My own Russian aliya

This personal reminiscence by veteran 'Post' commentator Yosef Goell, who died last week, first appeared in the paper's Pessah Magazine on April 9, 1990.

yosef goell 88 (photo credit: )
yosef goell 88
(photo credit: )
THE RECENT talk of the urgent need to evacuate as many Soviet Jews as possible, even by boat if necessary, brought to mind the nearly forgotten memories of my own aliya, 42 years ago this Pessah, by Russian boat. The s.s. Rossiya, aboard which my then-girlfriend and future wife and I made it to what was still Palestine, did not sail from Odessa, but was making its way to Odessa from New York, via Marseilles, Naples, Haifa and Beirut. Not only do I doubt that there are many other olim who have spent 17 days on a Russian vessel to get to the Promised Land, I doubt even more that there are many who have sailed on what was in effect a converted floating brothel of the German Wehrmacht. The Russians had obtained the spanking white Rossiya as war booty from the Germans, whose soldiers the ship had served during World War II as a floating whorehouse in the Baltic. To some extent, this explained the trim lines and still noticeable Teutonic cleanliness of the ship, which had been pressed into service as a cargo-passenger ship in the distinctly less meticulous Soviet merchant marine. But why come by boat? Was the exotic experience of shipping out in a former floating brothel worth the 17 days on the ocean waves? Because in April 1948 the only way to get from the US to Palestine was by boat. But why a Russian boat? Because at that same period the only other boat plying that route was the American Export Lines' s.s. Marine Carp, and that worthy vessel had just departed from New York for Haifa, with the first members of our aliya group. The only alternative for our small band of five was a quick getaway on the Rossiya, which was berthed at a Brooklyn pier. It proved to be the Rossiya's last trip between New York and Odessa via Haifa. Czechoslovakia was taken over by the Communists in February 1948, and March-April of that year marked the beginning of the Cold War. The strongly anti-Communist Longshoremen's Union refused to load the "Commie boat," and the ship left empty of cargo. AS FOR the passenger roster - there were us five members of Habonim Gar'in Aleph, some Mahal volunteers for the war that was hotting up in this country, and close to 200 returning Palestinian shlihim (emissaries) and their families, who were being hastily recalled by their embattled kibbutzim throughout the country. And, I nearly forgot, four young men who stood out like sore thumbs, with their blond hair, blue eyes and all-American good looks. The fact that they appeared daily on deck in ties and jackets, compared with our own Palestinian or American halutzic Bohemian shlumperei, further emphasized their differentness and seemed to confirm our worst suspicions. At first we thought they were FBI agents, a not totally outlandish suspicion fed, not so much by an overexposure to cheap Hollywood thrillers, as by the fact that some of us had only recently been picked up and held by the FBI on charges of smuggling arms to the Hagana in Palestine. It was my girlfriend who discovered that the four young Adonises were not Feds, but even more exotic Mormon missionaries on their way to Beirut as part of the two-year stint of volunteer missionary work all devout Mormons are asked to assume for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. THE FIVE of us: my girlfriend, Edi, who had just dropped out of nursing school and was running away from home and from super-American parents who were apoplectic in their opposition to their 19-year-old daughter's mad determination to join a kibbutz in war-torn Palestine; brother and sister Josh and Tsirel Goldberg (the later Tsilla Duvdevani, who passed away in Kibbutz Gesher Haziv two years ago); Amnon Hadary of Chicago; and myself, were members of a Habonim aliya group. Most of the members of that gar'in took agricultural training the previous year at the Hehalutz farm in Cream Ridge, New Jersey, and we were slated to make aliya with the idea of founding our own kibbutz sometime in 1950. I have a strong suspicion that our five-strong mini-aliya is the only one in the century-long history of the modern aliya whose members have all remained in this country. The date of our aliya was speeded up, as was that of other such potential settlement gar'inim, by the UN decision on the partition of Palestine of the previous November 29, and by the war that followed immediately in its wake. We were on our way to Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan which, unknown to us, was at that very moment the target of ferocious attacks by Fawzi al-Kaukji's "Arab Salvation Army." The kibbutz and its neighbors, Kfar Maccabi and Usha, succeeded in repelling the attackers, which included Arab and Druse fighters from Shfaram and the surrounding villages, just before our arrival. THE FIRST part of our voyage across the choppy Atlantic was relatively uneventful and consisted of initial bouts of seasickness, endless ideological discussions and Amnon's starting out every evening in the bar with glasses of krepke tchai and then getting drunk on a mixture of real Russian vodka and beer. We found out that there were several Jews among the crew including, it was rumored, a real Jewish Able Bodied Seaman. We were soon disabused of the then-exotic idea of a Jew as sailor, for we never managed to locate that rarity and the only crew members we spoke to in Yiddish were engaged in more typically Jewish nautical professions: the purser, the barber and the bartender. As soon as we sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar and entered the Mediterranean things got more interesting. The ship's radio started receiving news reports of the fighting in Palestine from Radio Palestine and we soon learned that the country had been cut in two. A number of Arab villages on the Carmel that dominated the coastal road south of Haifa had succeeded in cutting off all Jewish vehicular traffic between Galilee and the Jezreel Valley and the central Coastal Plain, Tel Aviv and the South (which then extended from Tel Aviv to a line between Negba and Yad Mordechai, approximately parallel to today's line between Kiryat Gat and Ashkelon). THE RETURNING Palestinian shlihim were deeply divided on political lines between members of the three different kibbutz movements and the parties to which they were affiliated - Mapai, Siya Bet (which was then metamorphosing into Ahdut Ha'avoda) and Hashomer Hatza'ir-Mapam. The effect of the radio news from Palestine, however, was to realign those older political rifts into a geographic split between a "Party of the South" and a "Party of the North," each headed by ideologues who proved to be extremely articulate in Russian. Each party launched an intensive campaign of sending endless delegations to pester the poor captain. The Party of the South demanded that he change course and anchor off Tel Aviv port so that the members of the settlements in the center and south of the country could get home safely without having to run the land blockade near the Carmel. The equally determined Party of the North demanded that he stick to his original plan to dock in Haifa, so that they could make it to their kibbutzim in Galilee and the Emek. THE HARASSED captain kept on radioing for instructions to his masters back in Odessa and they finally ordered him to stick to the original course and dock in Haifa. The entire exercise was to be my first exposure to the vitriolic nature of Israeli politics and to the amoeba-like propensity of my future Israeli countrymen for splitting over ever-new issues. Not everything, however, revolved around party or geographic politics. We three members of Gar'in Aleph had a fourth passenger in our cabin who was returning home to his kibbutz after a successful mission. He was coming back with a wife. The practice at the time was for kibbutzim to give members who were in danger of turning into life-long confirmed bachelors extended compassionate leave - it was called hofesh matzav-ruah - to try their luck at finding mates elsewhere. Our cabinmate had gone as far as America to find and woo his lady love, and he was bringing her back to his kibbutz on the Carmel, totally oblivious, in their love, to what the radio was telling us was happening on that lovely mountain range. They continue to live on their kibbutz, the parents and grandparents of a large Israeli clan. IN MARSEILLES and Naples we took on a large number of Displaced Persons, which was the official designation of Holocaust survivors who had escaped the postwar pogroms in their Eastern European homelands and had been interned by the Allied armies in DP camps in southern France and Italy. We were to have no contact with them because they were taken on hastily and stealthily and crowded into a different deck, to which we had no access. Only once did we mingle with them, when they were brought up to our deck for the Aliya Bet people to issue them their false papers. I remember one of them, who had been issued documents that declared him to be a teacher, coming up to me and asking in Yiddish: "Vos is dos a teher [What does this word 'teacher' mean]?" This fleeting glimpse I caught of the DPs, three years after the end of the war and of the Holocaust, exposed me for the first time to the arms with tattooed numbers that I would see so often during my first years in Israel and to the gleaming mouths full of stainless-steel false teeth, even among the young DPs who had lost their teeth due to prolonged malnutrition, and which were then the hallmark of Soviet dentistry. OUR LAST night aboard the Rossiya, the night before we were to enter the Promised Land, was the night of the Pessah Seder. I doubt if any other olim have ever been privileged to celebrate the memory of the Passover Exodus with such symbolic aptness. The Seder went on for hours and we then stayed up for the rest of the night watching for the first signs of land. Just before dawn we saw very faintly what turned out to be the trajectories of tracer bullets in the waning battle of the Hagana for control of Haifa. We glimpsed the silhouette of the Carmel just after dawn, but due to the chaos that attended the last hours of the fighting, we managed to dock only in mid-morning. Of the five of us, only Edi had a valid Palestinian tourist visa. She was therefore placed at the head of the queue that lined up in front of the British Mandatory immigration officers, who were flanked by Jewish Agency officials. The trouble was that someone had forgotten to brief Edi with the cover story she was to use, and she kept on coming back to the rest of us who had false documents, to ask the exact destination she was supposed to tell the British immigration officials. The entire thing was so ludicrously transparent that my guess is that the British, who at that stage were getting out, couldn't care less and clearly didn't want any trouble with holders of American passports. We were taken off the boat and walked across the quay to the waiting truck that the kibbutz had sent for us and told to position ourselves among the bunches of bananas that filled the back of the truck. On the way, we walked by a line-up of British soldiers who were preparing to leave the country, and who gave every sign of being glad to get out. IT PROVED impossible as yet to drive to Ramat Yohanan through the lower, mostly Arab city, so we drove up to Hadar Hacarmel by way of the perpendicular street that is today's Sderot Hacarmel. My most vivid memory from that trip is driving by the long line of trucks that was descending down that street, each full of hastily piled-up furniture and personal belongings of the Arab family squeezed into the cabin or distributed among its possessions. On top of each truck were two keffiyed Arab Legion soldiers armed with Bren guns. These were Haifa Arabs, who were fleeing their homes in disbelief of the Hagana entreaties to remain in the Haifa that was slated to be included in the new Jewish state. They were heading for the Lebanese border or for anything that would float in Haifa harbor that could take them away as far as possible from this war-torn country. It took a long time to get through Hadar Hacarmel over the Wadi Rushmiya bridge, which had seen heavy fighting, and past the British- and Arab Legion-manned checkpost at the turnoff to the Haifa Bay road. Today - if it isn't rush hour - it's a quarter of an hour's drive to the kibbutz; then, it took us till nightfall to get there. It was 42 years ago, but I am always surprised at how so many things haven't changed.