It’s all downhill from here ... Naomi Wall in competition on Mt Hermon
Stories of the pioneers of the “Eyes of Israel”
Fast slopes, FBI agents, glamorous ski instructors, thousands of dollars and the creation of alpine troops – no, not a new 007 – but part of the story of the origins of the Mt. Hermon ski area and Naomi Wall. A small group of veteran amateur skiers who assembled on the snowy slopes of the Hermon between 1968-1975 still remember Naomi, then dubbed by the press as "The Queen of the Hermon".
In anticipation of SKI PASS’s 40th anniversary and after browsing through archives and old photo albums, I discovered some pictures of Naomi. So I decided to delve into the question of who this beautiful ski instructor was and where she was now. I was pleased to learn quite quickly that Naomi is alive and well, still skis every year in northern Italy and still lives in Pottsville, Pennsylvania.
Pottsville is a town located about a 2-hour ride from Philadelphia, and Naomi, now 93, had acquiesced to my request to visit her for an interview. So my journey began by following the footsteps of the 'Queen of the Hermon'.
Here is Naomi's story and the story of the beginning of the Mt. Hermon ski area.
Naomi was born in Berlin in 1922 to a wealthy Jewish family. Even as a toddler, her mother used to drag her by train to ski areas such as St. Moritz, Kitzbuhel, and Garmisch In those days, trains were the only transportation available to the ski areas. It comes as no surprise that the love of skiing was firmly planted into her DNA at an early age.
Those wonderful years came to an end in 1933 with the rise to power by the Nazis in Germany. Naomi’s parents along with thousands of German Jews were faced with the dilemma of lingering in a dangerous situation or emigrating to America or Palestine. Since the family were firm Zionists, they decided on Palestine. They sewed gold bars into the lining of their clothes, and began the long journey to the Haifa port. Again, like many of the "yekkes" before them, they settled on the Carmel in Haifa.
Naomi attended high school in Haifa and spent her winter vacations until 1938 with her mother at - guess where - the Le Cedar ski area in Lebanon.
At the outbreak of WWII, she enrolled in nursing school and tried enlisting in the British ATS unit which trained Jewish Israeli volunteers to fight alongside of the British troops. However, due to her young age, she needed her parents’ permission to do so, (not unlike the current system), which wasn’t given. Instead, she joined the Red Cross at Tel Hashomer to do her share in the war effort. In 1943 she met a Jewish doctor who was an officer with the American army field hospital in Tel Hashomer, now known as the Sheba Medical Center. They married and Naomi subsequently travelled to the U.S. at the end of the war to join her husband, who was studying for his cardiology speciality.
Naomi Wall during her childhood days in Haifa, and (right) in her Red Cross uniform during World War II
Naomi and her husband settled in the north-eastern part of the United States, not far from the snowy Pocono mountain range, where she continued training and competing in slalom and downhill races. During my recent visit to Pennsylvania I witnessed the tens of trophies she has won in competitions. Naomi also remains involved in training skiers at the ski school at Elk Mountain.
It was there that she turned her youthful hobby and passion - skiing - into a profession. She first became a ski instructor and then assistant director at one of the area ski schools. After the director became ill, she took over the ski school. Anecdotally, she told me that she kept on skiing and working late into each of her three pregnancies, qualifying her as quite an early “ski-freak”.
In June 1967, the IDF conquered the Golan Heights and Mt. Hermon which, to the delight of
many Israelis and a few veteran ski enthusiasts, was covered with deep snow suitable for skiing during the winter of 1967-68. It was time to dust off the skis (halleluiah!) which had been tucked away in the attic since her last ski trip to Lebanon over 30 years before.
At the beginning of 1968, Dick Scott, a bon-vivant convert to Judaism, arrived in Israel with a proposal to establish an alpine ski area on the Hermon. Scott claimed that he had ample resources to finance the huge project. As ‘proof’ of his capability, he towed an old decrepit bus up the mountain and then hung a sign on it - "The Hermon Ski School".
Naomi had read in the Pennsylvania press that a new ski area was being built on the Golan Heights, on Mt. Hermon. It was to be called ‘Ramat-Shalom’. She decided to drop everything and travelled to Israel to meet with Yigal Allon, at the time Minister of Immigration, and Moshe Kol, Minister of Tourism. They fell in love with her and her abilities, so much so that they demanded that Scott appoint her as director of the ski school and allot her founder's shares in the Hermon Ski Company Ltd. Unfortunately for Scott, Naomi wasn’t the only one who had read about him in the newspapers - he was on the FBI's wanted list for drug trafficking. After having failed in his appeals to Israel's High Court against extradition to the U.S., Scott managed to flee the country while on bail and hasn’t been heard of since.
In 1969, Naomi bought $10,000 worth of shares in the company (a lot of money at the time). During the years 1970-1976, she was the director of the ski school and the rental shop. Following the Dick Scott episode, the government decided to establish a settlement on the mountain, Neve Ativ, funded by the government, which would earn most of its income from the leisure activities on Mt. Hermon. The partnership between Naomi and the settlers was an uneasy one marked by many disagreements, mostly due to the fact that Naomi preferred reinvesting the profits back into the company in order to fund future purchases of equipment. Also, Naomi thoroughly enjoyed teaching skiing, pro bono, to the soldiers who served on the mountain, something opposed by Neve Ativ, who thought that the army should be charged both for the lessons and the ski rentals.
Skier Naomi Wall in a purple outfit and (right) Naomi is planning her next ski vacation ... at 93
During the Fall of 1970, after the Northern Command thought it important to equip and train their soldiers in ski warfare, Naomi was sent on an urgent mission to New York to acquire the appropriate clothing and accessories for the mission. The skis were obtained by Naomi through wealthy Jewish donors, after having worked her charm on them, thus sowing the seeds for the establishment of the IDF's alpine troops.
Following endless disagreements with Neve Ativ, Naomi decided in 1976 to end the partnership when she sold them her shares in the venture and returned sadly to Pottsville, Pennsylvania, where she still resides today. Naomi has skied every winter since then in the U.S. and the Italian Alps and is currently planning her next ski vacation- at the age of 93!
Let's all of us wish Naomi and all the Hermon veterans endless skiing till 120!
Jay Wall is the son of Naomi Wall. He lives in Raanana.