Arts & Culture Medallions Found on Israeli Kibbutz Tell the Story of the Country’s Founding

Located not far from the Gaza Strip, Kibbutz Tze’elim has 6,000 acres of prime, irrigated desert farmland, one-fifth of which produces sweet potatoes. In the midst of all those sweet potatoes is a treasure hidden in an underground bomb shelter built in 1947: hundreds of medallions etched in copper and bronze that tell the story of the founding of modern Israel.

There are round etchings of Zionist founding father Theodore Herzl with his trademark beard. There are medallions of writer Sholem Aleichem cast from clay for the Zionist Congress of 1921, and of Chaim Weizmann, the first president of the State of Israel.

“You can stare at the faces of Herzl and Weizmann and Prime Minister Ben-Gurion and they step right out of the copper and bronze into real life,” says kibbutz member Boaz Kretschmer, the medallions’ owner.

Kretschmer rescued the medallions, produced by his grandfather, from an industrial garbage bin. He hopes one day to be able to show them to the public in a museum he wants to build on the kibbutz.

Kretschmer’s grandfather Shmuel arrived in 1905 from Vienna and opened a small engraving factory in Jerusalem. He was a student and then a professor at the famed Bezalel Art School. After returning to Vienna for a period, he moved back to Jerusalem in 1921 to stay.

The earliest pieces in the collection are landscapes and biblical scenes, created before 1921. After that year, Kretschmer began his service to the official bodies such as the Zionist congresses, the Jewish National Fund, the Knesset, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israel Defense Forces, commemorating the faces and events that helped forge the country.

There is David Ben-Gurion declaring the State of Israel’s establishment in Tel Aviv. The 1948 scene was etched in clay, then cast in bronze and copper. All three round tablets are on display.

Insignia for the army — the tank brigade, the Golani infantry brigade and the Givati unit — were worn by soldiers on their uniforms. Next to them is a letter of thanks Ben-Gurion wrote to Shmuel Kretschmer.

Then there is the cast-iron mold of a belt buckle, made for King Abdullah of Jordan in 1930.

“Grandfather died in the 1970s, but I remember him sitting at his desk doing the original etchings,” says Boaz Kretschmer, 54, a father of two and grandfather of two. “Now all this is done in China, and that is very unfortunate, but I cannot be angry. You can’t beat the Chinese prices.”

As he looks at a medal of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising made in 1963, Kretschmer explains that the original cast iron molds of many official medals were destroyed so that copies could not be made later.

He has kept so many molds that he uses them to weigh down the strip of carpet on the stairs going into the bomb shelter. He has kept the chisels used on the clay and copper, but says they won’t be used again.

“Even if I knew how to do this, it would not be economically viable,” Kretschmer says. “This is a lost art.”

In 2003, his father, 82, retired and closed the factory. Kretschmer had already made a life for himself on the kibbutz with the sweet potatoes, but his father died before he could join him there.

“The workers were emptying the factory, moving a lot of heavy objects,” he says. “I asked my father about them and he said, ‘Forget it, this is just old stuff.’ “

Kretschmer began taking boxes out of the garbage at the factory and going through them. He was amazed, and took everything that was left.

“The early copper etchings from the early 20th century are pure works of art,” he says. “They are priceless works by a professor from the Bezalel School, my grandfather, and I found them in a garbage bin.”

Kretschmer wants to build a museum on the kibbutz to attract people to this part of the western Negev Desert.

“We need a regional museum here, like the one at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai devoted to the 1948 battle there,” he says.

The kibbutz is ready to provide the building and do the necessary renovation to open the museum. Officials from the Jewish National Fund in Israel, the Jewish Agency, Israel’s Tourism Ministry and various political parties have all visited the kibbutz to see the medallions.

“Everyone recognizes the historical and cultural value of this, but so far no one has money to give,” Kretschmer says. “The names in our visitors book are impressive, but the money has not followed.”

He estimates that with the building taken care of by the kibbutz, another $700,000 is needed to get the museum up and running. The JNF is looking for donors to put together funding, he says.

In fact, Kretschmer gave the JNF several pieces for its own museum in Tel Aviv. “Right now, I am a better donor than they are,” he jokes.

A spokesperson from the JNF said they are still examining the proposal on the medallions. “We had a meeting, and are still deciding whether to invest in the medallions or not,” said the spokesperson. “It could be part of an overall program for the south of the country that we are putting together.”

The road to Tze’elim begins at the Yad Mordechai junction, before the Erez crossing into the Gaza Strip. It runs south parallel to Gaza, past Sderot, where Kassam rockets still fall, and then past Ofakim, a tough, dusty development town with high unemployment. The exception to the area’s depressed economy is the kibbutzim, which are thriving.

Tze’elim holds a yearly reggae music festival and runs a guest house, which Kretschmer thinks could benefit from a museum nearby.

“We are out of range of the Kassams,” Kretschmer says. “The real problem is funding the museum.”

Meanwhile, people come from the region alone or in small groups to see the medals, coins, insignia and etchings.

Some inquire about the sweet potatoes, and are given a few large, chunky dark orange souvenirs to take home.

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