Another Tack: Elijah from the Taiga

The story of Lithuania’s Betar head, who founded the Prisoners of Zion group.

April 16, 2010 16:07
AN OLD photo of Yechezkel Pulerevitch in exile in

yechezkel pulerevitch 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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It was a short time before Israel’s 30th birthday. Again I found myself in the small, modest living room of Mr. and Mrs. Pulerevitch on Tel Aviv’s Ben-Yehuda Street. It was an old building and the rented apartment seemed suitably suffused with old-world ambiance. The metropolitan hustle, bustle and brashness were all left outside. Inside everything was genteel and unhurried. Another time, another dimension.

I had become a frequent family guest, was affectionately called Sarah’le and pampered more like a favorite daughter than a news-reporter. Originally I met Yechezkel at his workplace, the Tel Aviv municipality’s paymaster department. He had founded the Prisoners of Zion Association and among my beats was the then-climaxing aliya struggle in the then-extant USSR.

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The Pulerevitches are both long gone now. Yechezkel had the kindliest face and eyes that forever twinkled with a smile. His wife Ella filled another tea-glass nestled inside a dainty silver holder and pushed toward me more cookies in a china dish she rested on a crocheted doily. In his impeccably erudite Hebrew, laced with traces of Litvak intonation, Yechezkel inquired where my immediate family was on the very day Israel was born.

Sighing, he remarked that he can’t say for sure what he did on that pivotal 1948 day except that he spent it in forced labor as a logger in a Siberian prison camp in the subarctic taiga forests. But that’s also how he spent the other days of that period and he couldn’t tell them apart.

He had been at one camp or another since 1941. At the time of his arrest for the crime of Zionism he was the de facto head of Betar (the Revisionist youth movement) in Lithuania. That made him equal in status to Menachem Begin, Poland’s Betar head, who was likewise sent by the Soviets to the gulag. Begin, though, was released a year later, while Pulerevitch spent 17 years in camps and exile.

Yechezkel couldn’t specify when he learned of the Jewish state’s birth: “Prison and the taiga know no dates. Days aren’t individually distinguished and labeled. Time is marked only by the seasons of the year. But I did have my own Independence Day. For folks with calendars it was probably another date, but calendars weren’t part of my reality. The inner subjective reality of the inmate is deeper and more powerful than that of the outside world, and for me the day on which I discovered that a Jewish state had come to exist became my Independence Day.”

THE TAIGA snows had already begun melting, and a mysterious hermit, who lived nearby, entered the camp attired in bearskins and accompanied by dogs. He was a trapper, Pulerevitch explained, and was permitted to visit and nurse ill prisoners. “Some months earlier he restored me to life when I was at death’s door. We called him Robinson Crusoe and the unfamiliar name convinced the guards he was Jewish. They taunted him and the hermit retorted that he was pure Russian but that had he been Jewish, he’d now have a country of his own. When he last went to trade furs, he heard that the Jews declared independence. He added that he prefers not to go to Israel because it has no taiga and the Arabs invaded it.”

At the news, Pulerevitch recounted, “I let out a cry which nearly tore my chest.” Ella, herself exiled with their young son to a Siberian hamlet, soon confirmed the news when she wrote him they had a Mazal Tov coming as “Srulik (Yiddish diminutive for Yisrael) has come into the world.”

In the following months, Pulerevitch collected snippets of information and proceeded to piece from them a composite conceptualization of the war in Eretz Yisrael. “One day the wind blew in a torn bit of newspaper. It contained an account of a struggle to the last man by one of the Negev settlements. I hid the scrap of paper and reread it each night until I fell asleep, weeping and lamenting the fate that kept me from fighting for Israel.”

Surprisingly he had managed to construct an accurate enough picture of the situation, “apart from the fact that I never realized that seven Arab armies had attacked Israel.”

Ironically Pulerevitch found out about the Holocaust only after he had already heard of the establishment of the Jewish state. “One day Lithuanian prisoners were brought in, among them one from my home city of Kovno. Mockingly, but in graphic detail, he described his service in Nazi murder units that had shot Jews into open ditches. Ecstasy over Israel and boundless grief over the greatest of Jewish tragedies gripped me at one and the same time,” he recalled.

Only in the late 1950s did Pulerevitch and his family finally return to Kovno, but they were forbidden to stray beyond the city limits. They immediately applied to leave for Israel but were flatly turned down.

In 1964 Pulerevitch read that the Danish Prime Minister Jens Otto Krag, who was expected in Moscow, would be visiting Israel first. In a hastily dispatched letter to a relative in Tel Aviv Pulerevitch inserted a cryptic Hebrew message further obscured by Yiddish spelling. He instructed the relative, that should she not understand his text, “the boy from Brest-Litovsk” would translate it for her. That “boy” was Begin.

Begin indeed instantly got the point, met with Krag and urged him to bring up Pulerevitch’s case at the Kremlin. Next year the Soviets let the family go.

BY THAT time Pulerevitch’s only son, Shabi Maor, was a physician. His name is the Hebrew acronym for Shlomo Ben-Yosef, the first underground fighter executed by the British. While serving in the IDF, Shabi heard of a shortage of doctors in the navy. He volunteered for duty and became the submarine fleet’s medical officer. Shabi was on board the ill-fated Dakar when it went down in January 1968 – one month before his wedding.

Shabi’s portrait dominated the Pulerevitch front room. The bookshelf beneath it was laden with the many volumes of poetry and prose Yechezkel authored under the literary pseudonym of Avi-Shabi Maor (Shabi Maor’s father).

“The image of the old hermit, who declared Israel’s independence for me on my own special unrecorded date, will remain indelibly imprinted in my heart. He not only gave me back my life but he was also the harbinger of the happiest and most important tidings I was ever to receive in my life,” Pulerevitch summed up.

“In my mind’s eye I can still see him disappearing into the woods on his way back to his cabin. As he went, I stood there shouting: ‘Eliyahu Hanavi! Eliyahu Hanavi!’ It was my own private Independence Day and the hermit was my Prophet Elijah bringing me news of the redemption.”

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