Clockwork Orange: The Restoration of Tel Aviv's Templer Colony Clock

For more than 130 years, a carillon clock adorned the front of the Beit Hava’ad building in Sarona, Tel Aviv’s Templer colony. Thanks to a fervent preservationist, visitors will be able to hear the clock chime again

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Mordechai Geva’s beautiful house in Moshav Rinatya, halfway between Petah Tikva and Yehud, is a shrine to clocks. And with each clock comes a marvelous tale. “It’s a love story that goes back many years. Come on in and I’ll show how it all began,” he says when we visit him at his adjacent workshop, where he is currently repairing the famous clock of the Sarona Templer colony in Tel Aviv.

Geva, 67, is an impressive fellow. He worked for years as a pilot, first in the air force and then in the private sector. He founded Geva Aviation, specializing in a unique and fascinating side of flying: rain flights. His planes increase the volume of rain by means of “cloud seeding,” in which silver iodide is used to help thicken the raindrops.

“We fly in the kind of weather the air force teaches you to avoid. ‘If you see a cloud − go around it.’ We do just the opposite,” he said in an interview with the air force magazine 15 years ago. “The flights are hard, especially at night, when the weather is stormy and it’s hailing,” he added. Over the years, he learned to overcome all sorts of obstacles, such as the accumulation of ice on the plane, and the danger of lightning strikes. He and his colleagues would climb aboard a small Cessna 337 for a four-hour flight. “Sitting inside the clouds and flying back and forth is not great fun. Professionally, as a pilot, it’s challenging. It’s two in the morning, and raining. Everybody else is at home under the covers, and you’re setting off to fly. Right from the start it’s not so nice.”

But now that he’s retired, he has no time to talk about flying. All his time and energy is devoted to the hobby that has become his main activity: repairing and rebuilding old clocks. Still, one can’t refrain from asking him if it’s really true that air force cadets in the pilot’s course are required to take apart and rebuild a clock. “That’s an urban legend,” he says, dismissively.

Geva is the only person in Israel who rebuilds old clocks. “There are lots of collectors, but no other lunatics like me. You have to be crazy to do something like this,” he says. “Overseas there are a few other serious ones here and there.” We are visiting Geva thanks to another “lunatic,” Shai Farkash, who specializes in the restoration of old frescoes and is involved in just about every preservation project of any note currently happening anywhere in Israel.

Farkash’s team is also active at the Sarona Templer colony, where preservation and restoration work is now being completed on the neighborhood’s 19th-century buildings as part of a project to transform the area into a center for entertainment, business and shopping.

One of the most important buildings here is Beit Hava’ad, which was the first public building in the Templer colony and has been through numerous upheavals. Its cornerstone was laid in 1871, three years after the first members of the messianic religious cult arrived here from Germany. The building was dedicated in early 1873, and was used to house the local school.

After the Nazis came to power in Germany, Sarona became a Nazi center in Palestine. “For seven years, the swastika flag flew over Beit Hava’ad in the center of the colony,” says historian Dr. Nir Mann.

In 1943, a cell of three Irgun fighters infiltrated the building as part of a revenge plot against the German residents of Sarona. They planted a bomb near the wall of the Beit Hava’ad building, aiming to kill as many Germans as possible. But, Mann says, “As luck would have it, the morning inspection that day ended two minutes before the usual time, and only six residents were lightly wounded in the explosion.” One of them was Gotthilf Wagner − the Sarona burgermeister (mayor)and a fervent Nazi activist. He was assassinated by the Haganah in 1946.

The British departed Tel Aviv in December 1947 and Haganah forces entered Sarona. Tet Company of the Givati Brigade, under the command of Yitzhak Divon, was housed in Beit Hava’ad. At the end of the month, the company’s beloved squad commander, Carmi Rabinowitz, was killed in action defending the Grin district of Holon. After his death, the building was named for him, marked by a “modest metal sign that hung on the building for decades,” according to Mann. Later on, after the founding of the state, Beit Hava’ad was given to the Postal Service and the Stamp Service, under the Transportation Ministry. In July 1948, the local post office branch opened on the ground floor and, since then, the building was referred to as the Postal Building.

Since the end of the 19th century, a special carillon clock, made in Germany in 1877, adorned the front of the building. In 2005, maintenance work was being done on the building in anticipation of it being relocated as part of a project to widen the traffic lanes on Kaplan Street. In the course of the work, the clock’s iron
mechanism was discovered in the building’s attic, along with the rest of the clock, which had been placed in a wooden crate. The clock was rescued by Yehoshua ‏(“Yeshu”‏) Dray, a reconstruction expert who manages archaeological and preservation projects.

The clock was in very bad shape. Initially, in 2006 it was displayed in the Eretz Israel Museum’s retrospective “Chronicles of Utopia: The Templars [sic] in the Holy Land 1868-1948.” The exhibition detailed the Templers’ successes in various economic enterprises and their introduction of new technologies in many fields such as agriculture, industry, architecture, road development and transportation.

And then came an interesting plot twist: A descendant of the Templers who was visiting Israel saw the clock at the exhibition and easily recognized the signature of the manufacturer, which is still in business in Germany. It wasn’t long before the clock’s new owners − the Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites − got in touch with its original maker: the Perrot Company of Calw in southwestern Germany, near Stuttgart.

One of the city’s biggest claims to fame is that it is the birthplace of writer and Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse. Hesse actually worked for Perrot in the late 19th century and mentioned it in several of his letters.

Perrot is a family business that was established in 1860. The present owners are fifth-generation clock-tower manufacturers, quite impressive considering that the profession has nearly vanished. The company founder, Johann Immanuel Perrot ‏(1835-1898), was the seventh child in his family. He learned to be a locksmith and traveled extensively, before settling down to work for a clock-tower maker in Munich.

In 1860, he left that firm and founded his own. His son, Heinrich, lived through the Nazi era and World War II. He died at age 84, just a few months before the State of Israel came into being and after the last of the Templers was expelled from here. The company website says that Heinrich was a pioneer in the trade and the first in the former German Empire to develop and construct electromechanical chimeworks for tower clocks.

The renewed connection with Perrot led to a collaboration on the Sarona project. As it turns out, the Templer descendants, who mostly live in Australia, had previously contacted the Germany company seeking an
estimate for repairs on the clock, but the deal never went through. Now, following the request from Israel, the company has manufactured a small carillon clock that will be installed in the building where the original clock once chimed, and replace it. In keeping with the spirit of the times, it will be an electronic clock that is based on GPS.

Meanwhile, Farkash took it upon himself to save the old clock, and searched far and wide for someone who could repair it and bring it back to life. Before long, he found Mordechai Geva.

“Once, there were hundreds of such clock towers in Israel. You would find them in churches, public buildings and community centers. That’s how communication used to be accomplished in the 19th century, when not everyone had a wristwatch,” Farkash explains. “In Europe, they were installed in the center of the village or city. The German Wikipedia lists 60 different clockmakers that were active in the 19th century,” he adds. Once the clock is completely restored, which should be quite soon, it will be on display in the museum at the heart of the historic Sarona site. The visitors’ center will be one of three museums run by Ahuzot Hahof, which is responsible for preservation of the Sarona site.

The Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites took on the costs of repairing the clock. Payment for Geva’s preservation work was made possible in part thanks to a donation received from Dr. Carl-Heiner Schmid, scion of a well-known Templer family. Schmid is the grandson of Carl Wieland, a founder of the Wieland Brothers cement and tile factory.

“In 2007, he came on a trip to Israel, and I arranged a tour for him of the sites connected with his family heritage,” says Tamar Tuchler, Tel Aviv district director of the Society for the Protection of Israel Heritage Sites. “Shai Farkash showed him a document bearing an original family seal, and he broke down and started to cry. Then he asked how he could help us, and that’s how the budget came into being,” she says.

The original clock had chimes attached. During Templer times, it chimed on the half-hour. But unlike the rest of the clock, the chimes were not found in the building. Like other collector’s items, they, too, were taken by former chief of staff and defense minister Moshe Dayan to his private home. Lt. Col. ‏(res.‏) Sari Mark, who is currently writing her doctorate on the British camps, was the one who rediscovered them.

Ruth Dayan, Moshe Dayan’s first wife, is related to the Mark family. In the 1990s, during her military service, Mark oversaw the removal of the old military camps from the southern part of the Kirya as part of the renovation project there. Years later, in 2010, Ruth came to visit her at her home. “She said she remembered that Moshe came to the Kirya and took the chimes that were in the ‘Postal Building,’” Mark relates.

When she asked Ruth where the chimes were now, she replied: “In the house in Tzahala [north Tel Aviv], but we no longer own it.” Pictures from the Dayan family’s private collection, as well as pictures in the State of Israel’s national photography collection, show the chimes by the entrance to Dayan’s house. “Other chimes that he took were kept by the entrance to his study,” says Mark, who visited the house.

Mark’s research led her to the house’s current owners. With her assistance, negotiations between the owners and the Tel Aviv municipality reached a successful conclusion. Soon the chimes will be returned to their original and natural habitat in Sarona.

The Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites did not merely set its sights on preserving the old clock. Thanks to its efforts, the entire colony – including Beit Hava’ad and its clock – were rescued. More than a decade ago, the Israel Lands Authority (now Administration) planned to evacuate the area and market the land to private contractors, who would build new buildings there. Architect Saadia Mandel, the current chairman of the society’s administrative committee, got wind of this and launched a battle against it.

“They planned to flatten all the Templer buildings. We came together to save the Colony, in the view that Sarona is a part of Tel Aviv’s history − even though some of its inhabitants identified with Hitler, and in our collective memory remain identified as Nazis,” he says.

“Historically speaking, there is no question that Sarona is a part of the story of the city of Tel Aviv. In fact, for many decades there was very fruitful cooperation between its German inhabitants and the inhabitants of the Jewish colonies,” he adds.

It was no easy battle. “There were plenty of setbacks along the way, because we were struggling against the ideologies that were prevalent at the time, which supported demolishing everything that was there − all the ‘alte zachen’ − and building new things,” he says. “Little by little we managed to explain to everyone, including the Tel Aviv municipality, that this wasn’t about nostalgia but about the culture of a city and its ability to tell its own story.”

With the Sarona complex set to open soon, Mandel is pleased but concerned. “I wonder whether the fact that they privatized the entire complex will prove to be an impediment. Time will tell. When control of a historic site is transferred from the public authority to private hands, the balance between commercial [interests] and preservation is upset. I want to hope that we’ll succeed here, but the primary goal for commercial interests is money, and not culture and history.”

If it were up to Tuchler, the original clock would be restored to its original place − at the front of the Beit Hava’ad building, and not moved to the new visitors’ center. But reality dictated otherwise. “All of Sarona has been privatized, and a private business will soon open in Beit Hava’ad,” she says. “In an ideal situation, we would return the clock to its original place − whether the building housed a cafe or restaurant or shoe store. I think it would also be in the business owner’s interest − people would come to see the clock, and buy shoes while they were there. In the end, these places can’t be thought of merely as shopping malls.”

Yossi Goldberg, deputy treasurer for the Sarona complex, takes a different view. “There was a whole discussion about what to do with the clock,” he says. “I thought that it shouldn’t be returned to the original building,
because the ownership changes every few years, and anyway it would be up on the roof and no one would see its special mechanism.

“Yes, the original object has not been restored to its original spot,” he adds, “but we thought that since none of the mechanism could be seen in the original building, the right thing to do was to install it in the visitors’ center.”

“It’s through small items like this clock that people feel a connection to history,” says Tuchler. “There’s also something symbolic about it: We’re turning back time. Its chime is part of the soundtrack of the period.”

When Geva received the clock from Sarona, he knew he had many months of work ahead of him. “I had to take it apart, clean it, polish and shine it,” he says. “There were broken and missing gears, it was rusted and had sand inside.” But now that he’s close to finishing the restoration of the old German clock, he declares without hesitation: “It will keep ticking for many years after I’m gone. It will still be going 200 years from now.”

Casting a scornful glance at his cellphone, Geva adds: “These clocks last because, once upon a time, they really knew how to build them. They did the job right. Not like nowadays, when everything is only built to last six months.” He bought a new cellphone three years ago, he relates. Recently, when he took it in for repairs, he says he was told: “‘Sorry, it’s not possible. We don’t have those parts anymore.’ That’s ancient history by now.”

Geva first got hooked on old clocks 35 years ago. It happened in Toronto, when he was there as a pilot. “I was sent to bring back a plane from Canada. I went there and I had time to wait around, so I explored the city a little bit. In one shop I saw a clock that had a ball inside it that rolled around on a track. Whenever it reached the end, it knocked a little seesaw to the other side − and it completed this action every 30 seconds,” he recalls with the excitement of a little kid in a toy store.

When he returned to Israel, he found a similar clock at the Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem, which has a fabulous collection of antique clocks. “I told the director that I had to build a clock like this. But at the time I didn’t have all the machines I have today. Little by little, I got more into it,” he recounts. And eventually he built a spectacular replica of the clock he saw in Toronto. After decades of keenly pursuing this hobby, he says, “All clocks work on the same principle, more or less.”

Currently, his focus is on building skeleton clocks − clocks whose mechanism is completely exposed, so that an observer can see just how it works. “It’s more interesting to look at them when they’re ‘naked’ this way,” he says. He also really enjoys running the clocks, although he is often forced to restrain himself. “This one I don’t run because it makes a noise that drives my wife crazy,” he admits.

Mordechai Geva at his Moshav Rinatya workshop. Credit: Kobi Kalmanovitz
Restoration of the clock.Credit: Kobi Kalmanovitz
Restoration of the clock.Credit: Kobi Kalmanovitz
Restoration of the clock.Credit: Kobi Kalmanovitz
Tamar Tuchler and Shai Farkash with the restored clockface.Credit: Kobi Kalmanovitz
Rescuing the clock during restoration work on the building, 2005.Credit: Peter Szmok
The clock’s chimes in Moshe Dayan’s garden. Credit: Ruth Dayan private archive



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