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 NILIand 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.