The horrors of the Holocaust did not pass over the Jews of North Africa, but theirs is a story that is rarely told. This is the story of those who were called “schwarze Juden” (“black Jews”) by the Nazis. Some were sent to concentration camps erected in the desert, and others shipped off to Europe as prisoners of war…
A Jewish couple from Libya, survivors of Bergen Belsen, wearing yellow stars. From the book "Temunot Zikaron" (Pictures of Memory, Hebrew), the Or Shalom Center for Libyan Jewish Heritage
Today there is a growing understanding that it was not only the Jews of Europe who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, yet most people are still unaware of what happened to North African Jewry during the great catastrophe that befell the Jewish people during the Second World War
North African Jewry is not a monolith. Just as Algerian Jewry is different from Moroccan Jewry, the Jews of Libya are not the same as the Jews of Tunisia. The same is true of how each of these communities experienced the Holocaust.
There is no doubt that the North African Jewish community which most directly experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, and in the most brutal fashion, was the Libyan Jewish community. The Nazis, with the help of their allies the Italians, who controlled Libya from 1911 to 1943, conquered Libya from the British and established three concentration camps there. The largest and most well-known of these was Giado, and the others were Gharyan and Sidi Azaz. The Germans herded as many Jews as they could get their hands on into these camps, including women and children.
The Jews of the region of Cyrenaica, with its Mediterranean capital of Benghazi, made up the majority of Libyan Jews who were sent to the camps at this stage. Yet many Jews from the city of Tripoli, the capital of the Tripolitania region and of Libya itself, were also placed in the concentration camps established in the heart of the Sahara Desert.
This, however, was not enough for the Nazis.
They also took a large group of upper-class Libyan Jews and sent them to concentration camps in Europe, to ensure that they would eventually be murdered alongside their Ashkenazi brethren. These Jews were forced to take part in a grueling, lengthy trek that took them from the searing heat of the African continent to the freezing European cold – to camps such as Bergen-Belsen and Mauthausen.
Unfortunately, my family members were among the Jews placed in these camps, and some of them ultimately perished in the Holocaust. When I wrote the book Benghazi Bergen-Belsen (cover below), I traced the history of my family and their community in the Holocaust. For the three years I wrote the book, I actually lived in the terrible places they passed through in Africa and Europe. I clung to the mind of Silvana Haggiag, who despite her young age, was able to lead my family and the entire Libyan-Jewish community, despite unimaginable degrees of suffering.
The character of Silvana is, if you wish, the image of my grandmother, who survived Bergen-Belsen. She and many members of the Libyan Jewish community who managed to survive the camps in Europe, provided me with firsthand accounts of their experiences. Through them and others, I became aware of the murderous machine that took North African Jews from the heart of the Sahara Desert into Europe, not sufficing with simply murdering them in Libya. They did this since these Jews had British passports, which they took to Europe as prisoners of war. But the Nazis did not treat them as such, and they were taken in cargo ships to Italy, where they endured an unsettling and arduous journey to the concentration camps in Europe.
When I wrote the book, I did it not only for my own family or community but for the sake of humanity. I wanted to bring back into public discourse, that which has been erased, perhaps unknowingly, by Israeli history. To my joy, the novel I wrote about my family and what they experienced in the camps has helped the Holocaust of Libyan Jewry to enter into the Israeli collective consciousness.
But now I understand that along with the primary goal of writing this book, there was another purpose: my personal desire to reach a state where it would be easier for me to forget. I wanted to forget the Holocaust which my family and my people experienced, for a time. I didn’t want to allow the Holocaust to intervene in my day-to-day life, to influence my stance towards life – or my belief in the human race.
I wanted a break from the Holocaust, and I thought that if I wrote about it, I could meet the condition that might allow me to enjoy such a break. But it turned out this condition was necessary yet not sufficient. In order to take a break from the Holocaust, I had to avoid Israeli society, which is saturated with it.
The Holocaust is present everywhere in Israeli society, in every nook and cranny. The Holocaust is regularly used by everyone around us – leaders, politicians, media figures, and even ordinary citizens use it unnecessarily, bending it to their own needs, to the point that one day it will be flattened beyond recognition.
In our society, the Holocaust isn’t just above the surface. It can very often be found behind the scenes as well, guiding the behaviors of groups, communities, and individuals in a covert manner, to the point that it’s hard to even see its effects. There’s no break from it.
But what will become of us, those who don’t wish to live anywhere else, for whom Israel is the only place to be, and for whom Israeli life, with all its flaws, is the center of their world? Are we doomed to walk forever under the shadow of the Holocaust? Will we have to feel the ramifications of one of the most terrible events in the history of civilization so long as we live? Not necessarily.
This need not be. We must speak of the Holocaust sparingly, gently, with awe, turning our backs on those who make crude use of it for their own purposes. The moment that happens, the treatment of the Holocaust itself will change. Then will I also be able to put it aside, and take leave of my bloody family history. But until that day, I am doomed to live under the constant bombardment of those who speak in the name of the Holocaust, and I myself will continue to bleed.
Yavnieli and the Yemenite Aliyah
With the birth of the State of Israel, over 850,000 Jews were forced to leave the Arab and Islamic world. In Yemen, however, this was not the first time a mass immigration to Israel had taken place. More than three decades earlier, with the help of a young man named Shmuel Yavnieli, over 1,500 Yemenite Jews started their own journey to the Land of Israel, and embarked on a voyage largely untold…
Shmuel Yavnieli, the Israel Archive Network project, made accessible thanks to the Kvutzat Kinneret Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel
On November 30, we remember the mass departure and expulsion of Jews from numerous Arab and Islamic countries – the migration, in many cases forced, of literally hundreds of Jewish communities as they were harshly persecuted and left to flee in the mid-1900s. It is no secret that as antisemitism and discrimination towards Jews spread like wildfire across the Arab world, governments all the way from Morocco to Iraq adopted anti-Jewish measures, sometimes actively expelling Jewish citizens, most of whom eventually sought refuge in Israel.
One such country that contributed to the displacement of some of these Jewish Arabs was Yemen. Yemen actually had one of the oldest Jewish communities in the whole Arab world, with roots dating back thousands of years. On top of this, historically, the Jews of Yemen were successful as business-owners and respected members of the community, contributing to both economic and religious growth in the area. However, as the Arab persecution of Jews rose in the mid-20th century, anti-Jewish sentiment intensified in Yemen too, and Jewish life became increasingly precarious as their communities faced discriminatory measures, violence, and economic restrictions, peaking in the 1940s.
The unbearable situation for the Jews of Yemen eventually led to Operation Magic Carpet in 1949: a clandestine operation to airlift Yemenite Jews out of danger and bring them to Israel. This covert mission was widely seen as a success, and by its completion, over 50,000 Yemenite Jews were resettled in the new Jewish state.
But what many people do not know is that this was not the first time a mass emigration from Yemen to the Land of Israel took place, despite it being the most significant. The wave of Yemenite Aliyah that took place just a few decades earlier is in fact a largely untold story…
When the Zionist Organization was founded in 1897, they set out almost immediately to increase the rate of global immigration to the Land of Israel, then still part of the Ottoman Empire. However, despite their best efforts, there was a group of Jews who seemed untouchable: the rich and powerful Yemenites. Yemenite Jews, often jewelers, dealers of precious metals, and coffee merchants by trade, were overwhelmingly well-to-do. While of course not every Yemenite Jew was rich, it certainly seemed that the community had the economic resources to thrive in the Middle Eastern landscape. The Yemenite Jews tended to be religious and often highly mystical, prizing their kabbalistic knowledge, messianic beliefs, modest dress codes, and pious nature. It was also known that much of the community’s accumulated wealth was spent in Judaic pursuit. For example, in the city of Sana’a, where roughly 7,000 Jews resided, no less than 28 synagogues were built by the city’s Jews.
But as new waves of Aliyah were taking place from around the world, the Zionist Organization firmly believed that these Yemenite Jews with their wealth and talents should not be left behind. Their solution to this matter came in the form of one Shmuel Varshovsky (more commonly known as Shmuel Yavnieli). Yavnieli was a young Zionist living in Ottoman Palestine. In the early 20th-century, when the Zionist Organization unveiled plans to send an undercover agent into the depths of Yemenite society and promote a mass emigration, 29-year-old Yavnieli seemed like a good choice for the job: he spoke many languages, could vaguely pass as a Yemenite, and was an ardent Zionist willing to prove his worth.
Yavnieli’s first job was to grow out his sidelocks, as he would be immediately uncovered as an outsider if his haircut didn’t fit in with the common hairstyle of Yemenite Jewry. As a matter of fact, fitting in with Yemenite society was crucial to his plan, as he needed to integrate deep into their community before he could earn their trust and gain some influence. Of course, the sidelocks were not enough. He also purchased some traditional Yemenite items of clothing, including their unique style of tallit, which they wrapped around their shoulders and wore all day like a scarf. He also started practicing Yemenite greetings and local phrases and gestures, slowly improving his skillful imitation.
His final step was to collect some money from the Zionist Organization so that he would fit in with the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by the elite Yemenite Jews. But Yavnieli wasn’t done yet – he also decided to change his name.
Yemenite Judaism, as mentioned, was highly kabbalistic and messianic, and the Yemenite Jews held an integral belief that the Messiah would be ushered in by a messenger by the name of ‘Ben Yosef’ (Son of Joseph). This idea of a pre-messianic messenger is not found in most Ashkenazi or Sephardi teachings, but for the Yemenite Jews, the presence of Ben Yosef was a canonical event which would certainly occur before the Messiah could arrive. Thus, Yavnieli decided to change his last name to ‘Ben Yosef’ to give himself legitimacy when encouraging the Yemenite Jews to help usher in a new age and begin the messianic global return of Jews to the Land of Israel. His first name Shmuel had to be changed too, as it sounded far too Ashkenazi, and would have revealed him as an outsider within seconds. So, Yavnieli left Israel in November 1910 as ‘Eliezer Ben Yosef’, a man who looked and acted so Yemenite that truly no one would doubt his pedigree.
Yavnieli knew that he had to be subtle if he was to earn any influence in this new land, so the plan was for him to pose as a messenger of the great Rabbis of Israel, who had ostensibly sent him out to learn about Yemenite culture. To give this ruse legitimacy, he carried with him two letters of recommendation which could not be refuted: a letter from Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, a renowned Jewish religious leader who would later become the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Mandatory Palestine; and Jerusalemite Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel who would become the first Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel. This was a serious misunderstanding of Yemenite Jewry, which Yavnieli assumed would subscribe to one of the two mainstream branches of Judaism, and thus be impressed by at least one of these sponsors.
With the help of Rav Kook, Yavnieli had also composed a list of 26 questions which he would ask the local Yemenite Jews as part of his ‘research’ – questions such as “do you forbid marrying more than one wife?” or “do you practice Jewish custom in accordance with the Shulchan Aruch or the Rambam?” Such questions gave Yavnieli legitimacy as an agent of the two esteemed Rabbis, and also served as a tool to validate the authenticity of the Yemenites’ Judaism in the eyes of their co-religionists.
As Yavnieli arrived and settled into life in Yemen, he met two great influences, who would seriously help boost his social and political standing within this foreign community. The first was the heavily Zionist, and incredibly wealthy, Banin family. This aristocratic family already had close contact with the Jews in the Land of Israel, as they were major philanthropists of Zionist pursuits and had even donated enough money to build at least one large synagogue in Tel Aviv. With their support, Yavnieli’s life in Yemen was made considerably easier. His other vital contact was Rabbi Ishack Ben-Ishack Cohen – the leading Rabbi of the Aden Jewish community. “This man deserves to be written in the book of gold” he wrote of the great Rabbi, who immediately boosted Yavnieli’s esteem, and as we shall see, went on to help Yavnieli significantly with his mission.
Once Yavnieli, with the help of these valuable contacts, had earned both the trust and respect of the Yemenite Jews, he was finally able to start working on his real goal, which was of course initiating a new wave of Aliyah – Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel.
This process began with a pamphlet, which he wrote and published during his stay in Aden. The pamphlet opened with a description of pre-state Israel, then still known as Ottoman Palestine, promising that it was a progressive and successful country with wonderful doctors, an above-average schooling system, where there were lots of games, sports and leisure activities to participate in. He continued to promote this idealistic vision of a land in which everyone spoke the language of the biblical forefathers, and no other nations would interfere in Jewish matters. Instead of a sultan, the Jews were described as the leaders of their own society!
Yavnieli’s pamphlet explained that there were many Jewish landowners and farmers who needed help managing their businesses. The idea was not for the Yemenite Jews to become laborers, but instead to help with the financial and business initiatives of the existing farmers and factory owners. The pamphlet proclaimed that any Jew who truly loves Zion, is of workable age and ability, and has the funds to do so, should immigrate to the Land of Israel. Yavnieli’s pamphlet promised that if they were to do so, their needs would be entirely taken care of once they arrived, and they would also be assured of life-long employment. To appeal to their religious instincts, Yavnieli concluded with quotes from the Bible to persuade the Yemenite Jews that the time had come for an ingathering of the exiles and a messianic rebirth of a Jewish sovereign nation. He strongly encouraged the Yemenite Jews to be part of this redemption story.
The pamphlet had its desired effect.
Soon, Yavnieli had rebranded himself as an ‘immigration officer’ and started to manage the emigration of Jews from Yemen to Israel. Yavnieli began traveling from city to city, stopping wherever he found a Jewish community, now preceded by his well-known reputation. He would come with a glowing recommendation from Rabbi Ishack Ben-Ishack Cohen and, using his recently affirmed high status, he would seek out an influential person in each community to help deliver his pamphlet and recruit potential Aliyah pioneers. The Yemenite Jews were a receptive crowd. Yavnieli described them as having a collective “awakening” to the call of Israel, and soon he had queues of Jews waiting to sign up and board boats headed for the promised land.
Rabbi Ishack helped immensely with this newfound demand, and the two men got to work compiling lists of potential immigrants. Once they had gathered enough people to fill a boat, they would send a letter containing the identities of the Yemenite Jews to Dr Arthur Ruppin, the director of the Palestine Office of the Zionist Organization, to arrange their papers. These lists can actually still be found in the Zionist Archives, and to this day they are helping Yemenite Jews discover their heritage.
But this wave of Aliyah was not turning out to be what Yavnieli and the Zionist Organization had expected. While their initial goal was to bring the able, working-age men to the Land of Israel, Yemenite culture places a strong importance on family values, and none of the Yemenite husbands would leave their wives, children, or parents behind. Instead of the desired wealthy young men, the boats were quickly filling up with grandparents, children, aunties and uncles! So many families arrived at Yavnieli’s make-shift emigration centers that he had to persuade most of the families to wait until the next Jewish holiday before they made their move! Hence it came to pass that during the Sukkot festival of 1911, roughly 1,500 Yemenite Jews set sail for Ottoman Palestine.
There was lots of enthusiasm for this mass-departure. In fact, Yavnieli documents a story of a family who were so eager to move that they tried to sell their house to raise the funds to travel. When they couldn’t sell their home in time, they dismantled the house instead, and sold the individual planks of wood, in order to get the quick cash that they needed to board the next Aliyah ship.
But wealth remained a dividing factor in this process, despite the fact that the excluded poorer Yemenite families were keen to join in the exodus, too. Yavnieli did not want to leave even a single willing Jew behind. Instead, he sent long letters of appeal to Dr. Ruppin, and Rabbi Binyamin Feldman, the Secretary of the Palestine Office of the Zionist Organization. He encouraged them to find funding to bring over the disadvantaged families, stating that they could do farm work and manual labor upon their arrival, which was sorely needed during those years. With funding secured, extra boats were chartered from the Ostrich Shipping Company in order to bring even more Yemenite Jews to the Land of Israel. Rabbi Ishack helped verify which families would need reduced ticket fares and sent lists to Dr. Ruppin of families who would be taking the subsidized chartered shipping boats to Israel.
Yavnieli stayed in Yemen, helping hundreds of Jewish families make the move, until the outbreak of World War II. When he finally left to return home, he departed as a true hero.
Just a few years later, the tide turned in Yemen, and the remaining Jews found themselves fighting against a discriminatory and corrupt government armed with antisemitic rhetoric and bigoted rulings. As the country began to rally in earnest against the Jews, and almost all of the Arab world followed suit, most of the remaining Yemenite Jews were forced to await rescue in the form of Operation Magic Carpet, 35 years after the end of Yavnieli’s efforts.
But as Yavnieli watched the tragedy of the expulsion of Jews from Yemen and the surrounding Arab lands, which we commemorate annually on November 30, he could at least clear his conscience, knowing that he single-handedly brought about an entire wave of Yemenite Aliyah.
The Be’eri Printing Press: Israel’s Print Shop
For over seventy years, Be'eri Printers – Kibbutz Be'eri's famous printing press - has touched the lives of all of us in Israel. On October 7, many dozens of Be'eri's sons and daughters were murdered. Despite this disaster, the printing press was back in operation less than ten days later. This is the story of a pioneering project that has risen from the ashes, like a phoenix.
Lazar Zorea taking a moment to rest while working at his lead printing machine at Be'eri Printers in the 1960s. Source: 'Lines and Dots' (Kavim VeNekudot) Blog (Hebrew), Yigal Zorea (Lazar’s son)
When Levi Zrodinski (Zorea) made Aliyah to the Land of Israel from Ukraine in 1925, he could not have imagined that his vision and initiative would be realized in a kibbutz in the Negev. He couldn’t have foreseen how this small kibbutz would become a printing giant in Israel over time, turning into one of the most advanced print shops in the world.
Levi, an enthusiastic Zionist, entrepreneur and industrialist, settled in the city of Haifa and established a successful print shop there. His idealistic and daring 18-year-old son, Lazar Zorea, was one of the group of pioneers who founded Kibbutz Be’eri.
In a clandestine operation immediately following Yom Kippur, October 6, 1946, Lazar Zorea and his pioneering friends settled 11 new locations overnight. These settlements, which included Kibbutz Be’eri, have since been called the “11 points”, and were highly significant in strengthening the Jewish population of the Negev.
The members of the young kibbutz sought after a stable source of revenue which would provide economic security for a small community located right on Israel’s border with Gaza. Zorea, who had witnessed the success of his father’s print shop, worked with three other members to found the first print shop in the Negev desert. The idea of a print shop was very unconventional in the kibbutz movement, but Lazar and his friends insisted and the project finally came into being after many talks between the kibbutz members. Zorea’s experienced father aided and encouraged them and the same was true of the Jewish Agency. Both worked to ensure the enterprise flourished.
Yigal Zorea, Lazar’s son, tells of how it all started, from almost nothing: “The press was in the beginning no more than an abandoned stone house with one letterpress machine, a compositor whose lead letters were bought at a discount, and a modest binding machine. They printed a few simple forms and some documents of the new state institutions in the beginning.”
Yigal tells of how, as a youth in Kibbutz Be’eri, he had a job arranging the lead letters at the print shop, before moving to work in the orchard which was considered more “prestigious.” After his military service, he continued the family tradition, and after learning graphic design at Betzalel Academy he became a part of Be’eri Press, where he worked for 50 years, leading the transition from manual to computer design as a senior designer.
Over the years, members of Be’eri never stopped inventing and developing new innovations, new ideas and ways to improve and increase the range of services which the print shop provided any business, company, or organization in need of its services. Thus, the print shop grew and grew, until it moved to a permanent structure which also changed and increased in size when needed. Over time, Be’eri Printers provided a livelihood for more and more residents throughout the Gaza border region.
But the importance of Be’eri Printers stretched far beyond this southern region of Israel. Over time, the company became Israel’s printing press. Its knowledge and technology enabled processes of economic modernization necessary for the growing country – the move from the Lira to the Shekel, the introduction of magnetic checks used by all banks, and more.
You may not be aware of it, but Be’eri Printers is an integral, daily part of the lives of all Israeli citizens and everyone living in the country: all credit cards and driver’s licenses are printed there. The same is true of all the envelopes sent to you by the banks and official state institutions. In fact, it is at Be’eri Printers that the ma’atafit – the letter printed on the envelope itself – was invented. This innovation has saved enormous amounts of paper over time.
On the Black Sabbath of October 7, 2023, Kibbutz Be’eri suffered unspeakable losses. At least 91 of its members were slaughtered. That number is not final. Heroic battles took place among the pathways, and many areas in the beautiful kibbutz were entirely destroyed. Miraculously or thanks to good luck, the print shop structure was unharmed.
Despite the heavy mourning over the murdered kibbutz members, which has not ended, and despite the fact that there are still members missing and held in Gaza, the surviving kibbutz members decided to renew operations at the printing press as fast as possible, rather than give up on the illustrious project they created and cultivated for decades. Ben Suchman, CEO of Be’eri Printers in recent years, along with other kibbutz members, did not let the shocking news and difficult situation drag them into despair. Ten days after the massacre at their kibbutz, they declared – “Be’eri Printers is open,” and they intend to bring the print shop to full capacity.
Yigal and his family were among those extracted from Kibbutz Be’eri and they are currently residing at Kibbutz Ein Gedi, which is hosting many of those remaining from the Be’eri community. In a conversation with him, he shifts constantly between past and present. Every name and every event from the past of Be’eri Printers is tied to the disaster which befell the impressive, creative, and cohesive kibbutz community.
We all hope that Be’eri Printers, which is already up and running, can once again embody the pioneering spirit at the heart of the dear community of Be’eri. This enterprise can be the vanguard of efforts to rebuild all of the kibbutzim, towns and cities of the Gaza border region. They will rise, like a phoenix, from the ashes.
Women on the Homefront in 1973: How the Kibbutzim Coped With War
When the Yom Kippur War broke out, the women of Kibbutz Beit Alfa mobilized to protect the delicate fabric of community life, something that happened across Israel. They were determined and resourceful, despite the uncertainty and anxiety: “All we thought about was how we’d survive the next day.”
Children gather in a kibbutz bomb shelter to protect them against shelling during the Yom Kippur War. Photo: IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel
Rachel (“Rochaleh”) Peled, a member of Kibbutz Beit Alfa, remembers the months of Autumn 1973 well. At the time, she was studying education at the Kibbutzim College of Education, Technology and the Arts (Seminar HaKibbutzim) while simultaneously working in the kibbutz children’s home. “That Yom Kippur, I came to Beit Alfa and was assigned to work in the kindergarten. I would come on Saturday mornings, wake the children up, and then they’d go to their parents to eat, etc. I went to rest around four in the afternoon. Someone who lived nearby woke me up. She was very stressed. We listened to the radio and heard that war had broken out. No one knew what had happened; it was incomprehensible and frightening. Afterwards, I discovered that some of the pilots had already been called up. On the radio, there were codes for each army unit, and based on those codes, people knew they needed to report for duty.”
“When I returned to Tel Aviv, there were no buses. They used to finish running at 8 pm, because there were hardly any drivers and people weren’t going out. It was a depressing atmosphere,” Rachel says. Her classes were also canceled. In fact, she didn’t return to school until Hanukkah. “We had a biology teacher that we saw maybe three times the entire year.”
Due to the situation, Rachel spent most of her time on the kibbutz, where she was needed. “My mother, Chaikeh, underwent surgery in Afula during the war, so in between, I was with her in the hospital. The entire hospital was full of injured soldiers. There were several bomb shelters on the kibbutz, trenches, and the corridor of the dining hall that also served as a shelter,” she says.
The women remained behind in the half-empty kibbutz. “We didn’t know our left from our right, and we were surrounded by a sense of chaos and confusion.” Most of the kibbutz’s young people were enlisted. Those that remained were older men past the age of military service and women, who accepted this new order and created a new reality that sought to maintain routine for the sake of the children and for the sake of the kibbutz. Their strong friendship, familiarity and shared destiny helped them support each other and survive the difficult period together. “We would sit on the grass in the evenings, to feel a sense of togetherness. We didn’t know the extent of the disaster or what had happened. To this day, I have a good friend, Shula Reshef, who I met and became friends with during those meetups on the grass.”
Given all the uncertainty, those meetings and conversations among the women provided them with strength and support, and they tried to pass this sense of security on to the next generation. “We tried to maintain some routine for the children. In the afternoon, they’d go to their mothers, and then they’d return to sleep in the children’s home,” Rachel says. “I stayed to work in the kindergarten. In Gan Kalanit (“anemone garden,” the name of the kindergarten), there was a basement under the building, a sort of shelter, but in general, there were hardly any air-raid sirens.” The caregivers made sure to sleep with the children in the children’s home, everyone in turn. “Most nights I slept in the kindergarten, on a fold-up bed with a mattress inside the showers. Even though the children didn’t understand what was happening and there was tension in the air, they never cried and were never hysterical.”
Everyone’s main challenge revolved around the lack of communication with the kibbutz members who were fighting the war. 50 years ago, television sets were a rare commodity in Israel, though one could usually be found in the kibbutz dining hall. There was no real communication with the soldiers at the front. “The children were tense because we didn’t have a television. No one understood what was happening. We were all in a panic. Despite this, we functioned at full capacity because we had no choice.” One of the things that stands out most prominently in Rachel’s memory is the time she spent answering the phone. “If anyone called the phone at the kibbutz, we’d pass on a message through the children. We had a call center that we manned with women who worked shifts.” The phone shifts, which were set 24/7, were another role the women took on, in addition to manning the other kibbutz enterprises and replacing the men in their regular jobs.
Rachel remembers how the young children would cope with their parents’ absence. “In the children’s home, there was a doll corner with a toy phone. One child would take the phone and “speak” to his father who was on the front lines. ‘Hello, Dad? How are you? I’m ok…’”
For lack of any other option, the women of the kibbutz also took on the roles that the kibbutz men who were called up to serve generally filled. “We worked the chicken coop, the fields, and all the other jobs. The bigger children who were already in eleventh or twelfth grade and the adults who weren’t called up helped a great deal in the fields with the tractors.”
The war continued into the Sukkot holiday, and the women of the kibbutz were debating how they’d mark the holiday while their loved ones were in danger. “We didn’t celebrate the holiday, of course, but I remember that it was important to everyone to be together and give the people strength and power. There were many women and children, and we needed to prepare food. I didn’t know how to cook a thing, I had never been in a kitchen before, but they asked me to be in charge of the special dinners. They gave me some quick instructions on how to cook rice in an enormous pot and how to cook chicken. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I did what was needed.”
Similar to what was done in the other kibbutzim, Beit Alfa, a kibbutz established by the Hashomer Hatzair movement at the foot of Mt. Gilboa, took in “refugees” from other kibbutzim that were closer to the more dangerous areas. Mothers, women, and children arrived from Kibbutz Snir, which sat at the foot of the Golan Heights to the north.
Tamar Paz, another kibbutz member who had worked many years as Beit Alfa’s accountant, was 33 years old when the war started. She was a mother to children aged six, four, and two. “My husband was from Kibbutz Ashdot Yaakov. After we got married, we lived in Beit Alfa, where he was the kibbutz janitor.” When her husband was called up to fight, Tamar stepped up to help run life on the kibbutz. “I continued working and in addition, took on the phone shifts. There were only 4-5 phones on the kibbutz but there was a phone room in the accounting office, and we took shifts. If the shift was at night, I’d sleep there so I’d be able to answer every phone call.”
A large bulletin board had the names of all the kibbutz members and the dates when they were on the frontlines, along with other relevant dates. “Every time we got a phone call or letter, people would write it down on the board so we could track everything.” Tamar managed her daily life while in constant fear. “I didn’t want to believe my husband was not going to return, even though I was afraid. I tried not to think about anything at all. I was exhausted at night.” Tamar got a sign of life from her husband thanks to her shift work. “One night, when I was sleeping in the phone room, I got a phone call. They asked to speak to the wife of Yehuda Paz and sent me warm wishes from my husband. I was very emotional.”
The women on the kibbutz found themselves in double, and sometimes triple, roles. They continued working their regular jobs, in addition to the extra jobs they took on in the absence of the kibbutz men, all while functioning as single parents to their children. “My son was excited that I was suddenly the one putting him to bed instead of his father. The children’s homes continued operating as usual. As it was, at the time, we didn’t have the option of living as a family in our apartment. We had tiny single room houses. Other mothers were doing shifts in the children’s homes. They were responsible for bringing the children to the shelters when there were air-raid sirens.” Tamar and the other women from the kibbutz oscillated between hope and anxiety. “I tried to live in a bubble, not to show my children that there was anything unusual. They were so small.”
They functioned amidst uncertainty and great chaos. “After four weeks, my husband returned for two or three days. I remember the day he returned; suddenly without warning and without anyone saying anything – the door opened and there he stood. When my husband came to visit us, he bought us a television from the city of Afula, and all the kibbutz children would come to our house instead of the dining hall. After that, he went back to the army and we continued working as usual, including the phone shifts at night. It was tiring, of course, but we didn’t complain. All day, we just thought about the next day, not the distant future. We thought about how we’d survive the next day.”
Yael (Yaelik) Halperin was 23 years old with a baby during the war. Her husband was not called up and he worked the fields to replace those who were. She was the coordinator of the women’s shifts on the kibbutz. “The atmosphere was tough, one of anxiety and distress. On the third day, a Syrian plane appeared and dropped a bomb that caused a fire to break out in the fields. I was terribly frightened, until I was able to make certain my husband was fine and unharmed.”
The women who remained on their own hurried to organize themselves in order to allow routine life to continue on the kibbutz, as much as possible. Yael explains, “There were some who did jobs that they weren’t used to. For example, if someone used to knit sweaters, that was a job that could be dismissed during this period, and she was moved over to the children’s home or the chicken coop or the cowshed, somewhere in need of more working hands. There was a great spirit of volunteerism in order to fill the places of those who were missing.” Yael still remembers the trauma that her friend Edna Bashan, a teacher in the children’s home, experienced when her husband Yehuda Bashan was taken captive. “She spent a lot of time in my house, and we tried to make sure families like hers and families who hadn’t heard from their loved ones were surrounded [with support].”
The nephew of Michal Lans, who currently acts as the director of the kibbutz archives, fell in battle during the war. At the time, she was a teacher in the children’s home along with Edna Bashan. “The casualties and the captive from the kibbutz, those things were very traumatic of course. I was a teacher in the school. We were tense. When Yehuda Bashan was taken captive, his wife was teaching at the same school as me, and it was really difficult. We tried to continue the lessons despite the difficulty. I remember that a month later, we received word that Yehuda was returning from captivity, and the kibbutz erupted in joy. Everyone ran out to the grass and jumped up and down.”
None of the kibbutz women who were interviewed for this article, including those who lost loved ones or had to deal with the absence of the men and raising the children alone, thought twice before taking part in the joint efforts. Even today, they pause a moment to think, and then agree unanimously that there was no way they could have stopped working and taking care of their shared enterprises. Kibbutz families who suffered loss during the war praise the sense of support and shared fate that characterizes the atmosphere of a kibbutz. Perhaps it also had something to do with the historical period, when there was less emphasis on the individual.
“When I think about it, what could I have done? Working protected me,” Edna says. Rachel, Yael, and Tamar agree with this feeling, and Tamar adds, “We did what was needed. There was never any thought about ‘I won’t, and she will’.” And as Yael summarizes, “Routine provides strength.”