Yehuda Helman "Like Two Rocks"
Yehuda Helman. Never forgave himself. Photo by "Like Two Rocks"
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Marking one of the graves in the cemetery shared by Jezreel Valley kibbutzim is a tombstone inscribed with the unusual words: "Never forgave himself for not remaining there with them."

This is the grave of Yehuda Helman, one of the founders of Kibbutz Gvat, who died in June 1999, aged 92. The inscription reveals one of the most painful dramas in the history of Zionism and the Holocaust. Many survivors felt the Zionist movement had abandoned them to die, and until the end of his days Helman himself felt he personally had abandoned them.

In the summer of 1939, Helman was sent to Poland, where he joined several other emissaries of the Hakibbutz Hameuchad movement who were trying to encourage young Jews of the Hechalutz movement (which Hakibbutz Hameuchad established abroad ) to settle in Palestine. As the war approached, the movement's leaders in Poland demanded that the emissaries go home, and Helman returned to his kibbutz.

Upon his return, he wrote an article of the sort that many regard as yet another description of Jewish history based on a litany of stories about anti-Semitic persecution and abject wretchedness. His article was the inspiration for one of Haim Hazaz's best-known stories, "Hadrasha" ("The Sermon" ), whose hero Yudke disavows all of Jewish history.

As was customary in those days, Helman corresponded frequently with his wife and children while he was abroad, and these letters serve as the basis for Ora Armoni's new book, "Kmo Shnei Sla'im" ("Like Two Rocks" ), published by the Ben Zvi Institute. This is an important book. Alongside the anguished relationship between Yehuda and Batya Helman - perhaps typical of relationships among kibbutzniks - his letters reflect the ethos of being a member of Hakibbutz Hameuchad, and the absolute moral authority wielded by some of its leaders. For his part, Berl Katznelson condemned the recall of the emissaries from Poland and declared: "Ten emissaries should have stayed there and been killed there."

Like many survivors, Helman felt he was living in sin. As such, he internalized the feeling that the Jewish community in Palestine had not done everything in its power to help their brethren in the Holocaust, and that Hechalutz had also abandoned people to their fate. Many survivors felt the same way. "Where were you?" asked Yitzhak ("Antek" ) Zuckerman, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, of the kibbutzniks. In Israeli Holocaust discourse, particularly within the Kibbutz movement, few topics were more sensitive at the time. This agonizing tension, which also involved no small amount of politics, dissipated over the years, but it was central to the lives of many Israelis like Yehuda Helman. He subsequently devoted himself to developing Beit Lohamei Hagetaot, the Ghetto Fighters' House Museum.