Earth, Wind, Fire - and Rain

A return visit to the site of the country's worst natural disaster, a week later

The national flag is waterlogged and seems forlorn this week in the pelting rain, stuck in a rock at the edge of the twist in the road. Memorial candles that burned out long ago and an overturned barbecue grill can be seen next to the wreaths: "In their memory, from the Pinter family," reads one. Another is from the members and residents of Kibbutz Beit Oren. On the road rests the last remnant - charred steel strips from one of the tires on the Prison Service bus. From time to time, a car stops in the driving rain and its occupants get out to photograph the improvised monument, which will no doubt shortly be replaced by a more permanent one.

This week, too, a yellow bulldozer drove along the hillside road, removing stones that had piled up along the road. The rainwater splashed noisily down the slopes. Only last week, this same bulldozer had been busy uprooting trees in the forest as the blaze approached. The smell of ash and smoke has not yet dissipated, but now it is mixed with the fresh smell of rain. The winds lash at the surviving trees whose blackened and brittle tops threaten to break off, but mainly it's charred, dead branches that have been dragged onto the road. First fire, then wind and rain, all in one week, so that the term "force of nature" suddenly attains new significance.

The traffic light at the Fureidis junction, where the road had been blocked by the police only a week earlier, is on the blink, so police are again directing the traffic there. Billboards, including those announcing - in the name of the prime minister and the transport minister - plans to widen the road, have been knocked down. At the spot where the firefighters' command post stood, there is once again only an unplowed field. There are no more evacuated families from Ein Hod at the gas station in Ein Carmel, and one no longer has to reach that artists village by climbing up via the banana groves, so as to avoid the police. The grayness has turned much darker and the sheets of rain have done nothing to improve the baldness of the black forest. The charred houses have already taken on the appearance of ruins many years old, though only a week has passed.

Improvised monument to victims of prison service bus Alex Levac
Alex Levac

At the entrance to Ein Hod, where on Sunday last week dozens of Greek firefighters had rested from their efforts, now stands a row of donated Zim shipping containers, intended to store the surviving contents of the village's ruined homes. A mobile home also stands at the entrance to the house of Reuven Keiner, who was hit by a car during a morning run and died three days before his home was burned down. A street bench that was saved from the fire last week was uprooted this week by the wind.

At the home of Josh Cohen - the graphic artist who helped us infiltrate into Ein Hod during the blaze - once again there is no electricity. Then it was because of the fire; now the wind is the cause. Once again, Cohen has to charge his cell phone in the car. In his living room is a Hanukkah menorah holding a single, mute white candle. Nearby is a box of colored candles, full, as if to say: Hanukkah passed over us in Ein Hod this year, see you next year. The chairs on the porch, where a week ago we sat watching the fire, have been scattered around by the wind.

Perhaps in honor of the fire, Cohen shaved off his beard this week for the first time in 30 years - yet another new start. The jackals, he says, have been howling much more than they did before the fire. The residents whose homes were burned are now living in guesthouses in surrounding communities. A Bezeq technician is busy climbing a ladder in the battering rain and trying to reconnect Ein Hod with the world. The sculptor Ursula Malbin, aged 94, has already put up a new fence around her home, in place of the one that was destroyed in the fire.

"There is an amazing dynamic here of mutual help," says Cohen. "All the people who stayed buried in their holes for years have come out to assist. The community center has enough free meals for a village and a half, and the cultural hall has a mountain of donated clothes. The girls have sorted them into separate piles for men, women and children and according to size. It's very moving. You can't imagine how many volunteers showed up. They helped us clean up and remove things. All the teenagers in the regional council signed up to keep guard here at nights."

Last week, all of Ein Hod's residents gathered together for a joint picture taken by Raanan Tal, a photographer from the village, which was then distributed to all the volunteers who had come to help.

New shoes and clothes

The day before our arrival, Cohen had gone to nearby Beit Oren, which, according to the media, had been "completely wiped out." "Beit Oren was not completely destroyed, but they suffered considerably more damage than we did," he explains. His 16-year-old daughter, No'a, has come home earlier than usual from school on Kibbutz Ma'agan Michael because of the heavy winds. Electrical lines have fallen and the doors of a kibbutz clubhouse were blown off their hinges. Before going home, the youngsters spoke about the fire. A number of kids in No'a's class had their homes damaged or destroyed in the fire. They are now living in a guesthouse, separate from their parents, and are enjoying it. They have been given new shoes from Italy and clothes from the Israeli manufacturer Fox, No'a reports. Noam Shahar, a friend whose home was lost in the blaze, succeeded in saving everything he loves and also received NIS 2,500 for new clothes, she giggles.

A shipping container stands alongside the former home of sculptor Valentina Lazar. Only the stone statues survived, forming a circle round the empty plot where not long ago her wooden house had been.

In a small Arab house, the photo historian Vivienne Silver-Brody is busy as usual: The fire skipped over her studio, but completely burned the home opposite, belonging to the Fagan family, which is now surrounded by a fence with a warning of the "dangerous building." Only the telephone and Internet are still not working. Silver-Brody's minute studio holds ancient photographic treasures from Palestine, and on the table lies a copy of her book, "Documentors of the Dream: Jewish Photographers in the Land of Israel, 1890-1933."

Silver-Brody, born in what was then Rhodesia, says she was under terrible strain for three days because she did not know if her home and studio had survived. Fortunately, she managed to remove her precious photographs, "because this is our second fire." Among her treasures is a letter from the Yehoshua Rahman photo studio in Harakevet Street in Jaffa, dated June 19, 1930, stating: "Sir, As representative for the advertising [department] of the daily Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat, which is published in Jerusalem every day and is much sought-after also in many places in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, I would like to ask you whether you would like to give them advertisements. I believe there is no need to write to you about this newspaper, which is well known all over the country."

The oldest photo in Silver-Brody's studio is by Frances Prith, of a Jerusalem scene, from 1863. In another photograph we can see "Mr. Baxter" and "Mr. Serolding" sitting at the entrance to their tent in Nablus in 1888. All of these were rescued from the fire.

Rolls of thunder have replaced the rumble of firefighting planes from the previous week. Charred branches and branches broken by the storm lie on the trails through the village. Last Saturday, the police once again closed off the road and the Habayit restaurant in the neighboring village of Ein Hud was left deserted. On Sunday, too, it was almost empty.

Mubarak Abu al-Heije, the village head and owner of the restaurant, says that authorities went overboard in scaring people. "I didn't understand why they told people not to come up here," he says. "Last week [the restaurant] had to throw away the entire stock for Friday and Saturday, and now it looks like we have to do that again. It's not enough that the fire prevented people from coming here? What's this business of stopping them from coming now, too? It's not nice. There are people here who want to make a living. What's dangerous here? I'm not crying but I'm telling the establishment: Please behave appropriately. There's no more fire here. Does the government intend to compensate us? If not, we're lost."

This week the village council took a historic decision. They invited residents of Ein Hod whose homes were burned to come and be hosted in their homes. The homes in Ein Hod, needless to say, were once the homes of Ein Hud residents. We comforted ourselves with majadara, made from lentils and wheat groats (instead of rice ), and with a nut paste that chef Mubarak invented.

There is more water now than all the supertankers can hold, pouring down the slopes. The cows have also returned to the cowshed on Kibbutz Nir Etzion. A bus is bringing the children back home from school. The radio reports that there are floods in the north. A vehicle belonging to the Belfor Express disaster-recovery company is heading toward Beit Oren.

"Take the driver's wheel, take responsibility" the slogan reads on the wall of the Damon Prison, where the bus taking the wardens was trying to go. A thick tree trunk is still smoking in Beit Oren even though a week has elapsed, even though there has been so much rain. In the Tennis neighborhood at the southern end of the kibbutz, a fleet of vehicles is parked, with the logo "Mor and Sons, rehabilitation of fire and water damage." The company's workers have spread out over the damaged homes in their white disposable and environmentally-friendly cloaks, looking like NASA space scientists.

In one of the kibbutz apartments that was relatively lightly damaged, the Belfor documentation department is packing up the contents so that they can begin cleaning and painting. Empty beer bottles are scattered around and children's drawings can still be seen on the refrigerator; a parent's guide to raising children lies on the floor. Eran Cohen, one of the workers, says the house will be back in shape by tomorrow night. "Now we are fixing the cracks in the walls and painting. That's our job. Someone else would take a month to do it," he boasts.

The sofas that were saved by two kibbutz members, Boaz and Gantz, where we had sat a week earlier, are now drenched in water. Gantz's sun deck is also soaked with rain. A long row of cars winds its way between the houses: The State Control Committee members have arrived to see things for themselves before they make a decision about setting up a commission of inquiry.