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[Pages 246-251]

I Made a Vow

By Esther Pomus (Orlin)

Translated by Judy Grossman

My Parents' Home

My father was a reader of the Torah in the synagogue, and he loved to pass in front of the Holy Ark. At Purim he would read the Book of Esther out loud in the synagogue, and when he returned home he would read it again, this time for the family members and nearby neighbors. We, the women, would remain at home to decorate the house with white tablecloths and flowers, “because people would come to hear the reading of the megilla[1]”. There was a bustle to prepare for that evening, and we were proud of Father.

Every Sabbath afternoon all our relatives would get together in our house, and in the summer we would sit outside and enjoy listening to my father's pleasant singing. I remember the songs “Sachki, Sachki” (“Play, Play”) and “Al Em Haderech” (“On the Main Road”).

Rivka Friedman (Orlin): During the time that our brother Zalman was a German prisoner-of-war we never sang, and after our brother Kehat passed away, song left our house forever.

Our father was a member of the “Vladiva” (Town Council), but nevertheless was a diffident man. He could read Hebrew, Russian and Lithuanian, and was interested in the Talmud. We had a library overflowing with books, which covered an entire wall, and there was a special shelf for the Talmud and the Bible. I was very interested in the Talmud, and my father used to say about me: “It's a pity that she isn't a boy; she could have been a rabbi.”

The parents Eliyahu and Rachel (nee Chatzkel) with their children and grandchildren.
Standing from right to left: Esther, Itale, Sonia and Rivka
Seated: Avraham (on the right), Moshe-Zalman (on the left),
his wife Teibl nee Berman (standing on the left in the top row)
and their children Lily and her twin brother Abba-Kehat, and Haya-Itale

The family was well off and any book required for schooling was purchased. Father was a flax and cotton merchant, and I learned how to grade flax from him (my job when I was on hachshara[2]). In our yard there were grain silos. Most of our clients were Gentiles from the neighboring villages, and also from further away – such as Rakishok (Rokiskis). My father would go out to the villages in the morning and return in the evening. There was a time when he had a partner, and they had a horse. About this partnership my mother would say, “Eliyahu geht zu fuss, und Haim-Boruch fort mitn suss” (“Eliyahu goes on foot and Haim-Boruch rides a horse” – in Yiddish and Hebrew). That's how naïve and modest my father was.

When I left home, my father used to write me letters, and my mother would just add a few words, or at the least, sign her name.

I learned that in 1940 the Russians nationalized Father's business, and he worked for them on commission. He died a short while later. The Russians didn't permit funerals, and my brother Avraham carried my father's body on his back and buried him. To this day it is hard for me to think of this, and I don't know how Avraham was able to bear it.

About my mother's end, I was told that when the Jews of the Shtetl were deported to the ghetto, my mother refused to leave the house, saying: “I was born here, I raised my children here and I will remain here!” She was shot.

Rivka Friedman (Orlin): I was told that this happened during the period of mourning.

My mother loved to knit and embroider. Like most of the mothers in the shtetl, she used to knit socks and gloves for every child, which was a job in itself. My mother was a weak woman, and became even weaker after the death of my brother Kehat, who died of smallpox.

We watched over our mother, and I don't remember her washing a floor, nor did I see her do laundry. We helped her with the housework, and made certain that she didn't tire herself out. Despite her weakness she behaved like a “Yiddishe mame” [Jewish mother], always thinking of her children. While we, the girls, helped our mother, the boys didn't lift a finger in the house. We used to send them outside so that they wouldn't bother us. “Go for a walk!”

I loved to read more than I liked housework. While my sisters sat knitting or embroidering, I would sit across from them reading. Sometimes I used to help clean the chickens, but my mother worried that I wouldn't maintain the rules of kashrut [the state of being kosher].

Our home was always clean and shiny, but nevertheless we were not able to avoid the Passover cleaning, which already began at Purim. In order to emphasize the cleanliness in our house, Yehuda Slep once said that you could place Esther's shoes on a white tablecloth. The Gentile woman Veronika used to help with the housework in our house. However, she was always pregnant, and my kindhearted mother used to feel sorry for her and leave the hard work to us “so that Veronika wouldn't lift anything heavy”.

Rivka was a “berye” (a model housekeeper, in Yiddish). I was a bookworm, and Sonia was our father's favorite (perhaps because she bore his sister's name). When she went out, Father would turn to Mother and say admiringly “Just look at her!”

Rivka was pretty, and Sonia was beautiful! They consoled me by saying that I had nice legs…

Our yard was well tended. My brother Avraham used to plow and plant, and we helped him. We had a vegetable garden and a meadow, which was occasionally mowed, and it was fun to run through it, and then rest. The yard was a large one with silos for grain and flax, and there was also a cow. We also had a shop with notions [haberdashery], but of all the children, only Rivka helped out.

Behind our house was a small brook, a branch of the lake, where we would bathe. The sand was as clean as crystal…

It's the Hat that Bothers You?

I remember my father putting on his best clothes and going to the synagogue, accompanied by the boys. When they returned home, the boys would immediately take off their hats, and my father would ask: “Why do you take off your hat and not your shoes? It's the hat that bothers you?”

Rivka Friedman (Orlin): In the 1930s a major change took place in the behavior of the young people, with regard to keeping the Sabbath. They didn't desecrate the Sabbath in the presence of their parents, and if someone was caught he / she contended that it was in error, and not intentional.

When the youth movements, Maccabi, Hashomer Hatzair and Hechalutz Hatzair, were established in the shtetl, the young people would congregate, especially on Saturdays, and people from the surrounding area would also come to us. I remember one Saturday when my father returned from afternoon prayers and saw the samovar on the table. “Who put it there?” he asked. We answered that the Gentile woman had come in the morning and prepared it. My father understood that this was a lie, but he didn't say a word. On another Saturday – in the period when Esther was studying at the Teachers' Seminary in Kovno (Kaunas) – she came home for the holidays and washed her hair on Saturday. My mother came back from the synagogue and asked: “Why did you wash your hair on the Sabbath?” Esther answered her that she was afraid she might have lice. My mother admonished her saying that from then on she should make sure to wash her hair on Friday and not on the Sabbath.

Yoel Zeif: My father knew that I shaved and wrote on the Sabbath, but I never did it in his presence. When I rode my bicycle on the Sabbath, my father would shout in anger: “What will people say?”

Rivka Friedman (Orlin): When the rabbi came on holiday eve to wish mother a “happy holiday” and say good things about her children, she would say: “There are some good and some bad.” She would warn us: “Don't be too proud of your knowledge.” But she also said: “The knowledge you acquire no one can take away from you.” Our parents marked our course, and we took their advice. What they said was sacred for us.

Our sister, Itale, as a nurse in the Jewish hospital in Kaunas:

Itale top, right

Working in the laboratory
Itale front, left
Kibbutz “Hakovesh” in Shadova (Seduva) and Kibbutz “Amal” in Shavli (Siauliai)

In February 1934 I left for hachshara in Shadova. We were a group of twenty-six pioneers, all residing in one house. We shared our money and had a common kitchen, which had one regular worker and we would all assist her in turn. The people with trades worked at their trade, and there were those who worked at logging. I remember that we actually used to cry when we saw our young men chopping down trees in the winter, such backbreaking work.

I worked at a variety of jobs: for a while I worked at grading flax, to the satisfaction of the flax merchant, and we parted amiably. I also cared for a three-year old girl, and I used to walk with her between eight in the morning and noon. I taught for a few hours and prepared students for entry exams to the gymnasia (high school). In the evenings I taught Hebrew to the members of my group. I remember one of them, Shoshankale, who was constantly knitting socks. Hebrew was harder for her than chopping down trees for me. Once she came up to me and asked: “Esther, is there a z in the word mayim (water)?”

The Pedagogion – the Hebrew teachers' training seminar in Kovno (Kaunas), the principal of which was Dr. Raphael Rabinowitz.

A drawing lesson with the teacher Moshe-Yitzhak Bloch (standing on the far left) Esther Orlin is seated second from the window.

I was an active member of the Culture Committee, and I also kept the group's accounts, so that I was busy from one morning to the next. I really had a hard time, and I knew it then too.

My parents were against my going to hachshara from the start. They weren't bothered by the question of kashrut, a problem that perhaps concerned other parents, but they were afraid that it would be hard for me to adjust. They reminded me of Meir Levitt, who couldn't adapt and left Eretz Yisrael, and the letters that arrived from Eretz Yisrael were also not encouraging. However, I didn't give way.

When I came to the shtetl for a holiday, I always looked peaky. I left home weighing sixty kilograms and returned weighing forty-two. They stuffed me at home, and I gained four kilos before returning to hachshara.

In the evenings we would have interest group activities and other activities. One taught and another learned. We listened to lectures, and would also receive reading material from the Hechalutz Central Office and from Eretz Yisrael. I remember fierce arguments, which sometimes led to actual blows, between our pioneers and members of Hashomer Hatzair. Emissaries from Eretz Yisrael came to us. I remember Hanoch Rochel from Kibbutz Tel-Yosef and others. Their main job was to organize the emigration.

There was one woman in our group who had already been at the hachshara for a year, and had not yet managed to learn Hebrew. She couldn't absorb a single word! The Aliya[3] Committee decided to evict her from the “Kibbutz Hachshara”, thereby, apparently, deciding her fate, and she remained in the Diaspora. When I was already at Kibbutz Givat-Brenner, most of whose members came from Germany, I met one of the emissaries and asked him: “Why didn't you tell me that instead of Hebrew I should learn German?”

From Shadova we moved to a hachshara in Shavli where there were sixty of us. Of them, only Rivka Arazi and Dvorka (Kfar Blum), Bianka Steinberg (Yagur), Mordechai Gurwitz (Yagur) and I immigrated to Eretz Yisrael.

The hachshara had very strict rules of behavior. We would make do with the food we received from our kitchen. I had a very devoted friend in Shadova, Ruhama Shub. (Later when I left for Yugoslavia, she accompanied me to the train, and fainted!). I would visit her at home, but didn't drink even a glass of water there! That was the law of the group. We were forbidden to eat or drink anywhere but in the kibbutz, so that the members who did not have relatives or friends would not be at a disadvantage.

Three and a half years passed by and I was still at the hachshara. In the meantime, girlfriends from Eretz Yisrael wrote me “Don't immigrate! Don't dare immigrate! You will greatly regret it.” Mashka Stein wrote that I shouldn't immigrate to Eretz Yisrael because it was terrible, just terrible. I said “Ufff, what Mashka writes.” I wanted to immigrate and I knew that nothing would stand in my way.

Kibbutz Hakovesh celebrating the Passover Seder, 18.4.1935.
Esther Orlin is standing third from the left.
The banner in the background says: “Pioneering is cruel in physical circumstances but wonderful in its essence.”

Hitler was already in power and the earth had begun to shake under the feet of the Jews of Germany. It was assumed that in Poland and Lithuania everyone was still living peacefully, and so they cut back the allotment of immigration certificates to Eretz Yisrael in favor of the German Jews. They actually deferred the immigration from Lithuania! Many people left the hachshara and went to learn a trade and earn a living.

In 1934, for example, they still pleaded with the Jews to go to hachshara and immigrate to Eretz Yisrael; there were enough certificates and three months of hachshara was sufficient – but that's not how it was in my time. The ones who were most adversely affected were those who were of benefit to the group, people with professions, who were kept back in the hachshara for a long time, because their salaries went into the communal kitty and enabled the group to exist. Such people did not receive certificates quickly.

The main condition for receiving a certificate was to attend the hachshara, but I know of cases in which certificates were “sold” to others who had not been at hachshara at all, and I even complained about it to the representative of the Central Committee, and told him that I even knew names! Olke (Kehat Slep), my cousin, had already been at hachshara (in Rakishok) for two years, worked at accounting and contributed his salary to the communal kitty. Before deciding to leave the group he came to me and said: “I will not turn over tables! They won't give a certificate to someone like me. I am leaving. There is a limit to everything! You leave too!” Batya Shub had also been at hachshara for several years. She went a year before me. And there were no certificates.

I used to meet with Olke on holidays in the shtetl, and we would argue. We would bathe in the lake and continue arguing, and he would threaten to drown me if I didn't leave the hachshara, and would say to me: “Aren't you embarrassed? You've been at hachshara for such a long time and you're not immigrating?” The shouts would reach the heavens. I would answer him: “Nothing will help you. I made a vow; I will get to Eretz Yisrael dead or alive. I don't care if they bring me there dead.”

“What Can You Expect among the Yekes (German Jews)?”

Shmuel Wolk (from Yagur) wrote me from the Hechalutz Central Committee that I had a chance to receive a certificate: I could volunteer to teach Hebrew to Jewish youth from Germany for a year, in either Denmark, Yugoslavia or Italy, in which they had set up kibbutz hachshara (training farms). Shmuel stated that my name had been mentioned as one of the candidates, and he awaited my reply. I should point out that in 1936 it was possible to immigrate illegally, but I didn't choose that option. I gave Shmuel Wolk an affirmative reply to his offer, after being promised that I would get a certificate from the Hechalutz Central Committee in Berlin.

At home my father complained to me: “You have already given three years, and what can you expect there, in Yugoslavia, among the German Jews?” But I was adamant about immigrating to Eretz Yisrael.

I was a high school graduate, had studied at a teachers' seminary; I could leave the hachshara and find a job and earn a living, but the atmosphere was one of Eretz Yisrael, and I couldn't live outside it.

Three friends left together for Yugoslavia: Batya Zagorski-Bash (Kfar Blum), Michal (Givat Brenner) and myself. We arrived in Berlin, where we remained for four days. I remember that we arrived precisely on the Fuehrer's birthday, and the music that resounded in the streets at the time still grates on my ears.

In Berlin we were unable to receive visas for Yugoslavia, and left to try our luck in Prague. We could not reveal that our final purpose was to get to Eretz Yisrael. We said that we were going there to study agriculture... We reached Zagreb, Yugoslavia, by train at night – forty-two years ago! Each of us had several parcels, and I particularly remember the two large pillows I received from my mother, of which I never go. (When I arrived in Eretz Yisrael, there was no place to store them, and Esther Slep kept them for me for many years).

Dusiaters in Rakishok: Kehat Slep (on the left) and his sister Henya (bottom).
On the right – Tzirka Kagan.
Olke (Kehat Slep) - (bottom right) at an “urban hachshara” in Rakishok – (Kibbutz Hachshara “Haboneh”) – Oct. 9, 1935.
Esther Pomus (Orlin). I said to Olke: I made a vow; I will get to Eretz Yisrael dead or alive…

We wanted to get to the Hechalutz Central Office in the city, but how do you do that so late at night? Drunkards, prostitutes and thieves wandered around the railway station, and it seemed to us that one of them would do something to us before long. And I had all those parcels! I went up to a policeman and told him my problem, and asked for his help, asking him to keep an eye on us and come up to us from time to time. I spoke Russian to him, a language similar to Yugoslavian, and he agreed. We really did feel safer.

In the morning we phoned the Central Office and they came to get us. I met the policeman later on, reminded him of that night, thanked him again and shook his hand warmly. He truly saved us. They would surely have stolen my pillows!

We were sent to a hachshara in Podravska Zlatina – about two and a half hours away from Zagreb. There we taught Hebrew. The certificates, which were meant for couples, arrived about three and a half months later. I managed to get a certificate through a fictitious marriage. My “Yeke” (German Jew), Yehoshua P., seemed honest to me, and we went to Zagreb to be married officially by a Rabbi.

In 1942, when Yehoshua really wanted to get married, he came to me in Tel Aviv in order to arrange the divorce. Many sad and suffering couples were sitting at the Rabbinical Court on Yavne Street, with no lack of cursing, while the two of us were laughing.

The Rabbi interrogated us, tried to convince us - “ perhaps not, perhaps you'll change your mind…”. My “Yeke” did not know Hebrew yet, and I was the spokesperson. I said: “Rabbi, you know what fictitious marriages mean. We are still good friends, but we have decided to divorce. I'm in Tel Aviv and he's in Nes Ziona.” In the end the divorce went through, and even – so I seem to recall – without anyone spitting. When we came out, I heard whispering in the waiting room: “What a strange couple. They aren't arguing, and they are even leaving together.” Yehoshua was already working at Yitzhar and making money. What did I have? Nothing. He bore the entire cost of the divorce, and even paid my traveling expenses, and we went out to a cafe together…

I already had a mate, but the certificate was not yet in my possession, and I was still in Lithuania. It seemed that my years of hachshara in Lithuania and Yugoslavia were not sufficient, and I was also required to pay money, more and more each time. I knew of people whose parents had money, who nevertheless didn't pay! I complained bitterly about this to the Central Committee. It's true that two-thirds of the immigrants were paupers who didn't pay one mil[4]. There really were expenses for the immigration certificates, train tickets, and so forth. It's no small wonder that they first of all looked for people who would pay. I was required to pay 1,000 Lit for the certificates, and I, of course, paid it, even though I didn't immigrate with certificates belonging to the Lithuanian Hechalutz.

But that wasn't all. In Kovno, right before immigrating, I was asked for an additional 100 Lit! When I was at home and they demanded more and more money, I had someone to ask, but here, in Kovno, whom could I ask? I didn't want to return home, so I asked our dear relative, Yitzchak Charit, for a loan of 100 Lit. I afterwards wrote home and they repaid him.

I Spoke Hebrew with a Policeman

On August 9, 1937 I reached Haifa Port in Eretz Yisrael on the ship Galileo. For some reason, we were kept on board for ten days. There were two hundred of us pioneers, mostly German Jews (including a dentist). Emissaries came and asked the pioneers to whom they belonged. When Avraham Banai (KibbutzDafna) turned to me and asked, I proudly answered “Hechalutz!” Many went to kibbutzim, and others went to the city. My “Yeke” suggested that I go to Nes Ziona with him. I was advised to go to a young kibbutz – after all, I spoke Hebrew! However, I decided to go to Givat Brenner.

My cousin Miriam Slep came to meet me at the port. I won't forget how I went up to a policeman in Bat-Galim and asked him directions to Miriam's house in Hadar-Hacarmel. Immediately after speaking to him I went into the post office and wrote a postcard home, saying: “I came to Haifa and spoke Hebrew with a policeman”, and I could imagine what an impression it made there.

The ship Galileo at anchor in Haifa Port – August 9, 1937

Footnotes

  1. Megilla – A scroll. There are five Biblical books referred to as scrolls: Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations and Esther. Return
  2. Training for life in Eretz Yisrael – frequently held on a farm, but sometimes also in cities – where the members of the movement lived together communally. Return
  3. Immigration to Eretz Yisrael. Return
  4. Obsolete small coin, one thousandth of a pound. Return

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