Decades Later, Historical Israeli Railway Station Gets New Lease on Life

Site of important World War I cavalry battle to become study center; building will include memorial to fallen.

The abandoned railway station in Tzemach has seen it all in its 106 years of existence: wars, bustling commerce, a small town that grew. In addition to its original purpose, it has served as an army base and a pound for stray animals.

Now the old station is ready to depart some knowledge on Israel's whippersnappers. It is being renovated to serve as a Land of Israel studies center for Kinneret College's new campus. In about a year it will open its doors and the NIS 46 million center will cater to students and tourists alike.

Batrry Rogers
Yaron Kaminsky

Once, Tzemach was a major stop on the famous Jezreel Valley railway, a part of the Hejaz railway. Built in 1905, when the area was under the Ottoman Empire, it was captured by an Australian cavalry force in 1918, in the final weeks of World War I. The cavalrymen's heroic fight is still remembered by their grandchildren, two of whom came to Tzemach Tuesday to meet with college officials.

The officials promised that the renovated site would tell the battle's story and contain a memorial to those killed.

"The story of the Tzemach station is part of the general story of the railroad's enormous contribution to the development of the land in the first half of the 20th century," said Omri Shalmon, head of the Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites. "It's also part of the political and national struggles that shaped the history of the country in general, and of the Jordan Valley and the Kinneret Basin in particular. The Tzemach station is one of the eight major stations of the Jezreel Valley railway, and perhaps the most unique among them."

Dr. Giora Goodman, a historian at Kinneret College who prepared a survey of the Tzemach station's history, noted that the Hejaz railway's original purpose was to bring Muslim pilgrims to Mecca. But one of the high points in the station's history was assuredly the battle that took place on September 25, 1918, as British forces sought to oust the Ottomans from the region.

The Australian cavalry attacked at dawn from the southeast. Back then, the area around the station was wide open, so the defenders saw them coming and opened fire with machine guns. The Australians were ordered to charge, which they did from two directions: east and west.

"The cavalrymen, who arrived at a gallop, leaped from their horses, and a hand-to-hand battle took place at the site, from room to room, with bayoneted rifles and swords," Goodman said.

An hour later, one of the last cavalry battles in history was over, and the station was captured. The Australians suffered 14 dead and 64 wounded; half their horses also died. The defenders suffered about 100 dead - most of whom were actually the Ottomans' German allies - and many wounded; some 365 of them were taken captive.

In time, the story was amplified by the legend that the fleeing Turks had taken a chest full of gold coins that were earmarked for paying their soldiers and loaded it on a ship, which was then spotted and sunk by a biplane patrolling over Lake Kinneret. But divers who explored the ship's remains found no trace of the fabled treasure.

After World War I, with the British in control, the Tzemach station was expanded: Two new buildings were added to the original three. It became a de facto border post between the British Mandate and French-ruled Syria. The railroad carried passengers and the area's agricultural produce to Haifa and Damascus, and the town began to grow.

In June 1946, the Palmach, a prestate underground militia, blew up the railway bridge over the Yarmuk River. That effectively turned Tzemach into the railway's terminus rather than a busy way station.

In March 1948, the station was closed entirely due to fierce fighting between the Jewish forces and the invading Syrian army. The Syrians captured the station and the town, but were halted on their way to Haifa at the battle of Degania.

That was the end of the station's glory days. It was abandoned, reincarnated as an army base, abandoned again, then turned into an animal pound.

But next year, it will reopen as an active study center. And its backers hope that in this capacity, it will once again play a key role in the region's development.