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[Page 260]

Novo–Poltavka

(Novopoltavka, Ukraine)

47°33' 32°30'

Yehoshua Medem (Binyamina), Rakhel Yehudai (Nahalal)

Translated by Moshe Kutten

Edited by Yocheved Klausner

My native colony, Novo–Poltavka, was set apart by its fertile soil. The agriculture in it was homogenous, and the main crops were grains of various types. During the First World War, a few vineyards were planted, which prospered and became a very profitable sector. Growing cows for milk played an important role in the economy of the colony. It did not require too much work, since during most of the days of the year the cows would pasture in the colony's fields. However, the main sector was the cultivation of field crops, which provided the main source of sustenance for the agriculturist's family, albeit scarcely.

During 1921, a drought prevailed throughout Ukraine, and hit many families among us as well. It was a usual scene to see people swollen from hunger or corpses on the ground in the train station, public places or the street. I get the chills, even today, when I recall the horrific scenes during that period of hunger. It is difficult to believe that we used to pass apathetically near a corpse of a person. I do recall a scene I saw once, when children played over a dead body, and a short distance away, the parents of those children sat and waited for the train, and did not even notice. The robbery and the looting during the period of the Civil War resulted in the neglect of the agriculture. The movements of the various armies and all sorts of gangs were enabled by the enlistment or kidnapping of the farmers along with their carts and horses, who were forced to transport soldiers without any consideration of the working seasons or any other factors. Those who did not own horses were happy.

On one of the Shabbats, the “Whites” armies raided the colony and collected wagons for transporting their people southward, as part of their retreat. Due to the sanctity of the Shabbat, my father could not go, and I went instead. I was just a 14 years old boy. For some reason, the journey did not take place that day, however, the cart drivers were not released and we were forced to spend the night with the army, in every house or warehouse they happened to find. Upon the Shabbat's end, my father came to replace me and sent me home. During the night, the retreating White army captured four scouts of the Red Army, and my father was tasked to transport the captives, with a guard of riding soldiers behind him. The moment the convoy left the colony, the guards decided to kill the captured, while they were still sitting on the wagon with my father. Only by a miracle, my father was not hurt along with the prisoners. The wagon was filled with blood. One of the murderers jumped on the wagon, threw out the bodies and sent my father home, still stained with blood and pieces of bones and flesh stuck in his beard. We lived under the impression of that nightmare for a long time.

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A large library containing Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian books was located in the colony. There was also a drama club. From time to time, they would organize literature debates on various subjects. The cultural activities were mainly organized by the youth who was mostly Zionist. During the years following the Revolution, the youth split. One part joined the Communist camp, convinced that the Yevsektzia [Jewish communist section] would solve the Jewish problem. Another part remained in the Socialist Zionism movement (S”Z) and went underground.

The Komsomol people began to follow us, and there were imprisonments from time to time. The Communist youths began to seize positions of authority in the colony. However, with their anti–religion propaganda they provoked hatred among the entire population. Our life became harder and harder. Due to the control by the authorities, we were forced to meet in hideouts, sometimes as though strolling in the street. Members were arrested and the Zionist activity was strangled.

During the Civil War, death was lurking at every step and turn, not necessarily from the warring armies but at the hands of all sorts of robbers and murderers. The Ukrainians in the area took advantage of every opportunity to rob and loot from the Jewish farmers. The youth of the colony organized itself for self–defense. We would go around in the streets to guard the properties, and we managed to prevent several robbery attempts. In the fall of 1919, when robbers appeared in the colony robbing and raping, the youth, who were outnumbered, came out with weapons in their hands to drive the rioters away. That was when the big disaster occurred: the robbers, members of the Makhno gang, called for enforcement. During the following several hours, 132 of the colony residents were murdered, and the gang continued to riot for an additional week, and without any hindrance, robbed, raped and destroyed everything they got hold of. The villagers of the neighboring villages also did not sit idle, and many of them came to the colony to join the looting. The victims were not just among the warring youths. The rioters also killed elderly and women. They simply extracted people from their hideouts and killed them for their enjoyment. They positioned people standing with their faces to a wall in a long row and killed them one after the other.

When things calmed down a bit, the rioters gathered some of the colony elders and forced them to collect the bodies and bury them in pits at the edge of the colony. My father was among the gravediggers. It was horrible to hear from him the shocking descriptions of the scenes the gravediggers encountered. Bodies were discovered in hideouts, killed in sadistic ways. The most horrible story was about a man who was found alive among the row of people that were killed at the wall. It turned out that the bullet did not pierce his heart and the youth just fell down wounded. However he did not show any sign of life, otherwise they would have not spared him. That was how he lay down until the gravediggers came to collect the body. The gravediggers did not inform the gang about the person who was found alive among the dead, for fear of the murderers who followed and urged them to hurry up.

They loaded the youth on the wagon above the rest of the bodies. At the grave, they laid him

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down on the side and after they unloaded the rest of the dead off the wagon, they used the opportunity when the murderers went to drink water and loaded him up back onto the wagon, and covered him with straw. When they went back to load up the wagon again, they managed to leave him in one of the nearby houses. The youth survived, and the miracle of his survival was later a subject of discussions in the colony.

The colony was destroyed and robbed. People looked after their relatives to find out who survived. Workers who came to gather the harvest, several weeks after the pogrom, found the last of the murdered people in a cornfield.

These events changed the face of the colony. The agriculture was neglected, and people held onto every type of occupation to sustain themselves. During the following years, people sold their estates and inventory and moved to the city and the colony began to lose its Jewish character.

Yehoshua Medem (Binyamina)

 

A memorial candle for my mother z”l

When I come to recall memories about my colony Novo Poltavka, I cannot detach myself from my dearest memory – the image of my late mother.

My mother, Khana Yankelevitz, was a native of a colony in southern Ukraine, second generation to Jewish agriculturalists. I was proud of my mother who excelled in singing and in doing every type of work at home and in the field. I did wonder about the fact that she was drawn to Zionist preachers in the synagogue. I considered them to be total bums, and it was strange for me to see her lodging and taking care of them. My grandfather who was somewhat pious was a lover of Zion and agreed to teach his daughter in a “kheder” along with the boys. That was where she received her initial knowledge of the Torah, and she worked all of her life to expand that knowledge at every opportunity. She would improve her knowledge of Hebrew during the days after birth. When she lay down in bed, she occupied herself with learning Hebrew grammar. She also copied writings from books.

A few years before the break of the First War, the officials of the JCA [Jewish Colonization Organization] tried to convince the farmers of Novo–Poltavka (near which the agricultural school that was founded by the JCA was located) to plant

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vineyards under the guidance of their experts. A stormy argument commenced between my parents: My father supported the planting, but Mother claimed that Jews do not plant vineyards in the diaspora.

In 1915, her elder son was recruited to the army, and my father passed away two years later. My mother was left alone with seven children at a relative young age of 40.

We had six horses in the stable ready for work, but there was nobody who could climb the sowing machine and go out to the field. My mother did not hesitate and went out to the field to sow, and that act was considered extraordinary. In 1918, my brother was released from the army, and my mother's situation improved. She kept smiling to herself, and quietly enjoyed seeing him taking the heavy load of the farm on his shoulder.

She had then decided about the liquidation of the farm and making Aliya to Eretz Israel. The news about the Balfour Declaration reached our corner, and the handful of the Zionists in our colony dreamt and sailed on the wings of their imagination. However, the Bolshevist Revolution and the Civil War, which flooded Russia with blood and horror, reached us as well.

It was the latest part of the summer of 1919. We were busy with transporting the harvest from the field and piling the heaps in the yards, when a company of riders entered the village at dusk and demanded animal feed and money. Worries ensued. Galloping of horses could be heard from the street in the center of the village. We stood with mother at the gate, alert and tense. Her face was calm but she wore a decisive expression. In the morning, rumors started to spread about raping girls and looting property. Groups of people stood in the street, pale and confused from the night's lack of sleep. My mother approached them suddenly, with an awful expression on her face: “I am ashamed!”she yelled: “They are raping our Jewish girls and you keep silent! There are some guns in the village, take the weapons and drive away the scoundrels.” She quickly went to the barn, brought my brother's weapon (every soldier returning from the army brought his gun with him), and put the bullets belt on him with her own hands: “You go my son, and may G–d of Zion be with you”. The horsemen retreated from the village leaving two dead men behind them. In the meantime, it was found out that in the nearby town, thousands of armed Makhno gang members are staying and our young defenders had only 18 guns and a limited amount of ammunition.

At noon of that day, the colony was flooded by blood–thirsty rioters. 150 of the village residents were killed, small children among them also. Mother found out, in the evening, that they murdered her father (they found him working near the sowing machine) and my younger brother. I never saw my brother again but the heart was beating between hope and desperation.

I went along with my mother to fetch Savta (grandmother). We found her at the body of my murdered grandfather with half of her body paralyzed. My mother did not cry, even during the next day, when she found her son in the pile of the murdered, who were brought to a ditch near the river where they were buried. She kissed his eyes, took his short coat from him and walked slowly home. During the same night, my mother left the smaller children and Savta with me, took a basket of bread and a jug of water and sneaked out of the house. She walked around the harvest heaps, during the entire night, under which

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the surviving men hid. She would kneel, hand them water and a piece of bread and continued to the next heap, trying to sneak in the shadows of the heap.

In the streets, the rioters galloped with drawn swords looking for more victims. During one of the nights, we sat down on the floor in the house corridor, along with girls aged 14–15 years, who became orphans just yesterday and were staying with us. A small lamp flickered on the floor while Mother stood alert at the window. Steps approached and she went out to the nearby storage room and came back with an ax. Without looking at her, I knew of her intention. “If there are not many of them we will finish them here”, she whispered. Her frozen face expressed a total determination. “Let me die with the Philistines! “ [Judges 16:30], she said repeatedly, and stroked the head of her youngest son.

Two years later, I planned to make illegal Aliya, which involved risks. I was afraid of the moment I would have to tell Mother about it. My family members seemed to me so lonely and abandoned, facing hunger and pogroms along with the rest of the villagers. I was surprised when my Mother answered me that “one must make Aliya by any way possible and the risk of dying exists at home too”.

Only five years after I left, I was able to bring Mother and my three younger brothers to Eretz Israel (my elder brother and sister made Aliya, before me, as pioneers). She sold her vineyard and farm for pennies.

Her life–long dream and wish to be in the chosen–land was finally fulfilled. She looked at Mount Carmel and Jezreel Valley with childish enthusiasm. She knew these places well from the holy scripts and the Weekly Torah Portion.

Our village – Nahalal, was in its initial phase of construction. The size of the farm, the methods of cultivation and the farm equipment were primitive compared to what we had in Novo–Poltavka, however, in her eyes, the fields of Nahalal were superior to the wide crop fields of her native village. “And the climate – this is really a gift from G–d”, she said. “It is not required to bury the vines in the winter and uncover them in the spring. It is also not required to turn over the piles of crops in the field and dry them up after the rain”.

Life was not kind to my mother when she lived in Israel either. She encountered a difficult crisis, which depressed her greatly, upon the death of her 24 years old son. She moved to live near her two other sons in Rekhovot, where they both had found a job. From there she used to write us letters filled with tenderness and love, written in oratorical Hebrew, imbued with the smells of the Bible, without paying attention to rules of grammar.

When she found out that we are paid a certain fee for hosting a girl from the Youth Aliya [the organization that rescued Jewish children during and after the Holocaust] she wrote to us: “Shame on you to get paid for that. I am asking you stop doing it, and with that (doing what she is asking us to do) you would fulfill two commandments at once: The commandment of “honoring one's mother and father”, and the commandment of “Love the weak and the foreigner”. When we notified her that the committee that dealt with that matter on behalf of the Jewish Agency

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objected to hosting youths for free, she responded: “If you are forced to receive a fee, you ought to deposit it in a bank under the girl's name, and you should not receive money for sustaining a Jewish girl who came from the diaspora” .

With these words I have lit a candle, in memory of my mother. How meager and pale this light is, compared to the lights that illuminated her soul!

Today, from a distance of time and place, my colony seems to me as if illuminated by bright lights, like any memory connected to one's childhood and youth, although I did not think about it that way at the time. It is fair to say that my heart was not too attached to it then, since from a very young age I looked at my residency there as temporary. Now, that nothing survived from it, the colony and its way of life is illuminated by another light – calm and sad.

The colony of Novo–Poltavka was located on a wide and infinite plain. The colony was big (300 families) and bustling with life. Sturdy and self–assured Jews worked and lived there, grew sons and daughters and celebrated Shabbats and holidays tastefully and gracefully. They talked about the Messiah, as if he was already standing behind their wall. Most of them were occupied in agriculture, but there were those who also added craftsmanship or trade in grain. The number of houses for each family depended on the ability of the head of the household; however, the yards, which were all slated for the threshing and for arranging the straw and the hay, in preparation for the winter, did not differ from each other.

During the summer and the winter, we used to water the horses and the cows from the lake that crossed the colony, while we would haul home the drinking water by barrels from the well located near the JCA school farm, about 6 versta's [about 4 miles] from the village.

Acacia trees as well as cherry trees, and here and there some roses, grew near the houses. One summer day is rising clearly in my memory. My mother wakes me up at the appearance of the first light ray. The yard is already bustling. The horses are harnessed to a wagon loaded with water, food for the people and work tools. We are leaving for the whole week. The fields are far and it does not pay to waste time on travelling home every day just to sleep.

The harvester was named “Lobo–Greika” (forehead warmer), because of the hard work in unloading the harvested crop from it with a pitchfork. They would harness one of the pair of horses to that harvester and one of the brothers would leave with it first. They would tie a cow to the wagon so that there would be enough milk for the dinner's millet. We would leave on Sunday and return on Friday noon – being at a young age of 13 years then, I was already considered a full–fledged member of the girl–team who would pile the crop in the field.

Following a trip of close to one hour (we would travel slowly because of the water barrel and the cow which was tied behind), we would arrive at the field. Father would assign the workers the various tasks without raising his voice. Everybody obeyed him. I recall a burning hot mid–day hour when the harvester was humming, and urging calls, to the horses, to hurry up, could be heard coming, especially form the edge of the furrow. My father's calls from the distance could be heard:

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“Don't leave any unplowed corners”. I recall working while half running, out of my wish to challenge the Ukrainian worker, leaving her often behind. Until today, I feel something glittering in me when I remember that competition.

During the same summer, something happened that could have ended very badly. At the end of one scorching day, my father decided to send somebody home to fetch some food products that we ran out of. Since they took pity on the horses who worked the whole day, they harnessed a pair of two years' old foals who were exempt from the harvester due to their age. I accepted the mission gladly, as I was looking forward to travel and sleep at home, receive ripe cherries from Mother and return the next morning with the food which Mother has generously provided. The hour approached sunset time when I mounted the wagon and Father warned me not to race the horses. Everything went well in the beginning, but when I approached and had to cross the railroad tracks, the horses suddenly got scared and started to gallop madly. I pulled on the reins with all of my might since I knew that the train was approaching. I was engulfed with despair, until a thought came to my head (until today I really do not know how I came to that idea) and with a sudden pull I turned the wagon towards a field of tall rye sheaves. The horses' gallop was stopped when their legs were snarled with the roping tangle. When I went down to check the rein, I realized that the bridle fell off one of the horses' mouth.

Most of the youths, except a few who went out to study in the city, did not develop an exceptional career. They continued to work in the farm and occupied themselves in taming and racing horses. Some were singing in the chorus during the summer nights.

Upon the break of the Revolution, the subsequent Civil War, the pogroms in the Jewish communities, and all of the despair that accompanied that dark period, I made the decision to make Aliya to Eretz Israel. I made that decision despite the fact that my heart hurt for leaving that Valley of Tears and immigrate to a land, which seemed from afar wrapped in splendor and magic.

I know that my colony, and the adjacent agricultural school are worthy of my lengthy descriptions. Hundreds of youths, natives of the southern Russia colonies studied in the school founded by the JCA. Most of its principals had an affinity to Zionism. That school brought visits of notables from Israel, for whom the revival of the Hebrew language and working the land were the whole life substance.

I recall the visit by comrade Tzvi Yehuda [Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, leader of Religious Zionism] in our house. He adorned a beard and was dressed with a peasants' fur. I listened to his talk with Mother, telling her about Eretz Israel. His words inspired me and nourished my imagination for many days. I have already nurtured the idea of making Aliya by then. I also recall the visit of the author Ya'akov Rabinowitz z”l, who later visited our house in Nahalal. In that later visit he innocently told me a story about his visit in Novo–Poltavlka when in one of the mornings he strolled in the village and turned to the vineyard where… and I just continued his story: “I met a girl, about 12 years old whom I talked Hebrew with…”

Here I told my memories about the colony where I spent my childhood and where three generations preceded me.

Rakhel Yehudai (Nahalal)

 

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