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[Page 214]

Kremenets Exiles in Israel

 

English Translation by David Dubin

Kremenetsers' Role in Building the Land

Yitschak Rokhel

 

Numbers

The correspondents of the Organization of Kremenets Emigrants comprise 364 names, and, together with some unknown correspondents, the number of Kremenets natives in the Land of Israel is nearly 400. Including family members, this “landsmanschaft” consists of more than 1,000 people. They live in the following places:

Tel Aviv and suburbs 140
Greater Haifa 90
Jerusalem 25
Hadera 20
Afula 20
18 various kibbutzim 50
Collectives, absorption centers, and various other places 55
Total 400

There is no question that more than this number came to the Land – perhaps 600 families – but some eventually left, and some have died over the years, or fell in the War of Independence or acts of terrorism. It also should be noted that the number who wanted to come to the Land was greater than the actual number who came, but absorption quotas (put in place by the British Mandate of Palestine) cut short the possibility of immigration.

 

Waves of Immigration

We have no information on the part played by the Jews of Kremenets in the Hasidic immigration 150 years ago. However, since the city served as a cradle of the Hasidic movement, one can assume that a few Kremenets Jews went along with those immigrants. As far as we know, Kremenets Jews did not take part in the First Immigration or the establishment of the oldest settlements. The one person who came to the land in that time, in 1893, was Dr. Tovye Hindes, who worked for several years as a doctor in Jerusalem, but illness forced him to return and settle in Warsaw.

Many of the towns surrounding Kremenets, including Berestetshki, Beremeli, and others, were swept up in the Second Immigration of workers between 1904 and 1914. These workers were labor pioneers in cooperative farms and founders of the first agricultural kibbutzim. However, only a few immigrated from Kremenets itself, some sent by their parents to study in the Land and some who came to the settlements as laborers. They corresponded with their friends and encouraged them to emigrate. After World War I and the Civil War, a group of pioneers immigrated as a unit in early 1921.

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After them, individuals and small groups continued to immigrate as members of Pioneer or other nationalist groups. During Gravski's Era, there was an increase in the immigration of families, workers, and small shop owners, who saw no future for themselves in Poland. At that time, the Pioneer and Youth Guard movements broadened their scope to encompass hundreds of young people, some of whom dared to immigrate, and dozens arrived in the Land each year. They fought the rules, engaged in various forms of subterfuge, and reached their destination. Most of them had gone through training in Klosova and other places, and from the start they intended to join specific kibbutzim. Centers of attraction for pioneers from Kremenets tended to be primarily Kibbutz Yagur and Givat HaShlosha. At various times, each included 30–40 people from Kremenets. Some left later, but even today there are almost 20 people from the city in Kibbutz Yagur. In addition, several dozen families from Kremenets settled in Afula and were some of its founders. Several established farms for themselves in the city and its environs, and others took up trades or manual labor.

At the beginning of the Third Immigration, several agricultural centers were established in the land by immigrants from single cities (e.g., Kiryat Anavim by immigrants from Kamenets-Podolsk, Gevat by immigrants from Pinsk, etc.). The pioneers from Kremenets did not have the numbers or the organizational strength to found a specific center, and they had no desire to settle separately. Nevertheless, they played a strong role in several settlements and endeavors: in the Yosef Trumpeldor labor brigades in Rosh HaAyin in the early years; later in the founding of Tel Yosef, “the construction group,” in Tel Aviv (this later became the Office of Public Works and Construction and was one of the constituents of Solel Boneh); in the founding of Herut, the sanitary installation cooperative; and others. As mentioned above, in the following years pioneer immigration was centered in Yagur and Givat HaShlosha, and its mark is still seen there today.

[Translation Editor's Note: Solel Boneh is a construction and civil engineering company in Israel.]

kre066.jpg
Figure 66. Gathering of Kremenets Natives in Tel Aviv

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After World War II, the remnants from Russia and other places began an endless stream toward the Land. Estimates are that as many as half the people from the city who live in the Land today are descended from those immigrants. They live mainly in the cities, with a portion living in immigrant settlements (Lod, Ramla) and cooperative farms. Some of them are from the pioneer movement, but those who did not immigrate before the war and arrived only after many twists and turns share a special attachment to the Land of Israel with the current crowds of immigrants.

 

The Organization of Kremenets Emigrants

In 1947, a “landsmanschaft” called the Organization of Kremenets Emigrants in Israel was established in the Land of Israel. Before this, there was no such organization, and no one felt the need for one. Immigrants from Kremenets immersed themselves completely in their new lives. They were looking to the future more than to the past; they paid no attention to memories of bygone days or to communicating with their friends back in Kremenets in any organized way. This mindset changed when news of the city's destruction reached them and when the first refugees from the city began to arrive in the Land. Their memories of the past began to strengthen, their nostalgia grew, and pain and sorrow tugged at their hearts. These feelings required redemption and expression. Several of our townspeople began to write their memories of the city, publishing them in several publications (Volin Treasury, Gazit, Al Hamishmar, etc.), and the connection among the city's natives in the Land of Israel strengthened. They began to meet to ask each other about the city's destruction and collect information about the survivors. They felt a visceral need to create an organized structure to bring together the old and recent remnants of the city and to facilitate the social and economic absorption of the new immigrants as much as possible. A trailblazing group was established in Tel Aviv, with another group in Haifa, and in 1947 the organization was founded. Each year on August 14, the anniversary of the destruction, a memorial ceremony is held for the city's natives who were killed, and hundreds of people gather from the corners of the Land to meet and to mourn the destruction. Deep feelings emerge: some cry and some rejoice, some kiss and some commiserate. Memories, names, streets, and houses all arise, one after the other. Even after the emotional memorial ceremony, the group stays together for a long time and disperses in distress.

[Translator's Note: In Hebrew, Volin Treasury is Yalkut Volin. Gazit and Al HaMishmar (On Guard) are newspapers.]

The organization also arranges social gatherings sometimes – sometimes nationwide and sometimes each city separately – such as when there is a guest from the Diaspora. There is also some attempt at mutual aid: through the charity fund established by the organization, members in distress receive loans or support, and, with the help of various members, the organization also arranges work for new immigrants from our town.

The organization's establishment brought about a “meeting of the minds” among the city's natives in the Land as well as several kinds of mutual assistance. In particular, new immigrants find their way quickly to other city natives and do not feel alone. The organization charges a monthly fee to provide publicity and other material, but the collections themselves are not strictly organized.

During the last two years, the organization's main project, on which it has expended a great deal of effort, has been to publish Pinkas Kremenets. The planting of a grove in the Martyrs' Forest in memory of the Kremenets community is in the planning stages.

 

The Social Situation

What are the 400 families of Kremenets immigrants in the Land doing – what is their financial situation and social standing? Approximately 60–70 work in agriculture: in kibbutzim, workers' settlements, and cooperative farms.

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kre067.jpg
Figure 67. Party for Kremenets Natives in Tel Aviv

A large portion work in manufacturing, construction, and various other jobs. A significant number are self-employed or own small factories. A small minority work as merchants, and several dozen are officials and insurance professionals. Some individuals are without means of support. The vast majority have regular work, a significant portion being well off economically. Some have even become wealthy. For example, in Haifa, there are 80–90 families from Kremenets. Of them, 15 own their own businesses and factories, several work as officials, one as a merchant, and the rest in manufacturing, construction, and the railroad, most being workers in various occupations. Thus their socioeconomic conditions are favorable. In Jerusalem, on the other hand, a large proportion work in official capacities. In Tel Aviv, we find Kremenets natives working in health care and teaching, as well as a significant number of officials, but most work in manufacturing, manual labor, and construction, whether as workers or in positions of ownership. If we remember the social situation of the Jews in Kremenets, we can see the blessed progress in productivization experienced by the hundreds of families that settled in the Land. Our friends in America occasionally send food packages to Kremenets natives in the Land, but the vast majority does not require the packages and refrains from benefiting from them. Some of the packages sent to Haifa are returned to Tel Aviv, since there are no Kremenets natives in Haifa who need them. Several city natives have become rich as contractors and factory owners. Other individuals have reached high levels of public administration.

In summary, we can say that the children of Kremenets answered the call to build the Land to the best of their ability. And this is not a small thing. It was natural that previously prominent people would fill the most prominent positions, but in terms of their material background, the new immigrants progressed further than their more established neighbors.

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kre068.jpg
Figure 68. Get-Together with Guests from the United States,
Kremenets Natives Mr. and Mrs. Yitschak Vakman

 

During the War of Independence

During the War of Independence, Kremenets natives also contributed their share, fighting in various battles and having their blood shed on Israel's soil. The images of the two who fell at Yagur during the disturbances (Hinde Fishman and Shmuel Dishel); Eliezer Dubkirer, who died of fever in Givat HaShlosha; and Yisrael Goldenberg, who fell as a watchman at Tel Mond, are engraved in our memories.

 

In Political Life

Nevertheless, our city's natives did not stay out of political life in the Land. Certainly, everyone is a member of a party or leans toward the views of a certain party (the vast majority toward the Labor parties). However, we find almost no party activists among the Kremenetsers in the Land. It may be pertinent to mention that in Kremenets itself there were powerful Pioneer and Young Pioneer organizations, which were branches of the Labor parties in the Land of Israel. They emphasized action more than ideological factors. We thus see a direct connection from the city in the Diaspora to the city's natives in the Land.

 

Dispersion of Kremenets Natives outside Israel

Most Kremenets exiles are centered in three places: North America, Argentina, and Israel. The number of families that immigrated to America over the years is estimated at 1,000–1,500, and approximately 200 families immigrated to Argentina. Besides these, our townspeople are spread out in other lands, such as Soviet Russia and Poland, the Western countries of France and England, and other places, as individuals or small groups. In the United States and Argentina, there are organizations of Kremenets natives, and the Israeli organization maintains connections with them in several ways: meetings with emissaries and guests visiting the Land, exchanges of letters, etc. During the past few years, these connections have been strengthened by the joint publication of Pinkas Kremenets.

[Page 219]

General Yosef Avidar (Rokhel)

Dr. Duvid Lazar

kre069.jpg
Figure 69. General Yosef Avidar (Rokhel)

His office in the general staff of the Israeli Defense Forces shows the most severe economy, without contamination by outside influences and without adornment or furniture. The simplicity and sparseness follows the tradition of the days of the Haganah and the Underground, being an escape from any attempt to “make waves” or distract the eyes. At headquarters as on the battlefield, in the Planning Department as at field headquarters, there are a temporary table, military blankets, folding chairs, and maps. And the pressure of work, focused concentration, and conquest of emotions – that is most important.

His path to the Planning Department at General Headquarters was a hazardous one from Jerusalem, the “red house” in Tel Aviv, training grounds and leadership courses, the “fortresses” in the North, and the 11 settlements in the Negev, but the path began in Kremenets, Volin, a somewhat exceptional Diaspora city: the Jews there did not fear the gentiles. Even in the most difficult times, during the Revolution and the Civil War and during changes of governments and from one jurisdiction to another – from the “Reds” to the “Whites,” from the Ukrainians to the Poles, during World War I and afterward – there were no pogroms in Kremenets. From her our Jewish young people learned about Jewish independence and proud resistance against all enemies and adversaries. During the war the city found itself directly within the battleground: in the great offensive, General Brusilov's army made a stand in the Rokhel family's courtyard, with the battle passing directly by the house. Petliura's armies and the Hetman Skoropadski's bands were there; the Jews were armed, and they knew how to protect themselves from attackers.

Yosef Rokhel, the youngest of five sons, received military training when he was nine years old. In the same courtyard lived a feldfebel (sergeant) in the Czar's army, who because of boredom after his discharge gave military training to the children in the area so as not to break his routine. He taught them military formations and even the use of firearms, and receiving this training while young did not fail to leave its influence on the young people. Another type of “education,” which Diaspora Jews of the previous generation had accepted, was almost nonexistent: Yosef Rokhel never studied in a cheder and obviously never in a yeshiva. Hebrew was nearly his mother tongue – lullabies were recited in Hebrew, and the nanny – the Ukrainian nyanye – would say El melekh ne'eman with the children. The father was a well-to-do merchant and a learned man, involved in the tradition but very liberal in his outlook, the mother knew Hebrew, and the school was a Hebrew school. At a young age, Yosef Rokhel learned to count in Hebrew with a decidedly Sephardic accent.

[Translator's Note: El melekh ne'eman (the trustworthy God) is a prayer said before going to sleep.]

[Page 220]

It was a Zionist home, and when the time came, there was serious talk about immigrating to the land of Israel. “We must not stay here,” was the final decision, and when the boy Yosef was asked what he would do in the Land of Israel and whether he would agree to become a goose farmer, he answered without having to think much that he would agree even to this. The story circulated around the family for a long time that it was as if the five brothers had signed a “compact” requiring each to immigrate as soon as he reached adulthood. And each did indeed come. The first to arrive was Avraham, who came before World War I, served in the Jewish Legion and the Haganah, and after contracting severe malaria returned for a short time to Kremenets and told stories of wonders and miracles about the Land – about the first settlements, the guards, and the farm workers – and this romanticism about the early days greatly influenced the rest of the family. They all decided to immigrate.

Yosef's first stop on reaching the Land in 1925 was Jerusalem, and one week after his integration, he was already in the Haganah as a member, a leader, and an officer. During the 1929 riots, he was an officer in the Old City of Jerusalem, with all that went with this position. Even then he served as a sort of barricade for the Jewish Quarter, and attacks were repulsed when the young officer walked before the defenders with his gun in hand. The headquarters were in the Yeshiva Sha'ar Shamayim – for the study of the visible and the mystical – and even today the General remembers the honor and fear he felt on seeing the visage of the mystic and Kabbalist Rabbi Horovits, a singular kind of image. There was great trembling on that hellish night inside the walls of the Old City when the first news about the massacre in Hebron arrived: the cries rose up to the heavens. The Jews of the Old City had familial ties with the Jews of Hebron, and the mourning was heartrending.

[Translator's Note: Sha'ar Shamayim means Gate of Heaven.]

The Land quieted down, more or less. Approximately two years after the episode in the Old City, Yosef Rokhel went out one Saturday with a brigade of 50 men for exercises around the amphitheater of the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, on the eastern slope, in the direction of the Dead Sea. The exercises included throwing grenades, and the officer demonstrated the way to throw the menachem grenade, which was independently produced by the Haganah. This type of grenade needed to be “knocked” with the left hand before it was thrown, and during the “knocking,” a grenade exploded in Rokhel's hand. Part of his right hand was cut off, and his left was crushed nearly to the point where it would require amputation. Very calmly under the circumstances, this seriously injured man took care to remove all evidence of the exercises before anything else so that they would not be exposed to the British police, gave over control to his second in command, Yakov Berger (who fell in the first days of the battle over Hanita), and only afterward agreed to be taken to the hospital. Since there was no stretcher, he was carried up the slope in sheets – a two-hour journey to the university – an Arab vehicle had to be “commandeered” to expedite the removal of the injured to Hadassah Hospital on HaNevi'im Street because he had lost a great deal of blood, and every minute was precious. Only afterward did Rachel Yanait – who is now the First Lady of the country and was then a Haganah staff member – arrive by car.

He needed emergency surgery, but no surgeon was available. Because there was no choice, a surgeon, a man known to be a dedicated Nazi, was called from the German hospital – it was 1931 – and he performed the surgery. Very calmly and without complication or even a drop of “heroics,” General Avidar recounts these events. His left hand healed completely, and it has a powerful grip, but by paying close attention one can see that the right hand is partially artificial – the General writes with it and operates a bicycle and car, and, what is more, he has adjusted enough that he can repair anything he needs to, whether it is a motor or just a broken shutter at home. He salutes with his left hand, just as another officer saluted in his time – he was also Yosef, hero of Port Arthur and Gallipoli – Trumpeldor.

[Page 221]

Yet Yosef Rokhel, a high-ranking Haganah officer, never mentioned or even contemplated any such comparison between himself and the hero of Tel-Hai. He has a sense of proportion and does not engage in feelings of self-importance. He was Yosef Biberman, real estate agent. That was the simplest disguise to use in the days of the underground, with an official identity card – part stolen, part forged, but on first glance flawless – and a little makeup that, when necessary, changed his face to someone else's entirely, to the point where his two daughters, Rime and Dine (who when the time came gave their initials to their Hebrew surname, Avidar – father of Dina and Rima) would not recognize their father as he walked down the street. (But they knew to keep quiet wonderfully, and they knew the secret....) The way the hair was combed, with the “part” in it, the glasses, the mustache, the ostentatious, formal dress of a real estate agent – they did the job. The agent was registered with the appropriate housing and land office as required by law, and he even paid taxes according to the law so as not to bring any suspicion on himself. Once, he bought a shirt and used his identity card – that of Yosef Biberman – as identification in the store, as was customary in those days – all to have an “alibi” as a loyal and upstanding citizen.

The loyal citizen Biberman – who was also occasionally called Finkelshteyn and appeared occasionally with other names – traveled widely through the Land on business. He was an unusual real estate agent. He picked land for settlements in strategic areas during the state of emergency, he was always around when people staked their claims to the land, and he planned settlements from the viewpoint of security, with the possibility that the government might strongly oppose him if he set up these outposts in illegal areas. One of his better projects in this area was the establishment of 11 new settlements in the Negev in October 1946. The project was more successful than imagined, with the planner almost falling by the wayside. He appeared this time as a plumber from Solel Boneh Ltd. who had come to repair one of the pipes in a settlement, but after apparently arousing the suspicion of the nervous and irritable British police, he was detained on his return and brought to the police station in Gaza for questioning along with his friend Duvid Tuviyahu, now the mayor of Beersheba. The two were freed for lack of evidence, and the mysterious plumber demonstrated his almost “gentile” level-headedness. But there was another investigation in the office of the regional secret police in Gaza. Rokhel appeared without disguise, under his own name, and there was fear that his name was on a list of those wanted for arrest by the CID before Black Sabbath. The list had already been passed to the intelligence section of the Haganah, but only up to the letter M, and it was impossible to know if a National Headquarters member named Yosef Rokhel appeared on the list. The investigation went over well. Rokhel was not on the list.

Even before the United Nations decision in the summer of 1947, when it appeared that there was no doubt that war was on the way, Rokhel was charged with arranging the “instruments” needed by the army – from shoelaces to warplanes and tanks. General Avidar remembers well when he received the full list of supplies required by each soldier from Duvid Ben-Gurion. He needed to multiply the list by tens of thousands, and he arrived at a total of millions of supplies – which were not available. But when the day came, suddenly the first uniforms (still not those of the Israel Defense Forces, but rather of the Haganah, which was beginning to emerge from the underground with foreign-made rifles and homemade Sten guns) and rations appeared from secret warehouses, and the great expectation was that shipments of heavy armaments, ammunition, and heavy vehicles – artillery – would arrive from overseas. On Seder night 1948, shortly before the declaration of the state, Rokhel boarded the ship that brought the first 20-millimeter artillery. There was great emotion, and after the unloading they shared a toast with the head of the Quartermaster Corps – the members of the staff and bystanders who had unloaded the ship in the Port of Tel Aviv.

[Page 222]

Rokhel gave a short speech (he always gave short speeches): “All the Jews are reclining at the Seder meal. You” (then facing the Salonican stevedores) “are also beseder,” and with that he finished. Afterward, several similar “shipments” – from the sea and from the sky – came one after the other in an atmosphere of drama and anxiety that one very dear package might fall into the wrong hands – the hands of the British.

[Translation Editor's Note: In this play on words, seder (meaning “order”) is the ritual Passover meal, and beseder means “OK.”]

Rokhel himself did not fall into the hands of the British. The unlucky kidnapping organized by LEHI as retribution for the imprisonment of several of its leaders was an “interesting” episode – on the border between drama and opera. The General, the one who was kidnapped, tells of the episode in a humorous tone. The kidnappers treated him with the utmost respect, and he held interesting discussions with them, from which came the happy promise that if the independence of the state were declared – something no one believed would happen – the boys would stand before the kidnapped officer as regular soldiers in the Israeli army. The day after the kidnapping, there was already a detailed plan for his escape. Even the armaments were secure. The prisoners were rescued even before the plan was carried out.

[Translation Editor's Note: LEHI is an acronym for Lochamei Cherut Israel (Fighters for the Freedom of Israel), a Zionist paramilitary group.]

Rokhel also organized the sending of supplies to the besieged Jerusalem. Somewhere in an army camp in the south, female volunteers filled 16-kilogram bags of flour to load onto the shoulders of 600 mobilized citizens, who were taken straight from the factory, where they were taught how to tie the bags and carry them in the dark, under fire, before the Burma Road existed. The difficulties were not insignificant. Even here a great miracle occurred, involving the right words spoken at the right time in the right way. Rokhel calculated the daily requirement of bread for each resident of Jerusalem (160 grams) and turned to the carriers: “Each of you carries on his shoulders enough bread for 100 Jews in Jerusalem today...,” and the words had the desired effect. The carriers stood up and began to walk. The bread reached its destination. It was a great moment. Only then did the connection between lechem and lechima become clear.

[Translator's Note: In this play on words, lechem means “bread,” and lechima means “warfare.”]

General Rokhel concerned himself with the requirements of warfare, but his heart was always drawn to the battlefield itself, to the operations and command aspects of the war. He was chosen leader of the northern command, with all of the intricate problems that involved: problems of shortage and military government, pressure on the borders, and skirmishes with the Syrians. The “man of Nazareth,” Sholem Asch, was greatly moved by a discussion with him during his visit to Israel. The sentimental Asch said with Jewish emotion on leaving his meeting with Avidar, “For the first time in my life, I had the merit to see a true Jewish general...”

From Nazareth, Avidar moved to the central command, later taking part in the military's “goodwill” mission to Yugoslavia, and made a great impression. He was sent to London for a military course for high-ranking officers. He completed the military training, and during the session met with many British officers who had served in the Land and were nostalgic for it. At the end of the course, the officer, a British general, said about Avidar, “I'll never forget this outstanding personality.”

The two prominent aspects of General Yosef Avidar were (1) an immense work ethic, immersion in his work, and particularly in what he required of others and especially of himself, and (b) the nobility of his soul, “uprightness that borders on the sick,” as one of his closest aides described. He was extremely particular about impeccable measurement and about economy – also in his private life – with hatred bordering on disgust for any evidence of waste, characteristics that in our environment are refreshing as dew from the heavens, as necessary as air to breathe. There is an old French saying about a military hero from the Middle Ages: “He was brave without fear and without stain.” This saying describes exactly the brave, tall, and maimed Yosef Rokhel-Avidar, who would not presume, God forbid, to be Trumpeldor.


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