Among the handful of surviving photographs depicting female pioneers during the pre-state British Mandate period, one of the best known is a picture of Aviva Alef.
She was photographed in the summer of 1941 next to an open rail-cart full of rocks at a quarry at Kibbutz Ein Harod. The man who took the image was Zoltan Kluger, one of the greatest photographers in the country at the time, and who documented the Jewish state in the making for various Zionist organizations.
Over the years, the iconic photo became a symbol of groundbreaking female equality in the Zionist movement. Just this week, however, 79 years after it was taken, Aviva Alef’s granddaughter decided to reveal the true story behind the picture, which is now in the official photography collection of the State of Israel.
“My grandmother became a symbol of female pioneers against her will,” her granddaughter, Yael Avrahami, told Haaretz.
Avrahami called the photograph “propaganda.”
In contemporary Israel, every year when the weather warms up, a controversy resurfaces in the country’s schools over the appropriate length of female students’ shorts. “Someone recalled the picture and retrieved it from the archives,” noted Avrahami, a biblical studies lecturer at the Oranim Academic College of Education in Kiryat Tivon, northern Israel.
The photo became part of an effort to demonstrate how “things had been different here” at one time, how women went around freely in short-shorts. It turned Avrahami’s grandmother into a symbol to be emulated.
“Let me tell you the real story about that picture,” Avrahami wrote Monday on Facebook, recounting how her grandmother, born Lotte Perschak, fled Czechoslovakia at age 17 after the outbreak of World War II. She immigrated to Mandatory Palestine with Youth Aliyah, a Zionist organization that at the time rescued young Jews from Europe and brought them to the Holy Land.
“Here she was arbitrarily given the name Aviva. She settled at Kibbutz Beit Hashita in the Harod Valley and thought she was coming to an agricultural dorm and that she would return home at the end of the war. A very innocent young girl,” Avrahami wrote.
But she also quickly discovered less pleasant aspects of the pioneering enterprise that had saved her life at a time when her family was sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
“In Youth Aliyah, you weren’t allowed to speak your native language. Everyone had to speak Hebrew,” the granddaughter recounted. Aviva was caught speaking Czech with her friend one day, and as a punishment was “exiled” to work in the rock quarry next to the adjacent kibbutz, Ein Harod – “as was befitting for a rebellious girl.”
The punishment was meted out, Avrahami said, by two adults in charge: Tikva Sarig, a kindergarten teacher, children’s author and the wife of Nahum Sarig (who later became the commander of the Negev Brigade of the pre-state Palmach elite strike force); and Aryeh Ben-Gurion, the nephew of Israel’s first prime minister.
But unlike male pioneers, and contrary to what the famous photograph suggests, “she didn’t drive rail carts with rocks and didn’t blast rocks. She cooked and did laundry for the male pioneers,” her granddaughter disclosed.
On the day Kluger arrived to take pictures of the pioneers, “girls’ legs suited him for the picture,” as Avrahami put it – meaning that the iconic photo was staged.
“Men are less sexy and my grandmother’s legs were legendary,” Avrahami said. “My grandfather once said she had the prettiest legs in the valley.”
At age 20, Aviva gave birth to a son. That son’s daughter is Yael Avrahami.
“My grandmother was saved from the horrors of the world war by the pioneering that was forced upon her. But it’s hard to look nostalgically upon the shorts in the picture and think that anything was perfect at the time,” the granddaughter wrote, “that the world saw her for what she was and not for her beautiful legs.
“The shorts are not the be-all and end-all,” Avrahami added.
Aviva’s parents didn’t survive the Holocaust. Her brother survived Auschwitz and married a Catholic nurse who had taken care of him, but he died relatively young behind the Iron Curtain.
Aviva married journalist Yitzhak Avrahami at Beit Hashita and had a son. The couple divorced and Aviva made her way to Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar, where she married Haim Alef and took his surname. “She would work in various jobs at the kibbutz, including being in charge of purchasing at the grocery. She also worked for many years in the sewing workshop,” Avrahami recounted.
Aviva Alef died 18 years ago. One of the stories she told her granddaughter has bothered Yael Avrahami to this day.
“She once told me that they needed to guard the watchtowers in the valley. The immigrant girls, who were afraid to do guard duty alone, were forced ‘to kiss’ male pioneers who would come along to stand guard with them at night. ‘Kissing’ is all she told me. I hope it wasn’t more than that,” Avrahami said.