Enigmatic Buckle Mystifies History Buffs

Mandate-era belt inscribed with Hebrew letters has sparked plenty of theories.

An old leather belt with Hebrew inscriptions from Mandatory Palestine on its buckle is mystifying history buffs, who are trying to find out who it belonged to and what the engravings stand for.

Cattle owner and historic artifacts collector Ara'le Bloomberg found the unusual brown leather belt in the Carmiel flea market seven years ago. It had a large copper buckle inscribed with Hebrew letters and a drawing of a boat with a Star of David above it.

Bloomberg, who together with his wife searched for the inscriptions' origin, died three years ago. Now a number of historians are trying to solve the mystery.

The buckle features a boat inside a circle, with the Hebrew letter "hey" appearing twice above it, separated by a Star of David. Under the boat the Hebrew letters "caf," "yod," "nun," "resh," "tav" appear. On the other side of the belt a metal tag is inscribed with the name "Shmuel Lopata."

Veteran geographer Yehuda Ziv, who recently received a photograph of the buckle, thought at first it dated back to the first group who founded the Haganah in 1920 in the Hatzar Kinneret farm, later to become Kvutzat Kinneret.

Ziv suggests the "hey" letters are acronyms for "Haganah." He postulates that the word itself was not spelled out to avoid the wrath of the British authorities, who objected to the organization.

This theory is inconsistent with the spelling customary in the 1920s, however, when Kinneret was spelled without a "yod." "Perhaps the belt is simply associated with the local Haganah group in Kvutzat Kinneret in the '30s," Ziv suggests.

History buff Michael Gottschalk, of Haifa, has a few of his own theories about the belt, a picture of which he received from Michal Bloomberg three years ago.

The first has to do with the story of the religious fishermen who wanted to settle on the Kinneret shore in 1926. They failed due to lack of support from the Zionist establishment, internal intrigues and economic crises.

According to Gottschalk, the "hey" letters - which can be read as an abbreviation for God - may also have a connection to the tragic fate of the 23 Palmach people who were killed in the course of Operation Boatswain, on a joint mission with the British to sabotage the oil refineries in Lebanon, then occupied by Vichy France forces.

"The belt could have belonged to someone who trained with them but didn't go out on the mission," he says, citing testimony by Haganah member Yosef Kostika, who lived in Tripoli and saw the bodies of some of the men who died in the operation. "He testified that he saw a belt whose buckle was inscribed in Hebrew," he says.

A third possibility, says Gottschalk, is that the belt belonged to a member of the Navigating Scouts youth movement. If this is true, the letters caf, yod, noon, resh, tav are likely not associated with the Kinneret at all, but are acronyms of a version of the scouts slogan: "Here. Sea. Conquer. First. Always."

Efforts to trace Shmuel Lopata, whose name appears on the belt, have led to a dead end. "At some stage we thought maybe the belt owner belonged to a group that came from abroad somewhere in the '30s, but we couldn't find testimonies to support that," says Michal Bloomberg.

"The bigger the puzzle, the greater the challenge to solve it," Bloomberg says. "But meanwhile it remains a mystery."

Rami Shloosh
Rami Shloosh