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Club Med: Rooms with a view and a Jewish story

Adi Akunis

Club Med’s vacations have always appeared tailor-made for the global rich: Exotic locations in remote regions that offer an “all-inclusive holiday” in the original sense of that term. Food, recreation, sports, organized activities, rest, and good company. But long before this vacation concept was born, it was the idealistic brainchild of two Jews who survived World War II and only wished to benefit Holocaust survivors.

Gerard Blitz was born in Antwerp, Belgium to a pious Jewish family of diamond dealers with a passion for water sports. His father Maurice and his uncle – also Gerard – played in the Belgian all-star water polo league that won two Olympic medals in 1920 and 1924. The younger Gerard also dove into the family pool, participating in several international swimming and water polo competitions.

When the Nazis invaded Belgium, the Blitz family fled to the relative shelter of the South of France. When Blitz turned 18, he joined an elite unit of the French Resistance comprised mainly of athletes, and he fought the Nazis until the end of the war. In no hurry to rejoin his family even after the war had ended, Blitz remained with fellow Underground comrades to help Holocaust survivors try to return to the homes they had been forced to abandon. That was no easy task – sometimes it was virtually impossible. Blitz and his friends moved from one refugee camp to another for several months until they arrived at Alcudia, an azure, virgin beach in Mallorca, an island in the Spanish Mediterranean.

Blitz fell in love with the shoreline and decided to establish there a vacation camp for Holocaust survivors, where they would be treated with his great love since birth – water.  Remembering as walking dead with dim eyes the many thousands of survivors he had seen in the months following the war, Blitz hatched a scheme: If he could only take them for a few weeks, every day, to the beach, he could he could heal them and restore their joy and lust for life.

He rented a lot on the beach from its local owners. Lacking the funding to build a hotel or any other construction, Blitz decided that the “resort” would host its guests in tents. But he could not even afford to purchase tents, and in 1946, returned to Belgium, to attempt to enlist funds for his enterprise. Though he succeeded in convincing some businessmen that his was a worthy goal, none would loan him dozens of tents for free. In 1946 when his fundraising mission in Belgium failed, Blitz went to France to make contact with a manufacturer who mainly produced tents for the French military named “Trigano.”

Gilbert Trigano, born in 1920, was an Algerian theater actor and comic who – like Blitz – was forced to leave the stage and banned from performing when the Nazis invaded. He tried when the war ended to return to the stage, but his father prevented him from fulfilling his dream and urged him to join the family tent manufacturing business in Paris. When Blitz arrived at the tent manufacturers requesting tents for his project, an astounded Trigano asked him why he wanted them. Blitz outlined his intention to establish a convalescent village for Holocaust survivors, where he could heal them by means of water activities. An enthusiastic Trigano fell in love with the concept and offered Blitz a partnership: The Belgian dreamer would heal the vacationers’ ills by means of water, and Trigano would appear nightly to entertain them and soothe their suffering souls with humor. Trigano’s father gave them the tents without payment.

Trigano and Blitz created a non-profit organization in France and continued to Alcudia. They opened the gates of the first Club Med in 1950, offering an all-inclusive vacation for the first time in global tourism history.

Blitz’s motto was, “The goal of life is to be happy. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now.” It is thus no wonder that in 1960 he discovered Zen Buddhism and became an internationally acclaimed Yogi.

As they had planned, Blitz treated people by means of the water activities that became part of the ClubMed network’s DNA over the years; and Trigano appeared to entertain the guests in the evening. At the end of every performance, Trigano called the club’s workers to the stage to perform before the audience, thus beginning a new tradition that became iconic in the Club Med chain. Guests arrived at the Club for a relatively extended stay of several weeks, made possible by a French law enacted at the time, granting a mandatory vacation of five weeks to every employee.

In 1955, the two founders realized that the project had become a complex operation. They closed the non-profit organization and established a business. In early 1957, they decided to expand and added two Clubs in Cieplo and in Sicily based on the same simple principle: Sleeping in tents or shacks and activities throughout the day and evening. It was mainly Trigano who objected to spacious rooms with pampering amenities, television, telephone, or anything else that would cause a guest to remain inactive in his room.

Though they were secular Jews, Blitz and Trigano were very proud of their Judaism. Until the 1980s, nearly 80% of the Clubs’ workers were Jews. Club Med was originally based on the values of equality without religion, politics, and status; and a real desire to improve man. The Club’s concept instilled values that related well to Judaism: Family, children, community, and connection. For example, there were no tables for two or for small groups, but tables for 10 or more. That way as many diners as possible could meet one another and create connections, despite their lack of an initial common denominator.

Trigano and Blitz were also avid Zionists. In 1961, Trigano came to Israel to establish its first holiday village. His guiding idea here too was to search for isolated spots in which guests could disengage from their daily lives.

Ben-Gurion immediately recognized the Club’s potential and invited Trigano to tour the nation’s Mediterranean beaches in a helicopter. When they arrived at Achziv, Trigano knew he had found what he was looking for. Ben-Gurion gave him the land free of cost, and the first Club Med in Israel was launched. That year, another highly honored guest arrived at the site: Baron Rothschild. Despite his vast wealth and lofty position, Rothschild slept in a shack like all the other guests. And wonder of wonders, he enjoyed every minute. Rothschild was so enthused by the idea, that he immediately offered Blitz and Trigano to enter as a partner and facilitate a broad, strategic expansion. Rothschild delivered the money and became a partner; and the company went public in 1965 after its first stock issue.

Over the years and with its expansion, Club Med faced financial straits that threatened the chain’s existence. And in 1990, it was purchased by the Fiat corporation. Most of the clubs no longer provide tents and shacks; and they offer instead lavish rooms with upscale amenities. But the daily water activities and entertainment that Trigano and Blitz installed 70 years ago are still Club Med’s leading concept.

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