When Israel Housed Top Scientists in a Transit Camp Deep in the Woods

Amid the thickets on Mount Carmel, hidden from the eye and teeming with wild nature, are colorful cabins, some of them containing science books and antique furniture. The story of the singular place that was home to the founders of Israel’s knowledge industry

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A blue house at the Technion quarter, today
The Technion quarter, today. The pastoral neighborhood, where only two of the longtime residents remain, is caught up in a real-estate wrangle that could prevent its possible preservation. Credit: Rami Shllush
Meirav Moran
Meirav Moran
Meirav Moran
Meirav Moran

Not many neighborhoods in Israel can boast of having been the address of an associate of Albert Einstein, of a physicist who was convicted of espionage, of the son of one of the country’s presidents and of a once-in-a-generation mathematician. But all those individuals lived, some of them concurrently, in the small, secluded “Technion quarter” in Haifa.

Few people have ever heard of this little enclave, which is actually a drive of some six kilometers from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. Veteran residents of Haifa might perhaps be familiar with the red-tiled roofs that peek out through the vegetation in the southern part of the Ahuza neighborhood, between the Derekh Freud junction and Beit Biram (home of the city’s prestigious Reali school). But even for most of them, the area is an enigma: an extraordinary slice of the cityscape set off from the road and down a slope, connected to the street by two long, narrow staircases. Sloping stone-tiled paths link a small colony of houses painted in colorful hues, which face the wadi and have an unhampered view all the way to the coastline at Atlit.

These structures were the residences of the Jewish scientists who immigrated to the Land of Israel in order to found the Technion’s departments of physics, mathematics and chemistry, among other subjects. It was here that the researchers who established the foundations for Israel’s knowledge industries lived. Some of them came and went, but others resided in the small neighborhood for decades and raised their children here. Even when the primitive, wooden dwellings became antiquated, and the area was neglected and rundown, the professors refused to leave.

In fact, two of the longtime occupants still live in the huts there. When they are gone, this unique locale is liable to face a gloomy future. The scientists’ pastoral neighborhood is caught up in a real-estate wrangle, which could prevent its possible preservation. Indeed, plans to demolish the neighborhood already exist, and the bulldozers are only waiting for the order to enter.

In the meantime, the former residents of the neighborhood – the offspring of those first scientists, many of whom are now approaching retirement age themselves – come back to visit, stroll the paths and check out their childhood homes, most of which now stand empty. They are apprehensive that a new residential housing project will be built here. Some of them are fighting for their rights as heirs to the houses (which are owned by the institute), and all of them hope that someone in City Hall (which owns the land) will see the need to leave testimony of a site that represents an unknown chapter in the development of Israel’s scientific research community.

Neighborhood children at one of the fairs they organized, in the early 1970s.Credit: Uri Oppenheim

No shared baths

The story begins in the early 1950s. When it was founded, in 1912, the “Technikum” – the original German name for what is today the Technion – was situated in Haifa’s central Hadar district, and was engaged in training engineers. Only four decades later was it transformed into a university, an academic center for research and teaching of the natural sciences and the exact sciences. Led by its president, Yaakov Dori, who had been the Israel Defense Forces’ first chief of staff, the institution launched a campaign to recruit Jewish scientists (or those who had demonstrated sympathy to the Jewish state) from abroad, to establish research laboratories and teaching departments in all the relevant subjects.

The university’s heads realized that in order to lure the “scientific personalities” (as they were dubbed in the documents of the time), it would be necessary to provide them with housing commensurate with their professional stature. Leading researchers would not likely be satisfied with tents in transit camps or homes with shared bathrooms, of the sort in which most of new immigrants were housed. They would have to be provided with a somewhat higher standard of living.

Dori came up with a solution: the establishment of a temporary residential compound, a kind of upgraded transit camp, for the scientists. Accordingly, the Technion purchased land on Mount Carmel (from private hands), the Jewish Agency imported wooden cabins from Sweden and the new homes went up quickly on stilts in a wadi that was some distance from both the old and new campuses. Within a short time, the “housing project” was ready for habitation.

The first occupants moved in 1952. Prof. Nicholas (Nick) Klein, who established Israel’s first microelectronics lab, arrived by ship from London with his wife, Gretl, and their young son. The Kleins received half a cabin, meaning two rooms plus a kitchen and a bathroom. The other half of the dwelling was occupied by Prof. Hirsch Cohen, who was invited to the Technion to found its aeronautics department.

The Cohen family later left the compound, but the Kleins lived there until they passed away. In an unpublished memoir Gretl Klein wrote late in her life, she described the isolated area, which was located not far from a transit camp of tin shacks where new immigrants from Romania and Morocco were crammed. The transit camp disappeared at the end of the 1950s, but the temporary shacks of the Technion quarter became permanent homes.

Among Gretl and Nick’s neighbors were Jan and Josie, Uri and Els, Bill and Marcia, David and Pia, Minky and Rena, Theo and Alice, and others. Their names reflect the cosmopolitan character of the community that came into being in the wooded neighborhood, which maintained a lifestyle of its own, distinct and cut off from the surroundings.

“If the Carmel is a Haifa bubble, we lived in the bubble of the bubble,” says Nomi Tannhauser, who grew up in the neighborhood in the 1960s and 1970s. “The children of the neighborhood that was built around us didn’t come to visit. And our classmates didn’t take part in the games and other activities we organized in our neighborhood after school. It wasn’t because of elitism – after all, we didn’t attend the Reali. We went to the same school as everyone else, but we just felt that we were different.”

Nomi Tannhauser.Credit: Rami Shllush

Nomi’s parents, Pia and Prof. David Tannhauser, from the physics department, whose research played a part in creating Israel’s air-defense system, arrived in the neighborhood with their three children from Los Angeles at the beginning of the 1960s. Integration was smooth. The language of academia – English – was also the lingua franca of the neighborhood’s children, even of the sabras among them. Many of them would spend lengthy periods abroad on sabbaticals with their parents and returned speaking English that surpassed their Hebrew.

“We spoke ‘Hebrish,’” recalls Ilan Gruenwald, the son of Alice and Theodor Gruenwald, a chemist whose research spawned inventions for artificial respiration as well as methods in use today that deal with air pollution.

The overseas connection, especially to the United States, was palpable in every home. There was a pervasive presence of 110-volt converters to which were hooked up “advanced” electrical devices that were brought back from time spent abroad. Eytan and David Oppenheim, the sons of physicist Prof. Uri Oppenheim, who established a laboratory for optics and lasers at the Technion, recall that they were the first to know about the latest fashions and innovations. When people in Israel still didn’t know what television was, they tell me, they were familiar with American series in color. They listened to Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, and had records at home that you couldn’t buy in Israel. The mothers of the neighborhood widened pants cuffs with patches of cloth, because the stores in Israel hadn’t heard about the St. Tropez fad.

The university’s heads realized that leading researchers wouldn't be satisfied with tents in transit camps. They purchased land on Mount Carmel, the Jewish Agency imported wooden cabins from Sweden and the new homes went up quickly on stilts.

The travel abroad, the Oppenheim sons continue, created the impression that the residents were living lives of luxury, but they say, they were interested in spirit, not matter. Their huts were characterized by packed bookshelves, atlases and albums with photographs from Japan, China, the Himalayas. For most Israelis at that time, those places were little more than a rumor. As the years passed, their homes began to look less attractive than the structures that were being built around them. People wondered why it was that tenured professors were living in “crummy shacks.”

As children, emphasizes Ilan Gruenwald, they weren’t aware of the achievements of their parents or of those of their friends, even if they had an international reputation. Mike Klein, the son of Gretl and Nick, recalls visits by the well-known physicist Dennis Gabor, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for inventing holography, and the great mathematician Paul Erdos, who would sit in his parents’ kitchen and compliment his mother on the European dishes she served, and joke with his father in Hungarian.

Ilan Gruenwald.Credit: Rami Shllush

Otto Schnepp, who would afterward become the first U.S. science attaché in Beijing, also lived in the neighborhood for a few years. Another resident was the physicist Nathan Rosen, who came to the Technion with his family from the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey, where he worked and wrote with Albert Einstein. Rosen was appointed head of the institution’s physics department, succeeding Dr. Kurt Sitte, a neighborhood resident who gained fame under different circumstances.

Sitte was born to a Christian family in Czechoslovakia, married a Jewish woman and immigrated to Israel with her in the 1950s. He worked as a physicist, was deputy chief of research in the Technion and was appointed a member of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission. Sitte was arrested in the summer of 1960 on suspicion of engaging in espionage for the Soviet bloc. Neighborhood residents demonstrated against his arrest and claimed he was innocent; after his conviction and incarceration, they visited him regularly in prison. Sitte continued to write scientific articles from prison. He was released before serving his full term, on condition that he leave Israel for good. He moved to West Germany in 1963, and didn’t return.

Mutual responsibility and partnership were part of the neighborhood’s way of life. On their way to school, the older children took the younger ones to a preschool outside the neighborhood. Even when every family already had a car of its own, commuting to the Technion continued to take place via a carpool that left at exactly 7:40 A.M. and set back out for home at exactly 5:10 P.M. It may have been the first carpool in Israel and was certainly one of the most stable. It continued for 30 years, with a regular rotation of drivers that changed only when the scheduled driver and his or her family were abroad on a sabbatical.

Leisure activities were also shared. On Saturdays, different configurations of neighbors headed for the beach and hung out there as though they were one family. Together, several families built a catamaran, which they owned collectively. Cats and dogs raised by the children of one family felt free to enter the residences of their neighbors.

Public events were held in the clearing at the foot of the neighborhood: farewells and welcoming receptions for families on sabbatical, Lag Ba’omer celebrations, and later on, weddings of young men and women who grew up in the neighborhood. “On the day of President Kennedy’s assassination [November 22, 1963] we were preparing for a party in the neighborhood,” recalls Vardit Elata Kindler, daughter of Prof. Chaim Elata, who would become the chief scientist of the Energy Ministry and founder of the Hydronautics company. “Everything was ready for the party, but we turned it into a gathering without music and dancing.”

The children also organized fairs, and used the money they collected for various purposes, such as donating to peace activist Abie Nathan’s ship, from which his pirate radio station, Voice of Peace, would broadcast.

Kids playing with a toy train in the Technion quarter in Haifa, in the 1960s.Credit: Arthur Stotter

In a similar spirit, when biomedical engineering professor Ami Fuchs received the neighborhood’s first telephone line, it naturally became a shared service. The phone was placed on a shelf attached to the outer wall of his residence, so it would be accessible to everyone. Users of the phone recorded the duration of each conversation in a log and left coins for the Fuchs family in a box, to pay their share of the monthly bill. A private-public phone.

“Meir! Meir! Your father called,” the children shouted to their neighbor, a young mathematician named Meir Katchalski, who moved into the neighborhood in the 1970s. He, too, didn’t have a phone, so his father called the neighbors. The children who picked up the phone didn’t know that the caller was Ephraim Katzir (born Katchalski), himself a biophysicist (though not at the Technion), who was Israel’s president from 1973 to 1978.

The atmosphere and the relationships that prevailed among the neighbors were “not Israeli,” adds Tannhauser. Her mother, for example, was a Swiss Christian. On Christmas Eve, the residents, who were familiar with the holiday customs, stood below her window and sang seasonal carols so she wouldn’t feel lonely.

To inform the children that supper was ready, Tannhauser’s mother rang sheep bells. Preserved in her cabin to this day is an opening for the disposal of organic waste from the kitchen to the yard, where it was used to make compost – not a very common practice in the 1960s.

The women competed in cultivating European-style gardens. The finest garden belonged to Rena and Isaac Minkoff – he was the materials engineer in the Merkava tank project – who lived in the neighborhood until their death. When Rena died, her five children buried her ashes under the lemon tree in the garden.

Fruit trees flourished in the yards – apples and plumbs, figs and pomegranates, guavas and loquats – and the neighborhood was dense with pine trees, cypresses and oaks. The playground was well down the slope, below the lowest cabin in the wadi. Perched amid the natural brush were the jungle gyms, the seesaws and the slides. “The pine trees all around were an excellent source of cones,” Yael Minkoff recalls. “After we removed the pine cones, we would sit for hours using stones to crack the hard shell, and then we ‘sold’ the peeled cones to the local mothers.”

The neighborhood’s Lag Ba’omer bonfire is said to have been the first in Israel in which marshmallows were roasted. The packages of the sweet, rubbery confectionery arrived via special delivery from the “sabbatical folks” who were in America that particular year.

A Technion quarter celebration back in the day. The local Lag Ba’omer bonfire is said to have been the first in Israel where marshmallows were roasted. Credit: David Shaltiel

The marshmallows’ only competition was the packages of (chocolate-covered) ant candies which the well-known physicist Yehoshua Zak brought one year when he returned from a scientific conference in China. News of the delivery spread quickly, and the children rushed to his hut to gorge on the bizarre sweets. Now 92, Zak is the last of the scientists still living in the neighborhood; his home is a ramshackle cabin located at the foot of it. Living two cabins above him is Erika Fuchs, the widow of Ami Fuchs. Only their presence is preventing the demolition of the Technion quarter.

Until recently, the Genossars also lived here. Over the years, Prof. Jan Genossar, a physicist whose research formed a basis for the medical-imagine technology manufactured by the (now-defunct) Israeli company Elscint, took on himself the task of maintaining and preserving the neighborhood. He pruned the foliage, changed light bulbs in the lamps in the yard, repaired balustrades and straightened tiles. In 2010, when the huge Mount Carmel fire raged, Genossar, who was then 85, was summoned urgently from his office in the Technion. Passing through the police barriers, he opened the fire hydrant line and drenched the cabins, out of fear they would be consumed by the approaching flames. Genossar and his wife, Josie, who were among the last of the residents, both died during the coronavirus pandemic.

Our parents left universities in the United States and Europe when they were called on to make the academic wasteland in Israel bloom. They are the grandparents of Israeli high-tech, their students established the military industries.

Ron Loewenthal

Crumbling walls

The remnants of the splendid gardens that were cultivated here are today intertwined with the natural vegetation that grows wild on the neighborhood’s paths. The walls of the cabins are crumbling, the wooden blinds are coming apart, and the rooms inside contain books and items of furniture left behind that would appeal to antique dealers.

By their nature, the emptiness and neglect also attract lawbreakers. The cabins are occasionally broken into by passersby, and what remains after the looting serves homeless people as a place to sleep. At one stage a criminal gang took over some of the empty homes and used them to store stolen merchandise. Jan Genossar was naïve enough to befriend its members, offering them coffee and taking an interest in their wellbeing when he encountered them on the neighborhood’s paths. On another occasion, the suspicion arose that one of the abandoned cabins was being used as a laboratory to manufacture drugs. For the Technion’s administration, which is committed to ensuring reasonable living conditions for its last occupants, the neighborhood is a bone in the throat.

Some of the scientists’ children are waging a struggle to be recognized as the heirs to their former homes. Rena and Isaac Minkoffs’ son Michael fought to be allowed to continue living in the house where his parents resided from 1958 until the middle of the last decade. Finally he gave up and today he believes that “the bulldozers will come no matter what,” as the Technion has already allocated a budget to fund the demolition.

But not all the heirs have despaired. The Oppenheim brothers know that ownership of their home preoccupied their parents, and there were times when they tried to arrange the matter. They recall the shivah (week of mourning) for Theodor Gruenwald, when the comforters from the neighborhood wondered, and not for the first time, why the family had to give up the house they had lived in for years. Ron Loewenthal seeks to assert the right of his father, Prof. Eli Loewenthal who, when he finished a post-doctoral fellowship as a chemist at Columbia University, in 1955, came back to Israel to teach at the Technion. He lived in the neighborhood for the rest of his life and died this year at the age of 96.

Ron Loewenthal.Credit: Rami Shllush

“In the Zionist ethos, pioneers were sent to settle on the brink of nature reserves in order to make the Negev and the Galilee bloom,” says Ron Loewenthal. “The kibbutzim are today receiving land for free or half-free, because they safeguarded the country’s borders. Apparently they deserve it. Our parents left universities in the United States and Europe when they were called on to make the academic wasteland in Israel bloom. They are the grandparents of Israeli high-tech, their students established the military industries. These professors were polite scientists who didn’t think about property, were grateful for what they had in the neighborhood, and to their last day believed that it wasn’t nice to quarrel with your employer.”

The Technion is planning to raze the neighborhood, and is ready to begin the demolitions soon, at least of the uninhabited structures. Sources in the institute say that they might not be in such a hurry to demolish if it were possible to renovate the cabins and restore them to their original purpose: as temporary lodgings for visiting professors, student dorms or a combination of the two.

But here’s the predicament: The land on which the Technion pioneers settled is actually a nature reserve – on which any construction is forbidden. So, the idea of building residences for private individuals is certainly a nonstarter. That fact was known to the Technion’s administration and to the Haifa Municipality 70 years ago, as is clear from the minutes documenting the negotiations between the institution and the city in the 1950s. Ironically, one of the occupants of the illegal houses in the nature reserve was the dean of the Technion’s Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning, Prof. Alfred Neumann.

Last year, a group of master’s students in that same faculty attempted to devise a creative solution to the dilemma. Within the framework of an academic exercise, students Tal Arkind, Itay Aviram and Dana Taub suggested preserving the compound in part and opening it for the general public with a café, a museum of the history of the site and environmental studies classes. The problem is that a project of that kind will be very costly, will spark battles with green organizations and constitute grounds for the heirs – the children of the original occupants – to demand compensation.

The Haifa Municipality will soon need to decide whether approve the demolition or make an effort and preserve the “neighborhood” – a site that represents a slice of history and memory for the emergence of Israel’s scientific community.

‘The subject is under discussion’

The Technion provided the following statement to Haaretz: “In 2014, an agreement was signed between the Technion and the City of Haifa, obligating the Technion to evacuate the site, including the demolition of the homes, when the last of the occupants or their partners have left. Even though the compound does not belong to the Technion, the institution is taking care of the damage caused to buildings by acts of vandalism that occur there from time to time, and looks after the flora to reduce the risks of fire. Despite the Technion’s request to permit the demolition of the structures, the municipality has not yet issued such a permit, and the subject is under discussion by the two bodies.”

The Haifa Municipality stated: “The subject is under examination and no decision has been made yet.”

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