At the beginning of the century the first buds of the Zionist labor movement began to show. With this came a hope for renewal of life in Eretz Israel based on principles of labor and productivity in order to improve the condition of the Jewish people in its homeland.
The students were the pioneering leaders and others followed them. The teacher Gogol (previously mentioned) and Haim Greenberg of Zeirei Zion of Bessarabia were those who laid the foundation of the Zionist labor movement. Haim Greenberg was able to draw the best students in town to the organization. It was a good beginning, but the most intensive work really began after the Revolution in 1917, especially after the Balfour Declaration.
The years 1910-1917 were years of stalemate in Zionist activities in Russia in general and in Bendery in particular. Except for collection of funds for Jewish National Fund and distribution of money to the needy there was no daily Zionist activity. Only in 1917 when there was general activity in Russia was there an awakening among the Jews. Zeirei Zion began to function on a large scale. There had been cultural activity before, but now Zeirei Zion also performed publicly and politically. In the elections to the Russian Assembly, the Zionists trounced the Bund. From 1917 on the leaders of Zeirei Zion in Bendery were Muni Fustman, David Wertheim (the Rabbi`s son), and several students. The influence of their activities was felt in town especially among the students and young workers. We should also mention Seni Natanzon, son of Koppel, the beadle of the community. He was a cultured man who had special influence on the working youths in town. He was a Marxist, but he was devoted to Poalei Zion. He and his wife Esther`ke opened their home to the youths who would meet there for political and cultural discussions. He was killed by the Nazis in the village of Romanovka while she died in exile in Russia.
In 1919 the first Zionist conference after World War I was held in Kishinev. Among the central figures were Moni Postman, David Wertheim and Yosef Kushner. The general Zionists were represented by Hirsch Kogan (previously mentioned) and Israel Blank an active public personality.
At that time a weekly magazine called Value and Work appeared in Kishinev. It was published by Zeirei Zion. Moni Postman founded the first Yiddish daily The Jew and two years later Our Time.
The members of this young movement took their place on the Community Board. They ran into opposition from the ultra Orthodox especially Shebt'l Berman who headed Agudat Israel. The strange fact was that David Wertheim, his in-law, led the other side.
In the public battle with the Bund the youths of Zeirei Zion concentrated on the prevailing issues. In a debate between the two groups I had to appear as a member of the Bund to defend Zeirei Zion and to eliminate the illusions of the masses.
Zeirei Zion did not only demand allegiance, but they also led by example. They were among the first pioneers with the Third Aliyah to Eretz Israel after World War I.
In 1920 the first group of seven members from Bendery made Aliyah. They were Pnina Wertheim (the Rabbi`s daughter), Pinhas Bendersky, two Tiomkin sisters, Hava (my partner in life) and Shoshanna (a dentist), Avraham Sirkis, Monia Lev and David Weisser.
When we arrived in Eretz Israel, we immediately went to Petach Tikva the mother of settlements. We began to build our pioneering life by working hard. Two days after our arrival we went to the orange groves in the area carrying hoes on our shoulders. We were intellectuals with hands unused to labor, but we really wanted to work. Our hands hurt, but our spirits were high. This was our fervent desire and we knew it would be tough.
Second row- standing (unidentified)
First row seated: Pnina Wertheim, Hava Bendersky, Pinhas Bendersky, Meir Levi (Monia Lev)
As mentioned above, we believed to be the first group from Bendery to come on the Third Aliyah. However, when we arrived in Petach Tikva we there found four families from Bendery. They had come several months earlier and had somewhat settled by then. Reuven Kritzman, a wealthy Jew from Bendery, bought a flour mill in Petach Tikva and was quite successful. The Rampel family of seven was headed by a wealthy man. Motel Shreibman and his family of five worked in the orange groves although they had been wealthy grain merchants in Bendery. Weissman brought his family of three and worked in peeling almonds. He had been a grocer in Bendery, but managed to earn a living in Eretz Israel.
All of these people had not been members of the Zionist movement and did not participate in any of its activities. They were simply Jews who yearned for Zion and wanted to live in Eretz Israel. These families were our support group when we arrived and we became good friends. We, the seven youngsters, founded a mini commune. It was the first such commune and it had a reputation of hard-working and loyal members. We always had work and were sought out. The women- Pnina and my wife- ran the household and the men went to work. We were content for two years. We then dispersed to different locations and found our own niches.
More families from our town soon followed: Noah Lifshitz, the teacher, Latman, the tailor and Avraham Kushner. Avraham Kushner was a wealthy factory owner, a scholar and very bright. He was well-liked and highly respected. He was often quoted- This is what Avraham Kushner said.
Latman, the tailor, was an active Zionist. He and Lifshitz were among the first middle class immigrants in the Third Aliyah.
In 1923 groups of Hashomer Hatzair began to make Aliyah. They were absorbed in kibbutzim.
Those who went on the Third Aliyah left their imprint on the town where life went on. The influence of Russian culture was felt in Bendery. All intellectual movements from Russia reached our town. On the other side were the Hassidim and the scholars. These were the town Rabbi and Levi Darbrimediker, Nahman Dayan and Pinhas Dayan, the ritual slaughterers. There were other religious personnel who had served with the merchants Avraham Kushner and Shmuel-Abba Sudit. Many people would spend nights learning Torah and they were indifferent to world events. In addition, there were the assimilated who spoke only Russian. There were some Zionist families who spoke Russian at home, but they kept their Judaism since the best weapon against assimilation was Zionism.
The chief assimilationists were Mulman the pharmacist, Zaidman and Dr. Bernstein. They had no major roles in the Jewish community. They believed in educating Jews in Russian. They followed a group centered in Petersburg which had as its goal the dissemination of secular education to the Jews of Russia.
The second movement following the Zionists was the Bund. The movement was independent since it had left the social democratic party in Russia after the pogroms in 1903. They believed that the best solution was a life within the revolutionary movement in Russia. The Bund encouraged socialist activities within the circles of workers and craftsmen. It was headed by Oshan, Krasiltchik and others from among the student movement. Debates between Zionists- especially Zeirei Zion and Bundists were stormy. This was more so after the Kerensky Revolution in Russia. During elections to the Jewish Community Board and the Municipality there was a real party war. The Bund managed to elect Oshan to the Municipal Board. He was an excellent orator and appealed to the residents. Kesselman, the tailor, represented the craftsmen. When Bendery was annexed by Romania he left on Aliyah with his family. He lived in Eretz Israel for the rest of his life and continued to practice his profession.
In addition to the Bund there were other revolutionary Russian movements- the Social Democrats and the Socialist Workers.
One Friday, I believe in 1911, just before Shabbat, two young Jewish men shot at an officer from Kritzky on Haruzina Street. The shots were heard everywhere since it was usually quiet in town. When it became known what had happened there was great panic among the residents. That Friday night of the pogrom very few attended synagogue. Many people locked themselves in their homes that night. After a long search, the police found the guilty men hiding on the roof of locksmith Koonstein. The officer was not hurt. The two young men were transferred to the Petropavlovsk fortress in Petersburg and were exiled to Siberia.
The episode in which I participated occurred in 1912. That year a student by the name of Misha Sokolov was sent to Bendery by order of the Socialist Workers. He was Moluccan and rented a room from my grandparents who lived among the Moluccas on Nikolayev Street opposite the Old Post Office. It was intended that he use the room for a conspiracy living with observant Jews among the Moluccas. Misha's cover was being a teacher's aide in the high school. I was one of his students as was my good friend Zioza Bronstein. Sokolov felt we were candidates to abet him in his task. He was capable and intelligent and we took to him. He gave us leaflets to distribute among the railroad workers in Bendery. He prepared us well and we swore to him that we would not blab or reveal ourselves. He instructed us to meet Smirnov, one of the railroad workers, in the Old Station (Bendery One) and to give him the leaflets to hand out among his co-workers. We did this three times until one day Smirnov warned us that the police was suspicious of us. We had to tell Sokolov and to be careful ourselves. We immediately went to Sokolov and he disappeared from town without a trace. We saved ourselves and our parents from great unpleasantness.
Bendery was like other towns open to many revolutionary movements prevalent in Russia in those days.
Guests who arrived from Eretz Israel greatly impressed us, the youth. The sons of Avremel Kreitzman, the teacher, and Levi Fenitch were students at Herzliah High School in Tel Aviv. (Yitzhak Fein also studied there). We were surprised to see how they were dressed shorts and high socks. It was the first time we saw grown boys dressed life that. Everyone talked about it. We were also in awe of the strange version of Hebrew they spoke. We had not heard it from our teachers and we did not understand it was the Sephardic pronunciation. Every young person wanted to shake their hands or to go for a walk with them. I remember how those who did so were envied. The sister of Kratchevsky, the teacher, also came and left a very good impression. She and her brother had lived in Bendery until they made Aliyah. She would walk on the street wearing an Arab headdress and spoke Hebrew. She was the topic of conversation among the women. Everyone wanted to spend time with her.
All the guests were very special to us.
Bendery after the conquest of Bessarabia by the Romanians
The annexation of Bessarabia by Romania in 1918 was an event that seriously shook our town. This terrible change affected the lives of the population in general and the Jews in particular.
As previously stated, from the start of the eighteenth century, Bessarabia was conquered several times by the Russian army. In turn, it was returned to the Turks. In 1812, according to the Bucharest Pact, it was annexed by Russia. Russification followed and the Russian rule over Bessarabia continued until World War I. From 1914 on Romania demanded from the countries in the pact to have the province returned to it. However, Tsarist Russia absolutely refused. It was only after the February 1917 Revolution and the Civil War in Russia that the United States and France agreed to the annexation of Bessarabia by Romania. However, Russia, now the Soviet Union, was against the annexation. Communist armies, camped on the other side of the Dniester, crossed the river in order to battle the Romanians. The Russians knew about ammunition depots in the Bendery fortress left by the Tsarist army. They intended to hit the target and accomplished their plan. The explosion in town was frightening and badly shook the people. It was the first time the residents ever had to seek shelter in cellars. There was exchange of fire between the two armies. Several residents were killed, among them Mr. Sobel (as previously mentioned). He lived on the western bank of the Dniester and was hit by a bullet shot from the Russian side during the exchange of fire. The Blank brothers' flour mill went up in smoke and the tumult and the rushing about cast a great fear. The Romanians behaved cruelly, riding their horses with red ribbons attached to their tails as if mocking the red flag of Communist Russia. They shot indiscriminately and killed passers-by in order to scare the residents and to vanquish them. Many people left town at that time. They abandoned their homes leaving everything behind and made their way to nearby villages. It was the first time the town residents, especially the Jews, felt what it was like to be a refugee. Those who did not leave their cellars in time were hunted down by the Romanian army. Many homes were ransacked and were emptied of belongings. The Romanians took two innocent Jews out of the cellars and shot them to death. They were Mr. Shousterman, a well-respected man and owner of a large fabric store and Melech seller of coal, wood and plaster. The community mourned the two precious Jews.
Due to the separation from Russia cultural life was diminished and the new situation created havoc in the economic existence of the Jews.
Bendery had been the center of agricultural produce and sent its products all over greater Russia. Suddenly, its cornucopia was dried out. After the annexation by Romania everything changed. Since Romania was an agricultural country, it did not need the Bessarabian produce. This commerce, which was a good source of revenue, was in great difficulty. Many wealthy merchants found themselves in trouble. They rushed about trying to maintain their businesses. The Romanian government levied high taxes on commerce. Taxes were collected with strictness and in brutal conditions. The merchants suffered and many Jews who had been considered for years as respectable and proper were in need of sustenance. They had to dismiss many of their clerks. Craftsmen also lost much of their income under the new Romanian regime. Even independent workers hung by a thread since they did not speak Romanian. Those who suffered the most were lawyers and teachers (some had taught Russian). They did not want to pledge allegiance to the Romanian regime and to become citizens. The situation, of course, caused large emigration from Bendery as well as from the rest of Bessarabia. Some went to countries that would accept them, but the majority went to Eretz Israel. They had always longed to do it. The town was nearly emptied of well-known, public figures and intellectual youths. It was a sad event.
Under these conditions, the Zionist movement overcame all obstacles and grew. The cornerstone for the Hechalutz pride and joy of the Zionist movement was laid in spring 1919. At the Zionist conference in Kishinev the following represented Bendery: David Wertheim and Moni Fustman (Zeirei Zion), Israel Blank and Haim Fustman (General Zionists). This conference created an interest in all parts of Bessarabia. Many members of Zeirei Zion in Bendery went to Eretz Israel on the Third Aliyah. They led the way for those who followed. The realization of the dream was an important educational tool among the Jews and the influence of Zeirei Zion grew among the youth. The Aliyah of any member became an important event among the Zionist youths. This is why the Third Aliyah which began in 1920 is so essential.
In the years 1919-1920 there was a constant stream of Jewish refugees reaching our town. Many were pioneers from Ukraine. Bendery, already in Romanian hands, was a border town between Russia and Romania. The Soviet border town was Tiraspol on the other side of the river. It was enough to cross the Dniester, separating the two towns, to be in a safe haven in Bessarabia. Unfortunately, there were many who died in this dangerous transit. Muni Immes, one of the leading citizens of Bendery, was killed while escaping from the Communist regime.
This is the end of my story. In these lines I intended to remember those distant years from childhood and restless youth. These were years that moved smoothly until World War I in 1914. The stormy revolution of February 1917 stopped on the doorstep of Bessarabia after its annexation by Romania.
As the years grow distant it seems that these memoirs become clearer. They feel closer to each other and I see them in a new way. Every part becomes a link in a chain which preserves the atmosphere of those days. I honestly admit that I am a great patriot of Bendery. I unconditionally love the town, its scenery and its people. If these notes will help to add another stone to the monument to our town, among all other holy Jewish congregations, then they fulfill their mission. If, here and there, I omitted a name or an event it was not that they were not worthy of remembering. It was because there was not enough space. I beg forgiveness from all those whose names I did not mention.
Those who remained in town after I left in 1920 will fill in the blanks. We will light a memorial candle to our brethren and we will be joined by the generations to come so the chain will not be broken and the times that are gone will not be forgotten.
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