The Goldner family: My grandparents' odyssey to the Holy Land

How my saba and savta, Tzvi Goldner and Loti Goldner (née Rudich), arrived in Israel after a turbulent journey aboard the 'Knesset Israel,' prior to Israel's creation

Tzvi and Loti Goldner 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Goldner family)
Tzvi and Loti Goldner 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Goldner family)

Remembrance Day and the swiftly ensuing Independence Day provide time to reflect – on those who fell for the state of Israel, those who built the country, the purpose behind the nation's creation and the ongoing battle for its existence. As time passes, the original pioneers who landed in Israel full of hope and built up the land with their bare hands, are becoming a dwindling minority. It is therefore increasingly pressing to record their stories, to remember why they came, what Israel was to them 65 years ago and what it promised, what it is now, and what we would like it to become.

My saba and savta (grandfather and grandmother) Tzvi Goldner and Loti Goldner (née Rudich) were born in different towns in Romania, but an era of persecution of Jews throughout eastern Europe during World War II led them both to embark on the same Zionistic voyage to the Land of Israel, then Mandatory Palestine under the British administration.

Meet Loti Goldner

Savta grew up in Buzău, where she lived until the age of 12. Anti-Semitic groups were making life increasingly difficult for Jews in the town, and for her family the tip of the iceberg was when her older brother was jailed for several months because of his involvement in the Zionist movement Hashomer Hatzair (the Youth Guard). As soon as her older brother was released, Savta's father decided that the family must move to a place with more Jews. Thus they moved to Galati.

Meet Tzvi Goldner

Meanwhile, my saba spent the first 16 years of his life in Bivolari, until his family was sent to Iasi along with many other Jews as part of an effort to concentrate the Jews in major cities.

But Iasi was the location of one of the most brutal pogroms in Jewish history, one that my saba by a miracle and quick-thinking survived, while an estimated 20,000 Jews were murdered. And so his family picked up once again, this time landing in Bucharest.
My grandparents both attended Hashomer Hatzair from a young age, and in fact this was what brought about their meeting and subsequent aliya together.
My savta explains that after World War II Jews began to come together in Zionist movements of this kind. "After the war it became clear that we would come to Israel," she says, adding that most but not all Jews were of the same mindset. My saba and savta were amongst the lucky ones - half of Romania's Jews perished during the Holocaust.
Preparations began for aliyah, and representatives traveled to Romania to help the hopeful olim (new immigrants) train. Israeli parachutists landed in Eastern Europe in order to assist Jews in Hungary, Romania and other countries. My saba's cousin Abba Berdichev – who had moved to Israel before the war - was one of these, but he was captured and executed by the Nazis in 1945.
My grandparents first met at a training camp in Iasi where they learned how to work the land as a means to earning a living. By now my saba was 19 and my savta 16. I want to know if their love story began there, but I'm disappointed. "Didn’t you even think Savta was a haticha (babe)?" I prod. But my grandfather laughs, replying "She wasn't! She was fat back then!"
I turn to my grandmother, keen to know if she had felt any sparks at that point, but she too dismisses the idea though she is kinder in reference to my grandfather's appearance, describing him as "beseder gamur," (quite alright.)
It transpires that this is the source of a historic but good-natured dispute between the couple and my grandfather fancies that his wife of 65 years had already set her sights on him at sweet 16.
While romance may not have been in the air yet, a relationship of sorts began to develop between the two; my grandmother, who was working in the kitchen, served mamaliga (porridge) to my grandfather, who was suffering from a stomach illness and required a special diet.
My grandparents were in a group of 30 youths from their movement who experienced the entire journey together. They slogged to Yugoslavia and gathered at a camp belonging to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee together with other Romanians and Hungarians. The Americans had left many food packages from the war and so the group took these for provisions for later use on the boat. My grandmother recalls that this was the first time she came across chewing gum.
My grandparents embarked the ship on November 6, 1946, without any other members of their immediate family; they didn’t know when they would see their parents and siblings again, if ever.
My grandfather tells me that it was extremely hard to part from his family and that he found it difficult to get used to the group. He admits that he felt superior to them in terms of education and thus felt lonely. He didn't believe that he would see his family again (they were eventually reunited in Israel).
My grandmother says she was excited, but reluctant to go without a good friend of hers. But her older brother Arieh, a youth leader, told her that if she didn’t go when she got the chance he didn't know when the opportunity would arise again.
The group was in Zagreb, then in Yugoslavia, for a month. My grandmother recalls that she arrived with three pairs of shoes but saw that some people didn't have any, so she quickly gave her spare pairs away.
The plan was to sail to Israel on two boats: one large boat called the Knesset Israel which carried 3,845 people, including Jews who had come straight from concentration camps as well as the elderly; the smaller boat was for 500 fit and healthy passengers. My grandparents volunteered to travel on the small boat, which was named after my saba's late cousin Abba Berdichev. However, it did not get far.
They embarked at Split, Yugoslavia, but already on the first day their boat hit a rock. The entire group was on the bottom level of the two-level boat engrossed in a conversation about a book, my grandmother tells me. "And who was telling them about the book?" my grandfather interjects. "I was… you see, I told you I was educationally superior," he says by way of illustration. Absorbed in the discussion, the group didn't notice any kind of bump, but then water started seeping into the ship.
Their leaders tied the boat to a large rock and local fisherman threw them ropes which they used to reach the shore. They were still in Yugoslavia. The locals took them to a school and brought them round bread and drinks. The fishermen then ferried them on their boats to the Knesset Israel. My savta remembers that there were huge waves and they had to wait for a wave high enough to carry them up to the level of the larger boat, where they were helped onto the deck and rewarded with some sort of alcoholic beverage.
And so 4,345 people were now crammed into the boat. Everybody had their own spot and they could only sit down or lie down. If they wanted to stand, they had to go on deck.
The 500 who had fleetingly been on the smaller boat were taught how to fight the Brits if needed when they arrived in Israel.
It is unclear exactly how long the journey lasted; my saba remembers it being just over a month, but other accounts say it took several months. Saba said he was seasick and didn't eat for three weeks. Many others also suffered, throwing up on one another. They would go onto the deck to get some air but British airplanes followed them much of the way, and as soon as they saw a plane they were instructed to go back down immediately so as to hide the nature of the cargo. My savta had a younger cousin on the boat with her who she was responsible for and slept next to.
As they approached the shores of Haifa, the Brits stopped the boat and it became clear that they would not allow them to disembark there. The Knesset Israel passengers carried all the boxes of preserves they had onto the deck, and when the Brits placed planks between their boats, the Jewish pioneers threw the preserves at them. Meanwhile, the Brits were hurling tear gas.
There were a group of partisans on the ship who my saba described as "hooligans", who battled it out with the Brits while others tried to negotiate. They said they wouldn't leave the ship until they allowed the pregnant women, the sick and the children to disembark. Two pioneers and one British soldier were killed in the clashes and dozens were injured on both sides.
The British overcame the passengers and moved them onto their own ships, but the prospective Israelis did not give up, and staged a three-day hunger strike. My grandmother remembers that the Brits placed bowls of rice and other food near the toilets to try to tempt them to eat. One unfortunate girl succumbed to temptation only to have the entire bowl hurled in her face by my indignant grandmother who caught her in the act.
But despite their endless determination, the British had their way and took all the passengers –aside from a handful of sick people and mother with babies - to Cyprus, where they lived for a year before being allowed into Israel.
To my grandmother's joy, when they arrived in Cyprus her brother Bimbo was among the crowd of Jews already on the island who had come to greet the newcomers. She was taken to live in the same camp as her brother, where they lived in tents and had showers with wooden partitions.
The British had stations from which they monitored the camps to ensure that nobody ran away. They weren't allowed to enter the camps and the Jews weren't allowed to leave. Savta tells me that camp inhabitants used to taunt the Brits, calling out to them "Jonny, Jonny!"
My saba, who knew Hebrew because he went to a Jewish school and was brought up in a religious family, began teaching the language along with others who also had a command of the language.
A month before they left Cyprus, the Jewish camp dwellers heard that two new boats had arrived, but the passengers had been taken to another camp. No one knew who had arrived, and whether any loved ones or familiar faces would be there. But when a messenger came around with the list of names, my savta did not even need to read the words on the page – the handwriting was her father's. He had arrived with her mother and older brother, but the British wouldn’t let her into their camp to see them, and they didn't meet again until they reached Israel.
As a British citizen myself, I listen to my grandparents' anecdotes with a strange mixture of emotions. I wonder how they felt when my mother married a Brit and moved to the country of the very people who had repressed them. But my mother tells me that her parents were very level-headed about the matter, noting that in the grand scheme of things, the British hadn't treated them all that badly.
My grandparents and their group were eventually allowed into Israel, and were sent to yet another British-controlled camp in Atlit. They stayed there for a month before making their way to Kibbutz Ruchama, where they lived when the War of Independence broke out.
During the war my grandmother managed the kitchen at the large military base in Ruchama, feeding sometimes as many as a thousand hungry soldiers. My grandfather meanwhile guarded the kibbutz. Ruchama is the place where my grandparents finally became a couple. "It became obvious by then," they tell me, adding that they were not so coincidentally placed in a tent together by those in charge of logistics.
The war came to an end and the rest is the Israeli history that we remember every year. My grandparents built their home and family in Petah Tikva, where my mother was born. Saba worked his way through the ranks in the education system while Savta, who had been deprived of a proper education due to the war, earned a living sewing curtains.
I'm curious about how my grandparents, who have grown together with the State of Israel, view the nation now. "My generation thinks that Israel of today does not resemble the state that we created," my saba says in a matter-of-fact tone. "There was far more solidarity back then."
He says that back then it was a badge of shame not to enlist to the army and that only a handful did not do so, drawing a stark comparison with the current dispute over equality of the burden and draft dodgers. "There wasn't that chase after individualism," he says, explaining that it wasn’t about how nice a house one could buy.
My grandmother, who is busy cooing over my baby nephew while my grandfather is speaking, gives a similar answer without having heard his. She says there was far more equality back then, no one had anything and they made use of what there was. There were very few rich people.
Questioned over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – a reality whose complexity never ceases to confound me - my saba states that both sides are right. "We didn't come to China; we came to Israel, the land of our forefathers, where we have a deep historical connection."
"But they are also right," he says, noting that the Muslims also believe in our forefathers and have lived on the lands for centuries. "Until we have two states the conflict won't be resolved," he concludes.
I leave my grandparents' cozy retirement village home with a fresh understanding of the vast oceans between the course of their lives and mine. Their generation paved the way for ours, and we must do the best job we can for those generations still to come. While it may be unrealistic and perhaps even undesirable to return to the simplicity that they so cherish, the division in Israeli society that they noted, and the age-old conflict that burdens my thoughts and conversation on a daily basis, are issues that we must tackle with all our might.
This Independence Day, as I celebrate the State of Israel's birthday amid fireworks, barbeques and revelry, I rejoice that my saba and savta made it to the land of our forefathers after their arduous journey.