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Museums in Israel: The Ayalon Institute

The Ayalon Institute is located between Nes Ziona and Rehovot. It is located on Kibbutz Hill and was made to fool the British into thinking it was a kibbutz during the British Mandate. In fact, it was a secret ammunition factory set up by the Jewish underground.

In the 1930s, it became clear to the Zionist leaders that they were going to need weapons to defend themselves against the Arabs and to fight for their independence. The Jews of Palestine were very resourceful in smuggling weapons and establishing clandestine arms factories. The underground factories churned out relatively easy to build Sten submachine guns, but the Haganah had difficulty obtaining the 9 mm bullets needed for the weapons.

The head of the clandestine Israel Military Industry, Yosef Avidar, devised a plan to smuggle in machines for a secret factory to make the bullets. Though he was successful in purchasing machines in Poland in 1938, the Zionists could only get them as far as Beirut, where they were stored for nearly four years before Jews who served in the British army succeeded in bringing them to Palestine.

The ammunition plant was built almost under the noses of the British, who had a nearby base. The site was a place where pioneers would go for training in kibbutz life before moving on to establish cooperatives around the country. Under the code name "the Ayalon Institute," a group of pioneers from the Hatzofim Aleph movement and members of the Haganah (and, later, joined by members of the Palmach) dug a large underground chamber 300 square yards 13 feet underground with nearly 2-foot-thick walls and ceiling. The entire project was completed in 22 days. To conceal the clandestine project, the Jews built housing, a dining hall, chicken coop, cow barn, workshops, a laundry a bakery, and a vegetable garden to give the outward appearance of an ordinary kibbutz.

The laundry was built directly over the factory to provide pipes to discharge some of the polluted air from below. To conceal the sound of the machinery in the factory, the laundry was kept running 24 hours a day. An entrance to the factory was also built below the main drum of the washer, which could be swung open and shut. The laundry did such a good job cleaning clothes that British officials used to bring their uniforms to be laundered at the kibbutz. To keep the soldiers away, the kibbutz members provided a pick up and delivery service to their enemies.

At the other end of the factory was a bakery which provided clean air through pipes that were attached to the bakery furnace. The 10-ton baking oven also concealed a secret entrance to the factory, which was revealed only after the several ton oven was moved along a set of metal runners. Visitors today can go down the secret ladder in the laundry or use a circular staircase installed for tourists inside the bakery.

One of the components needed for the factory was copper. To conceal the purpose of the purchases, the Jews applied to import copper for what they said were cases for Kosher lipstick. The British accepted this explanation, which was reinforced by gifts from the Jews of lipstick cases to British officials.

Forty-five people worked below ground in two shifts. The work was difficult, in a relatively dark, dusty, claustrophobic place. It was also dangerous because the penalty for engaging in such illegal activities during the mandate period was death. The kibbutz was constantly watched and often visited by soldiers. At one point, a group of British soldiers came to the kibbutz and were given beers. The soldiers complained that they were warm, so the kibbutz members said that if the soldiers would give them advance notice of their visits, they would be sure the beer was properly chilled. The British fell for the ruse and this allowed the kibbutz to prepare for the visits.

Since the workers were underground so long, the Jews quickly realized that they would look suspiciously pale from being out of the sun. A doctor was brought in who came up with a way to use radiation, essentially a kind of sun lamp, to allow the workers to tan their skin.

After the ammunition was produced, the Jews still had to find a way to smuggle it to the fighters. At first they were put in milk cans, but these were too heavy. Later, secret compartments were built in fuel trucks to hide them. Since the British didn't expect anything as explosive as bullets to be hidden in fuel trucks, the Jews were able to distribute the bullets around the country without detection.

The factory was kept secret even from some members of the kibbutz, who were referred to as “Giraffes.” It was only after they were considered trustworthy, that members were informed of the operation.

At its peak, the factory produced 40,000 bullets a day. The bullets were embossed with the letters EA, E for Eretz Israel and A for Ayalon. Between 1945 and 1948, the factory produced more than two million 9 mm bullets. This ammunition was crucial to the early success of Jewish fighters.

Shortly after independence, Israel no longer had to conceal its operations and moved them above ground. All of the Haganah's weapons manufacturing was centralized in what became Israel Military Industries. Meanwhile, the pioneer group from the Ayalon Institute decided to stay together and established a new kibbutz, Ma'agan Micha'el, by the sea near Zichron Ya'acov in 1949.

Though it ceased operation in 1948, it only became known to the public in 1975. In 1987, the factory was restored and turned into a museum.

A tour requires booking in advance and there are admission fees.

Tel 08-9406552, 08-9300585
Fax. 08-9407534
Email: [email protected]

Sources: Jewish SF, (April 27, 2001); Gems in Israel; Jason's Trip to Israel.