The Words That Drove the First Hebrew Train

Previously classified documents reveal the fledgling state's railway workers' perceived role in Israel's struggle for military and economic independence.

Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet

Immediately following the Declaration of Independence in 1948, steps were taken to define the status of the “First Hebrew Railway,” later to become Israel Railways. The founding document dealing with this issue has just come to light, as part of a group of documents released by the State Archives ahead of Israel’s 65th Independence Day celebrations.

The Israel Railways website explains that it’s “difficult to determine the exact date of birth of the railway company. On one hand, it’s not Independence Day itself, since management of the company passed into Jewish hands before the Declaration of Independence. On the other hand, the first inter-city route was inaugurated afterwards, with the name Israel Railways instituted even later. In any case, Israel Railways was launched amid the unfolding of the War of Independence.”

Moshe Paicovitch, who was among the senior and veteran employees of the company during the British Mandate years, was appointed to head the Hebrew Railway in coordination with the institutions of the emerging state. On May 16, he issued the first management circular, on behalf of the "Ministry of Transportation’s Railways Department."

He did not conceal his great excitement at this event. “A great and joyful privilege has been granted to me to be the coordinator of the railway system on behalf of the government of Israel. You have been granted the privilege of becoming the employees of the first-ever Hebrew Railway in the young state. This great privilege places a great responsibility on us and demands supreme efforts”, he wrote.

“Until now we have all worked for a foreign employer. From here on we work for our own nation and independent government. Work will now be done in our own language and following our own path. We are proud of being public servants of a Hebrew government, and we must strive to make our government proud of us”, he continued.

Paicovitch wrote his employees that “at this time, when the whole nation is mobilized for the struggle, the trains are but one cog, although an important one, in our economic and military organization. Each of us should see himself as mobilized toward this effort, no less than our brethren on the front lines. Thus, our discipline, our alertness, our readiness and commitment to work should be as strong as it is in the army.

“Every person should stand on guard! Each should fulfill his duty faithfully! Everyone should carefully obey his supervisor! Let each of us, without exception, remember that we are all working for the same goal: exercising our right to live a free and dignified life in our land,” Paicovitch wrote at the end of his letter.

The name "Israel Railways" was not yet in use. In internal and public documents, various names were used in reference to the railway system, including “the government railways.” Toward the end of 1948, Paicovitch tried to change this, and following correspondence with the Ministry of Transportation, Israel Railways was chosen as the new official designation.

Passenger trains at Haifa station, 1948Credit: GPO