If you walk around Kibbutz Lavi in Lower Galilee, chances are you'll run into a child, grandchild or great-grandchild of Henry and Lily Stern. One of the rare families whose grown children all live on the kibbutz where they were raised, the Sterns are part of the very landscape of Lavi. Fittingly, this year the kibbutz celebrates its 60th year concurrently with Henry and Lily's 60th wedding anniversary.
When Lily Susman met Henry Stern in her hometown of Liverpool, Henry had already suffered the loss of his parents and sister to the Nazis.
Born in 1924 in Stuttgart, Henry was sent to England in 1939 on a Kindertransport. His future was a question mark. "The main thing was to get out and hope that my family would meet up with me again," he said. Tragically, only his younger brother survived.
He was reunited with his brother in a small French village just after the war, while completing service in the British Army's Jewish Brigade helping concentration camp survivors. After the brigade was disbanded, Henry remained in the army as an interpreter for German prisoners of war billeted in Scotland.
Discharged at the end of 1947, he traveled to Liverpool to organize the Bnei Akiva Zionist youth movement. The group's office was on the same street where Lily, three years Henry's junior, was working for the local Zionist Federation. They met and married a year later in March 1949.
"My family was very Zionistic and the thought of hachshara [pioneer training] was always at back of my mind. But I doubt I would have done it if I hadn't met Henry," Lily reflected. Indeed, she is the only one of eight Susman siblings living here.
The newlyweds spent about a year at an English farm preparing for aliya under the auspices of the Bnei Akiva-affiliated Bachad movement.
The five-day ocean voyage from Marseilles to Haifa in late 1949 could hardly be described as romantic. On a ship with Jewish North African emigrants, displaced persons and vacationing Israelis, the Sterns were separated.
Lily shared a cabin with three Israeli women. Henry got a hammock in the hold. "I wanted to visit him, but as you opened door to the hold, the smell was unbelievable," recalled Lily.
Neither was their arrival spectacular. It was pouring in Haifa, rendering the ground too muddy to kiss, had they been so inclined. Henry's brother, already living in Israel, arranged hospitality for the couple with friends living in a one-room abode in Tel Aviv. "We slept on the floor of the kitchen with our feet in the sitting room," Lily said. "People always put up guests no matter how little they had."
In those days of severe austerity, a local barber asked Henry why he'd brought his wife from England. Didn't they have enough to eat there? "We were very disappointed in that attitude," Henry said.
Zionist movements were funneling immigrants to fledgling kibbutzim in desperate need of manpower. The Sterns spent nine months at Kibbutz Ein Hanatziv, where, in part due to the harsh conditions, they did not feel they could settle permanently.
"They thought we would never stay," said Henry. "To be perfectly honest, if you would have put a plane at our disposal after our first day there, we might have gone back to England."
Moving to Lavi in Lower Galilee did not improve their immediate situation.
"Now you see beautiful fields and gardens here," said Lily. "When we arrived, we were in wooden huts and tents. There was no running water, no electricity and no trees. In summer we were boiling hot and in winter we were up to our knees in mud."
And yet they stuck it out along with some 65 other hardy souls. "We understood it would be tough, but we came here to start a new life in the country and we knew it would take time," said Henry, who helped prepare the rocky soil for agriculture. They were sustained by those working outside the kibbutz.
Trained in England in precision engineering, Henry laid pipes and other infrastructure as the first cows and chickens began to arrive. Lily did a stint in the kitchen - not that there was much food to prepare on the primus stoves.
"A slice of fried eggplant was what we gave for lunch to men who were working hard," she recalled. Because she was pregnant, she also received a cube of margarine and a cup of milk. "We were really undernourished."
Nevertheless, firstborn Rafi weighed in at a hearty three kilograms on a stormy night in January 1951. The kibbutz physician arranged for the driver of Lavi's sole truck to take the Sterns to Scots Mission Hospital in Tiberias. Fearful of getting stuck on the flooding dirt paths, the driver waited on the paved street below the kibbutz.
"So my dear wife had to slide down the hill to the main road and arrived at the hospital quite a mess," said Henry. "They took her inside and I stood there in my muddy boots not knowing what to do. They sent me home on the same lorry we'd come on."
Rafi was born at half past three, his arrival lit by paraffin lamps due to a blackout. In the absence of telephones, Henry did not know what had happened until he came back later that morning by bus. The hospital's guard clapped him on the back and said, "Mazal tov, you have a son!"
Chanan followed in 1955, Ariella in 1958 and Danny in 1962. Because Lavi was one of the first kibbutzim to do away with the system of children's houses, only the two older boys slept away from home as babies. By the year of Ariella's arrival, they also had indoor plumbing.
Though the majority of Lavi's early residents spoke English, they decided to adopt Hebrew officially and to speak it to their children exclusively.
Life for most of the Stern clan revolves around Kibbutz Lavi, where the second generation - and many of the Sterns' 18 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren - all chose to settle. One strong pull, said the Sterns, is that Lavi spares no expense on the education of members' children.
Rafi has a doctorate from Hebrew University's college of agriculture and works at its research station in Kiryat Shmona. Danny, now CEO of the kibbutz, attended the same school and finished his master's degree at Tel Aviv University.
Chanan organizes sports activities at Kfar Tavor and teaches sports at Lavi. Ariella works at Lavi's hotel along with her mother.
While working with the architect for Lavi's synagogue, Henry discovered an affinity for the task and devoted the next 25 years to overseeing construction at Lavi. Today, he guides visiting German tourists and he is completing a historical time line for Lavi's 60th anniversary. Recently he sat for an interview with Yad Vashem, recording his testimony of the war years.
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"Whenever there's an emergency situation, everybody in the country is unbelievably helpful and cooperative," said Henry. "That always gave us a lot of strength and encouragement."
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