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[Page 489]

The First Group of Brest Halutzim

by D. Ophir

Translated by Dr. Samuel Chani and Jenni Buch

The Halutz (pioneer) movement came later to Brest than other places as Brest had no civilian population during the four years of W.W.1 It was only after the residents returned to their city, that the pioneer movement was established in Brest in 1919 and greeted with enthusiasm by the youth.

In the beginning, three young men decided to approach the youth by issuing a proclamation urging them to join the “halutz “ movement. They did this in this simple manner. One of them who had a nice handwriting wrote the proclamation in Yiddish and Hebrew, and at night they posted them on the walls all over the city, asking the young people to join this movement and to enrol at Topolowa 12. In the following weeks several dozen young men signed up and one girl. It was hoped that they would immediately be able to leave for Israel. There was talk of a group who had managed to make aliyah in 1918. We undertook to build this first group of pioneers of 14 pioneers without delay. Mordechai Yaffe was the 15th – he joined them in Israel. C. Beloch who was the oldest headed the group. All of the members were working-class men who had experienced the war and occupation. They had all endured varying degrees of hell in forced labor for the German army - in forestry, metal work, agriculture and other construction work. They had also been taught carpentry and practical skills from an elderly carpenter who lived in the suburbs of Brest. Because of these skills they could independently work upon arrival in Israel and accept jobs such as building the railway line between Lod to the British Military camp at Sarafen, and the construction of barracks for the British Army there.

The ambition of these members was essentially to work in agriculture. Several members had had agricultural experience in the villages surrounding Brest during the time of the expulsion from Brest in W.W.1 They knew how the cut with scythes, thresh the wheat with poles, plough, bind the bales of hay, planting of vegetables, and milking, etc. Many of the Briskers really became agricultural experts and taught agriculture to classes in the settlements of Israel.

The most vital and important question was how to cover the costs of the journey to Israel.

They established a local emigration fund - (the word aliyah was unknown to us at that time). The sum needed to send the 14 members was realized almost immediately. These were: Gershon Halperin (Drori), Aaron Richwert (Amitai), Noah Minkovitch (Shalmoni), Israel Saptiter (Sapir), David Goldberg (Ophir), Eliezer Shapiro, Joseph Machlis (Ben-Porat), Israel Golubovitch (Agun), Joshua Melnik (Kimchi), Berl Domberg (Gorni), engineer Eliezer Balloch, Nissan Daitchman (Ashkenazi), Guterman, and Mordechai Yaffe.

There was a great celebration and demonstration of joy at the departure of the first group of pioneers. Thousands of people accompanied us to the train. In our hometowns there was still hunger and we believed that Israel was in the same situation – so we prepared much food – sacks of biscuits, sacks of rice, buckwheat and greens. The carriage was filled with food and a huge crate that the members built themselves containing a great many utensils and work tools. Saws, axes, hammers, screwdrivers and other tools. The crate was reinforced with steel corners and a large lock. We had a great deal of trouble with this crate on our journey. Every transfer from train to train, station to station involved great effort and exhausted us. We dragged it like soldiers – four strong young comrades lifted it – four of the others would occupy the compartment and would let no one inside until the sacks of food and the crate were brought inside.

After arriving in Israel, we tossed all the food into the sea because on our first day we had received a wonderful meal – we tasted white bread for the first time in five years. Before leaving for Israel the central headquarters of the Halutz movement in Warsaw had organized for us to be in Grochow – a pioneer farm with green fields, a cowshed and a garden where we got a taste of the atmosphere of Eretz Israel. In Grochow we were joined by a girl who travelled with us until we reached Israel, and then left us.

In Vienna our group was split into two due to a shortage of money. The first group went by boat to Israel whilst the second had to remain in Vienna for several weeks. Arriving at the famous port of Jaffa, we were taken ashore by the Arab porters. These port workers were familiar with heavy items – they could lift large containers or heavy passengers. However, they had great difficulty in managing the transfer of our crate to the small boat.

The office of the Young Workers had us registered to go to Betania because we had requested agricultural work. We rested at the hotel “Presov” for several days and then we travelled. There were no passenger trains at that time from Jaffa to Lod so we travelled in a freight carriage. Yehuda Almog (Kapilevitch) himself dragged our bags and packages – we ourselves dragged the crate from place to place until we arrived tired and exhausted at a place that had no trees or buildings.

At Betania there was a group called “Dror” which was the nucleus of the Kibbutz Artzi and then later the Hashomer Hatzair Party. The atmosphere of “ our community” was not felt there, and the comrades from Brest did not feel welcome there. We did not know any tricks and could not understand the spirit of Betania. The isolation, the tiptoeing around - we were not able to make friends with them, as they did not allow us to make friends or become close to them. We sat there for a whole week – nobody was interested in us or told us what to do. We saw that there was no place for us there and heard that next to Tiberias there was a large workers camp. They were building a road to Tzemach – the first road built by the members of the third aliyah.

In reality we wanted agricultural work, and had arrived there for that purpose, but we couldn't sit around and not work. We sent out a pair of 'spies' who returned that night with the news that there was work on the Tiberias –Tzemach road. Without delay, the next morning we hired a boat from an Arab, piled in all our belongings and were on our way. After several hours sailing we arrived at the port of Tiberias. At the labor office we were well received, our baggage loaded onto donkeys and thus we arrived at the camp called “Hamei Tiberias” The camp had about 500 workers and was on the shores of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). In the front were straw huts; behind them was an old building which was the kitchen.

We were allocated two huts and slept on the ground on straw mats. The wind from the mountains blew particles of dust and sand and the huts became full of it. In the morning we arose and washed off all the dust and sand in the Kinneret.

In time our group became renowned in the Tiberias - Tzemach road project. We were considered as outstanding workers - especially excelling was Nissan Daitchman (Ashkenazi). The work was very hard and the pay very little – we had to be thrifty – we wore sandals made out of old tyres that the shoemakers from Tiberias supplied. In the first days of our road building, we all became ill. The hot hamsims (desert winds) were unbearable; the temperature was over 45 degrees Celsius. We spent several days in a temporary hospital in Tiberias. Then the heat dropped and we returned to the road building. We were becoming experienced 'old-timers'. Before the holydays an emissary visited us from the other part of our original group, who had arrived two weeks after us. They had been sent directly to Jerusalem to level off the site for the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus. They were called the Mount Scopus group. Their emissary came to consult with us on how the two groups could be reunited.

In order to reunite with our comrades, we accepted an offer to transfer to the British military camp at Sarafen to work on the construction of the camp. We rented a house at Be'er Yakov from a farmer and began to work building the barracks at the camp. We knew our craft well and earned good money for this 'lighter' work. We could afford good food and our morale lifted from day to day.

The British proposed to the labor office of Hapoel Hatzair (there was not yet a Solel Boneh) that they build a stretch of railway line between Lod and Sarafen. None of the older workers possessed these skills. Jews had never built railway tracks! But our group had several members who had worked in forced labor gangs on railway lines under the German occupation. Therefore, we succeeded in obtaining the British project.

For this work we had to live close to the railway lines – we erected huts in the open fields and lived in them for several months until the Arab riots on the Ist of May 1921. On that day - the workers holiday, the whole group had gone to Tel-Aviv except for two guards. During this unrest, one of our group was murdered and we were transferred to a larger work camp.

We began to knock on the doors of the various institutions demanding that they settle us on agricultural land. They offered us Hulda - to replace some of the locals who had accepted work at Kfar Yehezkel. We accepted this offer with joy, and transferred to Hulda at the end of 1921. However, we couldn't stay there for long, as the Hulda group was not financially viable. Water had to be brought from ancient Arab wells – an old blind Arab would supply the water in buckets. One could not reach there in winter, so all the harvested produce rotted in the sheds.

Two years later, our group, which was known for it's skilled and capable workers, was transferred to Kfar Yehezkel. We stayed there for a year until we obtained independent agricultural work in Sharona in the lower Galilee, which belonged to the 'Ahuza' company. Sharona also did not have a stable agricultural economy. Water was scarce. The land was partially occupied by Arab leaseholders that yielded a little grain because of their improper and inconsistent land use. All our fervent efforts and idealism did not succeed in establishing a good economic basis for this land.

A few years later, we looked around for possible colonization sites in the Jordan valley. Once again, we sent out 'spies' to find the land –a small hill called Tel Toreh was found in the middle of a rich agricultural district in which we wanted to settle. The members of Nachalal knew of this land, and were opposed to it because the land was too low, and flooded in water in winter. They advised us to settle in Ein Bodeh, near Nachalal – a place of light and fertile soil. We discussed it between ourselves at length until we decided to take up their proposal.

It took us a whole year to shift from Sharona to Ein Badeh. A year of troubles, hunger and pain. The land of Israel was experiencing a severe economic crisis. We bought a military hut and erected a small barracks outside Afula that we used as a dining room and sleeping quarters for 20 men. In summer we ate outdoors and in winter we sat on the beds eating our meagre piece of bread. There was little work and the pay was not enough to buy food.

Whilst in Afula, the group was offered paid work in Ganigar to build a hut. Several of the comrades went to Ganigar. During their stay a tragedy occurred there. Joseph Machlis (Ben Porat), a young dedicated comrade became ill and died within three days. Two days after his death, his girlfriend committed suicide – an eighteen-year-old girl who burnt herself to death. She died in terrible pain. This double tragedy shattered our group.

Finally, in Tevet 1927, our group transferred to our own land at Ein Bodeh, near the settlement of Nachalal. On a beautiful cool day, we went with our two heavily laden wagons on the sandy unmade tracks from Afula to Nachalal, following the shepherds' tracks through the untrodden thorny fields. The wagons dragged on with our group's few possessions – beds, straw mattresses, long benches and the famous Brisker crate. At nightfall our wagons reached a clearing with a fence of prickly pears (sabras) as tall as trees. The rains were late that year and the earth was dry, cracked and thirsty, and a cloud of grey dust followed us the entire journey from Afula to our new home.

We erected several temporary huts, made a fire in the field and cooked our evening meal. Excited but exhausted we threw ourselves onto the straw mattresses and went to sleep knowing that many troubles and great efforts awaited us.

Five years later, the farm had grown and developed – the stables were full of cattle, the yard was full of machinery and tractors, but the destiny of the Brest group seemed to be to build and develop for others. The members never involved themselves deeply in the problems of the economy of agriculture and farming, whether it was better to become an agricultural settlement of workers (moshav) or a kibbutz. There was an unspoken peaceful agreement between the members not to touch on issues that could cause a split and divide them. But with the growth of the farm the members became involved in the problems of farming and agriculture, and a shadow fell over the group. It became clear that several members wanted to establish a moshav (workers settlement) and the conflict dragged on for a long period and caused a split in the group. The members, who supported the moshav idea, left the place where they had expended so much youthful energy. However, also the members who supported the kibbutz idea did not stay there either. New members arrived and built up the kibbutz that was called Kibbutz Ayanot.

The long hard road that the Brest comrades had achieved as a group had not been in vain. The comrades all came out as strong, educated, skilled workers, with work and life skills. Many of them are, until today, dedicated social activists. They are convinced that they, the first Brest pioneer group, showed the way for hundreds and thousands of those who arrived in Israel from Brest – Briskers who lived and had influence in the nation of Israel.

The First Pioneer Members in Brest
Standing R-L: D. Kotik, Topok, A. Shalmoni
Sitting R-L: unknown, unknown, S. Swartz,
Chaya (Chantche) Yaffe, Chaya Cohen, unknown

 

The Brest Pioneer Group 1919
Standing R-L: S. Golubovitch,(Arnon), Y. Melnik (Kimchi), Hari, Z. Resnik (Avivi),
Gorni, B.Preger, I. Saptiter (Sapir), D. Goldberg (Ophir)
Sitting: Daitchman (Ashkenazi), G. Halperin (Drori), Chava Cohen-Gratzer,
Y. Govkin, N. Minkovitch (Shalmoni), Guterman
Bottom row: S. Shwartz, Y. Machlis (Ben-Porat), Chaya Yaffe, D. Domberg,
A. Richtwert (Amitai)

 

The first Brest pioneers laying the railway track between Lod and Sarafen in 1921

 

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