Moshava Deganya Aleph in a postcard from the early 20th century. Ya'akov Ben Dov from the Bitmuna collection

The Mystery Pioneer Who Found Switzerland in the Holy Land

Postcards from a century ago show the beauty of the Galilee. But it remains unclear which prolific note writer provided the charming copy on the back



A few years ago Nadav Mann, who documents historic photographs in Israel, received a beautiful collection of postcards. One side displayed photos of scenery from the north as captured by Ya'akov Ben Dov, a photography great from the early 20th century.

The other side contained the handwriting of a person describing his experiences as a pioneer. But Mann told Haaretz he just couldn’t figure out the identity of the migrant.

“The place is wonderful, just like Switzerland,” the pioneer wrote on the back of a photograph showing harvest work at Moshava Migdal at the edge of Lake Kinneret: the Sea of Galilee. “It’s a beauty the likes of which I’ve never seen,” he wrote for a photograph of Kibbutz Deganya Aleph.

The pioneer didn’t hide his excitement about the views. He saw “a big and beautiful orchard with bamboo, banana and date palm trees, sugar cane and other such plants, which are only found here and in Jericho, as well as a eucalyptus grove.”

He also described “high mountains topped with many rocks. Many doves are found on the rocks in the mountains here.” He beheld “the Hermon, the Safed mountains of the Canaan mountains, the Horen and Golan mountains and the Galilee mountains.” He said that when Mount Hermon was covered with snow in the winter, one got a “real Swiss picture.”

Ya'akov Ben Dov from the Bitmuna collection

For the photograph of Moshava Kinneret, the pioneer described this rural settlement as “the most idealistic moshava in the nationalist sense.” As he put it, “There is not one farmer that will employ foreign labor. Everything is done A to Z by Jews.”

For another photograph of the Kinneret and the Jordan River, he wrote, “Every piece of land you see here is the Land of Israel.” Next to that, he wrote: “Every farmer has a small house, a stable, a small garden, and a few trees in front of every house. The farmers here aren’t so rich as in Judea, for example.”

The pioneer also documented the “Herzl wave,” a memorial made of stones that Galilee residents had placed to mark the anniversary of the death of the state’s visionary.

“The Herzl wave is a big wave of stones in a small grove,” he wrote. “Every year on the 20th of Tammuz, laborers come here from all around and bring stones so that the wave continues to grow from year to year.”

Ya'akov Ben Dov from the Bitmuna collection

The stone-laying began in 1909, on the fifth anniversary of Herzl’s death, and ended with the eruption of World War I in 1914.

The pioneer also wrote in praise of Deganya Aleph, which he called “the most successful kvutza in the country,” referring to the first pre-state collective. He added: “Deganya Aleph’s living farm is the most beautiful in the Land of Israel. The cows and mules and chickens and horses and tractors and plows, etc. – it’s a beauty I’ve never seen the likes of.” He also met famous people at Deganya like A.D. Gordon, a leading Zionist thinker whom he described as “our old man, our Tolstoy.”

His writings show that the pioneer was one of the people who paved the road between Zemach and Tiberias in the early 1920s. His postcards were sent to Shmuel Yizraeli, who founded Moshava Kinneret’s museum and died a few months ago.

Yizraeli donated them to Mann, a resident of Kibbutz Merhavia who runs the volunteer initiative Bitmuna; the name is a combination of the Hebrew words for house and picture. Bitmuna conserves historical photographs from before 1948 and uploads them onto its website.

Now he hopes someone will be able to shed light on the pioneer who wrote so effusively about the country in the making.

Ya'akov Ben Dov from the Bitmuna collection

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