Heading to the Eretz Israel Museum, coming from the Diaspora Museum, I found myself asking directions from a friendly guard. A few steps later, I turned around and noticed that the guard was guarding the Palmach Museum entrance, a museum I have always wanted to visit. The Palmach was the fighting force of the Haganah, the lead Jewish organisation in the British Mandate during the 1920 – 1940 period, and was originally established in cahoots with the British Army to help defend the Holy Land against the expected Nazi invasion. When Erwin Rommel (the “Desert Fox”), and his Afrika Corps, were defeated at El Alamein, Egypt, the British decided that the Palmach was no longer needed and attempted to disarm them. Realising the great benefits of having an army, the Haganah kept the Palmach alive, working on the sly. In 1947, the Palmach’s brigades were instrumental in the War of Independence and became the backbone of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) once independence was declared.
Believing in early Zionist fundamentals, Palmach members engaged in both farm-work and military training, being extremely useful to the struggling Jews in those difficult times. Thus, the symbol of the Palmach is a sword framed by two stalks of wheat:
I entered the museum and requested admittance. The front desk informed me that, under most circumstances, admittance to the museum was done by reservation only. However, since I was in uniform (and people in uniform look like they know what they are doing and are often left to their own devices, which is pretty handy) and I was alone, they told me that I could join the next group that was starting in 25 minutes. What makes the Palmach Museum very unusual is that there aren’t any artefacts, it’s an experiential museum – a tour incorporating well-made sets and archived footage, linked together with a reenactment film taking the visitor on a journey through the seven years of the Palmach. Here’s a scene from the tour, a connecting path showing the training of the Palmach members in the rocky desert terrain.
My favourite set was the very first one, however I was unable to photographically capture it. A scene from early 1940s Tel Aviv, the set looked like a WWII-era Paris street corner, minus the Nazis. Even an “old-timey” bicycle was leaning against a metal guard rail, in front of a café’s large picture windows. The tour was given by a soldier girl and everybody had little translation machines that they held to their ears; most of the tour were Spanish speakers, with a handful of English speakers. I opted for the original Hebrew audio to accompany my visual experience, and was happy with my decision. The Palmach group on-screen, represented by modern-day actors and actresses, took us on a path that led to their eventual deployment in the War of Independence, after secret operations and capture by the British. Here is a sculptural depiction of Palmach soldiers using a radio during the war (with ammunition at a premium, desperate Palmach members had sometimes turned to rocks to help fend off the enemy):
The tour, which is 90-minutes long (including a 25-minute film), begins and ends at the memorial room, which commemorates all the Palmach fighters who lost their lives in the struggle for the Jewish State.
After the tour I asked the soldier who led the tour if there, by any chance, was more to see. She replied in the affirmative and took me to a room that houses drawers, hundreds of drawers. Inside each drawer is a binder with information on a Palmach member. Some drawers are larger than others, and upon opening, reveal more than just a binder. In one particular large drawer I flipped through a 1941 calender book and held an old pipe – memorabilia that once belonged to the Palmach member, presumably donated by the family. I found it very interesting and would have liked to spend a long time exploring the drawers, however, there was more to see. The next room the guide took me to was the photo collections room, dozens of photo albums divided by brigade, location and operation. I flipped through some and saw that the Palmach took far more photographs than I had ever imagined, even aerial footage. That particular room, the vast collection of photo albums, is not included in the museum’s admission fee; rather it is free to all. Who can pass up such an opportunity?
After flipping through some albums, I bid my thanks and farewell and headed out, walking in the direction of the next museum on my list – the Eretz Israel Museum.