Well-endowed

Wilfred Israel bequeathed his art collection to Kibbutz Hazorea, where the members slept in tents and shacks. Over 50 years later, the museum in his name is a good reason to visit the Jezreel Valley.

Any of the four passengers in the civilian plane that was shot down by the Luftwaffe in 1943 could have been a reason for shooting it down. In the plane, which was en route from Portugal to England, were the famous Jewish actor Leslie Howard who starred in "Gone With the Wind" and was especially hated by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels; Howard's accountant, who was described as a portly man who smoked cigars and was perhaps misidentified as Winston Churchill, and a third man, who, according to the Germans, was a British espionage agent.

The fourth passenger in the plane was Wilfred Israel, a German-Jewish businessman who had immigrated to London in 1939. In her book "Refuge from Darkness: Wilfred Israel and the Rescue of the Jews," Naomi Shepherd mentions the hypothesis that it was Wilfred Israel, who was engaged in arranging for the exit of displaced Jews from Spain and Portugal and was involved in mysterious escapades, who was the reason the Germans shot down the plane.

Israel was born in 1899 to a wealthy family. During the 1920s he made a journey to the Far East, where he began to develop an art collection. When he returned to Europe he had to combine his hobby with the management of his family's large department store in Berlin. He became friendly with members of the Werkleute Bund who were influenced by Martin Buber's philosophy and established Kibbutz Hazorea in the 1930s. In Berlin, he employed more than 700 people; with the outbreak of World War II he arranged to get them and their families out of Germany.

When Israel's will was opened after the plane crash, it turned out that he had bequeathed his art collection to the members of Kibbutz Hazorea in the Jezreel Valley, who at the time were living in tents and shacks. The only stone structure at the kibbutz, which was built in those years, was the children's house. Now they were informed of the arrival of an archeological collection from the Near East along with a collection of items from the Far East and especially India, China and Cambodia.

Exhausting general meetings were held by the kibbutz members to decide how to deal with the expected delivery. The British Museum, which was applying heavy pressures to avert the exit from London to Palestine in the unstable Middle East of the collection of eastern art would have been, no doubt, delighted to have swayed their decisions.

Only when several members of the kibbutz committed themselves to looking after the Wilfred Israel collection, but not at the expense of their regular work hours in the cowshed and the chicken house, was it agreed that the kibbutz would accept the freight, which arrived here in 1946. It was decided to build a permanent museum and to this end a plan was commissioned from architect Alfred Mansfeld, who later designed the Israel Museum.

The War of Independence delayed its opening until 1951. Then, the Wilfred Israel Museum of Oriental Art was established, with two wings, one devoted to the art of the Far East and the other to the art of the Near East. Over the years, spaces were added for changing exhibitions of contemporary art. For many years now they have been curated by kibbutz member Gabriel Ma'anit.

Kibbutz Hazorea is located near Kiryat Tivon. Along the way, on opposite sides of the Yokneam junction, are the Yokneam roadside shopping center and the antiquities at Tel Yokneam. Among the finds from the various levels at the tel are objects from the Late Bronze Age, the Persian period, the Hellenistic period, the Roman period, the Byzantine period, the early Arab period, the Crusader period and the Ottoman Empire. From the entrance to the kibbutz you go past the cowsheds and statues that are the work of members of Kibbutz Hazorea to the modest entrance to the museum.

In the left wing of the building there are two permanent exhibitions side by side. In one, there are many findings from the area of the kibbutz and its nearby surroundings, and the other displays the Wilfred Israel collection of objects from the Near East.

The most fascinating object in the room was not brought to the kibbutz from anyone's estate and it does not represent a distant culture. This is a pottery jar that is more than 6,000 years old, which was found on the grounds of the kibbutz during the digging of a drainage ditch. The pottery fragments, some of which are red and some black, led researchers to believe that they had fragments of two separate vessels, but pasting together the fragments reproduced the original shape of the vessel, the base of which is black and the central part of which is red. On either side is modeled a human figure with the head or the mask of an animal. The figure, in a dancing pose, is apparently connected to a death ritual. Also found were the bones of a human buried at the site, and the dancing figure was apparently designed to protect the dead from evil spirits. The vessel belongs to the Wadi Raba culture, which is dated in the period between 4800 and 4200 B.C.E. This is one of the few complete objects from this culture and it alone would be an excellent reason to visit the museum.

A wealth of findings was on the lands of the kibbutz and in its environs, which fill many display cases. During the 1930s a group of prisoners was put to work at a dig at a slope near Tel Yokneam. One of the prisoners came upon a hard black object with white patches on it. The object was sent to the dig at Megiddo and was identified as an Egyptian jar made of diorite and dated at the 3rd millenium B.C.E. - the period of the first Egyptian dynasty. It had been brought to the land of Israel from Egypt and is indicative of trade in the region at that time. The curator of the archeological wing at the Museum, Ruty Goshen, wisely left the diorite vessel with the rest of the "local" findings, and did not move it to the display cases of objects from Egypt that are part of Wilfred Israel's collection.

The local findings are arranged in cases by a rather outdated method, in strict chronological order. The information accompanying each object is intriguing: "Ceramic vessels from the Early Bronze Age (3000 B.C.E.) found near the plastics factory," "Jewelry from the Middle Canaanite Period, among them earrings and colored beads, found in the area of the chicken coops." The beads have survived, the chicken coops have not.

In digs carried out during the 1970s within the boundaries of the kibbutz, at the archeological site called Tel Kiri, statuettes of male and female genitals were found. These were "rescue digs" prior to the construction of residential quarters for the kibbutz. One of the members whose home was build on the site is Ehud Dor, currently the director of the museum. Tel Kiri is named after the Arab village that was located there. The name reveals something of a culture that is absent from the display cases in the museum.

In the display case devoted to animals in the ancient east are enchanting findings, among them tiny vessels shaped like sows that were used to nurse infants. In the case of findings from ancient Egypt, alongside a fragment of a relief of Queen Hatshepsut from the middle of the second millenium B.C.E., are tiny amulets for women giving birth, among them a woman squatting to deliver and a figure of the hippopotamus god.

The second wing in the museum is devoted to objects from the Far East. In her book, Shepherd relates that Wilfred Israel was the archetype for the character in Christopher Isherwood's novel "Good-bye to Berlin," who is described as a Jewish businessman, a culture addict, indifferent to the Nazi threat, who sleeps in a bed with a large sandstone statue of Buddha at his foot. In the collection is a Cambodian sandstone head of Buddha surrounded by a halo, dated 12th century, in the style of the temples at Ankor Wat.

One of the most ancient objects in the collection is a decorated three-footed chalice, used to warm ritual libations from the 11th century B.C.E. There is also a beautiful collection of mirrors from various periods. The mirrors are decorated on their reverse side and they do not have handles; there is a special button in the center of the mirror through which a rope could be threaded for holding it. Only in the modern period did mirrors begin to be designed with handles, under western influence.

For many years, the Wilfred Israel Museum was the only museum in Israel that specialized in eastern art; other donors directed objects to it and in this way the collection was expanded.

At Kibbutz Hazorea, which now has about 500 members, questions have been asked over the years about whether the museum is worthwhile from an economic point of view. The furniture factory was shut down when it became unprofitable, as were the chicken coops, but the objects in the small museum have a huge potential to attract visitors.

On the day of my visit to the museum a week ago, there were exhibits by two artists born in 1943, the year Wilfred Israel's plane was downed. In the first hall, Yisrael Bankir is showing a large exhibit of ceramic works. Some of the objects were made by the method that characterized classical Greek pottery, which gives them a special gloss. An exhibit of recent oil painting and prints by painter and illustrator Yohanan Lakicevic closed this week. An exhibition of paintings by Ilan Raviv will open tomorrow.

The mystery of the airplane remains unsolved, but the opening of the German air force archives and the testimony of the pilot who shot down the plane have given rise to new hypotheses about the reasons for the interception. A delay in the departure of the civilian aircraft for England (because of the late arrival of Leslie Howard, apparently for romantic reasons) or the unauthorized altitude of the flight itself apparently gave rise to suspicions about the plane. Or perhaps it was the enthusiasm of the young German pilot, whose first operational flight this was. The remains of the plane and the bodies of the passengers were never found.

For information on opening hours of the museum, call (04) 989-9566.