Lebanon. For the next 11 hours, they marched into the unknown, throughout the night, listening to the sounds of barking dogs and crying children who wanted to return to their mothers.
When morning came, they arrived at their destination, Kibbutz Kfar Giladi in what is now the north of Israel. Due to concern that they would be discovered by the border police of the British Mandatory government, which ruled the country at the time, the children were whisked into hiding places in the kibbutz chicken coops and cowsheds.
There are thousands of stories like Linda Salameh's. It is thought that between 1922 and 1948, when Israel became independent, 8,000 to 10,000 Jewish immigrants arrived in the country via Kfar Giladi, despite British restrictions on immigration. The kibbutz provided them shelter and protection and prepared them for life in the country.
"It was a task that the kibbutz members took upon themselves," said Tora Shraiber, a lawyer by profession and the coordinator of the historic preservation committee on the kibbutz. "They viewed it as a mission," she said. "Little talk, but a lot of action."
While Kfar Giladi's contributions in settling the land and defending the country are celebrated, its role in settling thousands of illegal Jewish immigrants during the Mandate period is a story too few tell, Shraiber said. But with the 100th anniversary of Kfar Giladi only three years away, a group of kibbutz members, along with members of families that left the collective community, have launched an effort to document the stories of the illegal immigrants, the ma'apilim as they are known in Hebrew.
The kibbutz's role in sheltering newcomers to Israel was particularly extraordinary in light of the meager resources available at the time. Between 1916, when it was founded, and 1932, 40-70 people lived on the kibbutz. In 1932, another 100 residents, mostly young immigrants, joined.
Among those who passed through the kibbutz were immigrants from nearby Jewish communities in Syria, Lebanon and Turkey, as well as from Iraq and even Afghanistan. European Jews who reached the country via Lebanon also made their way through Kfar Giladi. Some came on their own. Others arrived with the support of organized efforts, one of which was known as Mivtzah Ha'elef, literally "Operation Thousand," which brought about 1,300 children, including Linda Salameh, out of Syria between 1945 and 1948. The effort has also been referred to as the Aliyah of the Thousand.
Once at Kfar Giladi, the children were hidden and given work clothes to help them blend in with the kibbutz population. Then, when it was apparent that the trip would be safe, they were taken to the northern Galilee village of Rosh Pina.
Over the years, some of the immigrants have returned to Kfar Giladi with their families, showing their grandchildren the chicken coops or the cowsheds where they were hidden.
Today, however, "there is concern that those who are still able to give a first-person account of this undertaking, those who immigrated via Kfar Giladi, as well as the volunteers themselves, are getting older and are passing away and that we are missing our last chance to document this important and unknown undertaking," said author Mirik Snir, a member of the kibbutz. "It's a detective operation in every respect, and the people's excitement and the stories that are revealed to us are tremendous."
Word of the effort is reaching ever wider audiences. Riki Baruch, Linda Salameh's daughter, posted information about the project on the Facebook page maintained by Jewish immigrants from Damascus. Torah Shraiber, the lawyer and coordinator of the project, has herself conducted interviews with some of the immigrants. "They always remember the fear," she said, "the first smells of Kfar Giladi, the crying, the caresses. They are memories that are etched for a lifetime."
Damascus native Menachem Luzia, a member of Kibbutz Afikim who was one of those responsible for helping the children settle in the country, has also kept a notebook with details about every child who arrived through Mitzvah Ha'elef.
The documentation project will also preserve the story of people like Haya Karol, one of the founders of Kfar Giladi, a modest chicken coop hand. According to historian Smadar Sinai, Karol was also the spirit behind the efforts to assist new immigrants. "It was her personal crazy passion," Sinai said, "and she got other women involved."
"Karol worked in the chicken coops until she died in 1958," Shraiber recalled. "Every day she would come to work with a stool, which she sat on while sorting eggs and doing her other chores. She never gave the stool to anyone else and always returned home with it. It was only after she died that it was discovered that, in a drawer in the stool, she had hidden a gun."
Karol's son Gadi would further her legacy in the military by helping to bring Jews who had fled Syria via the Lebanese coast to Israel.