Tel Aviv’s First Firefighters

The story of Israel's first fire department

A Tel Aviv firefighter, the Photohouse Collection

Growing up, we all wanted to be firefighters. It’s what we saw on television. We dressed up as firefighters for Purim or Halloween, played with red firetrucks and put out fires with an imaginary hose. We wanted to fight fires and rescue cats stranded in treetops. To be honest, it wasn’t the heroic aspect that was appealing so much as it was the simple fact that firefighters take a great photo. The Tel Aviv firefighters were well-aware of this and gladly went along with the tradition – to no one’s surprise, they were unbelievably photogenic.

Tel Aviv firefighters, 1938, the Photohouse Collection

The city’s merchants were the first to recognize the need and also the first to act: Two large manual fire pumps, two small ones, 200 meters worth of hoses, 50 pails, axes and shovels were donated for the establishment of the first fire department in Israel – the Tel Aviv Fire Brigade.

In its early years, the brigade relied primarily on volunteers. They operated throughout the 1920s – the decade of the brigade’s establishment – improvising as they went along, with no guidance from the authorities. Once they were set up, the volunteers requested that the city council provide them with equipment and funding.

It wasn’t until 1929, when the number of fires in the city rose, that the city council began to allocate funds for the fire brigade. In 1935, a year after the volunteers struggled to extinguish a fire that broke out in the Petah Tikva “Ha’argaz” factory, a special committee was appointed to investigate the state of the city’s firefighting infrasctructure, concluding that a staff of volunteers would no longer suffice; instead, a large-scale fire department was to be built, fully equipped with high-end extinguishing equipment and paid firefighters.

In her book, Surrounded by Light and Sea (Hebrew), Anat Helman notes that “Some of the committee’s conclusions were gradually implemented, and a few years later fires were handled in most part by paid firefighters, while volunteers were left with a secondary role.”

A booklet titled “The Volunteer Firefighter: The Tel Aviv Fire Brigade celebrates its ‘Bar Mitzvah’ anniversary“, (Hebrew) January, 1938. The illustrated graph in thebottom image displays the number of fires in Tel Aviv during the years 1931-1937.

The Tel Aviv fire department was not only busy extinguishing fires and rescuing cats. After the Tel Aviv Police Orchestra shut down, the fire Department Orchestra and the Maccabi Tel Aviv orchestra competed for the public’s affections. In the mid-1930s, the fire brigade won first place in the Tel Aviv orchestra competition.

The volunteer firefighters would also be tasked with providing security for public events. On more than one occasion, they used their fire hoses to disperse protests that had gotten out of hand, a practice that received some harsh criticism from sections of the public.

The Tel Aviv fire department by the water tower on Rothschild Boulevard, the 1920s, the Bitmuna Collection

Tel Aviv’s firefighters, 1938, the PhotoHouse Collection

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Rare Pictures: When the Haganah Trained on the Beaches of Tel Aviv

The Haganah's Camp Yona was located in northern Tel Aviv, on a site occupied by a luxurious hotel today; this was the location for a string of historic events, from the murder of Arlosoroff, to the shelling of the Altalena


Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, courtesy of the Israel State Archives

In the archives of Benno Rothenberg, one of the most prominent photographers active during the early years of the State of Israel, is a series of pictures showing members of the Haganah military organization training at Camp Yona. The photo archive was recently scanned and is now preserved at the National Library of Israel, courtesy of the Meitar Collection. These photos of the men and women of the Haganah running, jumping, crawling, undergoing briefings or simply posing – together and individually – can today be viewed on the National Library website. The training drills took place in the “Old North” area of Tel Aviv, close to where the Hilton Hotel and Independence Park (Gan Ha’atzmaut) stand today. I became curious about the story of this camp, which not only hosted the Haganah training sessions, but also witnessed several notable affairs in Zionist history.

Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, courtesy of the Israel State Archives

It wasn’t always the Haganah doing its training at Camp Yona. The camp came under the organization’s control in late 1947, when the British army withdrew from the area in December of that year. The Haganah quickly seized the vacated former British bases in Tel Aviv, which of course included the Sarona compound (which serves as the IDF’s central headquarters today – the “Kirya” base), as well as Camp Yona. Three days after the withdrawal, Yona Rasin, a Haganah commander, was killed on his way to Jerusalem. His comrades promptly named the vacated military base after him.

Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, courtesy of the Israel State Archives


Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, courtesy of the Israel State Archives

What happened before all that? In the early 20th century, the area served as a Muslim cemetery. The people of Jaffa, located further south on the coast, were suffering from a cholera epidemic and had to bury their dead far from the city (for the same reason, the Jewish cemetery on Trumpeldor Street was established at that time). In 1942, during World War II, the British set up a resort on the cliff for Royal Air Force pilots. Why here of all places? For the same reasons people wish to visit Tel Aviv today. The camp was located near the beach, in a town full of cafes, cultural events, festivities and of course – alcohol. British soldiers from all over the Middle East came to the stay at the resort for rest and recreation.

Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, courtesy of the Israel State Archives

At the foot of the camp positioned on a kurkar cliff, lay the strip of sand known today as the Hilton Beach, named for the hotel which looms overhead. It was here that Sima and Haim Arlosoroff took a stroll along the water on the Friday night of June 16th, 1933, after leaving a café just to the south, where the Dan Hotel can be seen today. There, they spotted two strangers who had been following them for some time, when one of them pulled out a gun and shot Arlosoroff, then the head of the Jewish Agency’s political department, something akin to the Zionist movement’s foreign minister. The murder shook the Jewish community of Mandatory Palestine and fingers were pointed at members of the Revisionist movement.

Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, courtesy of the Israel State Archives

Let’s fast forward a few years – 15 years, to be exact – to June, 1948. Off the coast of Tel Aviv, the ship known as Altalena ran aground after fleeing from Kfar Vitkin beach further north, where the confrontation with IDF forces had begun. In the ship’s hull was a load of weapons ordered by the Irgun for its soldiers. The IDF was ordered to stop the ship, using artillery fire. Where were the cannons that shelled the ship deployed? That’s right, at Camp Yona on the kurkar ridge. Another anecdote is that Abraham Stavsky, one of the Betar youth movement members accused of murdering Arlosoroff, was killed on the Altalena during the conflict.

Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, courtesy of the Israel State Archives


Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, courtesy of the Israel State Archives

By sheer coincidence, two key events in the bitter struggle between the Jewish community’s left-wing and right-wing camps occurred near the Haganah base which no longer exists. What else transpired at the historic location? New Haganah battalions were established at Camp Yona and it was here that numerous new recruits were first indoctrinated into the Haganah when the War of Independence broke out. Camp Yona was also used by the IDF’s medical corps in its early days. In addition, the Israeli army’s physical training and combat fitness training facilities, as well as the Physical Education School, were located at the camp until they were moved to the Wingate Institute in the 1950s.

Photo: Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, courtesy of the Israel State Archives

During that decade and the next, a bitter dispute ensued between the Israeli government and the Tel Aviv municipality, which sought to evacuate the camp and build a large public park in its place. Ahead of Israel’s first Independence Day, half of Camp Yona was cleared away and in April 1949 the construction of Independence Park began. It was not until the early 1960s that the IDF cleared the entire area and the park was finally completed. The Hilton hotel was built on part of the land, where it stands to this day.

The photos in this article and other photos of the men and women of the Haganah at Camp Yona can be found here. If you recognize yourself or your relatives in these photos, please let us know in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter.

Many thanks to Peleg Levy and Modi Snir of the Toldot Yisrael project, for providing information that assisted in the writing of this article. Thank you as well to Dr. Nir Mann for his research.


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Book Diplomacy: Curt Wormann and the International Librarians

How the former director of the National Library of Israel played a key role in the "book diplomacy" of the 1950s and 60s...

Curt Wormann, former director of the Jewish National and University Library, is seen in the back row of this group photo (2nd from the right), along with directors of national libraries from such countries as Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Turkey, among others. November, 1961, the Curt Wormann Archives at the National Library of Israel.

In November of 1961, at the peak of the Cold War, librarians from all over the world came to New York to take their seats in the United Nations Plenary Hall. It was as if the international body’s diplomats had been supplanted by an assortment of bookish types from the four corners of the Earth. Among those gathered was Curt Wormann, the longtime director of the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem. His archives allow an insight into the role played by a handful of leading international Librarians in the cultural politics of the 1950s and 1960s. But they also reveal another story: the internationalization and professionalization of Israeli librarianship against the backdrop of Cold War politics.

Essays and Studies in Librarianship: Presented to Curt David Wormann on his Seventy-Fifth Birthday, edited by M. Nadav, J. Rothschild, Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1975

But why did Curt Wormann and his colleagues from around the world travel to the United Nations in 1961? Among the hundreds of folders which can be found in the Wormann archives, there is one that contains documents and letters relating to the event at UN Headquarters in 1961. Let’s take a closer look at one of these letters, a typewritten carbon copy: At first glance, the document seems like a polite everyday exchange between colleagues: On December 19th, 1961, Curt Wormann wrote a letter to his colleague Josef Stummvoll, the director of the United Nations Library in New York.

As Wormann was formulating his letter, a year of heightened tensions between East and West  was coming to a close: The Berlin Wall was erected in August, and by October, American and Soviet tanks sat facing each other in the center of the divided city. Not far away from the place that would later become the borderline dividing East and West, in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg, a young Curt Wormann had begun his career as a librarian in the 1920s. By 1926, he was already director of the district library. Born into a German-Jewish Family in 1900, Curt Wormann devoted his professional life to the development of public libraries and higher education during the years of the Weimar Republic. But when the Nazis came to power, he was forced into retirement, losing his position as a result of the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service”. Shortly after, he immigrated to Mandatory Palestine, together with his wife, the physician Dr. Carola Gottheil, and worked as a librarian at the Shaar Zion Public Library in Tel Aviv. Although his career had been violently interrupted by the Nazi regime, he soon gained a reputation within German-Jewish intellectual and cultural circles. In 1947, he was appointed director of the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem (today’s National Library of Israel). In this position, he would not only play a major role in gathering Jewish cultural treasures in Israel as part of “The Politics of Restitution”, he would also travel the world as Israel’s leading book diplomat.

Wormann’s letter to Dr. Josef Stummvoll, director of the UN Library, written on December 19th, 1961; the Curt Wormann Archive at the National Library of Israel, click to enlarge

In December 1961, Curt Wormann had just returned to his office in Jerusalem from New York, where he had taken part in an international librarians’ symposium on the occasion of the opening of the newly constructed United Nations Library building. With his letter to the UN Library director Josef Stummvoll, Wormann wanted to express his gratitude and appreciation “for the hospitality I enjoyed during my stay in New York as a guest of the United Nations” and “the possibility of taking part in the Symposium”. Indeed, thirty leading librarians from all over the world had been invited personally by the UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld to attend the Librarians’ Symposium dealing with librarianship and the UN Library’s role in international relations. When Curt Wormann received the invitation in Jerusalem, he immediately and happily accepted, replying with a telegram. Tragically, a few weeks before the library’s opening ceremony, Secretary-General Hammarskjöld, in office since 1953, died in a plane crash in Africa. The international librarians were deeply saddened, but decided to proceed as planned. They dedicated the new building to Dag Hammarskjöld, who had closely followed the construction of the new library building and who was also known as an ardent book collector. Thus, Curt Wormann addressed his letter of December 19th to Dr. Josef Stummvoll, the director of the “Dag Hammarskjöld Library of the United Nations”.

Curt Wormann (center) enjoying a meeting with international colleagues, November, 1961; the Curt Wormann Archive at the National Library of Israel

The UN Library’s new building fulfilled all the requirements of a modern library, and was financed by the Ford Foundation. Thus, both the building and the symposium reflect the globalization of librarianship after World War II within the framework of international cultural politics under American auspices. Knowledge, information, education, and thus libraries, as key infrastructure, were understood to represent a competitive advantage during the Cold War. Curt Wormann’s correspondence with Josef Stummvoll and other international colleagues, mainly from Europe and the United States, allow deep insight into their thought processes and roles as agents in the international cultural politics of the early Cold War era. In his letter to Josef Stummvoll, Curt Wormann described the New York UN Symposium as a “demonstration of world librarianship and a really important event in the development of international cooperation in our profession”. Indeed, this “world librarianship” – to use Wormann’s accurate description – was a network of leading international librarians who contributed to the internationalization and professionalization of librarianship through organizations like the United Nations or UNESCO. Founded in 1945, UNESCO defined its goal as – “contributing to the preservation of peace and security by promoting cooperation between peoples in education, science and culture […]”. Thus, Curt Wormann and his colleagues from the Jewish National and University Library and the Hebrew University perceived the membership of the young state of Israel in UNESCO since 1949 as a means of diplomacy in both external and internal politics. This included establishing and maintaining communication with other countries through UNESCO, developing librarianship in Israel through international cooperation, and defending the JNUL’s interests, mainly concerning the book collections which remained on Mount Scopus (an Israeli controlled enclave which was surrounded by Jordanian territory until the Six Day War of 1967).

However, UNESCO’s stated aim of overcoming cultural boundaries revealed its limitations during preparations for yet another important meeting of librarians, in 1958. As part of the UNESCO program, an international symposium on the role of national libraries was to take place in Vienna, where Josef Stummvoll served as director of the Austrian National Library (before his appointment as director of the UN Library). However, the UNESCO symposium in Vienna in 1958 was intended exclusively for librarians from European countries. Israel was excluded for geographical reasons and this made Curt Wormann’s participation impossible. However, Josef Stummvoll insisted on Wormann’s participation in a letter written to Luther Evans, the director-general of UNESCO, who also knew Wormann personally. In his letter, Stummvoll did not only describe Curt Wormann’s expertise in questions of librarianship, but he also underlined the truly European background of the German émigré who had started his career as the head of the public library in Berlin-Kreuzberg. Stummvoll’s intervention was a success and the UNESCO officials were convinced: Wormann was invited to the conference as an external expert. His conference report, National Libraries in our Time, which was published in Libri, the scholarly journal edited by the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), contributed much to Wormann’s international reputation.

The Dag Hammarskjöld Library of the United Nations in 2010, image credit: Gryffindor

While the meeting of European librarians in Vienna strengthened the ties between Curt Wormann and Josef Stummvoll, their first contact goes back to the early 1950s. As director of the Austrian National Library, Stummvoll was in contact with the JNUL and responsible for issues of cultural restitution, on which he collaborated mainly with Shlomo Shunami from the JNUL. Last but not least, Josef Stummvoll of Vienna and Berlin-born Curt Wormann shared the same mother tongue. Thus, Wormann could have easily written his grateful letter in German, as he had done with previous letters to Stummvoll. This time, Worman chose to write in English, thus expressing the international character of the United Nations Librarians’ Symposium, as well as that of their own professional and friendly relationship.

Indeed, while the history of librarianship in Mandatory Palestine and Israel is often presented as a history of knowledge transfer by German speaking émigrés, the archives of Curt Wormann depict him as one of the agents of the internationalization, professionalization, and institutionalization of Israeli librarianship during the first twenty years of statehood. In 1968, Wormann’s term as director of the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem came to an end, a role in which he had served as an agent of “cultural internationalism” (see the work of Akira Iriye). Even afterwards, he continued to be involved in international librarian associations and to further the cause of Israeli librarianship. He died in 1991. His personal archives are preserved in the library to which he dedicated his life’s work, waiting to be explored.

This article is part of a series of guest articles written by participants in the archival project “Traces and Treasures of German-Jewish History in Israel”. The project, which was initiated in 2012, is a collaboration between The Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Center (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach and the Leibniz Institute for Jewish History and Culture – Simon Dubnow (Leipzig). It is funded by the German Federal Foreign Office.

This project promotes the arrangement and description of archives of German-Jewish scholars, writers, and artists and encourages archive-based research in the fields of Cultural Transfer, the History of Science, the Migration of Knowledge, and the History of Ideas. It offers junior scholars and students the opportunity to combine academic research with archival practice and provide an essential foundation for new cultural and scholarly discussions, by making previously inaccessible personal archives, literary estates, and historical collections available to international research.


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WEIZAC and GOLEM: The Start-Up Nation’s Earliest Computers

Today, almost all of us carry a smartphone and own a PC or laptop at home, but the earliest computing devices couldn't exactly fit in your pocket…

WEIZAC in action in the 1950s

The fact that you’re probably reading this article on your laptop, or even more likely – on your smartphone device – seems so trivial, that most of us don’t even stop to consider how wonderful this is. Generation Z was born into a reality in which texts are read from a screen, and if you want to turn a page – all you have to do is “swipe”. They’re hardly aware of the fact that until recently, in order to “browse”, you actually had to lick the tip of your finger with your tongue, and physically turn the page!

Even for earlier generations, it often seems that touchscreen computers and smartphones have been with us all along, despite the fact that Apple only launched its first iPhone in 2007.

Although computers have existed in human history for a comparatively short time, they have already changed our whole way of thinking, as well as our day-to-day routines.

Surprisingly (or not), one of the world’s pioneering devices in the field of electronic computing was made here in Israel: the “WEIZAC” – the first electronic computer in Israel and one of the first computers in the world! WEIZAC was an acronym for “Weizmann Automatic Computer.”

The WEIZAC started operating in 1955, a mere 7 years after the State of Israel declared its independence, and paved the way for the technological and entrepreneurial culture that Israel is known for to this day.

The man behind WEIZAC was Professor Chaim Leib Pekeris, a pioneer of computer science in Israel, and an Israel Prize laureate in physics, who was born nearly 112 years ago, on June 15th, 1908. Pekeris was a mathematician, a geophysicist, and the founder of the Department of Applied Mathematics at the Weizmann Institute of Science. He passed away on February 24th, 1993.

For six years, WEIZAC was the only operational computer in Israel. A quick search of the National Library of Israel’s JPress-Historical Jewish Press website, reveals newspaper headlines from the period, which informed the public of the activation of a powerful “electronic brain”. It turns out that the State of Israel was already a “start-up nation”, as early as the 1950s! WEIZAC was one of the earliest large-scale stored-program electronic computers in the world, following on the heels of the IAS device built earlier at Princeton University. It was used, among other things, to study global changes in tide, as well as earthquake behavior and numerical analysis. Although WEIZAC was the size of a wall closet, it was more advanced than its older brother from Princeton, with four times the memory, as one of the newspapers proclaimed. It seems that even then, Israelis were good at taking existing inventions and improving on them.


“‘Electronic Brain’ Activated at Weizmann Institute – ‘Memory’ is four times as powerful as that of the brain at Princeton University”Hatzofe, October 24th, 1955


WEIZAC, the first electronic computer in Israel, built at the Department of Applied Mathematics at the Weizmann Institute of Science (from Wikipedia)


Later on, as is usually the case with technological evolution, the WEIZAC was superseded by GOLEM, a new series of computers (we swear we didn’t make that up) which continued to serve the research needs of the Weizmann Institute and other Israeli research institutes. In 2006, the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) declared WEIZAC “a milestone in the history of electrical engineering and computing”, and awarded the “WEIZAC Medal” to the team who built it.


“Preparations in Rehovot for the Presentation of ‘Golem B'”, Maariv, December 30th, 1963


Chaim Pekeris won quite a few awards and received recognition for his work and contribution to science in Israel and around the world. Among other things, he was awarded the Weizmann Prize for Exact Sciences in 1958, and in 1965, he won the Rothschild Award. In 1974, Columbia University awarded him the Vetlesen Prize and in 1980, he won the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. In the same year, he was also awarded the Israel Prize for Physics. A search of his name on the National Library website allows us a glimpse into the wider circles of Pekeris’ life: his prominence in the scientific community on the one hand, and his involvement and relationships with intellectuals from varied fields (S.Y. Agnon, Gershom Scholem…) on the other.


Chaim Pekeris (in the middle) with author S.Y. Agnon, at a ceremony granting Agnon honorary membership on behalf of the Weizmann Institute of Science


The State of Israel can be proud of its position at the forefront of global technological innovation. Thanks to this legacy which stretches back decades and is based on the contributions and work of people like Chaim Pekeris and many others, our country has come to be known across the world as a start-up nation.


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