Saturday, November 16, 2013

The secret garden of an Egyptian baron

 In the garden owned by Baron Felix de Menasce were planted cedars, pine trees, palms and magnolia trees

 What do Alexandria and Kfar Saba have in common?  A socially-minded Jewish philanthropist called Baron Felix de Menasce who lived in Egypt but owned a garden in the Israeli town. A conference last week on Historic Gardens in Israel uncovered the Garden's secrets. Haaretz of 13 November   reports (with thanks to Orna for her translation from Hebrew) :

Looking at a map of ancient paths on a scale of 50:0,  you can see that north of Kfar Saba, in the Aliya neighbourhood and on the southern side of Moshav Gan Haim, there is a garden marked 'the Baron Menasce Garden'.

Curious walkers used to meet an old gardener living in Givat Aliya who looked after the garden. Its owner was a baron from Alexandria (Egypt): his name was Baron Felix de Menasce.  He never lived in Israel but purchased much land, invested in a bank and had good contacts with Chaim Weizmann.

The baron's (1865 – 1943)) origins were in Alexandria. His pre-WW1 collaboration with the Austro-Germans resulted in the family receiving Austrian- Hungarian citizenship and the title 'Baron' in 1873. At the start of the 20th Century, the family was one of the wealthiest and most prominent in the Jewish community of Alexandria.  They built public buildings, hospitals and schools and invested in infrastructure and assets.

During WWI Baron Felix was in contact with Chaim Weizmann who invited him to invest in the land of Israel and also took advantage of the baron’s relationship with the Egyptian and soon-to-be Jordanian leadership to promote political interests in Israel.

During WWI the baron’s connections with the Jewish elite in Israel became stronger when he was elected President of the  Jewish community in Alexandria. He supported the exiled community from Israel* and had good contact with NILI and the Aharonson Family.

Later, the contacts grew stronger when he established a union (like the Histadrut). The aim of Bnei Benjamin was to strengthen the people who lived and worked in the Moshavot (cooperative farms).

Chaim Weizmann was in touch with Baron Felix and used to visit him in Alexandria until the baron’s death in 1943. Weizmann believed that the baron could promote Israel’s economy and strengthen its political status. In 1921 Weizmann asked the baron to join  the Cairo Conference where the questions of Israel and Jordan were discussed. Winston Churchill (the British Colonial Minister) and other British administrators for the Mediterranean countries took part.

With the rise of the Nazi regime in Germany, Baron Felix increased his activity in Israel where he purchased more land and took part in planning new housing for immigrants.

He was particularly interested in the Bnei Binyamin Union. He was one of the main shareholders of the bank they established. He invested in the “Hanotea” company which purchased land around Netanya, Even Yehuda, Kfar Aharon and other places. The baron and his son George then turned to private projects. He believed that the money should stay in private hands and the investors would   have the power to build factories,  finance and support banks and credit, lease land, and hold shares in orchard-planting enterprises that would be worked by farmers from the Bnei Binyamin Union.

Lands that he purchased were sold to Netanya in 1934 as a gesture to the landless farmers. He also bough 200 dunams north of Kfar Saba where he planted an orchard and planned to build a house where the family could stay when visiting.

The riots of 1936-1939, the Arab Revolt, the outbreak of WWII, the bankruptcy of the Bnei Binyamin Bank – all these factors caused the family to re-think their investments in Israel. The dream house was shelved.

They still owned the Garden but from 1939 onwards it was associated with Haim and Miriam Yaffe. They were invited by Baron Felix to live in the house and take care of the Garden. It was developed and included goats, chickens and cheese production. Haim Yaffe travelled the world and bought plants and seeds; he experimented with growing avocados and mangoes.

Miriam was the principal gardener: she had a greenhouse, vegetable patch and rose garden. She was given Bird of Paradise flowers, trees from abroad and plants and saplings supplied by Mikve Israel (an agricultural school): Lebanese cedars; Italian pine trees; Egyptian palm trees, magnolia trees and others.

The house was a meeting place for Hashomer members, Palmach and Haganah. They used to hide ammunition in the attic and a permanent member of the Hagana stayed there.

Many of the elite used to come to this Garden, including Ben Gurion; Arthur Rupin; Sophia Loren and others. In 1974 there was a screening of a play called “The Bride and the Butterfly catcher”. It was filmed in this Garden.

When Haim passed away, his widow Miriam left the Garden and home and the place fell into disrepair. In 1974 their son, Avraham Yaffe, tried to negotiate with (Felix's son) George de Menasce and buy the Garden. George asked for $800, 000 but the family could not raise this amount. The Garden was sold to (the international businessman) Eisenberg.


* The entire Russian/Polish citizenry was exiled from the land of Israel during WWI by the Turks. Many headed south to Egypt. 

Read article in full (Hebrew)

7 comments:

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

The Ottoman state exiled from Israel about one-third of the Jewish population, those who were subjects or citizens of enemy states in WW One, such as Russia, UK or France. Many went to Egypt.
Hence, at the end of WW I, Jews were a smaller percentage of the population than at the start of the war. This smaller percentage as of 1918 than as of 1914 is often used by anti-Zionists who thereby distort the history of Israel, showing a smaller commitment of Jews to live there than was true, and also belittling Jewish rights to the country by minimizing the Jewish percentage of the population in the late Ottoman period.

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

It was an Egyptian Jew [Jack Mosseri?] who built the King David Hotel in Jerusalem circa 1930. The hotel was taken over by the British during WW2 and there were a few changes of ownership which I don't recall.

Sylvia said...


Here is the link to the Hebrew article

http://www.haaretz.co.il/literature/study/.premium-1.2157507

bataween said...

Thanks for the information, Eliyahu and Sylvia

Anonymous said...

Baron de Menasce is well know to us even if we are or were not Alexandrians.
sultana

Selina said...

There were a few lines she wrote about the Ottoman Empire which was condensed into a line I think but overall I think she did well (my mum translated this article)

Unknown said...

One small correction. Felix de Menasce was not created a Baron of the Austrian Empire but inherited the title from his father, Behor, who was the son of Yacoub (or Jacob) the first Baron de Menasce. Feix's mother, Simha, was the daughter of Yacoub Cattaoui who, together with Yacoub Menasce, raised most of the money for the Khedive's shares in the Suez Canal project.

Yacoub de Menasce was originally called Yacoub Menasce Levy. He was descended from a rabbi in Hevron, whose family had originate din North Africa. Because the Archduke would not countenance a Baron Levy he changed his name from Levy to Menasce.

Source: A batons rompu - Jacqueline Carasso, great grand-daughter of Yaooub de Menasce.