JNF Wire: 68 Years After Battle of Kfar Etzion, New Visitors Center Commemorates the Memory of the Fallen
May 17, 2016
Adam H. Brill, Director of Communications
68 Years After Battle of Kfar Etzion, New Visitors Center
Commemorates the Memory of the Fallen
By: Deborah Danan
The new Visitors Center officially opened at Gush Etzion last week with families,
government officials and JNF-USA representatives cutting the ribbon.
On a sunny morning in early May, just a few days shy of Israel’s 68th Independence Day, a ribbon-cutting ceremony heralding the opening of the Gush Etzion Visitors Center in Kibbutz Kfar Etzion was held and attended by Israeli cabinet ministers, local residents, Gush Etzion founders, and the descendants of those who lost their lives defending it so many years ago. In his remarks during the ceremony, Israeli Minster Zev Elkin remarked that if there is a place outside of Jerusalem that remains so vitally important to the Jewish and Israeli people, it is Gush Etzion.
The new Visitors Center and its opening has been years in the making and was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the heroic battle that saw the loss of countless lives and the land itself in Israel’s battle for independence.
On that fateful day on May 13, 1948, 127 men and women were massacred at the hands of the Jordanian Arab Legion and local Arab militias; only four people survived.
The $4 million center, funded by Jewish National Fund (JNF), private donors, and the Israeli government, houses a museum which conveys the heartbreaking tale of the valiant fighters using state-of-the-art storytelling. Inside, floor-to-ceiling projections surround visitors and transport them back into history to the hours leading up to the battle for Kfar Etzion—delivering a unique movie-going experience not used in conventional museums. The movie is based on actual letters that were written during the time of the Arab siege and has been designed using computer-generated imagery mixed with stellar performances by actors.
"Today is about the spirit and the determination to reclaim the land, and to be part of the story of the vitality of the people of Israel," said Russell Robinson, CEO of JNF, through a video broadcast marking the museum’s opening.
For many of the attendees, the area holds a very special and personal connection. For Minister of Immigration Zev Elkin, Kfar Etzion was his first home after immigrating to Israel 25 years ago. It’s also the birthplace of his daughter.
Yochanan Ben-Yaakov, whose parents were among the community's founders, was born in Kfar Etzion two years before the massacre. Following Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, Ben-Yaakov returned to the area.
"There was no doubt in my mind that one day I would return here," Ben-Yaakov said.
For Shani Simkowitz, JNF's project manager for Gush Etzion (pictured at left with JNF's Eric Michaelson), the writing was on the wall from the time she was a child. As a child, Simkowitz said, she was active in the B’nei Akiva youth movement in the U.S., and her group was called Etzion Tzurim. Following her immigration to Israel at age 18, Simkowitz was placed in the Etzion Tzurim army unit. "And then I got married and I moved to Gush Etzion," said Simkowitz, grinning.
For Simkowitz, the newly dedicated center is a testament to the continuum of Jewish history. "It's very powerful to think that only one day before the State of Israel was declared all the defenders here fell, not knowing they gave their lives so the State could be born," said Simkowitz. "Now, 68 years later, we're here living a modern-day miracle with 90,000 residents residing in the area."
One of those residents is Simkowitz's colleague, JNF's Chief Israel Officer, Eric Michaelson.
Michaelson served as an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) operations-officer in the area before marrying the granddaughter of an Auschwitz survivor who had arrived in Palestine after World War II to settle in the Etzion bloc. Michaelson recounted that even today, family members from the U.S. choose Gush Etzion as their home after making aliyah.
"Gush Etzion was taken from us, then liberated again, and to this very moment stands as one of the most tumultuous regions in Israel," said Michaelson, noting the death of his niece's boyfriend, Boston-native Ezra Schwartz who was killed by a Palestinian terrorist in November 2015 while volunteering by delivering food to soldiers in the area.
"To any Israeli, or even any Zionist, Gush Etzion represents our home that we have returned to time and again, after years of struggling, battles, and pioneering," said Michaelson. And the poignant and emotional story of Gush Etzion, and its steadfast people, has become one of empowerment and resilience that can be seen and felt throughout Israel.
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