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Home >> Recollections >> Ruth Stern - 1946

NEGEV ( Machzor Aleph (1) - 1946)

(The recollections and experiences of a young girl from South Africa attending the first machzor of the Machon in 1946)


They would have missed me if I hadn’t seen them first. I was the last one to step into the expectant crowd, smiling to myself in anticipation of their reaction...I saw them standing, away from the others, in their customary reserve, waiting to welcome me home after a year, not suspecting that the daughter they had come to meet would hardly resemble the young lady of seventeen who had gone on a study course for Zionist Youth Leaders, to Palestine, a year before, wearing her ‘suitable’ travel ensemble; light brown princess coat, dark brown accessories, soft suede shoes. Approaching them, dressed in khaki shirt and skirt, feet in biblical sandals, hair rather unkempt and a canvas bag slung over one shoulder, I thought how little and wrongly we had understood or visualized Palestine in 1946, then under the rule of the British Mandate. My mother, I suppose, had envisaged a British colonial setting where I would wear white gloves and attend tea parties after my day’s studies.
We had read about the mood of the Palestinian Jews who were trying to absorb refugees, survivors of the Nazi death camps, while idealistically working to develop the kibbutz life based on the dignity of Jewish labour and communal sharing. But we really knew little about our ancient Biblical homeland, ‘Eretz Israel’, that still carries the name Palestine from the time of the Philistines ( Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews, p.50). Our study course, organized by the South African Zionist Federation for post-matriculants, aimed to familiarize us with Palestine and experience the life there and of the kibbutz pioneers, while studying ancient and modern Jewish history.
In my excitement at being accepted for the course after weeks of pleading with my reluctant parents to let me send in my application, I had hardly given much thought to the practical aspects of living away from home in the Middle East. My mother took care of packing all 'the suitable clothing and equipment' I should need, besides including the required list issued by the organizers. What had mattered then to me, was the great adventure before me, of being one of the pilot course for youth leaders in our land of the Bible, Eretz Israel.
Now, one year later I was back in South Africa.
I came up to them.
'Mom, Dad."
Almost dropping his pipe, my father spluttered:
'Good heavens, this wild beauty is our Ruth!'
I grinned as their eyes took in the ‘strange apparition’ that had come out of the Holy Land. My mother hugged me uncertainly.
'Where is your luggage, Ruth dear?' Now with no sign of the matching luggage befitting her daughter, my mother as usual gained composure first.
'Oh, only this?' She indicated my shoulder bag as I explained,
'I sent most of the stuff to the Jewish refugee camps in Cyprus for the people who survived the Nazi camps. Now they are called ‘displaced persons’ and are kept behind barbed wire by the British rulers who refuse to let them enter Eretz Israel, their rightful homeland. The rest of my things I left for some of the more fortunate ones who managed to enter the country illegally.' I decided not to mention how I had discarded six pairs of white gloves and some of the formal wear mother had chosen ‘for the right occasions'.
My mother smiled thoughtfully, taking my hand turned to my father,
'Abe, let's take Ruth’s bag and go home".
Farewells started as the participants of the group began breaking up. Sudden sentiments burst forth, hugs and promises to meet or keep in touch were exchanged, even by those who hadn’t been very compatible all year. Hebrew words and phrases interspersed with unexpected tears. I felt my mother’s gentle arm and scrutiny, 'Behind your strange get-up you have quite grown up, and your skin is glowing. You’re even slimmer than before though you wrote that you consumed quantities of bread and jam over there.' I caught her smile and knowing words. 'You’ve so much to tell us, I’m sure. Now it’s time to go home.'
As we walked towards the car she added, 'I know you’re tired but I’m afraid quite a lot of people are anxious to say hello.'
I groaned... they’ll never let me forget I am the former mayor’s daughter!
‘Now don’t look so aggrieved and mutinous, young lady’. It was my dad’s turn to take over. ‘Our town has taken an interest in your great adventure, and we’re lucky not to have a royal reception waiting for you.’
He opened the car door and I sank into the blue leather seat as we glided on to highway.
‘This transition is too sudden’ I whispered to myself, ‘How can I face all those curious, kind people, eager to welcome me home, and shower me with questions. It’s too soon.’
I closed my eyes. The desert sands expanding into the sky in the Negev enveloped me; my thoughts returned to the tiny kibbutz, a mere outpost in the middle of nowhere, the faces of the 25 friends, young halutzim, members of the settlement whom I’d come to know and love. Yes, standing there, far taller than life size, was Uri, strong, gentle, smiling, waiting for me, wanting me to become part of their closely knit group.
I shifted my mind back to the beginning in 1946, how the idea of the first Machon for Youth Leaders, took shape. Bernard Gering, Head of the South African Zionist Federation in Johannesburg, and Abe Herman head of the Aliyat Noar Dept at the Sochnut in Jerusalem initiated the plan to send over to Palestine, a group of post-matriculants to study Zionism on the spot, so to speak, to become Zionist Youth Leaders. So far away, in sunny South Africa, this plan was received with strong objection;. absolutely far- fetched and irresponsible, even crazy to allow our young 'spoilt brats' even under the supervision of a few older 'watch dogs' to travel to the dangerous Middle East. It was simply ridiculous in such unsettled times; let things settle down before starting acourse for young madrichim in Eretz Israel. But the plan went ahead despite all the opposition, and the first course for Overseas Youth Leaders was set in motion.
My parents who were ardent Zionists were adamantly against my participation but I persisted and found myself as one of the chosen participants.
We guinea-pigs were all set to go!
We sailed, from Durban by ship, the Stratheden, once a luxury liner, now a troop ship, that was returning thousands of Italian prisoners back from SA to Europe via Egypt. Quite an adventure, on the 1st class deck away from the masses below.
Up the west African coast, our first stop Mombassa for two days, where the Jewish community came out to welcome and cheer the brave SA youngsters on their Zionist mission. We continued up the coast through the Suez Canal to the Egyptian Port Said where we disembarked and had our first impressions of the Middle East. The smells, the noise, the crush, the dusty roads led to the crowded railway station. We found ourselves on a train with throngs of people many with live-stock, clinging out of doors and windows. The train crawled along for over twelve hours through the heat and dust of the Sinai desert, stopping at places (that later became known to me during the Sanai Campaign, the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War) until we reached the softer lands of Eretz Israel and eventually reached the Rehovot railway station.
There, thirty weary disheveled and very dirty South Africans were greeted by Abe Herman (who later became President of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem), and Moshe our Madrich.
What a mixture we 30 South Africans were. Most were members of youth movements, aged around 17 to 19, but three or four older men and women active in the Zionist Federation were supposedly in charge of us, and one newly married couple Phyllis and Sam were on their honeymoon. I wasn’t affiliated to any organization. We must have looked a bizarre sight to the austere, modest population of the ‘yishuv’, with our cameras, our easy laughter, our clothes so different from their khaki or dark blue shorts and shirts. I immediately discarded my snappy shorts for the dark blue bloomer-like shorts. And as English speakers we were conspicuously different from the hated British.. The organizers of our group did their best, giving us special privileges (unknown to us), in accommodation and food, at the agricultural school Ayyanot, near Nes Ziona, where we were housed for the first months studying, studying Hebrew and learning about life in the Yishuv and even working in the fields.
Our excellent instructors, Ruth Birk, Mordechai Reinholdt (Rinaat) and Mordechai Hayat were patient and inspiring. We learnt about our Zionist leaders, Herzl, Haim Weitzman, Ben-Gurion, Jabotinsky, Berl Katzelson and our poets Bialik, Alterman, Tchernichovsky, Rachel. whose words we sangwithout yet understanding the meanings, such as V'ulai, Omrim Yeshna Eretz, Shir Hana'amal and we danced especially the Hora.
Visiting lecturers came to speak to us, including Abba Even, Eliyu Dobkin, and Professor Roth. But we were influenced above all by Dr Zev Vinai. Every month, interspersed with our theoretical studies, Hebrew, history, Bible, geography, etc. we were taken on field trips, led by the foremost geographer of the country, the dynamic Dr. Ze’ev Vilnay, born in Jerusalem, who brought history to life for us. He led is to appreciate the miracle of redemption of the land after 2000 years of neglect. For me he exemplified the spirit and character of the 'sabra' youth, those born in Palestine.
                                                           with Zev Vilnai guiding
Each outing lasted from four to ten days. Ze’ev Vilnay did not spare us, the ‘spoilt bunch of South African brats’, as he affectionately called us, most of whom, like me, had come with vague and shallow ideas of adventure, quite a lark, nothing really serious. With him, we discovered the country of our forefathers. We learnt about our tiny land by climbing mountains, the Tabor, Gilboa, Meron, trudging through land where flourishing kibbutzim like Afikim and Degania, beside the Sea of Galilee, had grown out of bare rock and swamps by the labour and sweat of the pioneers. Biblical names were becoming a reality.
                      Being checked by British troops on the way down to the Western Wall
Going up to Jerusalem we breathed the air of the Judean hills. We stood in awe at the Western Wall in the Old City, took in the historic Biblical sites of our roots, and enjoyed modern Jerusalem despite the disconcerting presence of so many British soldiers. Down south, at the lowest place on earth, we floated on the saline waters of the Dead Sea lying on our backs, and read the Palestine Post. After each trip, exhausted but exhilarated, we returned to our quarters at the agricultural school,
There was an amazing mood of optimism and solidarity, despite the curfews and the suspicious British soldiers all over searching for illegal immigrants and weapons. The Jews were trying to absorb refugees.
In 1946 WW2 was over Nazi Germany had been defeated but the world was still far from back to normal .The Jewish soldiers who had served in the war, The Palestine Brigade, and other British units had returned home with reports of the atrocities in Europe.. The Palestinian Soldiers ( Soldiers of the Yishuv) had managed to organize ways to transport displaced persons, refugees from the concentration camps to Palestine. Of the many heroes we heard about, it was the Hungarian born young woman from Kibbutz Sdot Yam, Hanna Senesh, who volunteered to be parachuted into enemy lines, for the allies that left me the most amazed and humbled by her courage. She was caught and tortured and executed by the Nazis but she never gave away one secret of her mission. We still cherish her memory and recite the poem she wrote before crossing into Hungary, 'Ashrei Ha'Gafrur'
Blessed is the match that burns and kindles the flame
Blessed is the flame that burns within hearts
Blessed are the hearts that cease with dignity
Blessed is the match that burns and kindles the flames.
I recall, on returning after one excursion, we were in the communal dining room having breakfast, when suddenly heart rending screams shocked us. Our madrich Moshe calmed our fears: ‘Orphaned children who have survived the Holocaust Nazi horrors are being rehabilitated in many places, including our place here at Ayanot. This child is screaming because he is afraid of being punished for trying to hide a piece of bread in his trousers.. He doesn’t yet understand that he can have as much as he wishes. Knowing only hunger and cruelty, it will take a long while to bring these young ones to understand the meaning of trust and freedom, to make them children again.’
Looking at these children with old faces I thought of the lavish meals and wasted food and growing up in SA, about the easy life there we had taken for granted.
Life was austere, food simple, water scarce. There was music, folk songs and dancing, and poetry. People read Hebrew newspapers but also the Palestine Post in English which later became the Jerusalem Post, Gazoz was the popular light drink; heavy drinking would be orange juice. on special occasions..
How could I take in, all the overwhelming emotions and impressions?
How could I ever become part of this mosaic? I was still an outsider, impressed and admiring, but I did not belong. I didn’t feel I belonged to the South African group either.
Then Ze’ev Vilay took us to the Negev.
As the bus drove south, we saw expanses of sand and more sand all the way, sandy dunes and sandy hills as far as the eyes could see. We passed Beer Sheba on an untarred road, a bare mud-caked, shadeless shanty town, under a relentless sun and shimmering sky.
‘Can anything ever grow here, on these dry sands?’ I asked Ze’ev Vilnay.
He looked around, his eyes creasing into a smile.
‘It will blossom so that your children will have to be reminded it was like this, and even then they probably won’t believe you.’
He laughed and waved his hands towards the wastelands that had lain fallow for thousands of years. Then he looked at us seriously,
‘But we need the hands to work and the hearts to fuel the spirit to give our land life again, after two thousand years of neglect.’
As evening drew near, the sun, now a fire ball, splashed the darkening sands with gold. We drove into a small compound, which suddenly came into view almost as we were upon it. Tired, hot and dusty we looked around us at the few structures surrounded by the courtyard wall,. on one side of which was a watch tower holding a water tank on a wooden stand.
‘This outpost is the permanent site for Kibbutz Revivim’ Ze’ev said simply, as we listened in astonishment. ‘Now you will meet the 25 members who are stationed here preparing the place for the permanent settlers who are now in a temporary site near Rishon Letzion, in the centre of the country. They hope to all settle here very soon.’
We stared at the rough makeshift buildings, our eyes dazzled by the setting sun. It all looked quite surrealistic.
I whispered to myself, ‘A kibbutz here? Ridiculous!’
We climbed wearily out of the bus. The place seemed deserted and barren. Suddenly a tall girl appeared, beckoning to us.
Shalom,’ she smiled, ‘I’ll show you where you’ll sleep.’
She spoke quietly in Hebrew, and turned away for us to follow her. We walked after her admiring the beautiful long plait of her fair hair, but not even the most brash of our boys dared to make a remark. We put our sleeping bags down and went outside meeting up with Sarah again, who showed us where we could shower, where the dining room was. Her easy smile and slim figure radiated a cool confidence. She was so natural and unaffected while I felt awkward and tongue tied.
‘Shalom’, I said uncertainly. She made a few friendly remarks which I couldn’t understand. After all my efforts at Hebrew, I fumed; I can’t even make out a simple phrase. She must think I’m an idiot! Not knowing what to do, I ducked back into the hut, then joined the girls in the showers. The water was brackish, but refreshing after our long journey.
That night was Sabbath eve. We met the kibbutz members, nineteen young men and six young women around a campfire in the compound. As they sang, then began dancing unselfconsciously, we were caught up in the magic of the desert night and their natural enjoyment. The moon and stars are supposed to be nearest and brightest in Jerusalem, but in the Negev that night they seemed to be close enough for me to reach out and touch them. At first I could only sit and watch those vital young ‘sabras’ wondering at their grace and spontaneous happiness, their ease and their strength. Later I learnt that they all came from veteran prominent families in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. One was the daughter of Golda Meir who later became the first woman Prime Minister of the State of Israel.
Around the camp-fire, that night in Revivim, they all appeared to me to be a new kind of Jewish being, confident, shining and unreal. Even the faces of the South Africans, many of whom had often been childish and uncooperative, were transformed and radiant round the glowing campfire in the soft moonlight.
‘Do you dance?’
Startled out of my dreamlike state I looked up. I had watched him talking and laughing with the others, tall, agile, handsome, sun burnt. They called him Uri. Now he stood before me.
‘Do you want to dance?’ he repeated, this time in English.
His hand gripped mine and away we whirled around and around the campfire. We danced the hora, polka, hava nagilla, tcherkessiya, krakowiak, (some dances were pure Israeli, others were adapted from Russian folk dances). Without knowing the names of most of the dances or the steps, I responded to Uri, to the hand clapping rhythm and the music of an accordion and mouth-organ.
We danced together under the stars, until the fire faded and the moon and the light were changing to dawn. I was entranced into a kind of mystical elation and overwhelmed by my feelings. We had hardly exchanged words. I reluctantly obeyed Ze’ev as he ushered us to our hut to catch a few hours sleep.
‘Sleep well’, Uri said. Taking me to the door, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow’.
I curled into my sleeping bag unable to sleep, knowing that my life had changed, that I would return to Revivim.
It was so simple for me then, as it is when one is young and inexperienced. So few of my requests had ever been refused me, so I was sure I would try to become part of the this Kibbutz and of course closer to Uri.
We remained in the area for three days, touring and studying the life, history and geography of the Negev during the day, and returning to the settlement at night.
At Revivim we saw the experimental farm projects being undertaken to test the parched earth and restore it to life and cultivation. Even precious dew was conserved under stones around fragile saplings. We learnt to manage with less of our normal needs, like drinking water that was rather brackish and limited. We remained awestruck by the young pioneers, their fastidious working ethics and their modest way of living. Their quiet example at fulfilling their mission under such harsh conditions gave us an insight to the real meaning of ‘halutzi-ut
The way they went about their work from early morning till dark and then doing guard duty, seemed to us like the performing of heroic deeds and self-sacrifice. This was true pioneering, this was real Zionism making the desert bloom, discovering the resources of the Negev. I imagined the future...The Negev would be like those kibbutzim we had seen up north in the Galilee – children, animals, trees and cultivated fields and flowers.
I longed to be able to communicate more adequately, to ask questions and find answers.
Each evening we took our meal with them in the simple dining room. To my embarrassed delight Uri would sit beside me if he wasn’t on guard or kitchen duty, and later would seek me out and we’d stroll outside before our strict leader made sure we were all safely in bed. I hardly noticed the grins and nudges of our group. Suddenly my life at home in S.A., my studies, tennis and being on the 1st hockey team, parties and pretty clothes seemed shallow and distant. My boyfriend Stanley had been stunned by my obstinate decision to take part in the course. He had regarded my parents as quite irresponsible to let me face the dangers of Palestine under British rule, which was not exactly a haven of peace. Now, how unexciting and mundane he seemed compared with Uri and the other young pioneers. Anyone could become an engineer and drive a big car but very few were halutzim, revitalizing the desert.
When Uri spoke to me, it was the first time I paid attention to my name in Hebrew. No one said my name like Uri. He would say: ‘Come, Ruti, let’s walk,’ and off we’d go, I, in a happy daze. But we had little time together. After his long working day starting at 5 o’clock in the morning and our daily excursions we hardly had time to really get to know each other.
And so soon our tour in the Negev was ending and we were returning to Ayanot to resume our program the next day.
‘So you must return to South Africa, and the gold mines and diamond fields?’
It was the night before we left Revivim. I tried to explain that the organizers of the tour, the South African Zionist Federation, had guaranteed to return all the participants to South Africa. No one would be allowed to remain in Palestine, not even the older members of our group. I waited for him to add something about meeting me again, about writing, but he only looked at me and said: ‘You go back to South Africa, we’ll be here. Remember, Ruti, I’ll be here, if you wish to find me.’
The next morning we got into our bus. Uri was not there. Most of the members had been out to work hours earlier. Sassie came to say goodbye. He came up to me and said: ‘Uri said to tell you ‘lehitraot, not goodbye, and don’t forget!’
On our return to the center of the country I could not settle down. All I could think of was that Negev outpost and Uri. I planned to leave the course and go back to the Negev, to Revivim.. An opportunity came when we had a free day to visit friends or relatives. I decided to go up to Jerusalem to ask for help from Haya whom I had met when I had brought her regards from one of our group on a previous visit to Jerusalem.. Right away, I felt that I had found a true friend in this very special person who seemed to understand me far more than any older person I had ever met before. Haya came from an old Jerusalem family, had been born in the Old City and, like Uri and the people at Revivim she exemplified the true spirit of my old-new Homeland. I was sure she would be willing to help me return to Revivim. When I reached Jerusalem I went straight to the small family drapery shop on Ben Yehuda street which Haya managed. I hadn’t told her of my decision or asked whether I was welcome at their home, an apartment round the corner from their shop. At the start I took Haya’s welcome and friendship for granted. As usual she sat reading when there were no customers
‘Rut, what are you doing in Jerusalem? Who else is with you?’ She noticed that I was carrying a kit bag.
My words tumbled out. ‘Haya, I’ve decided to leave the course. I’m going to the Negev. I want to join kibbutz Revivim.’ I hesitated. Haya waited for me to continue.
‘There are only 25 members of the kibbutz out in the Negev. I think I should join them ’ I repeated, realizing that I sounded childish.
‘I’ll close the shop, and we’ll go home. You need a cup of your English tea, and perhaps there’s more you want to tell about your experiences in the Negev and this plan of yours’.
I kissed Haya’s mother as we entered their apartment, and despite the language barrier felt quite at home. Somehow, we South African youngsters all learnt that Haya. was always available to accommodate and help not only us, but anyone. I didn’t know then that she had given up her ambition to study medicine so her brother could complete University, and she ran their shop which she really disliked, to support the family and care for her mother and brother. She was active in the Hagana, but that too I learnt much later. It seemed natural for me to turn to her. I hadn’t known a person like her before, nor have I met another to compare with her since. Our friendship continued through her lifetime.
‘Now what is this sudden decision all about?’ We had eaten, and I had showered. ‘Is there a personal as well as an ideological reason, Rut?’
Gradually she drew the real reason out of me. I described Uri. ‘He’s not only handsome and dances well and sings and has a nice sense of humour, but he knows so much. He speaks and reads English, but will only talk to me in Hebrew. Yet I feel as if we have known each other for ages. I must go back.’
‘Did he ask you to?’
‘No, he’s too proud. He just stressed that I must not forget that he was in Revivim, if I wished to find him. I think he was challenging me to return. Please, Haya, help me to return to Revivim.’
In the end Haya agreed. She directed me to the gar’in, the base of Revivim in Rishon Letzion where she was sure I would be received and guided. She did warn me that most people would not know what to make of me. An English speaking girl on her own would be regarded as a strange phenomenon. She also warned me that she would let the authorities know where I was. Probably Haya cooperated with me because I fulfilled some secret wish within her to rebel against convention. She rarely gave in to her own aspirations, always helped others, never put her own needs first. When her brother Yisrael married she gave him the family apartment and took a smaller apartment on key money in Ussischkin Street for herself. It was only after her mother died that she gave up the shop and studied to become a radiologist.
So off I went, taking a bus to Rishon Letzion, and found my way to the gar’in (nucleus) of the kibbutz in the Negev. The people there received me kindly but, as Haya predicted, they did not know what to make of me. I explained in my halting Hebrew that I wanted to go to Revivim in the Negev and told them a little about my visit there with the Group. No doubt they would have contacted the authorities if, by one of the most extraordinary coincidences, Uri had not appeared in Rishon. He had come to town for supplies and other matters and was returning to Revivim the following day. Our surprise and joy at seeing each other, left little doubt in the eyes of the Kibbutz members, about our feelings. They gave me a bed for the night. To my surprise later on that night Uri was beside me in bed and to his not so innocent surprise, he discovered that I was not ready for sex. The following day he took me back to Revivim. By then he realized that I was serious about him and the kibbutz but quite inexperienced in the ways of life.
It was September, and I was again in Revivim!
At first I was treated with polite curiosity, but in their special way they bided their time until they could understand a little more about me. I myself had surely not thought my escapade out, except that I was sure it was not merely another caprice or adventure to tell back home. For the first time I wanted to become part of something great, though I could not define it. Among the members I gradually overcame my shyness, with the guidance and friendliness of Uri and the others. The five girls took me under their wing and put me at my ease. It was typical of me to have acted so erratically and then become extremely reticent. They took the initiative and understood that it was Uri who had inspired my arrival, but also that it was the whole concept of Revivim and its spirit that I wanted to be part of, and belong to. Uri was aware, perhaps to my good fortune, that he had an inexperienced eccentric on his hands. His behavior to me was brotherly, almost fatherly, despite the obvious fiery romantic attraction we both felt. ‘When you grow up, Ruti’, he said more than once ‘shall we be a couple?’ Somehow all the group understood the incongruity of our relationship, although I was probably unaware of it. He asked me about the way of life among the Black and White people in South Africa and about the racial problems there. I had not really thought about these aspects of South African society. He told me about the kibbutz ideology, and the need to restore the desolate land to its ancient vitality.
‘Don’t you want to study at university?’ I asked.
‘No, now we have more important studies out here.’
Each day I learnt take on various duties and found my halting Hebrew improving gradually. I learnt about the efforts to revive the land, to coax life out of the dried earth. Again I marveled at the way tiny saplings flourished when dew drops were collected under stones to water the roots. Experimental ways to purify the drinking water and efforts to discover the desert’s secrets kept the haverim busy from dawn to well after dusk. In 1946 people in Palestine had few luxuries, but their love of books and music and nature gave far more depth to their everyday lives than the emptiness of many affluent societies. In Revivim, despite the extremely hard conditions, no one considered the hardships significant. All the haverim could have chosen to return to comfortable homes in the centre of the country, but they had chosen to settle the land and serve their country. Somehow they managed to read and enjoy music from the radio, or instruments like the accordion or flute or mouth organ..
I became more and more aware of the beauty of the Negev; of each breathtaking sunrise that swept the sands with gold, and the sunsets, that brushed the skies with pinks and orange as the sun dropped behind the illuminated sands.
It was the day before Yom Kippur. I saw a lot of unusual activity outside the compound.. I waited to hear what it was all about but I knew my curiosity would only be satisfied when they were ready to tell me. I had come to respect their preference for silence, broken by softly spoken speech, the outbreaks of laughter or abrupt orders. As evening fell Uri came with two bottles of water and a kit bag. Taking my hand he led me to one of the trucks.
‘Let’s get up onto this vehicle’ he said. He climbed up and pulled me up beside him. ‘We are off to Beit Eshel’. I already knew that Beit Eshel was a similar settlement a few kilometers away. Without any fuss the people got onto the trucks and we moved off. As we approached Beit Eshel, I thought I was seeing a mirage, seeing hundreds of people and long lines of trucks I demanded to know what was going on.
Uri grinned at me. ‘Tonight, Ruti, you’ll be taking part in an historic event. You are going to witness something we shall tell our grandchildren about. I hope, Ruti, our grandchildren. We are going to put 11 new kibbutzim on the map of Eretz Israel tonight, and you, little girl from South Africa, are privileged to be here and take part’. He turned and pointed out some of the country’s most prominent figures. ‘There is Moshe Sneh who will be leading us.’
After midnight the singing and socializing suddenly stopped. Once again I was amazed by the discipline of these chalutzim (pioneers) as if by some magic command everyone silently dispersed to the trucks and the convoys started to move in ghostly formation. As we drove through Beer Sheba, we lay down on the floor of the trucks. I tried to hold my breath till we had passed the hostile area. The convoy broke up into smaller formations each one directed to a different site where one of the eleven new settlements was to go up before the break of dawn. As soon as our trucks drew up at the planned site everyone seemed to know exactly what to do. Few words were exchanged as they went about their different assignments with energy and determination. Uri joined the work force with a brief ‘lehitraot’ as Miri took me to the improvised kitchen where I did my best, although I couldn’t contain my curiosity and amazement at seeing a watch and water tower and accommodation huts and a fence around it all, going up. It was really dreamlike with the moon providing a shining friendly light. I found myself singing together with those around me as we went about our tasks preparing food and drink. Now the mission of our people became clear to me. This empty land of the Bible that we had abandoned by its people for 2000 years in exile would be repopulated . The names of our biblical places would once again be alive with our people. We were being guided, given a chance to return home.
As I participated in the extraordinary event on that night, I felt that we were being watched over from above with approval. And I was part of it. I was there. When the sun rose casting silver lights across the desert sands, a new settlement had been established on the site of its Biblical name, Shuval. I was witnessing a truly historic phenomenon. The same thing was happening at another ten sites in the Negev.
Uri came back to me, tired but grinning and exuberant together with his fellow workers. It was the first time that he put his arms around me, hugged me and kissed me. ‘We’ve done it, Ruti’ he said ‘and you are part of it.’
But plans are made by some and changed by others and fate. One morning, a few days later, a taxi drew up in the court yard of Revivim. Someone came to call me. Moshe, my madrich, who was in charge of our group, stepped out of the car and confronted me. After a brief ‘shalom’ he took my arm and walked me aside.
‘Do you know what a rumpus you caused when you disappeared? Do you have any idea how concerned we have been about you? We undertook to be responsible for you and you decided to just go running off to wherever and whenever it pleased you.’
He did not wait for me to reply but plunged ahead. ‘Now I am taking you back to Jerusalem, young lady, to join the group, and as far as I am concerned, the sooner you are back in South Africa the better I’ll sleep at night.’
We sat down in the courtyard. Sounds of activities came from the kitchen; from somewhere a soft voice singing reached us. The sun cast long shadows over the watch tower. .
Moshe turned to me, relenting, grinning wryly. ‘Actually we will be sorry to lose you. I think you have begun to understand us here in Palestine and caught the spirit here in Revivim. Don’t tell anyone, but I am rather proud of what you’ve done.’ He cleared his throat and put his arm on my shoulder. ‘However you must be less impulsive. You know that one of the prerequisites for your participation in the course was that you must be back in South Africa within the year. I believe that there is someone here called Uri who would be happy for you to remain here with him in Revivim.. But now you must go and collect your things, Ruth, and come back with me.’
Suddenly Miri was beside me and we went arm in arm to the hut I shared with the girls. ‘We’ve sent for Uri’ she said. I felt conspicuous and misplaced and uncertain. I tried to find words but they sounded hollow even before I uttered them. By now a few others had gathered. Miri hugged me. ‘This is not goodbye. We know you’ll be back.’ And there was Uri. He took my hand and walked with me away from the others. He pinned a small filigree brooch on to my blouse; with a figure of Ruth the Moabite kneeling among the sheaves of corn, in low relief.
‘Keep it” he said ‘and bring it back to me. I know you must go now, but as I said before, remember I am here, waiting.' We embraced. Everything seemed disoriented to me as Moshe hurried me into the waiting taxi.
‘Come along’ he said to me’ It is not safe to drive alone through Beer Sheva at a late hour.’ My new friends' silent farewell followed me In the still air, the vehicle sped along over the Negev sands, on and on, away from Miri, and Sassoon… and Uri.
Before I re-joined the group I spent a few days in Jerusalem staying with friends of my uncle Jack, (Jacov Geri). To keep my thoughts away from Revivim I attended lectures by Ze'ev Vilnai, on historical geography, at the University on Mount Scopus.
Once again I was impressed by the way everyone did what had to be done without a fuss. The students took part in cleaning and running the menza (campus restaurant) at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus as well as doing guard duty and studying.
One day I was invited to join some students who were planning to walk to Bethleham and view the Christmas Eve mass.
I also joined them on a trek to Jericho via Wadi Kelt. Not knowing what a tough hike it would be, I borrowed a pair of Haia's shoes, a much smaller size. This was indeed a test of endurance but I stuck it out despite my blistered feet... In the evening we returned to Jerusalem by Arab bus to find we couldn't enter the City as it was under curfew. Nathanel suggested that I go and talk to the British soldiers standing guard, as I had a SA passport, part of the British Commonwealth., I was dead beat but I left the bus together with Nathanel and approached the guard post.. Suddenly a shower of spot lights and a voice, over a loud speaker,
"Halt! Stay where you are! Put your hands in the air!"
Three British soldiers approached, their rifles aimed at us. I thought that they did seem rather scared.
I raised my voice and in my best Kings English, 'May I speak to the officer in charge?'
The soldiers stared at us in surprise.
I continued trying to sound firm, 'We are a group of students just returned from Jericho and we now find this most distressing situation. It is imperative that we be allowed to make our way home and enter the City.'
There was a startled silence. An officer came up and looked at us closely.. In an amused voice he directed us toward a safe route into the City and Rehavia, where I was staying,
We thanked him. I recall his parting words,' You are a brave lass' he said, '
However I don't recall whether he asked to see my passport.
Before we returned to SA, all the group together spent time together on a kibbutz up north. There we were given a brief course in pre-military training and taught various forms of self defense.
Then we were on our way and farewell to Eretz Israel.
Ruth, wake up, we're home.’
‘Home?’ For a few seconds I kept my eyes closed until I could get my bearings. I saw my mother’s face at the open door of the car and felt her hands on mine. Our familiar home, so far from the Negev kibbutz, seemed palatial; the garden’s dazzling flowers and lawns and trees brought me back to the present. My three sisters embraced me and my beloved nanny, Janet, looked at me and kissed me. Janet, born in Australia, with whom I had shared my childhood, who had scolded me and been my confidante, was there, looking at me and she, more than anyone else in the family, immediately realized that I had changed. Later, Janet, genuinely interested, would hear, listen and try to understand. Now it all seemed so strange. Our staff of black people stood beaming to welcome home their young Miss Ruth, returned from Jerusalem, from the Holy Land. I braced myself, smiled and re-entered the role of the daughter. My secret and my intentions for the future remained with me.
Days ran into weeks, and in the excitement of being welcomed home it was as if I had become some storybook heroine in our little town. I went back to my studies in Johannesburg reluctantly, met friends, enjoyed being fussed over and the luxury of home. I supposed I basked in my own importance. I wrote to Uri but had not yet started planning my return. After all, I had just come back. Invitations were pouring in; I needed time to think, to plan. I spoke about my experiences in Palestine, but found it difficult to speak about Uri and Revivim. Who could possibly understand me or visualize that tiny spot in the middle of the Negev sands where 25 young people were creating a new presence in a way so utterly far removed from the reality of South Africa. In many respects I myself was trying to hold on to the intensity of my feelings in Revivim. I was caught up in the social whirl, invited to speak about my experiences, joined ‘Habonim’. My special friend Stanley put up with my new ideas regarding them as no more than a passing romantic girlish dream.
One day, returning home, I saw a letter from Palestine for me. I remember, it was a lovely, sunny day and I had been thinking of Uri so it seemed quite natural that there would be a letter from him. I hardly noticed the writing on the envelope. I opened it eagerly and began reading. At first I did not take in the words, nor did I realize that the letter was not from Uri. I began to feel confused at what I was reading, thinking that probably my Hebrew was not good enough. But the meaning of the letter started to come through, and I knew that I was reading correctly, and what I was reading, in the letter from the kibbutz secretary, was that Uri had been killed. He and three others, all from Revivim, had been ambushed at Bir Asluj, near an ancient well, by a group of Arabs and murdered while trying to extricate two of their wounded friends. The letter said that they wanted me to know.
Janet found me sitting on my bed with the letter in my hand.
I had not spoken about my love for Uri to anyone, not even to Janet, certainly not to my older sisters who as usual were busy with their own affairs and hadn't shown much interst in my experiences in Palestine. My parents were quite proud of me and relieved that I was back in the fold, more mature and, they believed, ready to settle down and return to my former activities after all the excitement. Despite their love for their daughters, our parents had never initiated heart to heart talks at home. So I kept my dreams to myself. I gave talks to youth groups about the Zionist movement, about kibbutzim and the settlers and answered their questions as accurately as I could. I described the establishment of the eleven new spots in the Negev and the beauty of the country. But I was unable to express my aspirations to return to the Negev and my personal involvement with Uri and Revivim. I suppose even if the occasion had arisen, I was afraid of flippant reactions or amused misunderstanding for my feelings and enthusiasm.
Our lives had been protected to the extreme. Only after I had spoken to the members of Revivim who asked me about South Africa and apartheid did I begin to think about problems and situations that I had lived with all my life. Actually as children in South
Africa we were brought up supposedly without worries. Our superficial interests and personal ambitions were predominant.
On my return home I had changed, become more aware of the world around me. Seeing the life in Palestine, the courage and dynamic activity of the people, learning from our teachers, especially Moshe and Ze’ev, my meeting with Uri and Revivim had opened up a completely new dimension in my life. I had my secret plan to fulfill; to return to the Negev. I couldn’t believe Uri was not alive. How could it be? What was I to do?
I had never faced death before.
I grabbed my swim suit and rushed to the pool and swam length after length until Janet threatened to jump in after me. I refused to accept the significance of the letter. Janet held me, wet and miserable as I sobbed and tried to tell her about the letter and Uri and Revivim.
At first I remained lost in bewildered sorrow, unable to speak to my troubled parents who heard the news from Janet. But she was unable to give them many details. They realized that I had many emotional conflicts since my return, which they hoped I would overcome as I resumed my ‘normal’ life. Now, they learnt about Uri and the Negev, and understood that I was trying to cope with the shock of Uri’s death. They approached me anxiously, with comforting words and careful questioning. Although I had written enthusiastically about the Negev and had poured out my impressions of the kibbutz in the many letters I sent, they hadn’t grasped the depth or sincerity of my real feelings. It really was impossible for them to visualize a place like Revivim, or what I wanted to convey. Yet they now knew that my pain and grief were genuine and my involvement with Uri had been far more than a girlish romantic crush.
As the days passed I resolved to return to Palestine. I appeared to be engrossed in my studies or Habonim meetings, but all the while I was devising a way to go back.
In November 1947 the United Nations decided to partition the mandated territory of Palestine that tiny strip of land that was the Biblical Land of Israel, into a Jewish and an Arab State. However the Arabs rejected the plan. The British were pulling out and hostilities increased as war loomed over the 600,000 Jews. In May 1948 the State of Israel was declared and the armies of the surrounding countries swept down intending to wipe the fledgling state off the map.*
A quiet call for volunteers spread through the western world to help the war effort of the Jewish population. I decided to try as a practical nurse.
When I joined the South African volunteers, (MAHAL) once again my parents tried to stop me. But they realized that I had chosen a new life, or perhaps I had been chosen, as my father said. I knew I must honour Uri’s memory by returning to live in Israel. .
I keep Uri’s brooch with me always, but only after 50 years did I face going back to Revivim.
Ruth Stern,
The story of Ruth Stern (nee Saretzky)