On the eve of Israel’s War of Independence, a group of Jewish teenagers risked their lives to secretly manufacture bullets for freedom fighters.
Their work was memorialized in a museum near Tel Aviv, but relatively few people outside the country know their story.
Now, a documentary by a production crew from the Philadelphia area is bringing their experience to new audiences.
“Code Name: Ayalon” premieres at the Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia on Oct. 29 (the festival was rescheduled from the spring due to the coronavirus). It will also run at the Mandel JCC Cleveland Jewish FilmFest, the Miami Jewish Film Festival and more.
Broadcast reporter and Cachet Communications President Laurel Fairworth was inspired to produce the film during a mission to Israel in 2012 to honor her late mother. She was assigned to a bus visiting the Ayalon Institute Museum, a museum built on the bullet factory where the teens worked.
“I would never have chosen, in all fairness, a bullet factory from the ’40s to go visit, but I was assigned that bus, and we went and I was enchanted by what I found,” she said.
She learned the story of a group of scouts who were selected by the Haganah for a mission they knew could cost them their lives.
“They said, ‘We want you to take on this dangerous mission. We can’t tell you what it is, but you all have to agree. If anyone says no, we can’t go for it — in other words, it has to be unanimous,’” Fairworth said.
“And they said yes. They agreed to take this on before knowing what it was they were going to be asked to do,” she continued.
In 1945, the Haganah built a factory under a kibbutz on the outskirts of Rehovot, a small town 30 minutes from Tel Aviv. The teenagers would live there and produce 2.5 million bullets to be smuggled to Jewish freedom fighters preparing to fight Arab forces for independence.
It had to be done in complete secret due to rising political tensions in the region — the British were trying to keep peace by banning weapons manufacturing. If they were caught by British forces, they would be hanged, and if they were caught by Arab forces, they would be blown up.
Their mission was ultimately a success, and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion credited those 2.5 million bullets with saving the state of Israel.
This, Fairworth thought, would make a great documentary.
After a few months of deliberation, she decided to take on the project. Michael Lopatin, president of Ralph Lopatin Productions and creative director for the Marlo Group in Los Angeles, joined as a director.
Initially, finding material to work with was difficult.
“If you ever make a documentary, don’t make it about a secret factory. There’s no documentation of secret stuff,” said Lopatin, who lives in Merion.
Through Fairworth’s contacts at CNN, the production team was able to track down the last 10 survivors who worked at the factory and hired interviewers to speak with them about their experiences.
“We commissioned these interviews and got them on tape and that became the jumping off point,” Lopatin said. “They were able to frame the story pretty completely.”
He wanted the film to focus mainly on the factory worker’s memories.
“We wanted the least amount of narration as possible and the most amount of survivors to tell the story,” he said.
The former bullet manufacturers were happy to talk about their work, but they had kept it mostly quiet for decades since the Haganah had impressed upon them the importance of secrecy. They also didn’t feel like they had done anything particularly heroic.
“They said, ‘They told us to keep it a secret and once we left we just never thought to tell anyone,’” Fairworth said.
Composer Rodney Whittenberg, who runs the recording studio MelodyVision in Plymouth Meeting, joined the team to provide the documentary’s soundtrack.
“Being African American, I’ve often found a fondness or a connection to Jewish culture. And so the story of the oppression of the Jews, both at the end of World War II in Europe, but also being occupied by the British, it just struck me as a story that I would like to be involved in telling, like how people found a way to covertly protect themselves,” he said.
Whittenberg composed tracks that incorporated elements of Eastern European klezmer and orchestral music, as well as Middle Eastern music and modern electronic percussion.
He focused on creating a constant sense of tension to convey what was at stake for the young workers.
“If they got caught, it would mean the fall of this new country that they were trying to create,” he said.
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