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[Pages 45-49]

To the Land of Our Dreams

By Avraham Slep

Translated by Judy Grossman and Hedva Scop

While Lithuanian Jewry had to compete against the growing Lithuanian intelligentsia for the support of the authorities in the spheres of commerce and crafts, the reactionary anti-Semitic stream strengthened among the Lithuanian public, and most of the rights previously granted to the Jews were revoked. In 1924 the Ministry for Jewish Affairs was abolished.

In the winter of 1920 my brother Yosef made aliya (immigration) to Eretz Yisrael (Palestine) as a chalutz (pioneer). From that period on, we exchanged letters regularly, and I would receive detailed news about the life there.

In Lithuania conditions were worsening on a daily basis. Emigration took on the form of panic, and the shtetls were almost totally emptied out. Young people who received a drisha (“demand”) from their relatives in Eretz Yisrael came knocking on the doors of the British consul in order to apply for visas to Palestine, however the British mandate allotted only a small number of certificates. Those who had money went to Palestine as tourists and simply stayed on. Many others joined the Zionist movement, Hechalutz[1]. One of them was myself, namely the young Avraham Slep.

I complied with all the requirements laid down by the central committee of Hechalutz; and after many months of anxious waiting, I was “called up” to the capital, Kovno (Kaunas). In my shtetl, Dusiat, they made a farewell party for me and wished me an early aliya to Eretz Yisrael.

Among my friends, Dusiat 7 Sivan 5684 (1924)
From right to left, standing: Yitzchak Yoffe?, Zuske-Cecil Levitt (son of Eliezer and Chaya-Henne), Meir Levitt (son of Berl and Rachel)
Seated: Pessia Kagan (daughter of Asher and Chava-Leah), Dvora Levitt (daughter of Hirshel and Tzirl), Malka Levitt (daughter of Shimon Levitt and Chaya-Fruma), Sonia Orlin
Bottom: Avraham Slep, Chaya-Tema Kagan (daughter of Zalmen), Chaim Levitt (son of Eliezer and Chaya-Henne)

Rivka Shteinman (Shub): Meir Levitt made aliya and returned to Dusiat after seven months. That is why he got the nickname “Der zibele” [The seventh]…

“In a census taken in Lithuania in 1923, it was seen that the number of Jews did not exceed 153,000 souls (in contrast to the census of 1897 – over a quarter of a million Jews). This decline in numbers surprised many people, both Jews and non-Jews, in light of the activity and importance of Lithuanian Jewry in many fields. This statistical finding greatly reduced the weight of the Lithuanian Jews' fight for their status and rights.”

“As compensation for losing Vilna (Vilnius), the Klaipeda (Memel) region was annexed to Lithuania in 1923. It had previously belonged to Germany. In this region that gained wide autonomy because of its mixed population, the Jewish community grew, especially in the city of Memel, and this community rapidly became a part of Lithuanian Jewry.” [2]

“In the 1920's, the agricultural hachshara (training) in Lithuania was concentrated mainly in the vicinity of Memel. Here the chalutzim were also employed by German estate owners.” [3]

The Kleinbahn [small train] in Kovno on the Slabodka-Ponimun [Panemunis] Line
Avraham and Micha sent this card to their brother “Yosef Yavnai, Ayelet Hashachar, Shvat 5683”

The Hachshara Group at Medikin

In Kovno I was assigned to a group of twelve young men and four young women. We did not know each other previously but we soon found a common language, and that language happened to be Hebrew! In Lithuania most of the young Jews spoke Hebrew, and that made first acquaintances a lot easier.

The Hechalutz central committee sent us to an estate called Medikin, about twelve kilometers from the city Memel. We left Kovno by train, with many chalutzim whose turn had not yet come, seeing us off in envy. There were also quite a number of people at the station, Jews who were anti-Zionist, who warned us that the Zionists in Palestine would sell us to rich Moslems ...

We boarded the train singing, in high spirits. The Gentiles on the train knew our final destination was Palestine and behaved in a very friendly manner toward us.

We arrived in Memel in the afternoon. We ate at the local municipal laborers' kitchen that also served the Jewish municipal workers, located near the Hechalutz branch in the area. Along with local chalutzim we toured the city. We found it to be very clean, with a beautiful view, many cultural places and beautiful parks, and a well-organized port.

Next morning we left on a kleinbahn (small train) belonging to the German owner of the estate. On entering the estate we were welcomed with “Guten tag, guten tag, unzere froind.” (Good day, good day, our friends)

It was harvest time and there was quite a crowd in the field. The estate spread over an immense piece of land in a flat area, no valleys, no hills, and was a delight to behold!

We were assigned two houses for the men, one house for the women, a big kitchen and storage area, a shower and toilet.

We worked six days a week, eight to nine hours a day. Six young men trained in agriculture - plowing, sowing, grooming and feeding the horses. Six others learned how to use the milking machines, and how to fatten the geese. Three young women worked in the fields and stacked hay. One young woman cooked, did the laundry and took care of the house. I worked in agriculture - plowing, using machines for sowing, transferring of goods and taking care of the horses. The day passed by very quickly.

We were interspersed among the German laborers, who were in general good people and very friendly. Food was plentiful and varied. We would receive the best products from the manager; a Jewish butcher even supplied us with kosher food.

We, the Litvaks, were used to eating a lot of bread - soup with bread, hot cereal with bread, and even apples with bread... The owner's wife was a wonderful woman and she suggested that perhaps we would get off the bread and eat more roast potatoes and meat.

After the meal we would read literature about Eretz Yisrael, and on our own we became more fluent in Hebrew.

Almost every night we would meet the young local laborers and we would exchange visits. We would go dancing, to the accompaniment of a harmonica played by one of the laborers, and the German men and shikses (young gentile women) would join in with us for many hours. Each evening was very “rich” and interesting.

Every Saturday we would go to Memel, to the Hechalutz house where chalutzim from the different estates in the area would gather and report on the relationship between them and their employers, the food and the accommodation. We would also receive a report of what was happening at the Hechalutz center regarding immigration, and of events in Palestine. We heard lectures, Hassidic stories and music, and we would sing songs that originated in Eretz Yisrael, and dance, dance, dance …

Today on thinking back to that period and recalling the spirit that throbbed within us - the excitement, brotherhood and friendship - the flame of youth ignites within me.

My Plow …

The estate owner was fond of us, but the manager, a young Latvian in his thirties, was a typical Jew hater, full of venom, who would not miss an opportunity to incite against us. On one occasion he happened to start up with me, and the story goes as follows:

In the morning I had gone out to harness six horses in order to start plowing, and I noticed that one of the horses had been switched. The groom told me that this was the schedule for the day, and I kept quiet. I harnessed the horses in pairs to the carriage and rode out to the field, a distance of three kilometers from the estate. I loosened the horses and harnessed them to the plow, and dug a furrow a kilometer long. I made a few turns, slowly, peacefully, humming the song “B'machrashti[4] to myself. When suddenly there was a loud bang, and then another bang! The horse that had been switched started going wild kicking left and right, and the other horses joined in this “game” until they all became entangled in the harness and fell on top of one another. I started using the whip, but the harness was so twisted they could not get up. Since I had no choice, I pulled out a knife and cut the straps. Immediately five of the horses stood up, but the sixth one was lying there as if dead, with his tongue hanging out. No lashing helped to get him up. I activated the alarm in the cart, and within a few minutes five riders came riding up, amongst them the Jew hater. The expert started yelling in the horse's ears, and suddenly a miracle! The horse got up as if nothing had happened.

The oppressor started cursing me in German, adding, “Furfluchte Yuden” (cursed Jew). I was all upset and instead of answering him, chose to hit him. I hit him straight in the nose. He didn't react immediately, rather that evening I was summoned by the owner.

The groom testified that he was deliberately instructed by the manager to arrange for that particular horse to go out with me. I came out the winner, and since then the oppressor no longer dared to start up with us. He did not disturb our peace.

I worked on that estate for four months. It was an unforgettable experience – the “Garden of Eden” on earth. The days were filled with trips, meetings, interesting work, and life was full of substance until I was given permission to immigrate to Eretz Yisrael.

Taking Leave of Lithuania

On October 27, 1925, I left Dusiat, the shtetl of my birth, which I loved so much. I took leave of all those who were dear to me - my parents, brothers, sisters and other relatives. The horseman, Zusl Napoleon, son of Ezra, put my suitcases on the cart, last kiss, and we were on our way on the dirt road about twenty kilometers to the train station.

Above:
As a memento to my friend Avraham on the day of your making aliya to Eretz Yisrael
25 October 1925
From Ida

 

Left: Ida Yoffe (daughter of “Der Milner”)

Rachel Vitkin (Shub): When Avraham left the shtetl and made aliya to Eretz Yisrael, perhaps half the shtetl followed behind the wagon… The hugs, kisses and crying began… The main thing was that we wanted to see how Avraham would take leave of his friend Ida Yoffe, Rachel Slovo's aunt.

Ida was the daughter of the miller, who was one of the rich men of the shtetl. She was a beautiful and elegant woman. I remember that afterwards everyone felt sorry for her. How would she be without Avraham? Avraham left and forgot her…

Sara Weiss (Slep): And I remember that when my father (Avraham) used to sing the song “You promised but didn't come…” my mother used to say: “He is referring to Ida...”

Rachel Rabinowitz (Slovo): Yosef Slep and Ida were friends, and when Yosef made aliya to Eretz Yisrael, they corresponded with each other. In one letter Yosef wrote that he had a cow. “Nu,” said Ida, “All I needed was a cow…”

Footnotes

  1. Zionist movement of young Jews who in preparation for immigration, trained for life and agricultural work, and the settlement of the Land of Israel. The first group was founded in Odessa in 1905. In Lithuania, the movement functioned between WWI and WWII. Return
  2. [18], [19] Mireshit ad Acharit: Sefer Korot Hashomer Hatzair B'Lita, p. 16, Hakibbutz Ha'Artzi Hashomer Hatzair, 1986. [From Beginning to End: the History of the Hashomer Hatzair Movement in Lithuania.] Return
  3. Neshamit-Shner, Sara. Hayu Chalutzim B'Lita, p 40, Beit Lohamei Haghetaot and Hakibbutz Hameuhad, 1983. [There were Pioneers in Lithuania. Story of the Movement 1916-1941.] Return
  4. Song about a plow, written by Eliyakum Tzunzer. Return

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