Jews Between the Citadel and the Bridge
Bella Shreibman-Rab (Kfar Saba)
Translated by Ala Gamulka
Childhood recollections are like coins embossed for many years in someone's memory. Lucky is the person whose coins shine and glow all his life.
The street in Bendery where I was born lay between the ancient citadel built by the Turks (when they conquered southern Russia) and the Russian Orthodox Church. The church was enclosed by a fence and was located in the busy marketplace.
The street was entirely populated by Jews and was nicknamed Street of the Jews. At its end were located warehouses used to store grain from where they were exported to central parts of Russia. At dawn the doors of these warehouses tightly locked at night- were opened. Merchants stood in the broad doorways and bought wheat brought in by farmers from the countryside. The wheat was piled high in these large warehouses. The merchants bargained and fingered the wheat. This was a daily morning routine.
The Jewish homes were lined up on both sides of the street. The white acacia trees grew along the whole street. The Jewish families had many children and many were inter-related.
The population of the Jewish street was like that of a small, close-knit community. The atmosphere was calm, without any bitterness or envy. Mutual help was constant in this street. The Jews of Bessarabia were well-known for their generosity, goodness and sense of humor. They knew how to overcome difficult situations. They would pronounce amusing and heart-felt sayings and they knew how to wait for better days.
The Dniester flowed- ½ kilometre in width- just behind the street. There was also a big bridge. The citadel stood on a higher hill on the steep bank of the river. This ancient citadel looked like all citadels described in fables. Turrets were shooting up in the four corners with very tall windowless stone walls. A deep canal separated it from its surroundings.
The regular army of southern Russia was stationed in this citadel. It had barracks for the soldiers and living quarters for the officers. Soldiers trained there all day. Among them were Cossacks from the Don area dressed in their colourful costumes. They were put up in special barracks. Every morning they would leave the citadel to go to the stables outside where they washed and brushed their horses.
Between this citadel and the Street of the Jews there was a spacious square used for military parades on festivals and special occasions. (During the Holocaust this square served as a killing ground for 700 Jews who did not manage to escape the Nazi murderers Germans and Romanians alike).
We, the local children, used to watch these parades which were accompanied by a military band and acrobatics of the Cossacks on their horses. We did not feel any fear even though there were many non-Jews in the crowd.
These memories are forever etched in my mind!
A gray metal bridge connected both sides of the Dniester. On the other side there was a Bulgarian village Farkani. Its inhabitants were ethnic, tall and industrious. They worked their fertile land. Every morning these farmers crossed the bridge to bring their excellent produce to sell in the markets of Bendery.
Men and women formed long convoys as they carried woven baskets brimming with vegetables, dairy products and live fish.
The convoy was somewhat long. The farmers carried scales and were prepared to stop on the Street of the Jews to sell their fresh produce.
The Street of the Jews also had a vineyard belonging to the family of Shmuel Shreibman. In the summer there were convoys of carts filled with large baskets of grapes for making wine. Large barrels were brought into the courtyard. The scent of wine could be felt far away. There were many stores selling groceries, notions and workshops of barrel-makers, carpenters, shoemakers, tailors, etc.
Shabbat brought absolute peace and quiet to the street. There was no commerce and no coming and going. Peaceful Jews were seen marching to synagogues accompanied by their offspring. They carried prayer books and prayer shawls. On Succoth we celebrated by building large succot- to be shared by several families. On Simchat Torah the synagogues were crowded inside and outside and the festivities were outstanding. This is how the street looked on Holidays.
In the hot summer days young and old rushed to bathe in the Dniester. Men and women bathed separately. On Friday mornings we used to see the Jewish and non-Jewish coachmen washing their horses in the river.
This happy life, full of hard work, was not common in other towns of Tsarist Russia.
The spoken language was Yiddish with some Russian words added.
Actually, the younger generation attended school and spoke Russian. At home the children were a\taught Yiddish since these were mainly traditional families. Zionism also came to this Street. The women belonged to various charitable organizations Help for the Sick, Providing for Poor Brides, Anonymous donations, etc. Most of the women were involved in these activities.
It is believed that at a distance of years gone by and with the perspective of time passed, everything seems rosy. However, these are my memories of a distant and happy childhood in a Bendery of fifty years ago. Since then, I made Aliyah, with my family, in 1920.
Nahum Lavonsky (Kibbutz Ayalon)
Translated by Ala Gamulka
I was born on the eve of WWI when our town was still part of Tsarist Russia. I was a child during the war and I can still remember the thunder of the cannons, the bombing of the bridge on the Dniester and running to hide in the cellars. Bessarabia, including Bendery, was conquered by the Romanians in 1918 with the help of the British and the French. It was thus separated from Russia after one hundred years. On the other side of the river there were gangs of rioters- the troops of Petlura, Mahno and others. They organized pogroms attacking the Jews of Ukraine. However, the Romanians wished to please the new population and could not allow attacks on their Jews. So, thanks to the Romanian conquest, the Jews of Bessarabia were spared.
Typhus was rampant in town and many people were felled by it. The hospitals could not accommodate all the patients and the authorities even set up temporary hospitals in several public locations- even in the Auditorium. The patient care was quite poor and many of them escaped to their homes. This was a dangerous act because they could have been punished by the law.
After all the members of my family had recuperated from the illness, I fell ill myself. My parents hid me at home. If I remained alive, it is thanks to Roitman Feldsher.
Roitman Feldsher- Roitman the medic- was not a medical doctor, but he had a great deal of experience in the medical field. He was considered by the population to be an excellent diagnostician. He was a good man, well-liked by everyone. Roitman would walk from house to house using his cane and he cured the sick even if they could not pay. Many people sought his counsel and he was able to save many patients. He even invented a cure for headaches known as Roitman's Powder. He was poor and he died at an old age before WWII.
My father, Avraham Lavonsky known as Avraham the Teacher- made his living teaching Jewish children to read and write. He taught generations of students. At first, we lived on Michaelovskaya Street and then we moved to Lermontov Street. It was renamed Street of the Teachers because most of the teachers had their Heders on this street.
Children would come to study with our father on a daily basis. The synagogue father attended was damaged in the war and the Torah scrolls had to be removed. Our house became a house of worship once a week. There were about twenty Jews who attended on Shabbat. Father was well-known as an excellent prayer leader. He had a beautiful, pleasant voice and we loved to listen to his heart-felt praying.
We were a large family, but we rented two small rooms from Itzel Fishman (Itzel the Glazier). There was no indoor plumbing.
After WWI hard times came upon us. It was difficult to earn a living, but the needs were still great. Many refugees, escaping the pogroms of Petlura, crossed the Dniester. They wandered from place to place and tried to reach America. The war separated many families who constantly tried to reunite. The refugees remained in Bendery in the meantime. They were received with open arms. In those days, my mother's sister and her two daughters stayed with us. She waited for six years to travel to her husband in America. After much trial and tribulation, she managed to reach him.
A few years later we moved from Itzel the Glazier's house to David Bock's. He was nicknamed David the Scratcher because he used to repair shoes. A simple Jew, he was healthy, tall and energetic. He was one of the storytellers who had served in the Tsarist army for fifteen years. He would tell amazing stories about his army service. Many times we, the children of this street, used to congregate to listen to his tales. In his old age he repaired the synagogue in his courtyard. It was called the Zionist Synagogue.
He died at an old age before WWII.
In the 1930s there were close to 17, 000 Jews in Bendery and surroundings. Some had come from small towns in Russia and Ukraine and they settled in Bendery where they could earn a living. These were good, honest, hard-working Jews. On weekdays they were busy earning a living, but on Shabbat and Holidays they rested and enjoyed themselves.
As is well-known, Rabbi Shloimke Wertheim was our chief Rabbi. Soon after his death, his grandson, Ahrale, son of Rabbi Yossele from Poland arrived.
Although I was a child, I well remember the eulogy of Rabbi Shloimke by his grandson Rabbi Ahrale. It was given at the big synagogue. He spoke about the fact that one of the sons, Leybele, was murdered by criminals on the road to Bendery after WWI. This was a secret hidden from Rabbi Shloimke.
Avraham Eliahu Hazin was the brother of the Rebbetzin Bobka. She was the daughter of Nahman Dayan. Hazin was an honest Jew, well-loved by people and active in public life. He died a tragic death. At the end of WWII he was on his way to Astrakhan in the Soviet Union where his daughter Doba and her husband lived. The rest of the family, including Rebbetzin Bobka, died there too.
In Bendery, as in other towns, many Jews earned their living by working at a trade. They were carpenters, tailors, glaziers, shoemakers and blacksmiths. It was the custom many years ago to nickname people according to their profession. I remember some of them: Shimon the Shoemaker (Fishman), Shmuel the Blacksmith (Nafah), Moshe and Haim the Glaziers (Gershkovitz), Shlomo the Cooper, Maltzik the Tailor, Zalman the Tinsmith, Simcha the Shoemaker and Zalman the Chimney Sweep. Some were named after their hometowns: Herschel Tulchiner (Tulchin); by their appearance- Idel the Blind Man or referring to an event in their lives-the Prisoner. Many of them were killed in the Holocaust. A few managed to escape into Russia and returned to Bendery after the war. Some of them arrived in Eretz Israel after the war.
It has been said previously that the separation of Bessarabia from Russia left an imprint on the economic life of Bendery. The town was stopped in its tracks and did not develop any more. Other towns also could not develop during the reign of the Romanian kings Ferdinand and Karol II. There were no factories and other sources of income dried up. The youth grew up and could not accept the situation. Those who graduated from high school could not continue their studies. Even those who were apprentices in the trades did not foresee a good future. Their parents had owned stores or dealt in commerce and they did not wish to follow in their footsteps. They searched for something well-founded so they could better their lives. This is how Zionist groups flourished in Bendery as they did in other parts of Eastern or Western Europe (excluding the Soviet Union). A new generation arose that tied its future to the Zionist movement. Young men and women belonged to Hashomer Hatzair. Gordonia, Young Pioneer, Beitar, etc. Young people from good families left school- sometimes before graduation and prepared themselves for Aliyah. They were in a rush and wanted to leave the country before they were called to serve in the army. Army service was a waste of time for them. However, the gates of Eretz Israel were locked because of the politics of the British Mandate - especially after the Riots of 1929.
The youth did not give up and they tried other means. Many came to Eretz Israel invited by family members living there; others arrived as tourists for the Oriental Fair and Maccabia and remained. Some travelled to other countries in Europe or America hoping they would eventually reach their hoped-for destination of Eretz Israel. This is why former residents of Bendery are scattered all over the world.
At the end of the 1920s the Communist Party had some influence on the Zionist movement, especially among the young. The Party was at the height of its popularity mainly due to the economic situation in Europe and America. Many young people joined the Party. Some ran away to the Soviet Union during the winter when the Dniester was frozen. The authorities did not approve and they persecuted the youth. The prisons and secret police headquarters were filled with them. The Romanians were afraid of the Bolsheviks and in their pursuits they did not distinguish between Zionist and non-Zionist youth. Everyone was a suspect in their eyes. There were mass arrests before every Worker's holiday. I recall one Friday afternoon in the Jewish library. The reading room was filled with young men and women reading newspapers or books. The Romanian detectives burst in and took everyone to secret police headquarters with great force and cruelty.
Bendery was not imbued with anti-Semitism as were other towns. Perhaps this was due to the good relations between Jews and non-Jews. Changes came at the end of the 1920s. Some Christian students from Romania came to visit our town with the purpose of popularizing the teachings of the anti-Semitic Koza. The Jews of Bendery learned of this visit and prepared for it. They were ready for self-defence. Indeed, after several days it was obvious that the anti-Semitic students did not succeed in causing riots and they went back hanging their heads in shame.
In 1932 it was my turn to go to Hahshara (Preparatory Kibbutz) before making Aliyah. I went to Iasi to an agricultural ranch of Hashomer Hatzair. I returned home not knowing when I would make Aliyah. Luckily, I received an invitation from my brother Moshe, zl who was residing in Eretz Israel. I managed to arrive in Eretz Israel on the eve of Passover 1933. (My sister had arrived a year earlier as a tourist visiting the exhibition).
My arrival in Eretz Israel made me intent on bringing the rest of my family. I was fortunate, after a short time, to bring my parents and my sister and her husband, the late Sioma Mironinsky. He was murdered in the 40s by the British Secret Service. It was during WWII. Sioma was an educated man who had been one of the pillars of the Hashomer Hatzair movement in Bendery. He was also active in public life in Eretz Israel. He gave his life for his ideals. He did not live to see the defeat of Nazi Germany or the establishment of the State of Israel.
After my parents arrived in the country they settled close to my brother, zl, in Beit Haoved near Ness Ziona. Father was a traditional man who was used to attending synagogue daily. There was no synagogue yet in the settlement. Since he was an energetic man, full of initiative, he connected with different people in Ness Ziona. He founded the first synagogue in Beit Haoved with the help of Rabbi Haim Tepper of Ness Ziona. He even influenced the settlers to attend Shabbat services. It was his good deed to perform. He was 68 when he died. May his memory be blessed. He was a kind-hearted, smart and honest Jew. He understood reality and in his will he did not ask for anything that obligates his children. He was afraid they could not handle it.
My mother, Rachel Lavonsky, daughter of Nahman Rotfarb, was born in Proskarov, Ukraine. She grew up in Kishinev and was immersed in Jewish tradition. She was quite advanced for a woman of her time. She read many books and was well aware of her surroundings. She was easy to get along with and understood young people. She always found a common language with them. She never complained about her poor health and was always happy with her lot. She died at the age of 74, having had the fortune of seeing the establishment of the State of Israel. My parents were lucky to live and die in our country. They were both buried in the cemetery in Ness Ziona.
My brother Moshe, zl, lived in Eretz Israel for close to forty years. He arrived there in a roundabout way in the early twenties. He worked building roads and the drying of the swamps. He was always a member of the work force. He contracted malaria and travelled to France to recuperate. He had a good life in France, but he missed Eretz Israel and returned after a year and a half. He worked as a labourer in the orchards of Ness Ziona. He built a house in Beit Haoved and was totally dedicated to the settlement. He was an active worker who loved books. He was an honest man who lived on his hard-earned income. In the fifties, when his economic situation had improved and he could dream about an easier life, he fell ill and died at the age of 58.
May his memory be blessed!
I cannot honestly write these memoirs of Bendery without mentioning my brother who is still abroad. He was the first in the family to join the Zionist movement he was one of the pillars of Hashomer Hatzair in Bendery. He went to Hahshara twice, but he never managed to reach Eretz Israel. Aliyah was closed before he joined the army as well as when he was liberated. He could have gone, as did many others at the time, to South America. He did not wish to do so. Only Aliyah was acceptable to him and yet he never succeeded. He was one of the best students in Schwartzman high school and he was always ready to help anyone who wanted to learn. He studied and taught Hebrew. He became a teacher in Ismail and was a principal for many years. He is quite dedicated to education and taught many generations of students. When WWII broke out he was able to escape to the Soviet Union. After the war he returned to his hometown and continued to teach.
He was an excellent mathematician and was known in our town as Mathematics Champion.
After thirty three years of absence from my town I visited Bessarabia. I went to Tiraspol, Kishinev, Chernovtsy, Balatz, Orgeyev and Hotin. On my way to Kiev I passed many towns and villages. I even went to Moscow and I met Jews everywhere. They were hungry for news from the Jewish world. I met all members of my family still alive. Bendery, my hometown, remained unreachable. I saw it from far away, but I was unable to visit.
Shevach (Sioma) Blei (Haifa)
Translated by Ala Gamulka
Our town, Bendery, completely changed during the Holocaust years. There is no trace left of our atmosphere of the early days. The best times of our youth, our dreams and our yearnings disappeared forever.
Even today, fifty years later, I visualize the special beauty of our town that so captivated our hearts. I think of the suburb of Boriskova with its holiday cottages, the magnificent Dniester where we sat on the banks and dreamed or we crossed to the other side, the fruit orchards nearby emitting aromas in summer and autumn. I remember the summer holidays when the young people who studied out of town returned and always enriched our lives. On the other hand, in winter, the beautiful Dniester was covered in snow and ice. It became a war zone for snowball fights between our youth and the non-Jews.
It is especially important to mention the exciting times when the youth of Bendery were divided into various political groups. The Zionist pioneers included many of the eventual settlers and kibbutz founders in our land. The radical youth participated in the October Revolution. The personalities that even then formed the backbone of our town and contributed to our rich cultural life were: A. Postman, A. Alexandrov, Israel Blank, B.A. Natanzon, Hersh Boger and others.
I remember our town in times of war, revolution, changes of regime and occupation. A special event happened in 1910 (or 1912) when Tsar Nikolai II, himself, came to town. Our townspeople, I among them, ran to the fields. We were hungry for special occasions. When we reached our destination we discovered the train moving slowly with the Tsar standing on the steps dressed in magnificent attire.
I remember the declaration of war in 1914. The auditorium was full of mobilized men. I also remember the way the town looked when war broke out. Out town became a military centre and soldiers were billeted in all the houses. In our home there were soldiers from the Tatar division and we befriended them. They even wrote to us from the front.
When the war was over, the revolution began. It was followed by demonstrations by the railroad workers, riots by soldiers and mobs. The rioters poured wine in the cellars, robbed and destroyed everything in their way. At that time the local militia was founded. Our Jewish students were among its first members. It was led by the Georgian notary Zahankli.
The Romanians betrayed the Allied (countries against Germany) during WWI. When the Germans conquered half of Romania, the Romanians made a separate peace with them. As compensation, Romania was given a free hand to occupy Bessarabia. The Romanians crossed the border, took Kishinev and on November 27, 1917 (new calendar) bombed our town on the side of the citadel. There was a direct hit on the ammunitions depots in the citadel. As a result, a huge fire was burning. Pieces of ammunition flew noisily in the air accompanied by black smoke that covered the sky. The whole town was burning. I was not far away as I watched this frightening scene. I ran home and my worried parents decided to leave town with other residents. We began to run towards the military camp to hide there.
This day is etched in my memory because it was my Bar Mitzvah day. Tfilin had been prepared for me, but I was unable to put them on. It should have been the biggest celebration in the life of a Jewish young man.
The next day a Friday- it was rumoured that the Romanians had occupied our town and Bendery became a border town. The German soldiers arrived by train and marched on Harozinskaya Street to the bridge in order to cross to Tiraspol in Ukraine. Soon a revolution broke out in Germany and as a result German soldiers began to go through our town, some singly and others in groups. They were dishevelled, in tatters and unarmed. This is how they returned to Germany.
The Civil War was raging in Russia. The Red Army occupied town after town. The White Army of Danikin hurriedly retreated from Ukraine crossing on our bridge on the Dniester.
I stood with others on the hill and we saw many trains coming back. When the last train approached the watching crowd was banished and the bridge was bombed by the Romanians. Again, it was a Friday. Soon the French army arrived to help the Romanians and they fortified themselves along the Russian border. Many of them were black soldiers from Senegal. The town was revived.
One Saturday night on a Romanian holiday, there was a big party. Almost everyone in town took part. They danced and celebrated late into the night. We returned home happy and excited and we had difficulty falling asleep. Suddenly, we heard noise, shots and screams of panic. We ran outside scared and we saw that those Romanians who had just shown us hospitality and celebrated with us were leaving town in haste. We learned that some members of the Red Army had succeeded in crossing the Dniester. They were joined by the Senegalese who betrayed the French and brought them to Ukraine. Soon the Russians were everywhere in town. The main French army was in Boriskova and they attacked the Russians. When the Russians escaped they were joined by some of our best youth- they had been in the underground. Only five or six young men remained who had not managed to run away and they hid in town. The agent of the Romanian Secret Service discovered their hiding place and denounced them to the Romanian police. Their fate was unknown.
I was then working in the pharmacy of Lvovsky-Kogan-Kaushansky. Our clients were among the leadership of the regime and they discussed these events freely among themselves. Inadvertently, I discovered many bits of information. I had to listen, swallow and keep quiet. Soon everything calmed down and life was back to normal. Hashomer Hatzair was founded and I joined them. The best youth left town and moved to many parts of the world. I made Aliyah in 1925 with the first group of Hashomer Hatzair. I joined group C of the kibbutz section of the movement. It divided itself into Kibbutz Giva'at Haim and Maabarot in the Hefer Valley.
Good-bye Pushkin Boulevard and my hometown Bendery!
Michael Landau (Tel Aviv)
Translated by Ala Gamulka
There was a chain of villages and towns all along the Dniester which separated Romania and Russia between the two world wars. The majority of the population there was Jewish and was concentrated on the banks of the river. The river had not served as a border before 1918. It had merely separated Ukraine from Bessarabia - they were both parts of Russia. In these villages and towns life was exemplary during the Romanian rule of 1914-18. This chain of villages- Hotin, Ataki, Soroka, Rezina, Rashkov, Bendery (Tighina), Akkerman, etc. - was the backbone of Jewish education, Zionist movements and community life (unknown before 1918). The Jewish population found itself in the spring of the Russian Revolution and was searching for its proper place in the unfamiliar whirlpool of foreign terms and ideologies. It concentrated on what was natural for it- the development of Jewish life.
Bessarabia was a province on the outskirts of the Tsarist Russian Empire. There were millions of Jews scattered in border towns in Ukraine and Poland. The number of Jews in these areas was considerable. The small number of Jews in Bessarabia could not develop an independent cultural life in those days - as was possible in Ukraine and Poland. In Odessa there were many Jewish intellectual powers who founded cultural institutions. These institutions nurtured a strong Jewish cultural community with outstanding social entities and a well-established Zionist movement. The close proximity of Odessa to Bessarabia allowed the latter to benefit from the larger and stronger influences in Odessa in particular and in Ukraine in general.
Jewish Bessarabia produced great Hebrew and Yiddish writers. The Jewish center in Ukraine influenced the Jewish population of Bessarabia then numbering not more than 300,000 people. The echoes of the national movement were felt in Bessarabia. Writers such as Yaakov Fichman, Sh. Ben Zion, Yehuda Steinberg and many others never forgot Bessarabia even though they had moved to Odessa, Kharkov or Yekaterinoslav. They never missed an opportunity to mention Bessarabia with love and admiration.
Suddenly, for political reasons, Bessarabia was separated from Ukraine and was closer to a different Jewish community. Bessarabia became part of Greater Romania. The Hebrew culture and Jewish national movement were quite different there.
At the end of World War I the Jewish population of Romania was composed of four streams of Jewish culture with different languages, diverse histories and new leaders. The osmosis among the Jews in the four streams- Old Romania, Transylvania, Bukovina and Bessarabia- was only possible along one path. It could only happen at the beginning of the growth of the Jewish population in Greater Romania.
Truthfully, the separation of these four areas- between the two World Wars- did not allow for agreement between the diverse Jewish groups. However, when it came to discussing Zionism, all disagreements disappeared. Thus, at the end of 1918, after the Romanian army entered Bessarabia, there was a Zionist convention in Iasi. A Zionist delegation came from Kishinev and there was great cooperation between the two groups.
In the 1920s there was a state of emergency in Bessarabia- a fear of irregular Communist forces sneaking across the Dniester. This caused tension between the military regime and the population. It stands to reason that the Jews of Bessarabia, like the Moldavians, could not cooperate with the Russians - especially since Russia, in spite of its state of upheaval at that time could have forced the cooperation. However, the Jews were shoved into a corner by the Romanian army as a safe bet. At the same time the other minorities (Ukrainians, Russians, and Germans) attracted the attention of the suspicious government. At the end of 1918 and later the Jews tried to publish newspapers in Yiddish or Russian in order to lure the 300,000 Jews along the new political path.
(I do not wish to assess the quality of the press in those times. It did exist, although some of its motives were materialistic).
The national development in Bessarabia began with a Bundist newspaper Das Vort (The Word) which did not last long. It was followed by a Zionist daily Der Yid (The Jew). It promoted mass education, improvement of spoken Yiddish and the establishment of Hebrew and Yiddish schools (elementary, secondary and professional). All this influenced the cultural life. Yiddish schools flourished in larger towns.
Bender (Tighina in Romanian) was a small provincial capital town. It had a population of around 20,000 people of whom three-quarters were Jews. There were craftsmen, small merchants and professionals such as doctors and lawyers. There was great cooperation within the Jewish community in all parts of public life. The community leaders knew that their work was directed along two paths: Zionism and Socialism (Bund). Here and there some Communists existed either underground or behind the Bund. The Bundists in Bendery were not as powerful as the Zionists. Community life was influenced by all events in Eretz Israel. There were Hebrew cultural activities, newspapers such as Der Yid and later Unzer Zeit (Our Time). It was felt that Jews had two choices:
In the surrounding villages of the province (Soroka, Beltz, Orgeyev, Hotin, etc.) there were agricultural preparatory groups. The intensification of Jewish life meant Zionist and pioneer activities. Many emigrants from Bessarabia, especially those originally from Ukraine, planned to go to Eretz Israel. They settled in kibbutzim and Moshavim. Many people came from small towns in Bessarabia. 70,000 refugees arrived from Ukraine and sat on their suitcases waiting to continue their journey. Some were forced to go to America because the gates of Eretz Israel were shut to them. Future pioneers from Kherson were kept in detention camps in the villages of Bessarabia- e.g. Kotuiozny-Mare. There they waited for legal permits to make Aliyah. Many emissaries came from the labour movement in Eretz Israel in order to encourage, direct and prepare the young pioneers so desperate to begin a new life.
Bendery was similar to other towns and villages and the leaders competed in collecting funds to support Aliyah. The American Joint helped those who emigrated to America. The Zionists wanted to ensure that these young people who wanted to could reach Eretz Israel.
Among those who resided in Bendery I remember some whose homes served as centers for the Zionist movement. One of those was a Lithuanian Jew, highly intelligent and steeped in tradition - Haim Fustan. Everything he did was for the good of the Zionist movement. He owned a printing press. His wife was emotional and enthusiastic about the welfare of the local Jews. Haim Fustan had deep Jewish roots while his wife was steeped in Russian culture and literature. She spoke neither Yiddish nor Hebrew and resembled the locals.
The Fustans brought up a son, a daughter and another son. The latter was a member of the London Philharmonic and fell in the Battle of Burma. Haim Fustan also had three children from his first marriage. His eldest son, Moshe, rose like a meteor after he completed university in Odessa. Although he was only twenty he breathed a new life into the Zeirei Zion (Young Zionists). A year after his return to Bessarabia from Ukraine he founded the daily 'Der Yid'. He was also elected to head the local delegation to the Zionist conference in Kishinev in April 1920. He and Dr. Yaakov M. Bernstein-Cohen represented Bendery in the annual Zionist convention in London. Soon, like all rising stars, he left Bessarabia and went to study at the London School of Economics. Upon completion of his studies he was appointed lecturer at the University of London. At the age of 38 he was made a full Professor of Political Economics of the Middle Ages at Cambridge. His step-brother led the Revisionist Party. He, together with attorney Rubashevsky and his dentist wife, led the younger generation in Bendery.
Many important leaders, such as Zvi Cohen, Israel Blank, etc., disappeared in the upheaval of war. (Perhaps they have descendants in Israel who could speak about their families). The educator Schwartzman made Aliyah and became the principal of a high school in Eretz Israel. Others were fortunate to live in Eretz Israel and to continue their activities there.
How can anyone evaluate the extent of the loss incurred in the destruction of a large part of Jews of Bessarabia? When we look back and see how much this community contributed to the Jewish people we feel the great pain even more. These people were cruelly cut down and Eretz Israel lost one of its main sources of Aliyah.
In commemoration of these Jews from Bendery we also remember the many other communities that were great examples of Jewish life. The Jewish community of Bessarabia sustained such a great loss, but it was still able to plant beautiful seeds in our homeland. They are a reminder of their tradition and their ancestors and the strong love they had for Eretz Israel.
Arieh Shreibman (Kfar Saba)
Translated by Ala Gamulka
Our father, Mordechai Shreibman, was born in 1879 and made Aliyah, illegally, in 1920, with his extensive family, on a sailboat. He was a veteran of the vineyards in Petach Tikva. When my father settled in Kfar Saba in 1927 he joined the working public in its struggles within the Hebrew movement and against the local authorities. He was a respected public personality and became one of nine people appointed by the British governor to the first local council. He was the chief Gabbai (sexton) in the Great Synagogue in Kfar Saba and was quite active on its behalf.
My father was one of six Shreibman brothers from Bendery. He was highly respected by the residents of Bendery and was constantly traveling on business. Our mother, Yocheved, was a lovely, bright woman. She ran the large household and brought up her only daughter, Bella and her four sons Meir, Arieh, Elisha and Avraham. We had a traditional home, but we were not overly strict in religious matters. We, the children, were taught Hebrew from Kindergarten on (it was the first Hebrew Kindergarten in Bendery). We were steeped in the strong connection to our distant homeland. We sang about the Jordan River, Mount Carmel, the Sharon Valley and Mount Hermon. We continued our studies in the same atmosphere in the newly established Hebrew high school of Dr. Zvi Schwartzman. My father and his friends were instrumental in its founding. Our home was open to all who loved the Hebrew language and to those who longed to see their homeland. We gratefully drank in any news from this distant, yet so near, land.
We went by boat on the Black Sea and reached Istanbul. However, we were unable to continue on our way because we lacked visas and a boat. Our father ran about, exchanged money, tried hard and finally obtained a travel permit to Beirut. After a two-week stay in a hotel we went down to the hold of a freighter just emptied of its cargo of coal. In this black and filthy storage place we stayed on the floor -father, mother, we the spoiled children, and a group of young students from Russia making Aliyah. From Beirut we continued by stagecoach - piled high with luggage. We were deep in thought about what awaited us on this unknown road and we wondered about our future. Where were we going?
In the meantime, the stagecoach came nearer to Sidon - a small port in Lebanon. The sun set and we were left in an alley near the fishing wharf. It was all strange to us and we were a big family. Father distributed the suitcases among the children, each one according to his ability. We were warned not to make a sound and we stole down in a row to the beach. We took off our outer clothing, entered the water and reached a sailboat. There were several fishing boats tied to poles in the water. The young students who had previously traveled with us joined the group. There was also a Jew from Jerusalem who was returning home. The captains were two Arabs wearing a red fez and wide pants. They told us to lower our heads deep in the boat so we would not be seen from shore. When we disobeyed they threw blankets on us so we would look like cargo.
It was a wonderful night and the sea was calm. The moon shone on the white sails of the fishing boats. Only the Jerusalemite did not agree to lower his head. He sat erect and mumbled the Travel Prayer (Birkat Haderech). The ropes were loosened and the boat sailed and floated on the high seas. The next day, before noon, the sea became stormy. Streams of white foam hit the sides of the boat and rocked it like a nutshell. The waves were high and then they were low. We all became seasick. We used up all the lemons we had prepared. Everyone hung on to the sides of the boat. Mother could not rest and worried about her children. Most of the travellers fainted and lay helpless. Even the Arabs who steered the boat had to fight the insubordinate sails. They had never seen such a storm. We were afraid the boat would turn over and we could drown. Those who believed in God prayed their last confession (Vidui) and the others shook with fear. We were still far away from our destination.
In the early hours before dawn the Arabs managed to direct the boat towards shore. We reached Atlit, near Haifa. There was a group of Jewish fishermen waiting there among the ruins of an ancient fort. They came into the water naked and carried us to safety on their shoulders. We were soaked and exhausted.
Thus we were reborn in a new homeland. From then on we took an active part in the resettlement, rebuilding and defence of our home in difficult times.
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