A convergence of minds

The families of Zionist leaders Berl Katznelson and Abba Ahimeir travel together to the hometown of their influential forefathers.

Dita Vered-Katznelson (left), neice of Berl Katznelson, and Zehava Zavidov, daughter of Abba Ahimeir, in Bobruisk (photo credit: LIMMUD FSU)
Dita Vered-Katznelson (left), neice of Berl Katznelson, and Zehava Zavidov, daughter of Abba Ahimeir, in Bobruisk
(photo credit: LIMMUD FSU)
The small town of Bobruisk, just an hour away from the Belarussian capital of Minsk, has a large legacy. It was the birthplace of two influential journalists and leaders in early political Zionist movements, Berl Katznelson and Abba Ahimeir.
Katznelson was one of the most remarkable leaders who shaped the Labor Zionist movement in the nascent days of the State of Israel. In addition to being a respected and influential journalist, Katznelson was an important part of the Zionist revolution, and is credited with the founding of some of Israel’s most important institutions, including Bank Hapoalim and the publishing house Am Oved.
Likewise, Ahimeir was one of the most outstanding ideologues of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionist movement, the precursor to the Israeli political Right. He was also the founder of Brit Habiryonim, the first anti-British underground brigade, a successful historian, journalist and a strong commentator on the political and strategic situation in Israel before and after it was established.
In celebration of their lives and legacies, an exhibition at the firstever Minsk Limmud FSU featured a collection of photos and stories about the two figures, from when they were born, through their lives as leaders in their communities, and milestones in their journey to the creation of the Land of Israel. It culminated in a visit by the Katznelson and Ahimeir families to their ancestors’ hometown.
Limmud FSU organizes weekend-long lectures and events connecting Russian speaking Jews in the former Soviet Union with their Jewish roots and history. The exhibition was curated by Yoram Dori, former adviser to president Shimon Peres, and a regular contributor to the Limmud FSU conferences.
THE THREE children of Abba Ahimeir (originally Abba Shaul Geisinovich) – Zehava, Yaakov and Yossi, together with Zehava’s son’s wife – started the journey together.
“It feels like a dream,” says Zehava, the oldest. “I still can’t believe I’m here.”
Abba Ahimeir was a strong critic of the Communist regime and wrote many harsh articles about it.
“He knew he would never come back here. Now that we, his children, are walking in these streets, it is a type of closure for him and our family,” says Yossi.
On the Katznelson side is Dita (Yehudit) Vered-Katznelson, the niece of Berl Katznelson, with her niece, Noga.
“We are very happy to be here together with the Ahimeir family. Although our families used to be on opposite sides of the political map, we are now together, and that is the message I believe Berl would want to send. We need unity and togetherness in our lives today, especially in Israel,” says Noga.
“Berl Katznelson became one of the most important and remarkable leaders of the Yishuv and the Labor movement, which I belong to,” said MK Hilik Bar at the opening ceremony of the exhibit.
“Berl talked about two important things in one of his most famous writings: ‘We cannot live without memories and we cannot live without forgetting.’ He wrote many articles about his relationship with tradition and the importance of learning from history.”
Abba Geisinovich changed his last name to Ahimeir [meaning “brother of Meir”] after his brother Meir died in a battle against the Poles during a pogrom. Zehava and her siblings talked about their father at the opening of the exhibit.
“My father and Berl Katznelson and many others that worked with him helped to build the country. Sadly, not all of them lived to witness their success,” says Yossi Ahimeir.
“When he arrived in Israel in 1924, he was a teacher in Nahalal and Kibbutz Geva, and when he started to hear about the teachings of Jabotinsky he became a revisionist and believed we should fight for our country,” he added.
All three of Abba Ahimeir’s children knew how much he loved Belarus and Bobruisk and how he missed his family, which was killed when the Nazis entered the small town in 1941.
In addition to being a teacher, journalist and politician, Ahimeir was a historian; he wrote many entries for the Hebrew Encyclopedia as a member of the editorial board. “For example, there was an entry about Bobruisk and about the Jews that lived there, but on that one he did not sign his name, he just put down his initials – A.Ah,” his son Yossi recalled as he walked in the streets that he had learned about through his father’s stories.
DITA VERED-KATZNELSON has a lifetime of stories about her uncle and about Israel before it was established.
“Berl’s father died at the young age of 38, so my grandmother raised five children all alone,” she says, while discussing the history of her family in Bobruisk.
Vered-Katznelson’s father moved to the US at a young age in search of work, and there he met her mother, in New York. After getting settled there they received a letter from Israel. It was from Berl, who had come to Israel in 1909, telling them they must come to help build the Jewish homeland. They arrived at the Ben Shemen farm where they lived with Berl and the rest of the family.
“There is even a stamp made by the KKL with a photo of my parents working in the farm,” Dita recalls.
Bobruisk had the eighth largest Jewish community in the area in the early 1800s. By the 1880s, Jews made up approximately 80 percent of the city’s population, and the majority of the businesses in the town were owned by Jews. In 1908, the Zionist movement arrived in the city and Hebrew became an important aspect of Jewish life.
“My father’s teacher here in Bobruisk was Melamed Friedlander; we have now discovered that Berl Katznelson had the same private teacher as well,” says Yossi Ahimeir. The Pushkin Library in Bobruisk was the place where Berl gave Abba Ahimeir his first books in Hebrew.
When the Russians entered the city at the beginning of World War I, all of the Jewish establishments were closed, including at least 47 synagogues, three yeshivas and all of the schools.
Berl was already in Israel at that time, working to establish the consumer cooperative known as Hamashbir. During the harsh economic austerity of those wartime years, he was instrumental in ensuring that the Jewish communities of Palestine had access to food at affordable prices despite the severe shortages.
He helped to establish the Clalit Health Services sick fund, and after the war, together with Moshe Beilinson, he established the Davar daily newspaper, becoming its first editor in 1925. He held that position until his death in 1944.
“Many people only know he was a strong socialist, writer and had great ideas about building the Land of Israel, but he did much more than that. To me he was a champion of the Hebrew language and a true Israeli. The library in his apartment was a place I loved to be in; we were always a family that loved books,” says Dita.
IN COMPARISON to many other towns in this area of Europe, there are still a lot of Jewish symbols around Bobruisk.
There is a strong Jewish community here to preserve the past, as well as a Chabad rabbi who lives there with his family, providing guidance to the seven religious families living in the city, proving that Jewish history in the city is alive.
“Anti-Semitism has really decreased here in the last 10 years. The people that live in the town know what used to be here, and they respect the history. The municipality is a major contributor to helping to protect us and making sure we feel safe,” says Shaul Hababo, the rabbi of Bobruisk.
When the Second World War hit this peaceful city, more than 10,000 people were murdered. Most were brought from the local ghetto to Kminka, where 200 Russian men dug a hole in the ground and killed the Jews – men, women and children. After they had killed the Jews, the 200 Russians were killed and buried together with the Jews.
Yossi came to Bobruisk for the first time in 1990.
“I received a permit from the Communist government to spend eight hours in the area to travel and give a lecture. This trip is very different; times have changed. Now I’m here with my brother and sister and we are taking the trip my father never did back to his childhood home,” he says.
At the end of a very emotional day, the families met with the Jewish community to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day.
“Thanks to you, the families that came here to our city, these amazing people and their stories have been transformed from history to reality,” said Oleg Krasny, head of the Jewish community of Bobruisk.