Thursday, July 30, 2009

Memories of Ze'ev and Pnina (first in a series)

Memories of Ze’ev and P’nina (Part One)

I have been delaying starting this series of reminiscences because there is so much to say, so I will do it in a series of short dispatches, which will be easier for the reader to assimilate.

I can’t say for sure that I have an exact memory of our family’s first visit to Kibbutz Afeq upon our arrival for our year in Israel in 1961. It must have been a few weeks after we arrived, as we were met at the boat in Haifa by the Benesches, who drove us directly south to Rehovoth. Was Ze’ev at the boat to greet us? I don’t recall seeing him then, and am not sure whether or not he came to meet our boat, the S.S. Theodore Herzl.

In any case I have a dim memory of Helga crying upon meeting Ze’ev during our first visit to the kibbutz, 25 years after the time she last saw him; in 1936 at the Berlin train station from whence he and his garin (literally, nucleus) of sturdy young Zionists were about to depart for Palestine. Helga often described to me the great emotion of that scene; how much she admired Ze’ev for his bravery and commitment to the Zionist cause, how her own imagination was fired by the prospect of the building of a Jewish society and eventually a state in Palestine; yet how much she longed to go with them and how bereft she felt to be left behind in the hell of Nazi Germany. Of course at that point she still had the guiding strength of her father, Herman Ringel, himself a staunch Zionist and a big influence on Ze’ev’s own development.

It is interesting though that Herman was surreptitiously putting money aside to get the family out of Germany and eventually to reopen his factory in Holland—not in Palestine. Of course, Elli Ringel, our grandmother was staunchly opposed to the Palestine option; not wanting to go and live in a pioneer society in a desert, but one wonders whether Herman himself was really ready to make that plunge, despite his rhetorical advocacy of the Zionist cause and his sending Helga to Theodore Herzl School, a place which prepared many young German Jews for the rigors of Palestine. Certainly relocating the family there would have involved a diminution of standard of living, though many tens of thousands of middle class and even affluent German Jews made the plunge and went to Palestine between 1933-37, when it could still be arranged fairly easily.

These were the years following the so-called ‘Transfer Agreement’ when the Nazi government allowed nearly 200,000 German Jews to leave for Palestine with much of their assets in exchange for Zionist organizations opposing an economic boycott of Germany that Jews in America and elsewhere were advocating in 1933. It was clearly a strategic pact with the Devil by the Jewish Agency and the Zionist Movement. Yet it was one made with eyes wide open and one which clearly paid off, as it made possible the economic blossoming and political and military strengthening of Jewish Palestine in the 1930’s, and proved to be an indispensible factor in the growth of the Yishuv to the point that it could stand on its own feet and achieve an independent Jewish state in 1948.

As for Ze’ev, who soon changed his ‘diaspora family name of Kaufler to the properly Hebraic Sharon, he and his garin members arrived in Haifa in 1936 and spent the next 5-6 years living communally in Haifa and working as laborers in the port for pennies a day; money they collected to help pay for the land that would eventually buy to start their Kibbutz. Eventually, no doubt with the help of the Jewish National Fund, they were able to purchase land on the coastal plain close to Akko (several miles northwest of the present site of Afeq) and to start a kibbutz known, if I remember correctly as Mishmar Yam (Guardians of the Sea).

It was one of the so-called Tower and Stockade’ kibbutzim, and was no doubt created as a hedge against the hostile Arab population of Akko. There were, however, problems with that land (too sandy? I recall there were big sand dunes in that area) and after a few years—around the time of the creation of the State of Israel in 1948—the collective moved to the present site and renamed the place Afeq in honor of an ancient Canaanite city of Tel Afeq that still molders under a tel (artificial hill covering ancient ruins) just off the road between Kibbutz Afeq and the Haifa-Akko highway.

Pninah was born and raised in eastern Poland and was saved from the Holocaust by the fact that her area was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939 as a result of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed just a week before the Nazi invasion of Poland launched World War II. Say what you will of Stalin; his government saved hundreds of thousands, perhaps more than one million, Jews from the Nazis, although many of them were interred for a time in Siberia, or were part of the mass evacuation to Siberia and Central Asia which began at the time of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, June 22, 1941.

I recall that Pnina was a group of Polish Jews who were eventually able to get to Palestine through Iran after spending time in Siberia, but I don’t remember much of what she told me about it. (Ahikam, it would be great if you can enlighten us on Ze’ev and Pnina’s early lives, because as you see, I have retained only fragments).

I gather that once Pnina and her garin arrived, they somehow decided to join in the venture to create Mishmar Yam and there she met Ze’ev. The two began living together without benefit of marriage, as in those days the socialist, militantly secular kibbutzniks scorned the clericalism of the Chief Rabbinate and the bourgeois institution of marriage, and they only officially married years later together with many other kibbutz couples-after the creation of the state.

Ze’ev and members of Mishmar Ha Yam were part of the Haganah forces which laid siege too and captured Akko during street to street, alley to alley fighting that ended with the fall of the city on May 17, 1948, three days after the creation of the State of Israel. Anyone who has visited the maze of alleyways and souks of old Akko, crammed between the sea and its great Crusader walls, can imagine what that fighting must have been like. I remember asking Ze’ev about it during the years I lived in Haifa in 1976-77, but as I recall, he didn’t like to talk about it, only saying that it was kasheh (hard) and that several of his close comrades fell during the operation.

Anyway, I need to stop now and get to work…In my next dispatch I will write about my memories of Ze’ev and Pnina and life on Kibbutz Afeq during my life-transforming year in Israel as a child 1961-62…

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