with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

The Secret in the Hill

I am eternally fascinated by nature’s wonders. The evolution of an “eye” on the wing of a butterfly. The antics of ants as they scurry around their ant hill, determined to get to and from wherever they are going. Brent and I are obsessed with pikas, tiny marvelous creatures of the high mountain talus, who never hibernate and cleverly collect leaves and grasses to build a haystack during the summer to preserve food for year around. Even a slug fascinates me as it slowly moves, contemplating what thoughts it may have as it slimes its way across the sidewalk in search of plants. But the one creature that overwhelms, confuses, dazzles, and bewilders me will always be the species of homo sapiens.

What incredible creatures we are, and what endless creative ways we have of manipulating each other…let me get to the story. It’s a good one.

Located less than an hour south of Tel Aviv is a small kibbutz just outside of Rehovot. It is almost lost among the new towering office buildings and shopping malls, but if you look closely, it sits atop one of the few hills found west of the Judean Mountains. Today it goes by several names, Kibbutzim Hill and the Ayalon Institute, but most people know it now not for its name but for the legacy of participating in the survival of the state of Israel.

Some friends and I traveled there for a tour of this unique facility. When we arrived, we found a quiet community and typical kibbutz-style area. Some large communal service and administrative buildings were in the front, and edging outwards behind them were classrooms, workshops, and eventually some small cottage-style houses. The grounds were tailored with trees and flowers, obviously well cared for. Not knowing quite what to expect, we were herded into a small building behind the offices that was obviously a museum now. It was once an active laundry. Sitting at the sewing machine and over by the ancient laundry machines were flat black and white life-size photographs of workers wearing clothing styles and hair-dos from the early 1940s. A young man stepped forward to introduce himself and tell us about what we were about to see.

He began with a short history of what life was like as the Jewish residents and immigrants to the British ruled Palestine prepared themselves for the war they knew was coming between them, the British, and the Arabs. Even in the 1930s, they were preparing themselves for the future. World War II was on the horizon, and they knew Jews were fleeing Europe and needed somewhere to go, even though the British tried to stop the immigration. Even then they knew they had to arm themselves. They realized that access to weapons were not so much a problem as was the supply of bullets. An empty gun doesn’t remain a threat for very long. They needed to find a way to manufacture the bullets.

Our guide spoke of this desperate need for self-security and the need for creative planning and techniques to keep their efforts secret. Under British rule, if a Jew was caught with a weapon in his or her possession, it could mean imprisonment at the least, and death more often. In spite of all these risks, the Hagganah, the semi-legitimate security force, knew it had to do something rash.

He waved his hand around the small laundry room as I wondered how anyone could tolerate working in the extreme heat from the washing machines inside and the constant desert conditions outside. Miserable. And I wondered what a laundry had to do with the making of bullets. The young man spoke of the long hours, from early morning to late afternoon, they would work cleaning the clothing of the towns folk and the British soliders, no one ever knowing, even many of those who came to live on the kibbutz, that underneath this very hill lay a military secret.

He reached around the corner of a shelf and flipped a hidden switch. Before our eyes, and with the appropriate gasps, we watched a giant tarnished tin washing machine tub swing away from its cement foundation to reveal a door in the floor, going down.

Brochure in English about the Ayalon Institute MuseumThis, he pointed down into the darkness down a metal ladder, was the hidden bullet factory. He explained how the chimney of the laundry vented the heat from the washing machines and also housed a second hidden chimney that allowed the air to flow into the underground factory. A second chimney was built into the chimney across the way in the bakery, visible through the windows of the laundry to the south. Most of the workers came in before the laundry opened and went underground and the laundry machine was swung closed, not to open until after the laundry closed in the evening before dinner. Once you went down, you stayed there all day for the laundry was the main visible income for the kibbutz.

The underground factory was so secret, many of those working in the laundry had no idea what was underneath them. He told us of one man whose wife suspected him of fooling around with another woman. He couldn’t tell her. She tried following him and when she lost track of him, she decided he was with the “other woman”. After a year of this, she divorced him. Still, he couldn’t tell her. Brothers couldn’t tell sisters, and mothers couldn’t tell their children. The workers in the underground factory were pledged to lead a secret life, separate from their “real lives” above ground. They had carefully crafted excuses to justify their “absence” and many in on the secret worked above ground in the agricultural production covering for their underground buddies. The risk was too great and only a chosen few could know as it would mean the death of all of them if they were caught.

We toured the rest of the facilities as our guide explained the history behind – or should I say “beneath” – the secret in the hill.

At the start of World War II, old machines for making bullets were purchased and sneaked into the country. The problem was finding a place to manufacture the bullets. After much debate, the Hagganah decided to build a secret underground facility inside the hill near Rehovot.

Why this hill? Well, the town of Rehovot was nearby, as were Arab villages. Next door was a huge British camp. What could be less likely to attract attention than a bullet manufacturing plant in the heart of the enemy?

The announcement came that a new kibbutz was to be built atop the hill to provide baking and commerical laundry services as well as basic agriculture to the surrounding communities and military camp. They found a determined and loyal group preparing to create a kibbutz elsewhere and convinced them to delay their plans in exchange for managing this special kibbutz near Rehovot. After much debate, they agreed, understanding that they would have to live under intense stress and danger for an unknown length of time for the security of the future nation.

Once the decision was made, things happened incredibly fast. Moving construction equipment to the top of the hill, they put up protective burlap and canvas barriers to shield the activity, claiming it was an attempt to suppress the noise of the construction and minimize the dust from the construction of the laundry and bakery. Within 22 days they dug a pit with bulldozers that was 8 meters deep, 8 meters across and 33 meters long. The walls and ceiling were made of concrete a half meter thick and contained insulation rooms into which they put mattress and insulation to prevent the sound of the machines from coming through. Atop all of this, they covered it with asphalt and a 3 1/2 meter high layer of dirt. Then they built a small laundry room over one end and a bakery over the other, with an open patio for hanging laundry to dry between the two buildings.

In an ingenious design, the laundry and the bakery served to not only camouflage the secret underground factory, but the laundry machines went on all day long, masking the noise from the machines underground, and the bakery worked during the night when the machines were not working so the heat from the ovens wouldn’t affect the underground workers.

The ten ton oven could be moved to provide a wide opening, but during the several years of operation, it was only opened three times to allow equipment to be transferred. It would take three hours to quietly roll the huge baking ovens to the side to access the factory below, and then three hours to roll it back in place. The risk of exposure during these openings was very great.

Working underground all day long under florescent lights and moderate ventilation took its toll on the 45 or so young men and women workers. The doctors of the Hagganah realized this early on and developed techniques to maintain the health and fitness of the workers. When you think of kibbutz members working on an agricultural farm, you don’t picture pale weak folks but husky, suntanned workers. They installed sun lamps with orders for the wokers to sit under them during their breaks. The doctors prescribed rich food, drinking lots of milk, castor oil, and a solid regime of vitamins and exercise. (In the historical notes, the former secret workers admitted to following the health regime to the letter – except for the castor oil!)

The work inside was hot and tiring, manufacturing 14,000 bullets a day at their peak. Men and women equally had to take their turn on the machines. But they did find that the men were a bit too clumsy and thick fingered to handle the dangerous hand filling and compression of the gunpowder into the bullets, so women were assigned this cautious task, working at incredible high speeds to keep up the pace to completion.

They even had a testing “range” under the laundry. Using a metal tube, they were able to suppress the sound of the test fired bullets, testing one every few batches, in effect creating one of the earliest “silencers” for guns. In total, it is estimated that the secret factory produced about 2.2 million bullets during its three year run.

The secret was so well kept, the tour guide explained, that only once was it discovered accidently by a laundry worker. The woman whose turn it was to supervise the laundry, locking the door and making sure the place was cleared for the underground workers to come and go, forgot to lock the door once. Another laundry worker returned to pick up something she had forgotten and found the door open. She went inside and was getting her things when the giant laundry machine swung aside and a head popped out from underneath. She screamed and fainted with shock. They weren’t sure what to do but eventually convinced her that she must have hit her head or something and was dreaming. It took some work but she never suspected and the secret was kept.

Each evening, before leaving the plant, everyone was inspected for bits of copper on their shoes, clothing and in their hair, careful not to allow a clue out.

The Palmachk, a “division” of the Hagganah which accepted violent action as a solution, was planning to blow up the train loaded with British soliders traveling from the British camp to Tel Aviv. The attack was to happen outside of Rehovot just after the soldiers boarded the train. The Hagganah did what they could to convince the Palmachk to change the location without revealing the bullet factory but to no avail. So they raced to the kibbutz and warned the secret workers to be ready. They rounded up white shirts for everyone and put Red Cross arm bands on, and waited by their vehicles. When the first sound of explosions were heard, they raced in their vehicles to the site of the wrecked train and pitched in to save as many soldiers and others as possible. Since they were working long hours doing humanitarian rescue, how could the British suspect them of being part of the attack? Once again, they slipped through without attracting attention to their activities.

Keeping the manufacture of the bullets secret was one thing, but getting them out of the kibbutz without getting caught took even more ingenious methods. First they used large milk tins with the bottom area sealed off to carry the bullets. But they were too heavy. It was too easy to tell which had bullets and which had milk. They tried all sorts of ideas until they finally came up with the most outrageous and unbelievable solution that worked the best.

A gas tanker truck came to the kibbutz once a day to fill the fuel tanks for the laundry, bakery, and agricultural machines. It usually arrived in the middle of the night when most people slept. They rigged a sealed steal box inside of the fuel tank with a secret access compartment underneath. They could easily slip the boxes of bullets into the compartment for the delivery, and copper and parts were brought back in upon arrival. Who would have ever suspected thousands of bullets stuffed inside the most dangerous place for explosives – a fuel tanker? Imagine the explosion if that truck had been hit?

This isn’t the stuff of movies and James Bond or Robert Ludlum. This is the stuff of creative and motivated people determined to succeed against overwhelming odds, and beating those odds by out-thinking their opponents and taking risks that wiser people would shy from.

In 1948, towards the end of the War of Independence, the secret was still kept, but the equipment was moved to a new larger and less secretive plant in Tel Aviv. In the summer of 1949, the kibbutz members who gave up their dreams to work in the factory were given their own kibbutz location, the prized spot along the sea that is now Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael.

Even though the factory was abandoned, the secret remained, coming into use from time to time as a security research or control facility for the government. Even in 1963, the secret was kept when the Weizman Institute used the hill above ground for some of their scientific research, never knowing what lay underneath. In 1987, the Ayalon Institute, or “secret in the hill” was declared a national site and made into a museum, and the story was finally able to be completely told.

Information about the Ayalon Institute Museum

To visit the museum, call ahead for reservations at 972-(0)8-940-6552. Be sure and get very specific instructions and a map faxed or emailed to you when you confirm your reservations.

Tel Aviv, Israel

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