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[Page 91]

Journeys to the Land

 

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In the Achva Group
– With the First Pioneers of Lithuania

by Aharon Gazit (Zisla)

Translated by Jerrold Landau

During the era of German occupation of the First World War, when ties were severed with the general Jewish world, and even ties between the cities and towns of Lithuania were difficult due to the laws of German occupation, a Young Zion meeting place was opened in Jonava. My brother Dov Zisla who had returned from his studies in the teacher's seminary of Vilna, and the teacher Joselovich, were among the initiators and activists in the opening of the meeting place.

As far as I recall, it seems to me that Rachel Jonashevich (today Soloveichik), Rachel Mintz (today Ben-Yehuda), my sister Rachel Zisla (Lavie) among the girls; and Baruch Namiot, Dov Blumberg, my cousin Eliahu Opnitzky, and I were among the participants in the meeting place.

In 1917, we began to think that we must become accustomed to physical work, agricultural work in particular, in order to prepare ourselves for aliya at the first opportunity.

As a first step, we took upon ourselves to work in the fruit orchard and vegetable garden that belonged to the family of Hinda (Shoham, I believe). We worked in this garden, which was called the Zionist Garden, during all of our free time, and on the Sabbaths. It also served as a place for meeting and mutual gatherings.

At the end of the summer of 1918, we organized an ingathering celebration during the festival of Sukkot to conclude the season. This was before we hatched the plan for the following year. In the winter of 1918/1919, the members Baruch Namiot, Eliahu Opnitzky, and Dov Blumberg were involved in smuggling food from Jonava to Kovno. I utilize the word “smuggling” because such endeavors were forbidden under the occupation statutes. Nevertheless, anyone daring enough became involved in such, since there was no other source of employment for the youth who did not have a specific trade.

On one occasion, the aforementioned members found out that a group of pioneers existed in Kovno, consisting of the best of the eighth grade students of the gymnasium of Dr. Carlebach. These pioneers set two goals for themselves: 1) aliya to the Land of Israel, and 2) agricultural preparations until the possibility of aliya arises.

The members Baruch, Dov and Eliahu met with them, forged mutual acquaintances, and discussed remaining in contact, both for hachshara (preparations) and aliya. During that meeting, they learned several songs of the Land of Israel from them, such as “Ya-Chay-Li-Li Am-Li-Li,” and “Chushu, Achim, Chushu.”

During that period, I worked in sewing, which was connected to the hide business of my parents. I recall that I was working late one night, when Baruch Namiot and Eliahu Opnitzky came to me, after they had just returned that evening from Kovno. They told me in secrecy, “Leave your work! We have important, interesting news to tell you.” We went outside, and as we were strolling on the street, they told me about their meeting with the pioneers in Kovno. With great emotion, the three of us burst out singing, “Ya-Chay-Li-Li Am-Li-Li.” This was an unusual sight in the quiet streets of the outskirts of Jonava at midnight, and more than one door opened up to take a look at the mischievous people who were disturbing the night rest. They were very surprised to discover that the mischief makers were people of their ilk rather than regular troublemakers.

From that time, the contact between us Jonavers and the group of gymnasium students in Kovno was forged. My sister Rachel, who was studying in that class, was among them. We began to seek out a place for agricultural hachshara for the summer. In the spring of 1919, an opportunity appeared on the horizon. The Lithuanian Army began to organize itself, and the agronomist Charna, who knew the group of pioneers, served as a sergeant. Since he was an avowed Zionist, he found work for the group in growing vegetables in the large fields next to the army bunkers in Koviatiski near Mariampol, in order to provide vegetables for the army.

The members accepted his offer with joy, and immediately informed us in Jonava about the opportunity for hachshara. Without any hesitation, we also gladly accepted their news. Each of us told our parents about what was about to take place.

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After some discussions and arguments, we set out after Passover to join our friends in Kovno to travel to Mariampol. For the entire evening before the journey, we sat in my parents' sewing workshop, as I sewed four large backpacks to pack our personal belongings and clothing.

We should recall that this was at the end of the period of German occupation, and the beginning of the establishment of the Lithuanian government. Until that time, it was forbidden to travel from district to district without a permit from the district representatives. Our appearance in the towns along the way – a group of youths with backpacks, like draftees – aroused questions: for what and to where? The surprise was even greater when they found out that we were not going to the army, but rather, we were pioneers going to hachshara in order to prepare for aliya to the Land of Israel.

Before that time, the term “chalutz” (Zionist pioneer) had yet to be heard; and talk of aliya to the Land of Israel, before free movement had been opened up at all, was like a daydream. In any case, we reached Mariampol, and from there, we went to the army bunkers in Koviatiski. There, they had set aside a special wing as our residence. The agronomist Charna found amongst the soldiers an agricultural youth from a village settlement, who served as the army representative as well as our guide in work. We received guns in order to protect the vegetable fields. This gave us the opportunity to practice with weapons in a free manner, which would help us prepare for the tests in the Land.

Our appearance in Mariampol and our involvement in the work aroused great interest among the local youth. In general, Mariampol was a cultural town with a recently founded Hebrew gymnasium. Its youth had definitive Zionist leanings. The news of the group of pioneers nearby aroused great interest. Some of them expressed interest in joining us. Our work area was restricted, so we began to search for additional work areas. We made contact with two Jews who owned farms in nearby Ongrina and Karlina, and our numbers grew. At that time, my sister Rachel came to Mariampol and joined our group.

I must point out the complete cooperation between us and the chalutzim of Kovno. Most of them were talented youths, and we were able to learn a great deal from them in development, knowledge, theory and communal dynamics. We influenced them in the areas of Judaism and nationalism. Our member Baruch Namiot of Jonava had grown up in a Hassidic home. His father was a prayer leader with a sweet voice, who read the Torah in the shtibel in Jonava, in which we had grown up and been educated together. His home was permeated with the spirit of Hassidism, and Hassidic melodies were often heard in their home. Baruch himself was blessed with a good ear and musical talent, and he introduced Hassidic melodies into our group, which was called Achva, at any opportunity of a sublime, festive mood.

The summer of work and hachshara passed with great meaningfulness until the autumn arrived. The work ended, and each of us had to go to his home. Of course, we did not see this as a solution, and we began to seek out ways to progress toward aliya.

It was the end of 1919. A debate broke out in the movement even before the independence movement existed within the countries of Europe. Some claimed that we must move to Germany, which was close to Lithuania, and from there, strive for progression toward aliya. A small group was organized that decided to attempt this. Baruch Namiot and Dov Blumberg were among those. They moved to Germany with forged documents. Since they could not make progress, they remained there, working in the coal mines of the Ruhr District. The other portion remained to wait for an opportunity in Lithuania. In the interim, in order maintain the preparations and the connections, they found work in the forests around Kovno. I found a position as a work foreman in the Bafrur Shantz sawmill near Kovno. I attempted to meet my friends in Kovno once or twice a week.

In June 1920, we sent a member of ours to Berlin. On account of our connections that we had with good Zionists in Germany, we were able to arrange passports to remain in Germany for the remaining 11 people of our group. We snuck across the border in Kybartai, with the help of chalutzim friends, and we arrived in Berlin during the Zionist Congress in Germany, in which Eliezer Kaplan and Chaim Arlozoroff were participating as representatives of Ukrainian Jewry. We made acquaintance with Eliezer Kaplan, and through a plan that we hatched with his assistance and using his connections, we obtained forged passports in which we were registered as refugees from the Land of Israel who were being sent back. He made one condition

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with us – that we could use those passports only from Vienna. Therefore, we were forced once again to sneak across the German-Czech, and Czech-Austrian borders. We made a portion of the journey on foot and a portion by train until we arrived in Vienna, from where we succeeded in setting out and arriving at the coast of Jaffa in August 1920. We were the first group of pioneers from Lithuania to arrive in the Land of Israel after the First World War. Our friend Baruch Namiot preceded us. He succeeded in making aliya in a roundabout way. He was the only one of the original group that set out for Germany to succeed in doing so.

We worked in Degania Aleph when we first arrived, until we made arrangements to go to Har Kinneret for preparatory work for forestry. We worked there as an organized group for about four months. In the meantime, the rest of the group who had remained in Lithuania arrived, including my sister Rachel. During our work period at Har Kinneret, we made a unanimous decision to join the Trumpeldor Work Brigade, which was headed by Yitzchak Landsberg (Yitzchak Sadeh), Yehuda Koplovich (Almog) and Elkind. We were accepted with great appreciation as an organized, serious and astute group. We succeeded in obtaining an honorable position in the workplace and the organization. Here too, our friend Baruch Namiot managed to introduce Hassidic melodies during the meals, and at all types of festive opportunities.

It is not my wish to continue with the rest of the stories of the development of the group and its members. I only wish to recall the memory of the good friends who were cut off before their time and did not succeed in reaching our primary goal of witnessing the establishment of Israeli independence. These include:

Baruch Namiot. He returned to Lithuania on account of a bout of depression with which he was afflicted in 1926, where he perished along with the rest of the Jews of Jonava. He was an upright person who had great professional talent. He trained as a plasterer in the Land, and took part in important jobs that took place during that period.

Eliahu Opnitzky was my childhood friend. We spent time together in conversations and dreams of aliya to the Land. Together we provided the initiative for the founding of the Zionist Garden in Jonava. Together we suffered the tribulations of the journey to the Land, and the hard work under difficult conditions. Eliahu married when he was in the Geniger Group. There, he had a son and a daughter. It was difficult for him to withstand the harsh living conditions of that era as well as the economic difficulties. Due to his worries about how to support his family, he acceded to the request of his wealthy parents and returned to Lithuania along with his brother Abba, who had arrived somewhat later. Both of them perished along with their families.

My sister Rachel of blessed memory. She also went through the melting pot of difficult labor under harsh conditions. She worked in gravelling the Migdal-Tabacha Road. Later, she went to work as a nurse in the hospital of the Migdal work group in the Lower Galilee during the typhus and malaria epidemics. Her refined soul suffered greatly as she witnessed the suffering and affliction of the sick people. She was willingly freed from this position when we moved to Kfar Giladi. There she worked at building. When the work group moved to Ein Harod, she joined that group and started working in the nursery. She later married Shlomo Lavie, and they had three children, Yerubaal, Hillel, and Ilana.

The first period in Ein Harod was full of enthusiasm and meaning. However, the malaria that had been spreading in the valley at that time and the difficult nutritional situation affected her health, and she died before her time at the age of 32 during the severe influenza epidemic of 1930. Her children, whom she did not merit in raising and who were orphaned from her while they were still very young, were educated in the group by their father Shlomo Lavie of blessed memory and his niece Sheindela, who devoted a great deal of love and dedication to them.

Her son Yerubaal became a volunteer in the brigade when he grew up. He fell in battle on Mount Gilboa at the beginning of the War of Independence. Her second son Hillel was injured while evacuating the wounded from Kfar Darom.

The last person in this list is my brother Dov Zisla-Gazit of blessed memory. Like the rest of us in the town, he received his early education in the cheder. He later went to study in the Yeshiva in Jonava under the leadership of Rabbi Yehuda Gorfinkel of blessed memory, where he became known as one of the most talented students. He went to study in the Mussar[1] Yeshiva of Slobodka at the age of about 15. There too, he took his places amongst the best of the students. He returned to Jonava at the outbreak of the First World War. We moved to Vilna, the Jerusalem of Lithuania, at the time of the decree of expulsion of all Jews from the district of Kovno.

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Broad vistas opened before him. There, he began to think about his future direction. Our family returned to Jonava when Vilna was conquered by the Germans. However, Dov remained in Vilna, and began his studies at the teachers' seminary, under the conditions of hunger and actual want – just like during the time of occupation during the First World War. After about two years, he returned to Jonava, where he began to work in the field of education. He was one of the founders of the Hebrew public school in Jonava, where he taught along with his friend, the teacher Joselovich, whom he had brought from Vilkomir. Along with this, he was active in the Poale Zion meeting place, and in the organization of evenings and celebrations on behalf of the Jewish National Fund and other Zionist funds.

He moved to the town of Pilviskai in 1918, where he founded and directed the first public Hebrew school in the town. From there, he moved to teach in the Hebrew high school in Mariampol. After my sister Rachel and I made aliya to the Land, he decided that the duty of the call to pioneering was not open only to students, but also applied to teachers. He then joined the pioneering camp “Kibbush” near Kedainiai as a chalutz. From there, he attempted to make aliya to the Land through an uncharted path. He moved to Germany, where he began to work as a farmer. Then he studied biology and agriculture at university.

He made aliya in 1924. He joined a work group in El Yosef and started again at agricultural work. About a year later, our parents, along with my brother Aryeh, and our youngest sister Chedva also made aliya to the Land.

Dov and I then left our kibbutzim in order to help our parents to strike roots in the land in their chosen place of residence, Tel Aviv. At that time, Dov once again became involved in educational activities together with those who were laying the foundations for the first school for working youth, set up in the Hacholot district where Gan Meir exists today.

When the youth village was set up in Gan Shemen by Dr. Lehman, Dov transferred there to work in teaching under its auspices. After about a year, he married Rachel of the Dimant family from the town of Seduva, who had made aliya with a group of chalutzim in 1922 and became involved with a work group in Ein Harod. When a hospital was set up in Ein Harod under the directorship of Dr. Hershkovitz (today Harel), she began to work there as a nurse. She was a well-known personality in the hospital, beaming with light, wisdom and warmth toward all in need of her assistance.

Dov's marriage demanded a more regular order, so he transferred to work as the principal of a school in the Borochov neighborhood. There, he built his family. There Dov found a broad arena in which to invest his energy and plans. He ensured the establishment of a local chapter of the Working Youth. The home of Dov and Rachel was always open to anyone in need of advice and guidance, both parents and his many students. In 1940, Dov joined the supervisory network of the Educational Center of the Workers' Current. Later, he transferred to the educational division of the National Council, where he served as vice director.

At that time, he founded and directed the teachers' seminary of Hamerkaz Lachinuch, that later developed further and was called the Teachers' Seminary of Givat Hashelosha.

At the end of the Second World War, Dov went out as an emissary to Germany to organize educational activities amongst the Holocaust survivors and in the Displaced Persons Camps.

When we achieved our independence, he was called to serve as the director of the division of professional education. From this role, he transferred to the branch of agricultural education, where he worked in overseeing the supervision, and as the chief inspector. To his many achievements, we can add the addition of a fourth year in the agricultural schools in order to ensure that they received a full secondary school accreditation.

During his diligent work in the field of education, he published articles on issues of education and the problems of the young generation and its relation to agriculture. Among other things, he succeeded in writing and preparing for publication his two volume book “the Annals of Agricultural Settlement,” that was meant as a study textbook in the agricultural schools, as well as his book “Furrows of Education.”

He hatched many plans, but his voice was stilled on account of his illness, and he was not able to see them to fruition.

I have recalled four natives of Jonava who passed away before their time. May the memories of our dear departed ones be bound in the bonds of all those who fought to attain our independence and security.


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Something About My Parents' Home

by Aharon Gazit (Zisla)

Translated by Jerrold Landau

{Two photos page 97: Tzvi Yaakov and Chaya Dvora Zisla.}

My father Tzvi Yaakov Zisla was a native of Jonava. He was raised and educated in the home of his parents, who were Chabad Hassidim. He received a full Torah education, as was customary in those days. He was expert in Bible and Talmud, got along well with his fellow man, and was accepted and liked by everyone.

My mother, Chaya Dvora of the Heiman family was a native of Vilkomir [Ukmerge]. They earned their livelihood from their hide business with the adjacent sewing workshop. Mother was the living spirit of the professional aspects, as she knew the work of hides from her parents' home. However, he was more active in the business aspects and in purchasing. Father, of course, was observant, but he was not a dark zealot. All of the children received a traditional, religious education, and the spirit of Chabad Hassidism pervaded the home. This was instilled into us from our childhood, and we spent a great deal of time on weekdays and festivals in the Shtibel. Father also taught the weekly Torah portion with “Midrash Rabba” to the congregation of Hassidim on Sabbaths. He was often carried on the shoulders of his students while sitting on a bench on the day of Simchat Torah.

My parents dreamed and longed for the Land of Israel as a secret desire. The spirit in the home served the children well, for they were among the first to make aliya.

In 1925, we were fortunate that my parents made aliya to the Land along with my brother Aryeh, who had been among the activists of Maccabee in Jonava, and my youngest sister Chedva. With the help and support of my brother Dov, she continued her studies in the Herzliya Gymnasium, concluded her studies in the teachers' seminary, and finally transferred to the Technion in Haifa where she received an engineering certificate.

Our oldest sister Keila, who married Yisrael Levin at the end of the First World War and moved to Mariampol, continued with the family tradition of Zionist activities, through the funds and WIZO [World International Zionist Organization]. Her four sons were educated in the national spirit, and studied in the Hebrew gymnasium there. The younger ones studied in the public Hebrew school.

In 1936, we succeeded in bringing them all to the Land. Two of her sons volunteered for the British Army and served in the Israeli Brigade. All four later served and participated in the War of Independence.

As the first to make aliya in my family, I see it as a great merit for myself that I was able to witness and assist in the aliya of all the members of my family, who participated in the building, establishment and defense of the Land.

The sorrow and agony is great regarding the bitter fate that overtook those who remained in Jonava, Lithuania, and the rest of the Diaspora of Europe. They perished in cruelty and hellish torment at the hands of the evildoers and filth of the human race.


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His Entire Essence Was Firmly Rooted

Friends talk about Chaim Chermoni (Monitz)

Translated by Jerrold Landau

{Photo page 98: Uncaptioned. Chaim Chermoni.}
-- He was the first among the first, the elder of the group of founders of Kibbutz Sarid. He was one of the few who had ploughed the first furrow and erected the first bunk.

-- He had the merit of the first. Being first was imprinted in his fate and character. He drove the first stake in the settlement in Givat Khuneifis, which is Sarid.

-- Even before the Hechalutz organization was founded in Lithuania, he, the veteran of the Achva group, and one of the first chalutzim of Lithuania, and his friends set out on the uncharted path to the Land of Israel at the end of the First World War. There, he suffered from all the wanderings and tribulations of travel of the days of the Third Aliya in Migdal, Ayelet Hashachar, Yavneel, Geniger, and Sarid.

-- He was a veteran farmer, an expert in plants with fundamental knowledge, a planter, with deep understanding and diligence – a man of the farm, a lover of the Hebrew books, who was an avid Bible student.
-- To us, the people of Bivracha, natives of Czechoslovakia, he served as a strong bridge for the vital passage from an ideology embracing the world to the gray, day-to-day farm realities when we came to Sarid. He was a pathfinder and work guide for us.

-- His entire essence was well rooted, for his roots were deep in the farm, the Kibbutz community, as well as in Jewish culture.

-- One of the most well-rooted members, one of the most honest and sincere people with regard to his way of life. One of the complete people, whose life example and continual daily conduct laid strong foundations for the building of the kibbutz.

-- He was completely opposed to the Diaspora atmosphere, and to the lost agenda of Jewish wandering.

-- No social difficulty was able to push him off the path in which he marched with sure, straight steps, without doubts, hesitation, or spin. He was whole with himself, without great torments or soft sentimentality.

-- Few like him continued to work in agriculture literally daily, with hoeing, pruning, harvesting, and heaping up the produce. He did not stumble even when the work was difficult. He was constantly at work, until his last day.

-- His work hours with others would be spiced with calm conversation about the issues transpiring

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in the world, about a book that he read, and even about his past, which he was able to describe to the extent that drew him close to me. He exposed a new world to me with his stories about his town Jonava. Thus, I got to know a reality that was strange and remote from me until that time.

-- Chaim also played an honorable role in various defense activities during the years of disturbances, and in guarding the place.

-- During his time in Kovno, he did not prepare himself in the direction of farming, but rather in the use of weapons. To this end, he joined the Lithuanian police. He did not come to Hechalutz from the benches of the Hebrew gymnasium, but rather from the cheder and Yeshiva, which forged his connection with the treasuries of our traditional culture. He was an educated man, knowledgeable in our new and ancient literature, an avid reader, adept at critical understanding of the writers and their works. His internal consistency and great satisfaction in his path beamed forth around him.

-- He was overflowing with knowledge and wisdom of life. We enjoyed hearing statements from Pirke Avot or from the Talmud from him. He was infused with infective optimism that added meaning to our life.
-- During the days of El Alamein[2], when the enemy was hovering close to the entrance to our land, there were those among us who thought that all of our toil was lost, because our enemy would not leave even one survivor from among us. Self assured, optimistic Chaim rose up, mocked the news, and ordered with the stubbornness of a healthy farmer: “Let us gather up, heap up, and send the produce to Tnuva[3] – and it will be good.” His words were fulfilled.

-- Thus did he live among us for 30 years. For more than 35 years in the land, he remained true to himself and stood his guard, without weariness and without intermission.

(From the booklet in his memory published by Kibbutz Sarid.)


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… And the Straw Pierced our Flesh

by Dvora Garnow (Zlunker) of Petach Tikva

Translated by Jerrold Landau

My path to the Land was paved with hopes and experiences.

We sang and danced with joy on the ship, for we were on our way to the Land that was so desired by us.

When we disembarked on the coast, we were disappointed that there was no welcome reception for us. But I do not wish to tell of the disappointment, but rather of one of the first days of my life in the Land.

After great effort, I succeeded in arriving at Kibbutz Degania Beit with a friend in order to work on a voluntary basis.

We did not understand agricultural work. Our work clothes were those of European girls of 1932, and our shoes had high heels. This is how we went out to work. The shoes were not comfortable, so we exchanged them for soft slippers.

We sat in the field the entire day. We picked weeds from the cabbage patch. The sun was scorching. We got more and more tired. Sitting on our knees throughout the work also took its toll. At the end of the work day, in the evening, we could not get up on our feet to walk. Our feet gave in. Our entire body was in pain.

This was our first introduction to field work in the Land.

Night fell. There was a special bunk for guests on Degania. It had two beds and a table. We were tired to death. We quickly got up on our beds to sleep.

But, woe, what type of beds were these! These were not the comfortable beds in Mother's house, but rather high straw mattresses, which sunk inward as soon as we got up onto them. The straw pierced our flesh… Instead of sleeping the sweet sleep of workers, we spent that entire night laughing, “dancing” upon the sharp mattresses and laughing…

That fun night, without sleep and full of laughter and joy – will never be erased from my memory.

Thus ended one of my first nice days in the Land.


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Four Who Were Among the First Pioneers

by Dov Blumberg

Translated by Jerrold Landau

My memory directs me to a time period of more than fifty years ago.

Jonava – this name is filled with charm, splendor and bitterness. There we grew up, were educated and lived. We can state that we were happy and fortunate with our lot. It did not seem that we were actually in the Diaspora. Life went on as in previous times, without great changes. We felt secure in the bosom of our parents, family, and other residents. The Jews comprised 90% of the population of Jonava. There were some wealthy people among the Jews, who strongly pushed forward its development.

Izak Segalovsky, the owner of ten fine buildings, was the first manufacturer. He set up a large sawmill to produce planks for buildings and to make furniture, as well as a modern flourmill. He was the first to bring electricity into the town in 1910, bringing light into the dark corners and residential houses. Other manufacturers included Leiba Opnitzky, Levin, the Bursteins of Jonava, Zisla, and Yankele Eliash Weitzman who established a large factory for matches. Jonava also excelled in its many furniture factories, which gained acclaim far and wide. There were also workshops for producing utensils, and implements of iron and steel. All of these were owned by Jews, and employed Jews. There were also many workshops for sewing and production of clothing. Among others, there were merchants for forestry and wood products: the Bursteins, the Levins, the Blumbergs. Abba Pogirsky provided iron utensils and other work implements, primarily to the villagers. Chaim Levin, the owner of the pharmacy, also served as the mayor during the German occupation. Shneur Sesitzky, who lived next to the Vylia was the general rabbi appointed by the government. The rabbi of the city, Rabbi Chaim Ratzker, was a gaon, great in Torah. He was followed by Rabbi Silman of Sesik. The head of the Yeshiva, Rabbi Yudel, had a red beard. He was a wise man, a genius, who also had secular knowledge. He read the Hebrew newspapers “Hazman” and “Hatzefira.” Rabbi Hershel Peretz was the second Rosh Yeshiva. All of these injected color and life into the residents of Jonava.
The wagon and carriage drivers who carried passengers along the road to Kovno, Vilkomir, and other places, formed a noticeable component of the residents of the city. The youths of Jonava were known as brave people who knew no fear. When the gentiles came to the city with their produce to buy and sell at the market, there were many times when they were drunk, and performed acts of mischief. The youths of Jonava went out against them and beat them on the thighs. Day-to-day life was a struggle for existence: to establish large families, to send the children to cheders, schools and yeshivas. The food of the residents was simple: bread, potatoes, a bit of meat, soup and fish. They did not aspire to wealth. They aspired to the days of Sabbaths and festivals, to fill the well-lit synagogues, to attend public worship, to study a chapter of Mishna and a page of Talmud, and to recite Psalms. Thus, did they and their fathers live, and thus would they continue to live until the final redemption arrives with the coming of the Messiah.

The prayers, supplications, cheders, and schools elicit longing to the birthplace. This was like a dream, distant from the reality.

It was the end of the First World War; the Russian Revolution and removal of the Czar led to a chain of massive changes. Extreme nationalism overtook all of the Baltic States and Poland. All these areas, which had been under the Russian Czar, were liberated and gained their independence. They set up parliaments, chose a president, a national flag fluttered from the national buildings, Lithuanian schools and a university were opened, and a Lithuanian Army with national uniforms was formed. The language was revived, Lithuanian songs were sung, and rallies with great people were arranged to awaken national feelings. We, the Jews of Lithuania, were given the gift of national autonomy on a small scale. However, the experience of the thousands of years of exile foreshadowed a disappointing future. The Balfour Declaration regarding the establishment of a national homeland

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in the Land of Israel also did not arouse a sense of awakening. The Jews of the Diaspora continued to remain sunk in their somnolence.

We were four youths from Jonava. We woke up, and felt our nakedness and embarrassment: Baruch Namiot the son of Shlomo Chaim, Eliahu Opnitzky the son of Leibe, Aharon Zisla the son of Tzvi Yaakov, and this writer Berl Blumberg the son of Shlomo, Rachel Zisla the daughter of Tzvi Yaakov also joined in. We all decided to sever our connections with the Diaspora and to become chalutzim.

At that same time, a group of male and female youths also organized in Kovno. Most of them were graduates of the Carlebach Gymnasium. These included: David Kolka, Tzvi Golombek, Yosef Shukstaliski, Efraim Eliash, Chaim Monitz, Mordechai Bina, Yaakov Kark, Yosef Joselovich, Chana Kaufman, Sara (I forgot her family name), and Shlomit Goloskos. There were approximately seventeen or eighteen youths. I recall that we all sat together in a circle on the floor in a narrow room in the Zionist hall in Kovno, with a Bible open before us and candles burning. We took an oath to become chalutzim and to organize ourselves into a group. The name of the group was Achva [brotherhood] – as a sign that from that day on, we would be brothers and sisters, whose goals were to become workers who live from the work of their hands, to separate ourselves immediately from the fetters of the Diaspora, to leave behind all of our private and family connections, and to immediately go out to pioneering hachshara so that we could get accustomed to physical labor. This oath was in accordance with the oath of Achad Haam of the “Bnei Moshe” group:

“In the name of everything that is dear and holy to us, we hereby swear to become chalutzim, to be faithful and dedicated to the nation of Israel, the Land of Israel, and the Hebrew Language.” The motto was: “Work is our life.”
After we returned home, we packed a few belongings and took leave of our families in a simple fashion. Our parents were suspicious of us and strongly opposed this step. However, all obstacles were as nothing in our eyes. We got work in Koviatiski near Mariampol working in the gardens and preparing vegetables for the Lithuanian Army.

The group grew and broadened. We became connected, and forged the character of each individual. We aspired to personal fulfillment, to the creation of a different Jewish persona whose life is based on trust, honesty and truth, personal sacrifice for one's friend and self-sacrifice for the realization of the ideal that we placed before ourselves.

We set out on our journey after more than six months. Baruch Namiot and I arrived at the German border. We snuck across the border and continued to Stalopanen and Berlin. There I gave Hebrew lessons, and we earned our livelihood. From there we moved on to selling coal in the Rhine District, and we helped transfer over other friends, who worked on the railway and in other places. We left for France and worked in Vaudron. From there, we went to Paris and Marseilles. We snuck onto a ship that was setting out for China via the Suez Canal. We worked on the ship. I will not tell of all the trials and tribulations that we underwent. We arrived in Israel after about a year and a quarter. The other members went through the Alps, and reached Odessa and other places after a tortuous journey. Eventually, the entire group reached Israel.

I do not have sufficient space to describe the activities of the group in the land and the influence that it left behind in Lithuania. Hechalutz went in the same direction. In the meantime, the following additional members from Jonava arrived: Abba Opnitzky, Rachel Mintz, Batya Opnitzky, and others.

The emotionally laden letters that the chalutzim wrote to their parents had great influence, for their parents also left, liquidated their houses and property in Jonava, and made aliya to settle in the Land of Israel. The following were among those who arrived in the 1920s, 30s and 40s: Tzvi Yaakov Zisla with his entire family, Berl Zisla who contributed greatly to the development of education in Tel Aviv and was an important personality, Keila Zisla-Levin of Mariampol, Rachel Zisla who married one of the important, veteran works who contributed greatly to the founding of the large kibbutz – Shlomo Lavie (Levkovich). Their two sons fell in the war of independence. At that time, Elazar Judelevich and his wife Bashel, the sister of Tzvi Yaakov Zisla, also arrived.

During my last visit to Israel, at a wedding, I met many Jonavers who live in Israel. There, they live, exist, and continue to contribute to the building and development of the homeland. May they continue to multiply and strengthen within our blessed Land.

Capetown


[Page 102]

I Snuck Out the Window

by Batya Tauba (Opnitzky) of Tel Aviv

Translated by Jerrold Landau

{Photos page 102: Leibe Opnitzky, Batya Tauba Opnitzky}

In memory of the martyrs: My father Yehuda Leib, my mother Sheina Leah, my sister Doba – the good, generous woman, and my brothers Eliahu, Abba, Tzvi and Ezriel with their families who perished in the Holocaust at the hands of the wild Germans and Lithuanians.

Our house on Fisher Gasse (The Street of the Fishermen) was spacious, splendidly built externally, and enveloped with a Jewish and Zionist reality internally. This house stood out in the background of the fine scenery of the banks of the Vylia River. During the summer, we would spend time floating in boats on its waters, and in the winter, skating on the ice. The ways of this house, with its rooms, its yard, and all of its living beings and objects, were forged by my father Yehuda Leib, Abba Yankel's of blessed memory.

There were two smaller houses, a barn, stable and warehouse for old objects and boards in the internal courtyard of the house. We called the warehouse “balagan” (bedlam). It also served as the venue for rehearsals for the performances directed by Chana Katzenberg. Sanitary fixtures did not yet exist at that time, and the large copper container that stood in the anteroom of the house was filled with water that “Yosef Tzimes” had brought from the well.

After my father of blessed memory lost his parents at the age of six, he strove tirelessly for both economic and spiritual independence already in his early childhood. He finally managed to set up his own exemplary Jewish household, whose gates were always open wide for anyone in need or suffering from difficulties. Aside from the Yeshiva student who would eat at our table on a daily basis, my father would bring guests who were passing through our town to our home from the synagogue on Sabbaths and festivals. My father was a charitable man in the full sense of the term in those days, and provided significant support to those in need.

Before the outbreak of the First World War, my father was a partner in the match factory, along with Chaim Levin and Yaakov Weitzstein. However, during the war, before the retreat of the Russians, he, like many other honorable residents of the town, was forced to leave the place, and abandon all the property that he had built up through the toil of many years. Our family moved to Vilna, where we waited impatiently until the wrath would subside. When an opportunity to

[Page 103]

return presented itself, we did so without hesitation. After wandering in boats on the river for four days and spending the nights in villages next to the river, we finally returned to Jonava, where we found ruin and destruction everywhere we turned. Everything was burned: the match factory, the trees in the forest, and even those in the river. Only the residential dwellings remained standing, but there was also a great deal of destruction in them due to the searches for silver and gold that were conducted there. Of course, it was difficult to begin everything from scratch. However, a man such as my father would not give up. With double energy, he began to search for business, until, after great effort, he succeeded in returning the situation to its former state, and rebuilt his home with the tradition of having an open hand and a broad heart to everyone.

We studied in the public school. The boys continued to study Talmud and holy subjects privately, for they were not included in the school curriculum. The girls learned languages: Russian, German and Hebrew. Our father taught us to be meticulous. During the time of Kiddush on Sabbaths, we were forbidden to open our mouths. We were forced to sit quietly at the table, seriously and in awe. When we became older, the band was loosened somewhat. He would even discuss politics, issues of factions, and current events with us. There were even times when he would request a cigarette from my brother Eliahu, who smoked secretly and discretely up to that point.

Our home was a Zionist home. Various newspapers filled up the house, and the children even spoke Hebrew among themselves. I, together with my friends Rachele Levin and Blumka Pogirsky studied Hebrew and Bible with the teacher Dov Zisla of blessed memory. I liked Bible the least, as if what happened thousands of years ago was of no interest to me. However, when I made aliya to the Land, the Bible stories became more understandable and realistic to me, for I often trod on the places that were discussed in the Bible, which used to seem so remote and legendary to me. I was prepared to ask forgiveness of our teacher of that time, and our friend now in the Land, Dov Zisla of blessed memory.

Despite the Zionist spirit that pervaded our home, my father opposed our eldest brother Eliahu joining Hechalutz, which preached and educated toward a life of labor. According to him, it was possible to find sufficient work in the forests that we owned, and it was not necessary to wander far off for that purpose. However, the ice finally broke, and my brother Eliahu joined Hechalutz and made aliya to the land with the first group of Lithuanian chalutzim – the famous Achva group. My second brother Abba also made aliya to the Land a few years later, and joined the same group. I then made the decision in my heart to also join Hechalutz. Despite the fact that my two brothers were already in the land, my parents opposed this and interfered in the strongest possible fashion. They hid the letters that arrived for me from Hechalutz in Kovno. I was forced to change my address in order to receive letters. There was a library directed by Menachem Mines in Jonava. There, we conducted our meetings, the invitations to which were brought to me secretly by Baruch Kursikishik. Mines also recommended that I read the new books that arrived in the package, and that still smelled like glue. We would sit and discuss their content during the evenings. At times, there were also debates on issues of the Zionist parties that attempted to win over the hearts of the youth to strengthen their ranks.

Leizer Levin and others were among the participants in these debates.

I especially recall one evening when a member of the Hechalutz headquarters appeared in our house. He came to interrogate us regarding the reasons that we wished to make aliya. I was very afraid. My friend Mara Simka (Miriam Lomianski) encouraged me, told me not to become emotional, and to go and do what had to be done. That member of the headquarters was Eliahu Tauba, who later became my husband, and remains so to this day.

The next day, I assisted Miriam Lomianski to escape from her home, and Eliahu transported her to Kovno. The next day, her father came to us and began to shout: “Where is your Bilka? Where did you hide my daughter?” At that time, I was soaping up my face, and I hid behind the oven with soap on my face. When I later left my hiding place, I was only able to remove the soap from my face with difficulty.

Since my parents objected to my going on hachshara, I decided to escape from the house. One morning, my friend Rachele came to me and helped me escape trough the window with my suitcase. I then took a wagon directly to Kovno. I sent a letter home a few days later. Until that time, I was very disturbed on account of the worry I caused my parents. My hachshara location was Karkline, an agricultural farm under Jewish ownership. Of course, male and female workers from the general population worked together with us. We too had to work with them and like them. The work

[Page 104]

was difficult, and it was not easy for me to get used to it. One of the female Lithuanian workers assisted me in bringing the grain from the wagons to the barn. In return, I lent her my ring every Sunday so she could wear it to church. In the winter, we would sit and prepare sacks. All of the work was accompanied by song. At night, there would be dancing and friendly conversation. My second hachshara location was in Memel. There, we worked weaving baskets. Mordechai Ish-Shalom (later the mayor of Jerusalem) and his wife Shoshana were also in this group. This work was also not easy for me. After completing a basket, I had to cut off the ends on the inside to the point where I bled. All of the work was performed with minimal food, to the point of deprivation.

Despite my long sojourn in hachshara locations under difficult conditions, I had to fight with the Hechalutz center in order to obtain a certificate for aliya to the Land. Only after I agreed to fund the travel of an additional member did I succeed in obtaining a certificate for aliya to the Land in 1924 along with my fictitious spouse Yitzchak Goldberg. I recall the farewell party that was made for me in the home of Libe Chana Stern and the dear member Ivensky. After a speech, we sang “Amul is geven a postechl” (There once was a little shepherd). As we were in the midst of our enthusiasm, a knock was heard on the door. The police came and wanted to arrest us. We all dispersed, and continued on the next day in our homes, albeit quietly.

When I arrived in the Land, I immediately joined the Achva group, to which my two brothers, Eliahu and Abba, belonged. At first I worked in tobacco growing in the area of Rosh Pina, and later in Emek. When we moved to Sarid, I planted the first trees there. To my dismay, only a few of my friends of that time remain alive, but the memory of that work remains. There was a large forest and a fine, well-based farm. From there I transferred to a work brigade. I married and established a fine family. All of this was thanks to my strong willingness to overcome all obstacles, physical difficulties and spiritual struggles. Indeed, nothing stands before desire. It is only unfortunate that my parents and all my family did not merit seeing this with their own eyes.

When I recall in the eyes of my spirit the past, and all that transpired in my life throughout the course of the decades, I shed a warm, honest tear for my family that was destroyed – that exemplary Jewish home that served as a wellspring from which I drew all the strength, power and energy to withstand everything and overcome everything until this day.

From time to time, the memory of my parental home comes before me and appears to me as if it still exists as in previous days, with its calm, warmth, charm, benevolence, charity, hosting of guests, dreams that were woven therein, and hopes that were awaiting actualization.

Let these lines, written with the blood of my heart, serve as a memorial monument for this guesthouse of the Jewish people – my Father's house in the town of Jonava in the Diaspora of Lithuania – which was attacked by bands of thieves and wild people until it was destroyed from the world, along with all the houses of Israel in the wretched Diaspora.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Mussar refers to the study of Jewish morality, and is the name of a movement which was founded in the Yeshivas of Lithuania, which placed a stress on the study of Jewish moral teachings. The famous Yeshiva of Slobodka was one of the prime Mussar style Yeshivas. Return
  2. During World War II, when the Nazi Army, under Erwin Rommel, was approaching Palestine through Egypt, it advanced as far as El Alamein, west of Alexandria, before being repelled by the allies. Return
  3. Tnuva is an Israeli agricultural company. Return
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