A Woman Called Zosha

She was an anti-Nazi spy, a Zionist pioneer, a woman men loved. On Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Day 2003, the uhtold story of Sophia Poznanska.

The story of the life and death of Sophia Poznanska, who was known as "Zosha," had all the elements of a heroic myth. In her willingness to sacrifice her life for the sake of her mission, Zosha was the equal of one of the great Israeli symbols of heroism, Hannah Senesh, and in her ability to withstand terrible torture, she even surpassed Senesh. Before her death, she even managed to contribute her part to the Zionist ideal, when she paved roads and split rocks into gravel in the Jezreel Valley. During World War II she was in occupied Europe, where she belonged to the inner core of the "Red Orchestra," the Soviet spy ring that included many Jews among its members. But even the fact that she was beautiful and was involved in several stormy love affairs didn't rescue her from anonymity.

Here and there Zosha was mentioned in a sentence or two in books dealing with the Red Orchestra. Only after her death did the State of Israel award her a citation for fighting the Nazis. Nobody named a kibbutz after her, or even a street. Now she is receiving the exposure she deserves in a thick biographical novel by Yehudit Kafri, which is based on thorough historical documentation and research. In the novel, called "Zosha," (published by Keter, in Hebrew), Kafri describes Zosha's life story from her birth in June 1906 until her death in 1942, and her own research from 1997-2000.

Kafri, who is 67 years old, has dedicated five years of her life - three years of research and two of writing - to the reconstruction of Zosha's life. The project included 13 trips abroad, interviews with 300 people, perusal of 100 historical research papers and books, university history courses, and of course hours of sitting in front of the computer. The force that motivated Kafri on this exhausting journey was a great love - for her father.

Kafri actually wanted to write a book about her father, Fischek Kafri (Kempinsky), one of the founders of Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh, who died in 1987. Her father was dying of cancer, and before his death, she managed to interview him a little about his life. She was left with many questions. Her mother, who was also ill at the same time, told her more details and Kafri, who took care of her mother and spent a long time on Ein Hahoresh, also visited the kibbutz archive. When her mother died, she wrote a book in her memory. It was clear to her that it was time to write a book about her father. In the archive they gave her her father's file.

Kafri: "In the file there was a conversation held by Shmuel Ma'ayan of Kibbutz Ma'anit with father and with Sarah Baram, for a book that he later published about the branch of Hashomer Hatzair [left-wing Zionist youth group] in Kalisch, my father's native city. During that conversation, both father and Sarah talk about a woman named Zosha Poznanska. Father mentioned that he and Zosha had been a couple, and both mention the fact that the Nazis murdered her because she was a spy for the Red Orchestra."

Kafri was very curious to learn more details about the woman who had been her father's first love. "Then I remembered that when I was a teenager and had a boyfriend, I spoke with my father several times about friendship and romantic attachments, and he did once tell me that when he was in love for the first time, he observed the `commandment' of Hashomer Hatzair mandating sexual purity. I was very angry at him at the time, of course, and the whole issue of sexual purity seemed old-fashioned to me, and the last thing that interested me as a young woman was to hear who my father's first girlfriend was, thousands of years ago, as it seemed to me at the time, nor did he mention the girlfriend's name. But now things were different, and I decided to check a little more thoroughly."

Kafri says that she had "unusual luck," and explains: "In my mother's room in the hospice there swas a woman named Yudka Alter. She, like my father, was a native of Kalisch, and was active in Hashomer Hatzair, and she was very friendly with my father from his youth. It turned out that she was also Zosha's best friend. I brought Yudka father's photo album, and she brought her photo album, and then suddenly I saw what Zosha looked like, and that was the first thing that attracted me to her - her beauty. I decided to research her life story, and I was captivated by the story and by her. Suddenly, at my age, I had found a role model. All my life I had no role models, and it's very funny that at my age, almost 70, I am suddenly in need of such a model, but that's what Zosha has become for me."

First loves

Kafri decided to change her plans, and to write her father's life story parallel to that of Zosha. "She was my father's first love, and my father was hers, but my interest in her went far beyond her importance in my father's life," she says. "It's impossible to say [merely] that I worked on the book during those years, because for five and a half years, the lives of Zosha and of my father were simply my life in every sense - a total experience emotionally and spiritually, and in terms of research and creativity. Sometimes I felt that Zosha was my mother; after all, she could have been my mother had she not left my father. Sometimes I felt that she was my older or younger sister, because she died at the age of 36; in other words, when I wrote about her I was much older than she. Sometimes she was my good friend, and sometimes - my daughter."

Fischek Kempinsky, Kafri's father, was one of the founders of the Hashomer Hatzair branch in Kalisch, in western Poland, served as an officer in the Polish army, and came to Israel in 1929. Her mother, Sheindel (nee Zask), was a member of Hashomer Hatzair in Buzak in eastern Poland, and arrived in Israel in 1931. The Hashomer Hatzair group to which she belonged was supposed to settle at Kibbutz Ein Hashofet. Fischek and Sheindel met at an agricultural training program in Hadera, fell in love and settled at Ein Hahoresh. Yehudit is their eldest daughter, and she has two brothers, Ezra and Itamar.

After her marriage to Gad Meiri, Yehudit went to live in Kibbutz Shoval. They had three children. They left the kibbutz in 1984 and now live in Mazkeret Batya. She has written nine books of poetry, five children's books and six commissioned biographies. In addition, she has translated many books, mainly on psychology, and has received the Prime Minister's Award (1967), the Rachel Prize (1993) and a Tel Aviv Foundation stipend (1977). Nevertheless, like the heroine of her present book, she has remained largely unknown as an artist.

"Father," says Kafri, "was undoubtedly the most important figure in my childhood, the only person with whom I had a complete and confident relationship, and on whose love I could rely. A man very rich in spirit and emotion, talented in all the arts, without specializing in any one of them. He was a wonderful teacher, and very well liked. He had a very clear and balanced personality, and at the same time, as I have heard from his students, he was also strong, but without trying to be authoritarian. Everyone who saw him loved him.

"From what I'm saying you also understand what I lacked in my childhood: My mother was absent as a mother. She was a very intelligent woman, independent, interesting, but there was no motherliness in her personality, and I always say that I learned to be a mother from my father. My father taught me what motherhood is. This point, of the absent mother, is also something that attracted me to Zosha. Her mother was happy at her birth and happy with her daughter, but two years later, when she gave birth to Zosha's sister, Manya, she went into a postpartum depression from which she never recovered, and she too was completely absent from her children's lives, because for many years she was hospitalized in a mental institution. Actually, it was Zosha who assumed the role of mother to her sister, and returned to Poland from Palestine in the first place in order to take care of her sister, who had fallen ill, and that's how she came to the Red Orchestra, and finally to her death."

Zosha grew up in an assimilated home, with her father and his parents, her older brother Olek (Alexander) and her younger sister, Manya. The family was very well-to-do, and their house was located on a street that was considered the wealthiest and most beautiful in the city. Zosha met Fischek in the Hashomer Hatzair branch: She was a 16-year-old member and he was her 19-year-old group leader. Their platonic love story lasted for about three years.

Zosha came to Israel with a Hashomer Hatzair group from Kalisch in August 1925; her brother, Olek, had arrived earlier. Fischek decided to remain in Poland a while longer, to continue in his work with Hashomer Hatzair, and to serve in the Polish army. They parted very emotionally in a park on the river, near the waterfall, and Fishek recorded this separation in a poem he wrote a few months later: "Above the rushing waters / Of a noisy waterfall / You stood trembling and pale / You parted from the place of your love." He didn't know that for Zosha it was a permanent parting.

Together with her group, Zosha worked making gravel and paving roads in Afula, and there she met Simha Diamant, whom she also knew from Kalisch. Now she fell in love with him and they became a couple. Because they were both adults, they were not required to maintain sexual purity, and they started to live together. She didn't tell Fischek about it, but simply stopped writing to him.

"My father apparently understood that it was all over," says Kafri. "He said to Shmuel Ma'ayan, `I already understood from the fact that I didn't receive letters from her, that something had gone wrong there.' Later on, when I found the notebook into which he had copied the letters he wrote to Zosha from the end of 1926 until the beginning of 1931, I also found the letter that described more precisely what he felt."

"The thread woven by our heart is unraveling by itself. Look to yourself for the reasons," wrote Fischek to Zosha in October 1926. "To be or not to be - that is the question."

Throbbing heart

All during 1926 fierce ideological debates raged in Kibbutz Dalet, the settlement group to which Zosha belonged. Leopold (Laibe) Trepper, who was a friend of one of the members of the group, came to participate in these debates. Trepper was still a member of Hashomer Hatzair, but had secretly already joined the Palestinian Communist Party (PCP). During these debates, which concerned the right of the Jews to settle the land, Zosha said that the solution to the Jewish problem and the need for Jewish labor could not come at the expense of depriving the Arabs of their land.

Because of this position, Zosha finally decided not to settle on the kibbutz with her group. She left Afula, Diamant and Hashomer Hatzair, and went to live in Tel Aviv, where she joined the Ihud, a communist cell organized by Trepper, whose members afterward joined the PCP. The members of the group that was concentrated around Trepper all lived in a hut in the Yemenite neighborhood, Kerem Hateimanim.

Zosha was happy in Tel Aviv, until she received a letter from her father containing bad news: Her sister Manya's condition had been constantly deteriorating from the time that Zosha had left her and gone to Palestine, and in the past weeks she had stopped eating entirely. Zosha wrote to her friend Yudka that she didn't want to return to Poland.

"Kalisch is a place to leave, and not a place to return to," she wrote, but her sense of obligation toward her sister made her change her mind, and at the end of 1926 Zosha returned to Poland on the ship "Polania."

"It was also customary that halutzim [young pioneers] who became exhausted here from hard work would travel to visit their families in Poland and to rest a little," says Kafri. "Even I, when I was two and a half years old, in 1937, was taken by my parents to visit my grandparents in Poland, and on the same ship that Zosha had taken several years earlier, the `Polania.'"

On the deck of the ship, Zosha again met Davcho Bierzwinski, whom she had known as a girl in Kalisch, and had then met in Afula. Now they became lovers. They arrived in Kalisch as a couple at the beginning of 1927. Davcho was to remain in Poland; in the course of her work on the book, Kafri located him in Warsaw, where she interviewed him at his home. When Davcho and Zosha arrived in Kalisch, Fischek was still in the city.

"I imagine that it was very hard for him to see his beloved returning home with another man," says Kafri. He wrote to a friend at the time: "Your heart keeps throbbing, and your brain is on fire, and you think that in another minute you'll break into little pieces, and a person wants to live, he seeks a ray of light in the surrounding darkness. He longs for life, for his own life."

For a year, Zosha lived with Davcho in a village near Kalisch and took care of her sister. When Manya recovered, Zosha decided to part from Davcho, who in the meantime had started working with the Communist underground in Poland, and she returned to Palestine. She arrived in November 1927, returned to activity in the PCP, and received her first spying assignment: Trepper found her work as a maid for a British police officer who was known for harassing Communists, so that she could find his list of suspects in his pockets and warn them in time.

Immediately upon her arrival Zosha renewed her romance with Simha Diamant, which continued until she met Shmuel Cinnamon at a secret meeting of the PCP. He was 30, she was 24, and they moved in together in a hut on the Tel Aviv beach. In 1929 the British police intensified its persecutions of the communists: Cinnamon was arrested and expelled from the country. A few months later, Trepper was expelled as well. They both chose to move to Paris.

In October 1929, Fischek disembarked from the ship in the port of Jaffa. Later that month, he decided to visit his first love, who was then living on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv. He asked Zosha to come with him to the kibbutz. Fischek, who later recorded the meeting in his notebook, wrote that Zosha replied: "I am ideologically closer to that man in France [Cinnamon], but my emotions are with you. I'll come with you, Fischek, I want to come with you, I'll come with you if you don't go to the kibbutz." And he replied: "Were it not for the kibbutz, I wouldn't have come to Palestine at all."

"That's how their relationship ended," says Kafri. "For both, love was a central element in life, but even more important was ideology, and because of an ideological gap - and despite the fact that they loved one another very much - they parted."