“Crowds gathered once again, the same crowds that came to the funeral, but their purpose now was different. Instead of tears of sorrow, their eyes glistened with tears of light and happiness. The joy poured out from their hearts and took hold like a flame, spreading further and further afield. Shoulder to shoulder, hands on each other’s backs, the atmosphere was intoxicating, hands moving, feet pounding the ground in circles. The dance began. Eyes were closed, and the heaviness in our bodies dissipated. Everyone moving together in a circle, everyone trembling, in an ecstatic hora.”
(Description written by Yitzhak, one of the first members of the group, on 20 Tammuz 5699 [July 7, 1939] when the cornerstone was laid)
They didn’t originally call the place Ma’ale HaHamisha (“Ascent of the Five”) because the disaster hadn’t yet happened. They were “just” a group of young pioneers, one of the many from Europe who came to build a new home – for them as individuals and for their nation – in the Land of Israel.
The first core group of pioneers, which called itself BeMa’ale (“in the ascent”), consisted of members of two separate groups of Zionist activists – one from the Vitkinia movement and one from the Gordonia movement – who came together in temporary residences in Kiryat Anavim in the Jerusalem hills, west of the city. They were later joined by people who arrived with the Youth Aliyah organization.
The goal was to establish a new settlement point. The question under debate was whether they should settle in the valley or take on the heroic task of “conquering the mountain” – settling in a strategic elevated position under harsher conditions where it was more difficult to grow crops.
These were the days of Arab revolt (1936-1939) in Mandatory Palestine, and in the meantime, the group answered the Histadrut’s [the Zionist labor union] call to take over the operation of the stone quarry in Nahalat Yitzhak that had been abandoned by its Arab owners. The work in the stone quarry was difficult and unfamiliar to these group members who had mainly been given agricultural training. The housing conditions were harsh and uncomfortable; they slept in one central hall and had to guard the area in shifts after work. They also worked simultaneously in forestry.
Within this group of pioneers still finding their feet, was a young couple, Yitzhak and Hanna Migdal. During that initial stage characterized by hard manual labor and frequent Arab attacks, with an as yet unclear future, Hanna gave birth to their daughter in the old Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. Baby Yaara was the couple’s firstborn, but she was the third child born to the first core group.
Despite differences of opinion and the growing pains of those early days, it was clear to all the members that for the sake of the children and their future, they needed to decide where to settle.
In the end, this difficult decision was made for them.
On November 9, 1937, some members of the community went out to pave a road on Har Haruah (“The Mount of Wind”), just south of where the kibbutz is situated today. They arrived during the early hours of the morning with their tools loaded on a donkey, and walked straight into an Arab ambush. They were shot and murdered almost at point blank. The group that arrived right after them got there just in time to see the murderers flee.
Aharon Olishevsky, Aryeh Mordechovitz, Yehoshua Pochovsky, Moshe Bar Giora (Baumgarten), and Yitzhak Migdal – baby Yaara’s father – were brutally murdered.
The members of the small group were beside themselves, but the decision was made. They decided to settle on the mountain, despite the physical and security-related challenges this would pose. They felt they needed to do this to honor those who were murdered in the past and for the sake of their children’s future.
The Ma’ale HaHamisha archives, which have been operating for many years to preserve every piece of history related to the kibbutz, contain writings from this period, which reveal the feelings of the members and which document the pivotal moments of their pioneering days.
These writings are available digitally to the general public through the National Library website as part of the Archive Network Israel project. The project is a collaboration between the archives of different Israeli communities (such as Ma’ale HaHamisha), the Ministry of Heritage, and the National Library of Israel.
Towards the end of July 1938, the group left their temporary residences at Kiryat Anavim, accompanied by an auxiliary force of Jerusalemites and residents of other nearby towns. They headed uphill to the place where the five were buried and began their ceremony to lay the cornerstone for the new community at the top of the mountain.
The companions helped set up the first lodging arrangements and fortifications, but they ultimately departed, leaving behind the members of the BeMa’ale group, who were carefully chosen to be the first pioneers to prepare the land and buildings for the rest who would follow.
“15 members remained. Around a hard rock, they sat down for their first meal there. Such sublime contentment, such a pleasant feeling came over them when, after such tumult, they could see what they had accomplished with their own hands.
The summer breeze blew and swept away the footprints of the crowd that had been there, noisily blowing around the new shack, surrounding it all around, and when it realized that it could not be subdued, it went off in another direction toward the wilderness.
From this day on, on the high peak, the Ma’ale HaHamisha enterprise will continue to develop, nurtured by a few members who have formed bonds of life and death, eternal bonds, with this place. “
(Yitzhak, Ma’ale HaHamisha, 20 Tammuz, 5669 [July 7, 1939])
The first group included a few members who “knew a bit about guarding and security.” The group organized itself with military discipline, in the heart of a hostile area prone to Arab attacks. The place didn’t yet have the character of a proper community. Women hadn’t even arrived yet, except for one young lady who filled a medical position.
They prepared the land around them for agricultural harvesting but mainly they focused on construction – everything from homes to fortifications to henhouses, as well as a water line connecting to nearby Kiryat Anavim.
“Just as they finished the first two [Jewish] agency houses, the children came up, along with their parents. How joyful the toddlers were, who also made the ascent. Their vision of Aliyah [immigration, ascent] was realized and manifested in a deep, childlike joy. And who among us can accurately express the feelings of children; and it is not easy for children, but they are pioneers. And so, step by step, the place was conquered, and it submitted to humans, the masters of nature and the creators of culture.”
(Leah, Ma’ale HaHamisha)
With the arrival of the children, the community transitioned from a semi-military outpost to a home, a place where the members could start families and raise future generations.
One might assume that children growing up next to combat positions, with their parents and all the other adults around them constantly busy with their daily tasks – toiling and working the difficult land while also taking on long and demanding guard duty shifts – would have to accept not being the primary focus of attention.
The opposite actually proved true; the children were a source of joy and hope for all the members – not just their parents or caretakers.
This is how Tzila Cohen-Rotblit described the first day in nursery school for Dalia, the kibbutz’s first newborn:
“This is an important event in our internal lives: Dalia is leaving [baby] care and moving over to nursery school. A new, more interesting, but also more difficult chapter is beginning for her… Despite our best wishes, we are unable to arrange for a nursery school here… At this moment, with the great changes in Dalinka’s young and tender life, we wish for ourselves, that this firstborn daughter won’t disappoint our hopes that we have placed in her, that she may grow and merit praise and renown.”
When Yaara was born to Hannah and the late Yitzhak, the nannies carefully monitored her development and growth. In a journal that was ahead of its time, predating contemporary baby wellness clinics’ records, her weight, what she ate, and any childhood illnesses she suffered were recorded in neat and meticulous handwriting.
By the time she had grown a bit, a nursery school was set up in the kibbutz itself, and Yaara didn’t need to leave her natural environment every day like her older friend Dalia had. The teacher, Bedna, loved the children dearly, and they loved her back.
Their lives were full of songs and stories and they had dolls, games, books and an almost normal routine, just like any child anywhere in the world. It was as if they didn’t live on an exposed mountain opposite enemies who’d take every opportunity to break into their homes and murder them. As if a few dozen meters from the nursery school there wasn’t a guard post equipped with submachine guns and grenades. As if they had never heard the sounds of shells exploding or heavy bursts of gunfire while they were singing their morning songs.
They were almost like typical children, complaining about showers that were too cold, annoying things the adults demanded of them like taking off their shoes when coming inside (paved roads and sidewalks were nowhere to be found, and depending on the season, the shoes could be full of mud or dust), and the long 2-3 kilometer walk to school.
But was this cloak of normalcy enough to cover up the fact that Yaara’s father wasn’t waiting for her every evening at home? That Dalia, Gideon, Eitana and Gila’s parents left home every night for guard duty?
On November 29, 1947, the parents and nannies tried to choose between maintaining normal routine and recognizing the magnitude of what was happening: The children weren’t allowed to stay up, but were promised that they’d be woken up with the results of the vote on the United Nations Partition Plan. In the end, they were dragged out of their beds to take part in the festivities in the kibbutz’s dining room, when it was announced that the UN had approved the decision to establish a Jewish state alongside an Arab one.
But the jubilation didn’t last long. Their surroundings began to become more and more dangerous. Some men from the Palmach (the elite Haganah fighting force) had come to stay at the kibbutz and assist in defending and training the members for the war that was now underway. The children observed their training and lifestyle with curiosity, and occasionally they’d hear from the nursery schoolteachers that this one had been killed or that one had been injured.
School was cancelled and the children now helped fill sandbags, practiced what to do during episodes of shelling (there was no safe room; usually they just lay down between the bed and the wall in their rooms) and mostly tried not to bother the preoccupied adults.
After the fall of Gush Etzion, the kibbutz received a warning to expect an attack by enemy forces who were no longer tied down in the fighting there. This was just around the time when construction of the first shelter was finished. One night in early May, when heavy shelling began, the children were moved into the shelter, which still contained remnants of construction materials.
“In the shelter, I dressed the children and managed to give them breakfast,” kibbutz member Edna Wexler explained:
“We hadn’t yet managed to organize the children inside the shelter when the order suddenly came to evacuate the place immediately. I have no idea where they came from but the Palmach guys suddenly appeared inside the shelter. They removed the mothers who had arrived so as to streamline the evacuation and speed it up. They didn’t let the mothers intervene and look for their children, but instead put one of the little children in each of the girls’ arms and ordered them to run towards Kiryat Anavim. The older kids ran after us themselves.”
In Kiryat Anavim, buses were already waiting to evacuate them to Jerusalem – first to homes in the Katamon neighborhood and then to the Ratisbonne Monastery, where they remained until the end of the war.
After the war, they returned. And to this day, they fill the lawns, orchards, and pathways of the kibbutz with the sounds of laughter and life.