Before Liberation: Mourning the Holocaust in 1945

As the camps still operated in Europe, a call from Jerusalem to remember the victims and help the survivors was heeded across the globe...

Nearly two months before these men and thousands like them were liberated from the camps, the global Jewish community united to mourn the fate of European Jewry and organize efforts to help the survivors (Photo: George Mallinder / National Archives and Records Administration via United States Holocaust Memorial Museum / Public domain)

In March 1945, the Allied victory was all but palpable, though carnage still raged across Europe. Auschwitz had been liberated at the end of January, yet almost all other major Nazi death camps were still operational.

Germany was desperate and knew defeat was on its way. The Wehrmacht began enlisting 15- and 16-year old boys. The same month saw the last major German offensive of the war, which soon ended in failure. Hitler paid his last visit to the front, promising that “new weapons” were on their way. They never came.

In his last public appearance before going into hiding and later killing himself, the despot awarded medals to members of the Hitler youth.

Shortly after the appearance, Winston Churchill made a brief yet powerfully symbolic crossing of the Rhine.

Winston Churchill steps ashore onto the east bank of the River Rhine, 25 March 1945 (Imperial War Museum / Public domain)

Yet across the Jewish world, the all-but-incalculable toll of the Holocaust was increasingly calculated. Understood. Internalized.

One-third of all Jews in the world had been massacred.

On March 5, a gathering took place at the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem, deemed “the greatest Jewish synod to be held in the Holy City in modern times” by The Palestine Post, which reported that:

“… all the rabbis in Palestine assembled in conclave, from town and settlement, Sephardi religious leaders in their flowing oriental robes, side by side with Hassidic rabbis, among them the heads of the famous Sadagora dynasty, and rabbis from Europe who had found shelter here from Nazi persecution…”

Sitting on the ground and unable to hold back their tears, the esteemed and diverse group of rabbinical leaders recited prayers and read from the Book of Lamentations. They chanted the Mourner’s Kaddish and blew the shofar seven times – a rare, dramatic act in Jewish tradition – before walking together to pray at the Western Wall.

Months prior to the gathering, well before the Red Army reached Auschwitz, Rabbi Hizkiyahu Yosef Mishkovsky drafted a proposal, which he sent to leading figures in the Land of Israel, including prominent rabbinical organizations and the Jewish Agency. Mishkovsky himself was a leader of Polish Jewry who had come to the Land of Israel at the turn of the 20th century, yet remained in close contact with the communities of Poland and Lithuania, often traveling back and forth before the war. He was also a leader of the Jewish Agency’s Rescue Committee, founded in 1942 with the goal of working to save European Jewry during the Holocaust.

Mishkovsky’s proposal recommended organizing a gathering of rabbis to focus on working to salvage what was left of European Jewry, while also grieving for its destruction by means of a seven-day mourning period and a permanent annual day of mourning and fasting.

Perhaps the most influential recipient of Mishkovsky’s proposal was Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, the chief Ashkenazi rabbi of the Land of Israel, who soon thereafter hosted some fifty leading rabbis in his Jerusalem home to further discuss these recommendations.

Letter dated 24 Tevet (9 January 1945) inviting Rabbi Eliyahu Mordechai Wolkowski to a meeting at Rabbi Herzog’s home to discuss “establishing a fast day and days of… lamentations over millions of our brothers…” From the Eliyahu Mordechai Wolkowski Archive, National Library of Israel

The group declared that the Jews of Mandatory Palestine must open their homes to the survivors and that special efforts must be made to locate and save Jewish children hidden away in monasteries across Europe, ensuring that they come to the Land of Israel as soon as possible and, no less important, that they receive traditional Jewish education. Moreover, they declared that a national “Yahrzeit” (memorial day) for the millions of victims must be proclaimed.

This meeting laid the foundation for the March 5th assembly at the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem. It was then that Chief Rabbis Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel and Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, and the others present, called for a week of mourning throughout the Land of Israel, and “wherever these words reach,” to begin on March 8th and culminate with a fast day on March 14. They requested that during the week of mourning the public refrain from activities of leisure and entertainment, and that on the fast day itself, Jewish businesses and transportation would stop, as people dedicated time in synagogue and at home to mourn the victims.

Paralleling the famous words of biblical prophecy, the rabbis’ declaration “went forth from Zion” and – quite remarkably – Jewish communities across the globe adopted it, as did the Jews of Mandatory Palestine, religious and secular alike.

The act of Jewish solidarity was all but unprecedented in the annals of modern history, driven by rabbis who by today’s standards would be considered Religious Zionist and Ultra-Orthodox, yet also being decisively adopted by the secular Zionist establishment and non-Orthodox movements globally.

From the capital of the Soviet Union, the Jewish Community Council of Moscow publicly expressed its observance of the week of mourning and the fast day, going so far as to also notify remaining Jewish communities and organizations across Europe about the initiative. The move in Moscow was hailed as historic and encouraging by Jews outside of communist controlled Eastern Europe.

Headline published in The Sentinel on March 22, 1945; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection. Click the image to read the complete article

The Synagogue Council of America, the umbrella group bridging the three major Jewish movements in the United States, called for all of the country’s Jews to join in the communal mourning.

Survivors in Romania and Greece joined the international initiative.

Many communities throughout the British Empire – from Canada to South Africa to Australia – ignored the objections of their own chief rabbi, Joseph Hertz, one of few major contemporary Jewish leaders to oppose the initiative, and decided to mark the week of mourning with their coreligionists worldwide.

Even Jewish soldiers in the British Army stationed in Tripoli made plans to fast and observe the week of mourning by voluntarily confining themselves to their barracks, while in Mandatory Palestine, Jewish sailors in the Royal Navy attended a memorial service to mark the day.

The British High Commissioner for Palestine and Transjordan himself, Lord Gort, personally received the declaration from the chief rabbis, who also sent it via telegram to Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, imploring them to not only remember the victims but also to allow the survivors to immigrate to the Land of Israel.

Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at the Yalta Conference, February 1945 (National Archives and Records Administration / Public domain)

While the “Big Three” were busy overseeing the ongoing war efforts across Europe and in the Pacific, Lord Gort was receptive to the declaration, letting the rabbis know that he would send it along to London. He also ordered that Jewish officials throughout Mandatory Palestine would be released from their duties on the fast day.

In fact, commemoration of the fast day in British Mandatory Palestine was quite extensive, including a stoppage of work and traffic, and a complete “internal curfew” from 9am to 11am.

Jewish police officers and schoolchildren donated money on the day to a rescue fund for Holocaust survivors.

The flags at the Jewish Agency building and the Polish consulate were flown at half-mast.

Even the major cities largely observed the somber day, as reported in The Palestine Post:

“A quiet self-discipline prevailed all through Jewish Palestine yesterday, the day of fast and voluntary curfew which ended the week of mourning for European Jewry… Jewish residential sections of Jerusalem and Haifa were deserted, and even children kept indoors… The usually crowded and bustling streets of Tel Aviv were hushed and in the evening shop windows were dark…”

There had been previous calls for international days of Jewish solidarity and fasting, including a declaration by Rabbis Herzog and Uziel, not long after the outbreak of the war. Yet nothing before (nor probably since) seemed to compare to the response elicited by the March 1945 initiative – which transcended virtually all boundaries and distinctions within the global Jewish community.

Perhaps the pain at the time was so raw and so real that Jews around the world – regardless of nationality or level of religious observance – were simply waiting for some sort of call to collective bereavement.

Some two months before the last camp was liberated, and six decades before the United Nations designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day, that call came from Zion.

Many thanks to Rabbi Shmuel Katz, leading scholar of the Israeli Rabbinate, for his assistance and expertise.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

This Remarkable Woman Made the First Israeli Flag in Jerusalem

Rebecca Affachiner trailblazed across multiple continents, and she did it all as a single, religious Jewish woman...

“I have waited my entire lifetime to see the rebirth of a Jewish state. I do not intend to miss it." Photo from the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel

Passionate, adventurous, attractive, well-educated, a cosmopolitan world traveler and a gifted organizer, Rebecca Affachiner led an unusual life in the early 20th century, as a single religiously observant Jewish woman who held many professional firsts, as a woman without children who was deeply involved in the life of children of all ages, and as a woman who traveled globally without a chaperone or companion.

Rebecca was born in Nesvizh (in present-day Belarus) in 1884 to the Sephardic Affachiner family who had lived there since the early 19th century.

Children stand outside the Great Synagogue in Nesvizh, early 20th century. From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Her father Yitzchak worked as a tailor until he immigrated to New York City in 1888. There he opened a tailoring store, which remained closed on Shabbat for all of his working life – almost unheard of at that time. After coming to New York in 1890, Rebecca and her siblings went to public school in 1890, where Rebecca developed a passion for reading. Rebecca bought a 2-volume collection of Emma Lazarus’s poetry, who became her heroine, and took it everywhere including to Jerusalem. She became skilled in writing and oral presentations, participated in debate from a young age.

Rebecca Affachiner as a young child with her family. From the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

Unusual for her time, she decided to train as a professional social worker and then enrolled in the new Teachers Evening Course at the Jewish Theological Seminary in December 1904.

While at JTS, she became quite friendly with Solomon and Mathilde Shechter, as well as with Henrietta Szold who was also a student there at the time, but it was Rebecca who became the first woman to graduate from JTS in 1907.

Solomon Schechter. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

In 1908, although not a rabbi, she became the Jewish chaplain at the Home for Delinquent Girls in Hudson, New York, and would undertake many initiatives to provide positive role models and support for underprivileged Jewish girls in New York, as well as combat efforts to proselytize.

Following Mathilde Schechter’s recommendation, Rebecca became superintendent of the Columbia Religious & Industrial School for Girls, where she worked for a number of years. Photo from the May 7, 1909 edition of The Hebrew Standard / National Library of Israel Digital Collection

After coming to a February 22, 1912 meeting organized by Henrietta Szold to create a formal Women’s Zionist organization, Rebecca became involved with the Federation of American Zionists, and, being more educated than most of her female contemporaries, Rebecca quickly became central to the group.

During World War I, Affachiner travelled to France as part of National Jewish Welfare Board efforts to provide support to Jewish soldiers. From the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

A few years later she became involved in a major American Zionist campaign to get President Harding to accept the Balfour Declaration. In 1921, when Chaim Weizman and Albert Einstein toured America on a well-known mission to encourage support of Zionism, she organized an event with them and raised $25,000 from her local community in Hartford, Connecticut, a princely sum at that time.

Albert Einstein and Chaim Weizmann, April 1921 (Bain News Service / Public domain via the Library of Congress)

The previous year, she had become superintendent Hartford’s United Jewish Charities, the first woman to hold such a senior role in any Jewish organization in America. She founded Jewish Big Brother and Big Sister chapters in the city and led countless other efforts to help those in need, including helping to organize a city-wide boycott of streetcar transport when the fare was raised to 10 cents a ride. The strike succeeded and the fare returned to 3 cents!

It is worth remembering that women were only given the right to vote in the United States in August of 1920.  Rebecca’s accomplishments came in an era when women’s rights were still severely restricted in many areas of their lives, including property ownership.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Rebecca traveled the world, partially for leisure and partially to help better understand where Jews could find safe haven.

After the United States severely restricted immigration in 1924, Rebecca and others saw both Mexico and Cuba as potential refuges. She even wrote a report on the Jewish situation in Cuba for Louis Marshall, the renowned jurist who headed the American Jewish Committee at the time.

Later, traveling through Italy on holiday, she had an audience with the Pope arranged through Catholic friends of hers and was even afforded the privilege of viewing rare Hebrew manuscripts in the Vatican Library. Rebecca arrived in Jerusalem two days before Tisha B’Av that year. In Jerusalem, she toured the newly founded Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus, as well as other sites, meeting with leading figures including Dr. Judah Magnes, the university’s first chancellor.

Rebecca Affachiner in Hartford, Connecticut where she was a leader in the Jewish community for a number of years. From the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

Upon her return to the United States, she lectured on Palestine and was soon hired by Hadassah to organize new chapters. In the late 1920s, Rebecca saw the Zionist movement as a major opportunity for Jews to create the new Jewish homeland after centuries in the Diaspora. She also recognized the need to create a dependable healthcare system with Hadassah Hospital as its touchstone.

In 1929, she beat four male candidates and was elected a delegate to World Zionist Congress in Zurich. Though she lacked the funds to actually attend, Rebecca continued to be very involved in Zionist activities. The same year, she became director of social services for the long-established Jewish community of Norfolk, Virginia, and would go on to found one of America’s first Jewish Community Centers there. The move also made her one of few Jewish professionals to have a major impact on communities in both the North and the South.

Just before moving to the Land of Israel from Norfolk in January 1934, Rebecca was interviewed on an American radio show broadcast on Christmas Day. Speaking of her wish to be a pioneer in the Land of Israel, Rebecca stated:

“There is no reason why three racial groups of different traditions and cultures cannot live harmoniously as a unit under one government”.

Rebecca quickly became involved in life in Jerusalem, working with Dr. Henry Keller to help to establish the Alyn Hospital for Handicapped Children, and serving as its director of social services.

As the Holocaust approached, she traveled to Romania and other places in Eastern Europe, working to encourage immigration to the Land of Israel, while back in Jerusalem she organized activities and initiatives to help get underprivileged children off the streets, much as she had done back in the United States.

This notice appeared in the September 18, 1939 edition of The Palestine Post. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Although connected to Recha Frier and Henrietta Szold of the official Youth Aliya movement, Rebecca felt the movement involved too slow a process and too much paperwork. In 1939, she herself organized and paid the expenses to bring a group of 20 Romanian youth to Israel on one of the last boats fleeing Europe before the war.

During the Holocaust she assisted Szold absorb refugees, including the “Children of Tehran”, and after the war she became increasingly involved with the International Red Cross, as she developed an important import business as a means of supporting herself.

Despite warnings from the American government to flee for safety, Rebecca and others like her stayed during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

“I cannot abandon my sisters and brothers,” she reportedly told a local newspaper at the time.

“I have waited my entire lifetime to see the rebirth of a Jewish state. I do not intend to miss it.”

Upon hearing that David Ben-Gurion had declared the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, Rebecca sewed and flew the first flag in Jerusalem on that day – having colored the blue stripes and Star of David on a sheet with a blue crayon!

Historian David Geffen coined Rebecca “The Israeli Betsy Ross” in his essay on American Jews in Israel, which was published in the New Encyclopedia of Zionism and Israel.

For the last years of her life, she would fly the flag every Israeli Independence Day.

As Rebecca became increasingly unwell in 1966, her good friend and caregiver Ezra P. Gorodesky slept on a chair in her living room for one month before she moved to a nursing home, where she passed away.

Prior to her death, she entrusted the flag to Ezra, making him promise to take good care of it because “it was my personal way of welcoming Israel into existence.”

After she passed away, Ezra P. Gorodesky donated the personal papers of Rebecca Affachiner to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, now part of the National Library of Israel.  There is also a Rebecca Affachiner Collection as part of the National Library’s Archives Department.

In 2018, Ezra donated the flag Rebecca made in 1948 to the Ben-Gurion Archives at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Ezra P. Gorodesky passed away in 2020.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

The Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection has been reviewed and described thanks to the generous support of The Leir Foundation.

From Russian Villagers to Galilean Farmers: The Story of the Dubrovins

Yoav Dubrovin, a farmer from Russia, immigrated to Ottoman Palestine with his family in the early 20th century | The Dubrovins were among a group of Russian converts to Judaism who settled in the Land of Israel, in hopes of leading a Jewish life | Eighty years later, the family farm is now a museum and visitor’s center commemorating the lives of the area’s early pioneers

One day, towards the end of the 19th century, in a small village near the Russian city of Saratov, the following strange scene unfolded: a band of Cossacks was making its way towards the village, looking to raid the local families of Russian “Judaizers,” when suddenly they stopped dead in their tracks. Before them, they saw something unexpected – a procession of villagers, locals who were known as “Subbotniks,” were walking towards them, reverently singing verses from Psalms and led by an older man carrying a large Torah scroll.  The Cossacks, the most fearsome of Russian soldiers, were dumbfounded. Finally, the commander called on his men to retreat, and the band turned around and galloped away, leaving the Jews unharmed.

The story of how a group of Russian converts to Judaism managed to evade a Cossack attack, thanks to the intervention of the God of Israel, was retold for many years after. The Dubrovins, the family that led that procession, would settle in the Land of Israel in 1909, in Yesud HaMa’ala in the Hula Valley. They were led there by the family patriarch, Yoav (formerly Andrey) Dubrovin. A solemn and serious brood, the Dubrovins arrived on the land they had purchased bringing with them agricultural equipment as well as knowledge and expertise. They also brought  the very Torah scroll Yoav had carried during his legendary stand-off with the Cossaks, and which can be found to this day in the synagogue at Yesud HaMa’ala. Whether the legend is true or not, it has become part of the folklore surrounding the arrival of those Russian Jewish families in the Holy Land.

Yoav and Rachel Dubrovin. Photo courtesy of the Orni family

The Dubrovin family was one of the most prominent examples of Russian gerei tzedek (lit. “righteous converts” to Judaism) who immigrated to the settlements of the Galilee in the northern Land of Israel. These converts were in fact part of a diverse group of Russian-Christian peasants, who were drawn to Judaism and who began to observe various Jewish customs. Popularly referred to as “Subbotniks,” the origin of the term is the Russian word subbota, meaning “Sabbath”. The nickname was given to groups of Christians who began observing various Jewish commandments, chief among them – the marking of the Sabbath. However, most of these families of converts who arrived in the Land of Israel underwent a “reverse” process: They began by keeping certain Jewish commandments and observing various customs, and only after a period of gradual adoption of a Jewish way of life, to one degree or another, did they undergo a full halakhic conversion.


Subbotniks? No, Righteous Converts

Yoav Orni, the great grandson of Yoav Dubrovin (who is also named after him), says that his family’s immigration to the Land of Israel had been for purely religious reasons, though it coincided with the parallel activities of the Zionist movement and its emissaries, who were busy promoting Jewish immigration to Ottoman Palestine at the time. Yoav Dubrovin underwent religious conversion even before he immigrated, and during their final years in Russia, he and his family had lived as Jews. The process of conversion to Judaism was a complicated matter for all parties involved: the decision of a Russian Orthodox Christian to convert to the religion of the persecuted Jews was a difficult and courageous one. Meanwhile, the local Jews feared the wrath of the authorities, which could easily suspect them of proselytizing and respond with violence and harsh restrictions. This was one of the reasons that Subbotniks of all kinds, including righteous converts like the Dubrovin family, began to observe Jewish commandments even before they converted.

“Yitzhak, Yoav Dubrovin’s second son, was drafted into the Tsarist army. There was a grave fear that Yitzhak would not be able to keep kosher in the army. This was the last straw for Yoav Dubrovin, who decided to immigrate to the Land of Israel with his whole family to live a Jewish life,” says great-grandson Yoav Orni. Orni recounts how Yoav Dubrovin arrived at the military barracks where his son was serving, bribed the commander, took his son with him and continued on to the Land of Israel. “On the way, the Dubrovins met some Jews who had immigrated there and returned, warning them about the harsh conditions. In response, Yoav said to his family, “Forget these Jews, we are going to the Land of Israel and that is where we will build our home.” They were experienced farmers, with substantial resources, who arrived in the Holy Land to continue living a Jewish life at all costs.

Yoav Dubrovin on a return trip to Russia after emigrating, 1910. Dubrovin is seen wearing an Ottoman “Fez,” the height of local fashion of the day. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Tough Farmers on Their Way to the Land of Israel

The story of the Dubrovin family’s immigration was typical of their general attitude: they did not come seeking comfort or an easy life, they simply wished to build a safe home for themselves, and nothing was going to stand in the way of that goal. At that time, the days of the First Aliyah, Zionist immigrants and pioneers were finding it extremely difficult to cope with the harsh conditions in the country as well as the demands of an agricultural livelihood, not to mention the competition and occasional conflict with the local Arabs. “Most of them are incapable of being simple peasants, of hard physical labor and making do with little,” wrote Ahad Ha’am at the time about the people of the First Aliyah. Moshe Leib Lilienblum held similar views, pointing out that these immigrants did not possess sufficient knowledge of farming skills —plowing, sowing, tillage and so forth. The righteous converts who had arrived from Russia managed to fill this knowledge gap, and even if they had not come as part of the Zionist enterprise, their presence was a godsend for the early Zionist farmers. At first, the local Jews were suspicious and even acted condescendingly towards the former Christians, who sometimes prayed in Russian alongside Hebrew, and who had their own customs which initially set them apart in the Holy Land. Eventually, however, these differences blurred or gradually gained acceptance.

Dubrovin Farm. Photo: Tomer Hu

A few years after his arrival, Yoav Dubrovin went back to Russia for a visit, and returned with agricultural equipment that supplemented his already extensive farming knowledge. Unlike most of the people of the First Aliyah, Dubrovin was an experienced farmer, accustomed to hard work and scarcity. In 1909, after several years of farming in various settlements, Dubrovin purchased land near Yesud HaMa’ala (the land was offered to him free of charge at first, yet he refused to accept it as a gift) and established the Dubrovin farm, one of the best examples of local agriculture during this period. The estate is built in a European style, resembling a fortress; its buildings are built around an inner courtyard and connected to each other, creating a structural wall which provides protection from any outside invasion. Inside, the Dubrovins built one of the grandest and most prosperous farms in the Land of Israel at the time. On it, they raised bulls, cows, geese, horses and chickens while cultivating grain and wheat as well as other agricultural crops and fruit orchards. The extended family lived on the Dubrovin estate, alongside workers who joined the farm and lived in subsidized housing nearby.

Certificate of Honourable Mention awarded to the Dubrovin Family by the British Mandatory Government for chickpea cultivation. Courtesy of the Orni Family

Tragedy Strikes

Yoav Dubrovin, who was already 70 years old when he immigrated, was largely able to realize his dream. The estate he built was a model of local farming and was recognized by the local authorities for its achievements. Dubrovin himself lived to the ripe old age of 104, but many of his family succumbed to disease after immigrating. During this period, the last days of Ottoman rule in Palestine, most of the land’s inhabitants lived far from malaria-stricken areas, but the Zionist settlers and the gerei tzedek had no choice but to establish their settlements in less-desirable disease-ridden areas. Thus, in addition to their alienation from local Jewish-Hebrew society due to their religious roots, the righteous converts also had to struggle with health-related issues.

Malaria, transmitted by the Anopheles mosquitoes that multiplied in the Galilee swamps, devastated the Dubrovin family. Near their estate was a small swamp the malaria researchers in the area called “Dubrovin Swamp,” from where the mosquitos reached the family farm. The first to fall victim was Yoav’s son, Yaakov, followed by his eldest son Avraham. Three of Yoav Dubrovin’s grandchildren also fell ill and died at a young age. Dubrovin, who dealt courageously with this as well as with repeated attempts at theft and burglary on his farm, was finally forced to give up. Having no choice, he moved to nearby Rosh Pina, leaving his son Yitzhak to maintain the farm. Yoav Dubrovin and his wife were deeded a new plot of land and established another small farm. However, malaria struck again, killing Yoav’s youngest son Ephraim, his son’s wife and finally Yoav’s wife Rachel. Dubrovin finally died in 1935, at the age of 104.

Ezra Orni, great grandson of Yoav Dubrovin, next to Yoav Dubrovin’s grave in Rosh Pina. Levin Kipnis wrote the poem Rakefet (Cyclamen) about Ezra’s mother, Batsheva.


The Dubrovin family, like the other families of righteous converts who immigrated to the Land of Israel in the early 20th century, merged into the country’s Jewish society. Yitzhak Dubrovin, Yoav’s son who remained on the farm after his father left, continued living there well into the 1960s. He finally left as well in 1968 and bequeathed parts of the farm to the Jewish National Fund. Twenty years later, a special association dedicated to the farm’s restoration was established, along with a museum that recreated the Dubrovin family’s pioneer settlement living conditions and agricultural work. The buildings, orchard, furniture and agricultural equipment were restored and farm animals were brought in. The site has become the documentation and conservation center for the nearby Yesud HaMa’ala settlement. The visitor’s center, opened in1986, is considered one of the most developed and successful conservation sites in the country.

The Dubrovin Farm museum logo, showing the farm’s unique structure

The Circassians in Israel: From the Caucasus Mountains to the Galilee

A look at the heritage, ethos and culture of the Circassians or “Adyghe” - one of the most interesting and unique minority communities in Israel. Expelled from their homeland in the Caucasus Mountains in the 19th century, they settled in three villages in the Land of Israel, two of which survive to this day…


Israeli Circassian men wearing the traditional dress of the Caucasus warrior. The Circassian flag in the photo features three arrows surrounded by twelve stars

Every child raised in the Israeli school system is educated and brought up on the Israeli ethos, including its days of remembrance: Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day for Israel’s Fallen Soldiers, Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Daym, as well as other official days of remembrance and commemorative events. However, two high schools in Israel, Kadouri and Sasa, both in the northern Galilee region, mark yet another date:  the Circassian Day of Mourning, which commemorates the Circassian genocide and the exile of the Circassian people from their homeland. The reason these schools mark this day is that they serve the residents of the Circassian villages of Kfar Kama and Rehaniya, where the vast majority of the Circassian population in Israel lives. This is one of the most unique population groups in Israel, and despite its limited size, it occupies an important place in local and general history.


From the Caucasus Mountains to the North of the Holy Land: The Circassians as an Exiled People

The Circassians, or “Adyghe” as they call themselves in their language, are a people originating from the northwestern Caucasus, a region located east of the Black Sea, between Russia, Turkey and Iran. The Circassians lived in relative freedom in their homeland without establishing a “state”, and were generally divided into 12 separate tribes (although in practice there were apparently additional sub-groups as well). By the end of the 18th century, these people collectively saw themselves as “Adyghe” – Circassians. The Russian Empire attempted to conquer the region with the aim of annexing the Caucasus and settling other populations there. Circassian opposition to Russian colonization lasted for about a hundred years. These difficulties led the Russians to take extreme action, and in the final stages of the war (1860–1864), they burned hundreds of villages and engaged in ethnic cleansing, targeting the entire Circassian population. Most of the survivors were expelled from the Caucasus, and about a million of them found refuge in the territories of the Ottoman Empire, including the Land of Israel.

The Caucasus, homeland of the Circassians


Originally, there were three main Circassian settlements in the Land of Israel, of which two remain: Kfar Kama and Rehaniya; the third settlement, near the town of Hadera, was abandoned due to an outbreak of malaria. Throughout the 19th century, the region of the eastern Lower Galilee, where Kfar Kama was founded, was under the de facto control of Bedouin tribes. The Ottoman government tried to impose its rule over the region in various ways, settling Maghrebi migrants from Algiers there and sending Kurdish battalions to confront the Bedouin, but with little success. The arrival of the Circassians changed things and effectively paved the way for Jewish settlement in the area about twenty years later. The “Old Village” complex in Kfar Kama, founded in 1878, reflects the conditions in the Land of Israel at that time. In the Caucasus, the Circassian villages were built over large areas, with houses constructed close together, thereby creating a defensive wall around the village’s public spaces for reasons of security and defense.  Kfar Kama is one of the most impressive surviving examples of local construction from the late 19th century and early 20th century in the Land of Israel.

Wherever they went, the Circassians often brought modernization along with them. Besides the Galilee, they established 13 settlements in the central Golan Heights, while also settling across the Jordan River, where they established the modern city of Amman. They introduced advanced construction methods, metal and woodworking techniques, a mixed economy, and also incorporated European architectural styles, such as the famous “Marseille tiles” still visible in their villages. Kfar Kama became an important regional center in the late Ottoman and Mandatory periods. They built a modern mill in a central area of ​​the Old Village which became a meeting place for all of the area’s inhabitants—Arab peasants, Bedouins, Jews and the local Circassians. In the 1948 war, the Circassians chose to fight alongside the Jews, and ever since then they have fulfilled their compulsory service in the IDF.

Circassians in Kfar Kama, 1960s. Two of the men wear the “kalpak” hat, characteristic of the region of the Caucasus and Central Asia, and one wears a keffiyeh. From the Boris Carmi Archive, the Meitar Collection


The Circassians are a people and not a “sect,” as they are sometimes mistakenly referred to in Israel. They are a national minority community in Israel that maintains a robust relationship with kinfolk in Israel and abroad, as well as their desire to return to their homeland. At the same time, they are also Israeli and are completely integrated in all aspects of life in the country. While the Circassian population in Israel numbers only 5,000 people (out of several million in the Circassian diaspora), they are perhaps the most active Circassian group in terms of preserving their extensive heritage, as well as the memory of the genocide and expulsion from their homeland, which is commemorated on their Day of Mourning, May 21. Moreover, the Circassians in Israel work to preserve the Adyghe language.  Adyghe, which had been a spoken language only, became a written language in the 19th century (although the Circassians also had a well-developed and unique graphic marking system, which is now preserved mainly in various family symbols). The language has no less than 64 consonants and is taught in elementary and middle schools. Every Circassian child learns Hebrew, English, Adyghe and Arabic, and some also study Russian and Turkish. The schools in Kfar Kama and Rehaniya are the only ones in the world where the students are Muslim and the language of instruction is Hebrew.

Students in the elementary school in Kfar Kama on Circassian Flag Day. Photo: Chen Bram


The “Adyghe Xabze” and the Circassian Ethos

Most Circassians are Sunni Muslims. They adopted Islam at a relatively late stage, having previously been Christians, and pagans before that. Nevertheless, whether Muslims or Christians, Circassians have a single code of conduct, called Xabze, that guides the way they live. This is a set of laws, a code, which directs their daily behavior and wields great influence on their education and values. In addition, the Adyghe have their own mythology and folktales. Their epic Nart sagas are continually passed down, from generation to generation, telling the stories of various Caucasian folk heroes.

A Circassian from Kfar Kama in traditional dress, 1970s. The Boris Carmi Archive, the Meitar Collection


The word Adyghe means “person of virtue” and Adyghe Xabze refers to the traditional way a Circassian is expected to behave. Adherence to this way of life is very important, and those who do not respect the custom must bear the burden of hinap – “shame”. The Xabze code guides education, the rules of society and honor, marriage, ceremonies and daily conduct. Most Circassians prefer to marry among themselves in order to preserve their ethos. Besides their customs, the Circassians continue to preserve their traditional music and dance. The traditional clothing—chiefly the Circassian warrior’s coat, featuring special pockets across the breast for bullets – is worn mainly for the traditional Circassian dance.

A Circassian boy from Kfar Kama wearing a traditional Circassian warrior’s coat as well as a dagger on a belt around his waist, 1970s. The Boris Carmi Archive, the Meitar Collection


The Circassians have integrated into Israeli society in many ways. In the past, many continued to serve permanently in the security forces after their compulsory service. Many others work in all sectors of the economy, as researchers and scientists, educators and industrial workers. Many leave for a period to study, but most choose to return to live in their villages. The Circassians have also integrated into Israeli society in sports: Bibars Natkho, the captain of Israel’s national soccer team is a Circassian from Kfar Kama; his late cousin Nili Natkho, who was killed in a car accident, was a promising, young basketball player who led her teams, Maccabi Raanana and Elitzur Ramla, to the national championship and cup. The Circassian population in Israel stands out for its high percentage of recipients of higher education, and in recent years, a special curriculum has been developed specifically for Circassian schoolchildren.


Kfar Kama: An Extraordinary Landscape in Israel

In the early 20th century, with Jewish farms and colonies already established in the Galilee, the Jewish immigrants of the Second Aliyah came to an important realization: Jewish workers were not enough; there was also a need for Jewish guards and watchmen. However, regardless of the desire for Jewish independence in security affairs, there was a tradition that the Circassians of the Galilee held a central place in securing the Lower Galilee region. David Ben-Gurion, upon visiting the Jewish settlement of Sejera where the Bar-Giora Jewish defense organization (later Hashomer) was established, took note of the qualities of the neighboring Circassians from Kfar Kama, “resolute and gallant of spirit, excelling in bravery and courage,” and added the familiar Arabic saying: “Fish akhbar min cserkes” – “None are greater than the Circassian”. Eventually, the people of Hashomer established a Jewish defense in the Galilee, and even gained the respect of the Circassians, after proving their grit.

Traditional Circassian dance at the Kfar Kama Heritage Center. Photo: Shir Aharon Bram


Kfar Kama is built over the ruins of an ancient Byzantine village, and the mosque is built of basalt stones, in a style drawn from another period when Circassians lived in Israel—the Mamluk period. The Mamluks, military slaves in the Muslim Empire, at one point managed to make themselves rulers. The Mamluk Burji dynasty, which ruled Egypt for 132 years, was of Circassian origin. The most famous of the Mamluk rulers, however, was the Sultan known as Baibars, after whom the captain of the Israeli national soccer team, mentioned above, is named.

If you happen to visit the Old Village, pay attention to the details, to the construction of the houses, and most importantly, speak to the locals, who are known for their hospitality. It is also highly recommended to taste the delicacies of Circassian cuisine, especially the traditional Circassian cheeses and pastries which can be bought in the village. You can also visit Kfar Kama’s Circassian Heritage Center and museum, where you can learn more about how the Adyghe commemorate their history and preserve their culture.

Haluz, a traditional Circassian pastry, eaten on Eid al Fitr in Kfar Kama, from the kitchen of Lamaan Nash