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[Pages 174-176]

We Were Chalutzim

By Chaim Levitt

Translated by Judy Grossman

A Group of Dusiaters in Dusiat

From right to left, standing: Tuvia Yoffe (son of the miller), David Garber (son of Abba and Shifra), Chanka-Grunka Gordon, Yavetz, Aharon Poritz, (-), Dov-Berke Levitt (son of Tzirl and Hirshl)
Middle row: Liba Poritz, Chantche Levitt (Chaim's sister), Feivish Milun
Seated: Meir Levitt (son of Berl and Rochel), Malka Levitt (daughter of Shimon Levitt and Chaya-Fruma), Yitzchak Poritz

 

Chaim Levitt son of Eliezer and Chaya-Henne
“To Avraham [Slep] as a memento of his arrival to Eretz Yisrael and the meeting of the Dusiaters, 28.11.1925 – Chaim”

 

Avraham Slep: “This afternoon, the Dusiater living in Haifa got together and went to have our picture taken: Yitzchak Toker, Chaim Levitt, Meir Levitt, Yosef and myself. We went to the photographer; Faigin is his name.”

My shtetl Dusiat was a pretty shtetl, surrounded by forests, a river, and a lake. In the lake there was a small island, on which a Gentile lived and raised a cow and vegetables. We would sail there in a boat in order to drink fresh milk. In the winter he would leave the island and move to another place.

My shtetl Dusiat was a pretty shtetl, surrounded by forests, a river, and a lake. In the lake there was a small island, on which a Gentile lived and raised a cow and vegetables. We would sail there in a boat in order to drink fresh milk. In the winter he would leave the island and move to another place.

I studied at a cheder from morning until night, and I remember that we gave the rabbi a hard time.

My mother wanted us to know Hebrew well, and she brought us a teacher from Riga. I recall that he was a young and handsome man, and it is difficult for me to understand where they found the means to pay him.

During a fire our house burned down, and we were left with nothing. We went to live in one of the cellars where our grandfather made vodka. Later on I learned that the American Joint Distribution Committee sent assistance to the shtetl and provided goods to the victims of the fire.

My mother was afraid there would be another fire fire was always a worry for us and she made certain that our new house was partly constructed of bricks. Emanuel Slep's family also lived in our new house, and he conducted his leather business from there.

Yosef Yavnai: From my father I heard that he bought the wood for the construction of our new house from a lumber dealer, and the wood was floated to the construction site…

In my time, life in the shtetl was wretched. It was very hard to earn a living.

For many years my father used to travel from town to town and sell books. Afterwards he opened a shop in the shtetl. When my father died, I was in Vilna (Vilnius) where I received the sad news.

My mother would get up in the morning worrying what she would give the children to eat. Only a few families were not badly off, for instance, the Ziv family who had an inn, and Meir Levitt's family whose father (Berl) was a lumber merchant.

However, I must point out, that although the shtetl was small and poor, it was not lacking in assistance to the needy and the sick: help for brides, “hachnasat orchim”(hospitality), redemption of prisoners, and the like.

On Thursdays, Yosef (Yavnai-Slep) and I would go to collect money for the poor. We knew who would give more, and who would give less. The first person we always approached was Der Milner (the miller). However, there were people who did not give to charity, for instance, a quite well off merchant who had six fingers…

A Tale of the Six-Fingered Man and the Cossack

During World War I there was a shortage of coins, and there were only rubles. The Gentiles took advantage of the situation and did not give people change on market day. This led to shouting and altercations, and more than once they needed to call for the Cossack who was the guard in the shtetl. This Cossack would always side with the Gentiles, thus arousing the ire of the six-fingered Jew, who hit the Cossack and threw him onto the ground. That same day Yosef and I had planned to go to Dvinsk (Daugavpils), and while we were standing beside the wagon, the Cossack approached us and in his anger beat us up.

Yosef Yavnai: At the time there were rumors that criminals had disguised themselves as Cossacks. I remember that the six-fingered man approached one of these “ Cossacks” and slapped him. The Cossack was astounded, didn't respond, and left.

Chaim and I had planned to go and buy products in Dvinsk, which was already occupied by the Germans, and I remember the Cossack approaching us and urging us to leave.

From that time on the Gentiles used to hassle the six-fingered man, and whenever he became angry with someone, they would answer back: “ What do you think, that this is the Cossack?” …

On that trip to Dvinsk I bought the balalaika that was afterwards stolen from me by the Russian soldiers, the Bolsheviks…

Yitzhak Toker: The Cossacks used to demonstrate their abilities in horseback riding, and especially used to boast that they could, while riding, bend down and pick up a coin from the ground…

It was said that the Gentiles aided the Cossacks, and would point out Jewish homes in which there was a pretty girl. The Jews used to lock their doors because they feared the Cossacks…

We Dreamed of a Jewish State

During World War I, the Germans drafted us to erect the bridge on the river, and in this way we had both employment and food.

The war ended, and the young people didn't have anything to do in the shtetl. Sometimes we engaged in commerce. We would buy goods from the Gentiles, rent a wagon and drive to Dvinsk or to Rakishok (Rokiskis), sell the wares for a higher price, and receive flour in return.

I would stand beside the window of my house, doing nothing, and across from me I would see Yosef standing in the same way. This would go on for hours.

When the Germans left the shtetl, they left many books behind, and my uncle, Eliyahu Levitt, collected them in order to sell them. Yosef and I would sit in his house and read.

In the newspapers we read about the Zionist activity, and together we dreamt that we would someday have a country of our own, and that we would immigrate to Eretz Yisrael.

One day a young man from Utian (Utena) arrived in the shtetl and asked who wanted to immigrate to Eretz Yisrael, because a Jewish state would shortly come into being. He was driven away from many homes, but I was enthusiastic about the idea.

Yosef and I were the first ones in the shtetl to join Hechalutz[1]. We went on hachshara (training) in Talaishok, and worked at agriculture there.

Shlomo Ben-David (Kopelewitz): I was also at that hachshara. On the first day we went out to chop wood, and Chaim swung the axe, and whoops! He cut the wood, and his leg too…

We immediately bandaged him, and despite his pains, and moaning and groaning, we managed to conceal the fact that he was injured from the work manager, so that we would not, heaven forbid, lose our place of work.

My Turn to Immigrate to Eretz Yisrael Arrived

I left the shtetl, and everyone accompanied me. Some of my escort continued with me until Abel (Obeliai), no small distance. I reached Kovno (Kaunas), and until the date of my departure, managed to work there at a job that the Zionists provided for us.

We, the group of pioneers, immigrated on the same passport. We made the journey on the deck of the ship, in the wind and the rain. We lived in a commune; our food was carefully measured out. I was nicknamed “Mekhalkel Chaim[2] (“the food provider”).

I reached Eretz Yisrael on December 1, 1920, a few days before Hanukah.

In Tel Aviv we assembled at Beit Hachalutzim (The Pioneers' House) on Maza Street, and ate in Chana Meisel's kitchen. What did we eat? Bread and something…

When they began paving the Tiberias-Tabgha road, I was in Afula. A representative of Hechalutz came and proposed that we go and help pave the road to Zemach. We moved there, lived in tents, and ate in a hut.

I learned that Yosef was in Yibneh[3], and that he was ill. I decided to visit him. I sneaked onto the Cairo-bound train. I didn't hear the conductor call out “Yibneh” and missed my stop. Some Jews on their way to Cairo advised me to jump off the train when it slowed down. I jumped off and started walking, but didn't get to Yibneh… I sneaked onto a train going north, and returned to the “kvish”(road). A long time went by before I saw Yosef. Transportation at the time was very slow, and it was a pity to miss a day's work…

Chaim Levitt and Miryam Epstein
Seated: (-)

 

A Hundred Tents in Ein Harod

In 1921 the Gedud Ha'avoda (“ Labor Brigade”)[4] decided to settle on Ein Harod, without the permission of the Zionist Federation. The Zionist Federation did not agree to the settlement because it was an unhealthy place, and also because of the Arabs. They chose young people from among us, who were suitable for this daring mission, but I wasn't chosen, and I remember crying all night long. Yehuda Kopelewitz (Almog) felt sorry for me, and as compensation, I was transferred to Rosh Ha'ayin.

When I came to Ein Harod later on, there were about a hundred tents there! This was so that the Arabs would think that there was a large number of Jews there…

“The actions of the 'Labor Brigade' throughout the country, the special lifestyle of its members, in which romanticism proliferated, influenced the Lithuanian pioneers, and Yehuda Kopelewitz's (Almog) visit made a major impression on them, and succeeded in attracting many of them to the Brigade. The Hechalutz activists used to read the brigade gazette, 'Mehayenu' ('From our Life'), and even publish information on the brigade's activities in Lithuania, but the crisis that overtook the 'Labor Brigade', the schism and the return of the Elkind group to Russia (in 1926), greatly discomfited the Lithuanian chalutzim (pioneers).” [5]

I contracted a serious case of malaria, and was sent to the Rothschild Hospital in Vienna for recuperation (1924). I returned to Eretz Yisrael about a year later. I came to Ein Harod, where I was the person in charge of the food, “ Chaim, the food provider”.

When I came to Dusiat for a visit in 1930, I found that the shtetl had changed; it was prettier, more orderly, and the transportation was also more modern; there was already a public bus.

I recall all the 'gang' gathering at Rivka Levitt's home, and I told them stories about Eretz Yisrael[6].

Yaacov Charit.: A visitor from Eretz Yisrael made the same impression on the life of the shtetl, as a journey to the moon would today. Wouldn't such an event remain in the memory of every young person in the shtetl who thirsted for news?

Moreover, the guest would gather together the young people on holidays, particularly on Simchat Torah. We would go from house to house, requesting food and drink in honor of the Torah. By evening the entire group would be tipsy, and the mothers would hurry to get their sons to bed, so that they could sleep off what they had drunk…

I am mentioning my sins, because I drank my first alcoholic drink at a party with Chaim Levitt, who had come from Eretz Yisrael as a guest, and I was already a teacher at the time…

The young people today start drinking much sooner…

Guests from Eretz Yisrael Chaim Levitt and Rivka Levitt, Dusiat 1939

Standing, top: Chanochl Schwartz
From right to left: Yankale Charit, (-), Chaim Levitt and his sister Chantche (in front of Chanochl), (-), Rivka Levitt (daughter of Chasya-Leah), Yitzchak Fleishman (holding Rivkale Schwartz), Dvora-Dora Levitt (daughter of Chasya-Leah), (-), Zelda Charit, Batya Fleishman (Poritz), (-)

 

Sara Weiss (Slep): Was that Avivale Schwartz' baby carriage on the right?

Avivale was born on the April 10, 1939. She perished in the Holocaust, and there isn't even a photo of her.

Chaim Levitt and Rivka Levitt were in Lithuania for a visit just before WWII broke out. It took several months until they succeeded in returning home to Eretz Yisrael. In her post card of April 1941 Chantche Levitt wrote: It is hard to describe how broken-hearted we are. My mother is sick with worry…

Three Levitt Cousins
Rivka Levitt hosting her guests from South Africa, Haifa, 1961
Dov-Berl (son of Hirshl and Tzirl) and Zuske-Cecil (son of Eliezer and Chaya-Henne)(right)

 

Sarah Weiss: I found Chaim sick and weak, but he insisted on reminiscing, and his strong voice slowly returned to him. In his last years, Chaim was confined to his bed, and was several times hospitalized in convalescent homes. The conditions at the Ein-Gedi hospital in Tel Aviv were particularly bad, with ten patients, from among the first settlers, crowded into one room… Chaim expressed his displeasure with the miserable and humiliating situation, and whispered: “ When we were young we didn't think about old age and didn't worry… ”

Many friends accompanied him on his final journey (1983), among them people from his place of work who continued to visit him and to keep in touch even after he had retired. They provided assistance to his wife Malva, who tended Chaim with such love and devotion that she became stooped over, and it was difficult to recognize the young and erect Malva who had served in the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Services) in the British Army.

Chaim was buried in the section reserved for members of the Hagana (Holon, 11, 6, 1a-11) and Shlomo Ben-David (Kopelewitz), his friend from the hachshara who immigrated with him to Eretz Yisrael, said Kaddish at his grave. On his gravestone, which Chaim had prepared while he was still living, he engraved the names of his parents, Chaya-Hene and Eliezer, and the name of his place of birth Dusiat.

Malva passed away a year after Chaim, and she was buried beside him. Neither life nor death could them part.[7]

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. Return
  2. From Amidah, the daily benedictions. Return
  3. Yibneh is the Arabic name for the Jewish Yavne. Return
  4. Gedud Ha'avoda V'Hahagana named in honor of Joseph Trumpeldor. The driving force behind this organization was Yehuda Kopelewitz (Almog). Return
  5. [4] Neshamit-Shner, Sara. Hayu Chalutzim B'Lita, p. 34, Beit Lohamei Haghetaot and Hakibbutz Hameuhad, 1983. [There were Pioneers in Lithuania. Story of the Movement 1916-1941.] Return
  6. Chaim Levitt went again to Lithuania in 1939. He came to Dusiat on a family visit with his relative Rivka Levitt. When the WWII broke out in September 1939, they encountered difficulty in returning and their journey back to Eretz Yisrael via Odessa took some months. Chantche Levitt, Chaim's sister, expressed concern over his fate in a letter written from Dusiat in April 1941. (p. 296). Return
  7. Based on a quote from II Samuel, 1, 23. Return

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