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[Page 65]

My life in Bendery

Shmuel Gilboa (Kiryat Haim)
(Formerly Mica Greenberg)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

My life in Bendery was filled with the sadness of childhood. It reflected the decaying existence of a Jewish village in Eastern Europe between the two wars. This was a dying village whose continuation depended on nearly nothing. It seemed to me that my life in Bendery was a typical example of the life of the youth of my generation.


1. Sadness of childhood

A. Early childhood - fear and terror

My earliest memories of “self” come from the feeling of dread during the Romanian conquest. I was three years old and my sister, Manya, was three weeks old. We sit on the shores of the Dniester clinging to our mother. Father is busy with arrangements to transport us to the opposite shore to Uncle Aaron in Tiraspol. A tortured return to Bendery follows. We run quickly to a damp and cold cellar to hide from the incessant shooting; darkness and a tremendous roar coming from the blowing up of the bridge on the Dniester; a lull and then a restarting of the shooting.

After the conquest there was a lack of confidence. A train from Kishinev was attacked by thugs. A Jewish passenger was killed and the city was teeming. At night there were robberies and break-ins. Before bedtime Father would carefully check the locks and bolts on the doors and the window shutters. During the night of the attack on the train we were awakened by a terrible noise. Someone on the outside was shaking our door and trying to break in. My parents and I yelled “Guards! Help!” The noise outside stopped, but it seemed to me that someone had managed to break in and was on his knees rattling the metal headboard on my bed. I was shivering and wondering when this dark figure would leave. I eventually fell asleep.

Soon the new authorities were in control. For around twenty years our lives moved along two paths typical of any Jewish village in the former Russian Empire: a struggle to survive and to preserve Jewish life.


B. Struggle to survive

What was the source of subsistence for the Jews of Bendery? How did my late father, Yitzhak, earn a living?

Bendery served as a commercial center for the surrounding countryside. Its Jews made their living from the Romanian peasants in the area. The peasants brought their agricultural produce into town: wheat, fruit, dairy, and, in winter, lumber for heating. They bought what they needed groceries, notions, fabrics, work implements. They had their wagons repaired and their horses shod, etc. For all these needs the Jews also ran inns in spacious courtyards where there was room for the horses, bulls and the wagons in which they traveled to town. There were also taverns and tea houses, shops and workshops. Blacksmiths, belt makers, locksmiths and carpenters served the peasants. The Jews also made a living by running small corner groceries and they worked as painters, glaziers, electricians, owners of bathhouses and cinemas. Of course, there was also religious personnel- rabbis, judges, ritual slaughterers, cantors, etc.

My father's story is sad. For over three years he owned a clothing store in a booth in the church square. Those years were good. We had real electricity and our copper samovar hummed quietly for hours each day. On Friday night there was an aura of holiness with a white tablecloth on the table and a challah covered in a sparkling cloth. Mother blessed the candles in the silver candlesticks. Father would return from synagogue service. Our beautifully painted home was engulfed with the singing of “Shalom Aleichem, Angels of G-d” We would sit down to the specially set table and during the meal we sang Shabbat songs. I remember the melodies to this day.

When I turned five there was a celebration in our home to commemorate the fact that I was now ready to learn Torah. “At five a boy begins to learn Torah”. Many guests came and there was festive atmosphere. Under the guidance my rabbi I read a portion from the Torah and I felt like I was “King of the Regiment”.

However, these wonderful times did not last. For a reason I still do not know, my father closed his store and never reopened it. He was impoverished and he never recovered. After that our lives were difficult. We had to leave our beautiful apartment and move to a simpler one. We continued to move from one apartment to another.

Father remained unemployed. Eventually, he began to sell fabrics to peasants in a distant village. He was away from home for many days trying to earn a living in that village. We, at home, were in great need. When he would return we were not always happy because often he came back empty-handed.

In spite of this I have some good memories of our struggle for Jewish survival.


Kindergarten teacher Batya Shteiner with Grade One and Kindergarten students of the Schwartzman High School.
(In the center, Dr. Schwartzman and Kindergarten teacher Batya) 1922-23


C. Jewish survival

My mother, Pessia, z”l, was the one who kept up the struggle for my Jewish education. She did it along two paths- Hebrew High School and Heder (Talmud Torah).


i. Hebrew High School

The family of “Tzalel the Cantor” (nickname for Rabbi Betzalel Shteiner, the cantor) lived in our courtyard. Their oldest daughter, Batya, was the Kindergarten teacher in the Schwartzman High School. She influenced my mother to enroll me in this Kindergarten when I was four years old. For the next ten years I was a student of the Schwartzman Hebrew High School.

From an early age I absorbed the Hebrew language. The holy language of prayer and Torah was spoken by me. At home, on the street and among friends we used Yiddish and Russian, but in school only Hebrew was heard (Ashkenazi pronunciation). We did not study all subjects in Hebrew mainly due to the lack of textbooks or appropriate teachers. We had some non-Jewish teachers, but the atmosphere in the school was nationalistic and Hebrew. This formed the emotional basis of our Jewish existence. We celebrated every Jewish holiday. The sounds of “Hatikvah” were often heard in the school. We truly believed that “our hope to return to our homeland was not lost”. No wonder that many of the students joined youth movements: Maccabi, Hashomer Hatzair, Gordonya, Beitar and other Zionist groups. Many of them made Aliyah.

The second path my mother put me into was the


ii. Heder and Talmud Torah.

Mother took care not only of my secular education, but also of my religious studies. In the same courtyard where Batya, the Kindergarten teacher lived, there was also a “Heder” and the home of the teacher A., the “redhead”. Even prior to Kindergarten, when I was three and a half years old, my mother rushed to send me to him to learn some “Yiddishkeit”. In a play on the words of Ecclesiastes (1: 18) I can say that “the beginning of learning is the beginning of pain”. We sat in a long, narrow room in his home. Every child had a prayer book or Torah in front of him. The Rebbe sat at the head of the table. He would come to sit by each child for a few minutes in order to teach him. This is how I studied on a daily basis. After two weeks, I sat, as usual, and read “kamatz aleph A” “Patach Beit B”. Everything moved smoothly, but suddenly, I stopped because I had forgotten how to pronounce “Kaf” with a dot underneath. The Rebbe glowered at me and I saw his pointer on my stumbling block in the open prayer book. Nothing helped. In order to shake my young memory he opened a drawer. Without saying a word, he showed me the thin whip lying there. I did not understand his hint and I was still stuck. I just could not remember. Suddenly he shot the whip at me with full force. I fell off the bench and found myself under the table on the clay floor. I was screaming “I am hungry! I want to eat!”

Still sobbing, I climbed back on the bench. The Rebbe did not reveal the secret I had forgotten. My heart was full of hatred and I returned to my seat on the other side of the table.

From this Rebbe I continued to others. I had many teachers even when I studied in the Hebrew High School, especially during the summer vacation. When we became poor, my mother sent me to the Talmud Torah. There were times when I studied in the Hebrew High School in the mornings and I went straight to the Talmud Torah on the other side of town. In the dark of night I would return home, on another side of town, on Sovoronaya Street.

From all these teachers, I best remember two in the Talmud Torah: Old R. Shimon and the stern Mr. Yankel Lonievsky.

Learning in Heder and Talmud Torah was dry and tedious. There was translation into Yiddish after each word followed by Rashi interpretation. In spite of poor teaching methods the “Heder” refined our senses. Reading prayers together, reciting Torah portions using incantation, the special feeling of blessings after the Haphtarah all these awakened emotions and elevated our souls. My knowledge of the Hebrew language, learned in the Schwartzman Hebrew High School, brought life to the letters in the holy books in the Heder and the Talmud Torah.

In addition to the Hebrew High School and the Heder, there was another factor in my education in Bendery youth movements.


iii. Youth movements

My mother directed me to the Hebrew High school and to the Heder, but I found my own way to the youth movement- Hashomer Hatzair. Father never interfered and mother did not stop me. I did not find any contradiction between the life of the Heder and the atmosphere of the Hashomer Hatzair clubhouse. I was eight years old and I came for a simple reason. I liked a girl my age that used to visit and play with her friend who lived next door to the clubhouse. There was a gap in the fence and I could see my beloved through it. I joined the Hashomer Hatzair to be there. I even went to the library in order to impress her. I began to read books in Hebrew in the library run by Mrs. Pistrova.

I soon forgot my original motive and I became an enthusiastic member of the movement. My heart was enthralled by the atmosphere in the clubhouse. I belonged to a group and I thoroughly enjoyed all the activities: singing and speaking together, camps, nature trips and exciting games in the forest. Communal life, education to be considerate of others, helping each other and looking after weaker people all this fostered in us special values. I cannot describe how much we loved our counsellors Niunia Bendersky and David Stoliar. The movement awakened in us the spark for self improvement and encouraged us to aspire to self-perfection. I immersed myself in reading. I taught myself Yiddish and I was able to read serious literature at a young age.

The movement held district conferences in villages and in the forests. Special friendships were formed between different young people from other areas. They corresponded and visited each other.

I was immersed in daily life and did not understand the ideological side of Hashomer Hatzair. It can be heard in the Yiddish lullaby:

“Sleep my child, my dear one!
The big houses, beautiful palaces are built for the rich.
When you, my child, will get older,
You will understand the difference between rich and poor”
We sang rapturously.
“Our Father, our King, have mercy on us and answer us. Do a good deed and save us!”

However, someone actually watched and listened to the “socialist tripe” of Hashomer Hatzair. Two or three years later the clubhouse was closed by the Romanian security forces and we had to continue in secret. We no longer had our beautiful house in the large courtyard, but we met in small groups, in private homes. Eventually we moved to the Maccabi sports facilities. The Revisionist Beitar also had its headquarters there. We were all together Beitar, Hashomer Hatzair and Maccabi.

My enthusiasm for Hashomer Hatzair decreased and I switched to Maccabi. There I began to play chess and it became more important for me than sports- the real purpose of Maccabi.

In spite of all my activities in school, Heder and the youth movement, our home situation overshadowed everything. The natural happiness of childhood was transformed into one of true sadness.

In the meantime, my childhood years were gone. I was already thirteen and I began to worry about my future. What would I do in life when I get older?


2. Aimless youth

A. Worse economic conditions

My few young years in Bendery were an expression of the worsening economic conditions for Jews and especially for their young people. There was an accelerating economic distress and the authorities severely punished Communists. Many young Jews were enthusiastically drawn to Communism.

Every so often someone would cross the Dniester to the Soviet Union. I well remember Misha Kaushansky, Yoske Lvovsky and others whose names I have forgotten. Every crossing of the river brought a tightening of security, persecutions and oppression. At nightfall there was police presence on every corner. You could be arrested for almost anything, at the will of the police officer. It was dangerous to have a book with socialist content. Once, on May 1, I went to the library with the book “The Hunger” by Fink. I was afraid I would be arrested. The lack of intelligence of the police officers can be seen from an incident that happened to me.

I was interested in Astronomy and I wanted to see the moon through a telescope. I could not find one so I decided to use the idea behind it. On a moonlit night I stood on the street with a friend holding two small mirrors and a magnifying glass. We were hoping to see an enlargement of the moon using these aids. A police officer appeared and began to question us because we looked suspicious to him. He asked us: “Are you signalling to the Communists?” Our explanation of our astronomy experiment was unacceptable to him and he took us to the police station. The officer on duty freed us with a smile.

Soon I left the Hebrew High School- before graduation.


B. Leaving the Hebrew High School and transferring to Ort

In the beginning of the school year in the fall of 1929 I left the Hebrew High school and transferred to the vocational school Ort. Why did I not graduate after so many years of study at the Hebrew High School? There were several reasons. One was definitely worries about my future. What will I do after graduation? A diploma from Schwartzman Hebrew High School could take me to university, but only outside the country. Could I possibly dream about such an event? On the other hand, I could learn a trade in Ort and perhaps that would help me in life?

I studied in Ort for three-and a-half-years. I took machine shop, engraving and galvanizing. The principal was always a Jewish engineer. There were three in my time- Finkelshtein, Flexer and Vasiliev and Finkelshtein again. The vocational teacher was always a non-Jew. No matter what, he swore in colourful Russian. He would begin in one workshop and finish in the blacksmith's shop 50 metres away.

My hands were not meant for this work. I was an excellent student in academic subjects, but I was only average in any handiwork. I had made a mistake. I was not meant to do this work. It was not the proper route for me. My teenage years should have been the best years of my life, but they turned out to be an inappropriate preparation for a trade. In addition, our life at home was full of poverty and our family still grew. We were four children: I and my three sisters Manya, Baila and Ethel, the baby.


C. Situation at home worsens

The poverty and neediness at home accompanied me constantly like evil shadows. Still, our spiritual and educational life did not stop. Our mother scrimped and saved from her meagre funds to pay for school supplies: books, notebooks and, later, drawing equipment for Ort.


ORT Vocational School
(Teachers and students)


In those days, I was interested in two things: playing chess and reading books. I often played in tournaments on an empty stomach or read by the poor lighting of a small gas lamp. Sometimes there was no glass cover, just a small wick, but I still continued my reading of many books in Yiddish, Russian and Romanian. I also went to Maccabi, especially after we succeeded in forming an active chess club.

In the meantime, I completed my studies at Ort. And then what would happen?


D. Graduating from Ort and becoming a tutor to young children

Truly, what could one do in Bendery without a trade that was in demand?

In 1932 I finished my courses at Ort, but I really did not have a trade and I could not find a position based on what I had learned. What will I do at the age of seventeen? Luck would have it and I was offered a teaching position in the village of Kitzakny. There were four Jewish families living there. They owned stores. I was hired for a season, winter or summer, to tutor their young children in Hebrew, prayers, Torah and mathematics, etc. I changed residence every week or two, moving from one family to another. Five or six children came for lessons for several hours each day. I was free the rest of the time.

Will I always be a tutor of young children? Perhaps I should complete high school? I spoke to Gregori Yakovlevitch Schwartzman and he agreed to let me write the final examinations every year on condition that I come to school at the beginning of the school year. I did so. In my ample free time in Kitzakny I studied the material of the Sixth Form which I had abandoned and I prepared myself for the finals.

However, events turned differently. I was swept up by the idea of Aliyah to Eretz Israel. How did this happen?


3. The solution : Aliyah to Eretz Israel

A. Preparation for leaving

I did not finish high school. The trades I learned in Ort were not useful. At home there was only abject poverty. I was only a tutor of young children in a village land I was living with different families. These were listless days, without a purpose. What will tomorrow bring? What will happen in a year? In two years?

These struggles brought out the idea of leaving Bendery and abandoning Romania.

Even during my childhood I was aware of relatives and friends leaving Bendery. When I was five my aunt Hannah and her husband left for the United States right after they were married. They settled in New York. At the same time, my good friend Myron Kleinman, his mother and sister made Aliyah. Two years later, Nahum Piker went as a pioneer. He left me as a souvenir a Hebrew book with colourful pictures. Another uncle, Nahum, immigrated to Argentina. Some people went to Canada and others to Brazil. Bendery made a contribution to the general trend of the immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe. My turn had come. When the final decision was to be made, my Hebrew education influenced the result. It had to be Eretz Israel. How was I to achieve this goal? There was one route: Hahshara through a Zionist youth movement. This is how I came to “Gordonya”. I became a member. Instead of Aliyah being only a solution to my problems it became the purpose of my life. New horizons opened up. A new way of life was unveiled to me in”Gordonya”. Now my life continued along two paths: the social and ideological life in “Gordonya” and Hahshara.


B. Social and ideological life in Gordonya

The social milieu was similar to that of the Hashomer Hatzair of my childhood (except for scouting activities which were not done in Gordonya). However, what united all youth movements at that time were the constant ideological discussions among us and with others from other movements. It was a true rainbow including Communism, Agudat Israel, Hashomer Hatzair and revisionist Beitar. We talked and argued about everything: the Soviet Union as the fulfilment of dreams, Birobidjian as a solution to the Jewish problem, the Internatzional Two and Three and Peace on Earth. Matters which troubled workers in Eretz Israel worried us as well: common union with Arab workers, Zionism, socialism, private and public finances, national and private settlements and the ideal settlements: Moshavim (cooperative settlements), Kvutzah (small agricultural collective settlement) or Kibbutz (larger collective settlement).

We had a clear stand on every issue. We truly believed in the ideology of our movement.

The late A.D. Gordon was our spiritual father and his writing guided us. We searched his books for solutions to issues in the world in general and in the Jewish world in particular.

The ideology was anchored not only in our spiritual life. It was also a guideline for our daily life. We knew we could turn our dreams to a true reality. We called it “Hagshama” (implementation).

Every movement had a special finite purpose. Of course, I believed the finite purpose of Gordonya was the correct one, the true one, the best of all! It was the implementation of the labor vision of A.D. Gordon, by merging man and nature. The road to implementation was so simple! One must make Aliyah to Eretz Israel and to live there in a Kvutzah like Degania and to belong to an association of Kvutzot (not, God forbid, the United Kibbutz movement). I adhered to this ideal of living in a Kvutzah in Eretz Israel. I did not see the purpose of studying trades in Ort or finishing high school. What use would it be for me in a Kvutzah in Eretz Israel when there I would work the land in the midst of nature? It would be better for me to reach my finite purpose faster.

It was the spring of 1933. Before going to Hahshara I went to see Gregori Yakovlevitch Schwartzman to thank him for giving me the opportunity to complete high school. I told him my plans. He shook my hand and wished me luck.

I went to Hahshara hoping I would soon be in my Kvutzah in Eretz Israel.


C. Hahshara

Many young men and women from Bendery believed the only road to Aliyah and to obtain a permit to go to Eretz Israel was to join the Hahshara. Very few were accepted and of those only a small number made Aliyah. The needs were great, but opportunities for Aliyah were minute. We spent several years in Hahshara. I spent four years there from May 1933 to July 1937 when I finally made Aliyah.

The stops on my route to Eretz Israel were Hoshi, Oreshti, Sofaifka, Ripichani, Beltz, “Masada” and again Beltz.

In Hoshi we lived in a stable cleared of manure. Footstools joined to each other were placed in the space for the stalls. In Oreshti we worked in orchards from morning to night.

In Sofaifka we worked in beet fields. We were crowded in a small hut that barely accommodated us. We built a tent-like structure made out of bamboo shoots. On the first night there was torrential rain and the water came inside. We escaped back to the hut. However, in the beet fields of Sofaifka I met Soyba Bercovitch from Akkerman, my wife today.

In Ripichani we worked in a sugar factory on day and night shifts. In Beltz we were woodcutters. The congestion was great and there was not enough work. Only a few of us worked and supported the others. We were starving.

Once, when we wanted to see a play in the theatre of Bartov, we tried to fool our stomachs. We got up at noon and so we skipped breakfast. In the evening we went to the play and we returned close to midnight. Who eats dinner at such a late hour? We went to sleep and the next day we did the same “trick” and were able to save enough to see a second play.

In “Masada”, near Beltz, we had more adequate accommodations and it was a true agricultural Hahshara. There was only one “Masada” and there was only enough room for a small number of participants.


Members of Gordonya from Bendery tilling the land in Masada, Beltz August 1937


No wonder that under these conditions, with a small chance for making Aliyah, many members left us during this long road in the Hahshara. Some were deemed ineligible by the movement. We nicknamed the process “selection” because it was quite severe. Only those considered capable of living in a group were awarded a permit. I was fortunate to be among them. However, four years passed until I received the good news. It was April 1937. While I was in Hahshara in Beltz I was told to return home to wait for the date for my trip. I went home and waited impatiently for my coveted date for Aliyah.


D. Aliyah 48 hours of fear

The day I left Bendery was a symbol for my miserable life there. I made Aliyah to Eretz Israel during the days that were full of fear before the war.

I finally received a cable from the “Hechalutz” center asking me to go to Bucharest where I would be given all the necessary papers. From there I was to go to Constanza the embarkation port for Eretz Israel.

It was Saturday and I went to the train station with my father and mother. We bought a ticket for Bucharest and we went to the platform. Suddenly, someone approached me and asked me: “Where are you going?” When I innocently replied “Bucharest” two secret policemen suddenly appeared and took me to a room in the station. Only later did I find out that the Prime Minister of Poland and Colonel Beck, the Foreign Minister, were to visit Bucharest on the following day. One of the security measures taken by the Romanian authorities was not allowing travel to Bucharest to “suspicious characters” like me.

I discovered all this only later. In the meantime, I was kept in solitary confinement. Horrible thoughts engulfed me. Why was I arrested? I thought back to all my previous activities. Where did I sin? All this on the brink of my Aliyah? Is my arrest connected to my Aliyah? My army service had been postponed for one year. We are now in July and I am to present myself again in January. Perhaps they are trying to stop me from making Aliyah so I would not avoid army service? G-d in Heaven, what will be my fate? Will I really have to stay in this hellhole to serve additional time in the army? I was trembling and I was scared. The dark figure that stood near my bed in my childhood returned. I ran crazed back and forth.

After about half an hour- which seemed like an eternity- I heard the steam whistle from the outside. The Bucharest train left the station and I remained behind. Dear G-d, woe is me! A detective came and told me to go home. He warned me not to dare travel to Bucharest. I felt relieved and I understood there was no connection to my army service. What will happen to my trip to Eretz Israel? My papers are in Bucharest and the ship leaves from Constanza on the following Monday. What can I do?

My father and I went to the post office to send a telegram to the “Hechalutz” centre in Bucharest. I informed them that due to circumstances beyond my control I would go straight to Constanza. I requested that my papers be sent directly to Constanza.

At midnight I took the train to Galatz to begin my journey to Constanza. It was a moonlit night when I said good-bye to my parents. My little sisters Bailaleh and Etaleh were asleep. I kissed my beloved sister Manya- three years younger. We said good-bye with a kiss and a handshake. My sister and I innocently believed that we would soon meet again. She was to make Aliyah in, at most, a year. She, too, was a member of Gordonya.


Bendery (Tighina) train station


My mother, father and uncle accompanied me to the train station. My father had prepared money for bribing, if necessary. The station was nearly empty. Detectives stood in doorways. One approached my father to tell him that I was not allowed to leave Bendery. His opposition dissipated when he received money. I crossed the platform and boarded the train. I sat on a bench all alone. Suddenly, my mother, may she rest in peace, appeared. She was a skinny, pale and suffering woman. I asked her: “Mother, what happened?” She gently replied: “My son, I want to see you once more!” She looked at me lovingly and left forever… She never saw me again. In 1942, during World War II, she died in Kazakhstan and was buried near my father and on the shores of the Caspian Sea. Her heart was full of longing for her son in Eretz Israel. I found this out later from my sister Manya.

I traveled one night and then another night changing trains until I reached Constanza. All along the trip, my heart was full of fear. Were my papers transferred from Bucharest on time? Will I reach the ship on time? Will I be arrested in the train station in Constanza? Did the secret police of Bendery instruct the secret police of Constanza to stop me from leaving the country?

When I finally reached Constanza after many trials and tribulations I saw a group of detectives at the exit from the station. What should I do? There was no choice. I took a chance. No one approached me and I was allowed to go through. I was free!

That afternoon I boarded the ship ‘Romania’. Slowly the coastline disappeared and with it the misery of my life in Bendery.

How painful is it that I am the only one in my family to have survived. My dear parents and sisters were not so fortunate. My mother and father died of hunger during the war. My sisters remained alive and returned to Bendery. They raised families in this terrible hellhole!


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