“Three elements came first to Nirim in the desert: the cows, the babies and the library. The cows – a testament to the growth of the farm, the babies – a testament to faith in the future, and the library – a sign and parable of high culture.” (Shula Ram, one of the founders of Kibbutz Nirim, in her introduction to the book The First Fifty Years, 1946-1996 (Hebrew), published in honor of Nirim’s fiftieth anniversary)
Nirim’s beginnings were very modest – just four shacks comprised the first settlement point for Kibbutz Nirim (then Dangur), on land just a few kilometers from its current location. The kibbutz was set up before the State of Israel had even been born, just after Yom Kippur in 1946, as part of the “11 points” plan, when 11 new settlement points were established overnight and under the nose of the British authorities, most of them in the southern Negev region.
Nirim is a kibbutz established by Jews born in Israel, or “sabras” (the nickname refers to a desert cactus known to be prickly on the outside but sweet and soft on the interior). They were alumni of the Hashomer Hatza’ir youth movement affiliated with Labor Zionism, who also served in the Palmach, a branch of the Haganah. Later, they were joined by additional groups of immigrants from various countries, but some of that rough and stubborn “sabra-ness” stuck to all the members of the kibbutz’s founding generation, and helped them overcome the many difficulties they encountered over the years.
39 young men and women lived in the small outpost that comprised Kibbutz Nirim at the time, cultivating and protecting it. They worked in agriculture, in difficult conditions where water was brought in wagons and handed out sparingly. Aware of the dangers of residing in a border community, the kibbutz members fortified their location as much as they could, building bunkers and defensive trenches.
In their difficult and heroic battle during the War of Independence, members of Nirim faced an attack by hundreds of Egyptian soldiers who stormed the simple fence erected around their settlement point in Dangur. Somehow, someway, they managed to stop them. With the few weapons they had, they systematically and intelligently fought in order to create the impression that they represented a far larger force than they actually were. They suffered casualties, but so did the Egyptians, who were apparently stunned by the ferocity of the fighting, which they did not expect from such a small outpost and which led them to flee. 11 of the members of the young kibbutz, almost a third of the male and female fighters, were killed in that attack.
Before the battle, a celebratory sign was hung over the shack serving as Nirim’s dining hall, an expression of the spirit of the times: “It is not the tank that will win, but the human being in it.” After the battle, the destruction left behind was so great that hardly anything remained in Dangur. The entire shack was destroyed. Only the wall and its sign remained standing, a symbol of the spirit of the members of Nirim, who survived that difficult day of battle.
Hardly a year passed, and the bruised but proud kibbutz published a special commemorative booklet in May, 1949: “Nirim Against the Enemy,” telling the story of the attack on Nirim and its fallen. This booklet is an early example of the cultural activity and spirit that would yet develop and flourish in the kibbutz in the years to come. This booklet includes the first appearance of a unique memorial Yizkor prayer, which would serve Kibbutz Nirim throughout its existence during Israeli Memorial Day services:
“We will remember our comrades – our finest members who saturated the parched ground of the Negev with their blood. A malicious hand plotted against the little we built, which we planted and sowed, it could not defeat us for before it stood the faces and arms of the builders of the Negev, of the liberators of Jerusalem, brave soldiers – of eleven comrades who swore: They shall not set foot on our land!”
In the 1949 memorial booklet, members expressed both mourning over the destruction and the loss along with hope and determination to press on:
“The beautiful Dangur with its red thatched roofs, which we so often took pride in, was destroyed and burned, shack by shack. Everything above was burned, but the Egyptians didn’t penetrate the [settlement] point. Nirim in Dangur was destroyed and another Nirim will be built. In a place close to the place where our comrades fell, we will erect our homes. And there in our new place, we will erect a monument, a dear living witness to our comrades who fell.” (Benny, p. 39)
Members wanted to preserve the memory of their fallen comrades as a living, vital thing, not as a silent monument. The flourishing of the kibbutz was their monument, as they promised in the memorial booklet:
“A year passed. Months passed – and we were not healed. The signs of the disasters that befell us in just one year were etched deep in our hearts. Correct are those who say that everyone carries a small cemetery inside them.
We need a monument bearing witness to the lives that were cut down. We want a home which will preserve their image, with their smile.
We will erect a house of culture. A house of culture which will be for the leisure of a comrade after his work is done. A place of emotional and cultural refreshment – such as they, our comrades who are not with us in this hour, would want it to be.
Not a memorial monument alone, not a silent stone. A house thrumming with life, a house for generations and for our children after us.
And in this house their image will be preserved, everything that was and remains alive in our hearts and all they had will be preserved. For them to be with us day after day, hour after hour, and for the expression of our shared lives to be deeper, more honest.
This needs to be a good, warm and pleasant house of culture, a house which will bind to it the parents, the relatives and friends. This is the project which will be erected in their memory.”
The first decade was also hard on the members of Nirim, who had to deal with innumerable challenges of survival in the impossible conditions of a desolate wilderness, little water, blinding sandstorms, and impassable access roads.
Although life in Nirim was never entirely peaceful when it came to security, the hardships didn’t dampen the spirits of the kibbutz members. They remained proud of their heritage, and lived up to the vision of the kibbutz’s early members. This was expressed in the songs which were a central part of Nirim’s culture.
When the kibbutz decided to print its own song book, the members chose the unequivocal title – This Is How We Sing Here – Nirim 1956-1967. The songs were collected by Orah Chasin, a kibbutz member who eventually departed Nirim, for whom this collection was a sort of farewell gift for those she left behind. It was likely published around 1967, before the Six-Day War, when things were relatively quiet on the kibbutz. The booklet is an example of the unique and wide-ranging culture which developed in Nirim, which strengthened the sense of pride and belonging its residents felt.
The first song appearing in the collection is a local Nirim version of Shir HaShalom – “The Song of Peace” – a song that was well-known throughout the kibbutz movement and which was written by Nirim member Tziki Dinstein during the Sinai Campaign of 1956. The song courageously expressed the striving for a shared, peaceful life with Arab neighbors, which seems like a distant dream now but which was sung innumerable times in Kibbutz Nirim. The opening verse could be translated as:
“See gentlemen, there will be a new order,
There will yet be peace on our border
And we’ll travel to Khan Yunis to see a move flick,
With Abdul Wahab, in spoken Arabic.”
The booklet ends with the representative statement:
“You will yet see what kind of kibbutz there will be here in Nirim! The kind that others will come to from other Kibbutzim to learn their lessons [Hebrew: shi’urim – lessons]!!”
Over the years, the kibbutz was considered one of the undisputed pillars of Jewish settlement in the Western Negev and the Gaza border region. A well-known joke in neighboring Kibbutz Nir Oz demonstrates this nicely:
“When you ask a Kibbutz Nir Oz member where he’s from, the answer is ‘next to Nirim’…when we were kids, we tended to make fun of the children of Kibbutz Nirim who thought they were the center of the world; so we said that we are ‘next to Nirim.’ Or in other words: we are next to the center of the world (important, but less so).”
-Hadar Rubin, on her Facebook page
T-shirts printed at Kibbutz Nirim also express this sense of local pride, a pride which even the events of October 7 could not trample. They were all designed by Arnon Avni, an illustrator, graphic artist, and caricaturist and a member of Kibbutz Nirim. On this shirt, the first to be printed, the kibbutz is placed among the largest, most famous cities in the world:
The shirt below, printed to mark the end of Operation Protective Edge in 2014, reads: “Not Giving Up on Nirim.”
During the October 7 Massacre, five people were killed in Nirim – three kibbutz members and two guests. Four kibbutz members and one guest were also among those kidnapped to Gaza. Now, with 2023 nearing its end and after the tragic events which struck the kibbutz and the whole western Negev region, the strong spirit of Kibbutz Nirim is being felt once more, and a new shirt (not yet printed) now bears the simple message – “We Shall Return.”
The shirts are a moving testament to the kibbutz members’ sense of belonging to their land and the amazing project they built on it, despite the enormous difficulties. It’s the kind of local pride which strengthens those who remain. It’s perhaps not surprising that Nirim was the first kibbutz to publicly declare that its members have decided to return home as soon as this becomes possible.
We will end with the final lines of that Yizkor memorial prayer from 1949:
“We will remember them, their nicknames, the times of comfort and pain that they lived through with us. For in all that we will build and erect, their name will yet arise and be remembered. Without words – in the founding of a building, in every dunam of land we sow and reap – for that was the yearning of their soul, in life and in death.”
May the kibbutz recover its former glory in our own day, as well, with the same speed and the same passion that was felt after the War of Independence, a passion to build and grow. May the memory of the murdered serve as fuel for rebuilding, for pioneering activity and cultural creation, things they know so well in Kibbutz Nirim.
In the preparation of this article, we made use of Galia Heller Kramer’s seminar paper: יצירה עצמית של חברי קיבוץ נירים בשנות החמישים והשישים [Hebrew].
We would like to thank Kibbutz Nirim members Bar Hefetz and Anat Marla, for their help in preparing this article.
This article is part of our special series: “Life on the Border: A Tribute to the Communities of the Gaza Border Region”