A Night of ‘Vermin and Abomination’

The story of a determined kibbutz member who wanted to renew his German citizenship in the 1960s.

In February 1965, a terrible calamity befell Ein Hahoresh, a kibbutz affiliated with the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair movement. The incident was so grave that its publication was banned in Etzleinu, the kibbutz’s internal bulletin, lest it be seen by hostile eyes. It was code-named “the turbulent affair,” and its seriousness can only be compared, perhaps, to a demonstrative public act of conversion to another religion. An entire kibbutz struggled for a few nights, with itself and with a wayward member, over issues of morality and behavior, which today seem simply ridiculous.

At the center of the affair was our comrade Alfred Karsh, a member of a pioneering youth movement in Germany whose activists joined the founders of our kibbutz in the early 1930s. Karsh was known for his “original” opinions, which were not always consistent with those of the establishment. For example, he was worried about his pension many years before the kibbutzim were privatized. He also had a very positive view about accepting reparations from Germany. He was deeply resentful of the kibbutz which had done nothing on the eve of the war to save his parents in Germany from extermination.

But what set the “turbulent affair” in motion was his attempt to renew his German citizenship, in order to visit Berlin and examine the remains of the family property.

Nowadays, such an intention would not only be approved and encouraged by the kibbutz, but also given a hearty “Godspeed.”

Thus, at the center of the almost-tragic drama was our friend Karsh: a smart yekke, devoted dairy farmer, excellent swimmer. Opposing him was the kibbutz secretariat: the older secretary, Abba Kovner, esteemed poet, partisan fighter, soldier in the Givati Brigade and one of the country’s most outspoken opponents of the agreements with West Germany; the younger secretary, Yishai Amrami, a talented activist who would go on to enjoy a magnificent career organizing the Israel Festival, and at Yad Vashem and elsewhere; Ephraim Gilai, a veteran teacher, also a yekke, whose opinion carried weight in the kibbutz; and comrade Sheinman Itkin, a man of the orchards who breathed fire and brimstone when he got mad. Around them was the distinctive kibbutz assembly: Dozens and perhaps hundreds of overwrought members brimming with emotional dynamite.

“Amid the trenchant and turbulent explanations, angry utterances of a personal nature were also heard, and this is absolutely forbidden under the moral code of how to conduct the public dialogue in our kibbutz,” the collective’s internal bulletin wrote in its coverage of the affair, which began with issue No. 2102. The utterances themselves were not recorded.

And if they were, they were quickly erased.

Therefore, no written testimony exists of the members’ opinions. Everything we know comes from the dry, coded reports in the Etzleinu bulletin. There is no mention of the dramatic pauses, the emotional interjections, the overturning of chairs. There is no indication of the threats, the outbursts of tears, the vows of revenge. Nothing is recorded of the abusive verbal clash between the small camp called “the yekkes” and the large camp of “the Poles.” The air crackled with tension. What was it that really upset the kibbutz public? Was it Karsh’s request to return to Germany and renew his citizenship? The painful tone of voice when he said that “12 years of rage” had destroyed Germany, but we must not forget the past? The brazen effrontery of making this ostensibly innocent request on a kibbutz where most of the members believed there was no other Germany and never would be?

Did he not know that he was leaving the kibbutz no choice but to expel him shamefully, with his family, if he persisted with his demands?

From my distant youthful memories, I dredge up two points from that turbulent night. One was the horror show put on by Itkin. He was already worked up when he took the floor. Itkin was alternately pale or flushed, and even though he was an articulate speaker, his words on this occasion were incoherent, even stammering. I am certain most of those present did not understand what he said.

Itkin enumerated all the acts of butchering of the Jews in Europe, both in Germany and on the rest of the Continent. Occasionally his voice broke when he climbed to heights of pathos. The secretaries tried to calm him, his devoted wife who sat next to him begged him to cool down but to no avail. He threatened and admonished, until finally from the depths of his heart, he bellowed at Karsh: “Whoever forgives Satan, whoever goes to the country of Satan, whoever lends a hand to Satan is vermin and an abomination!” He started to choke. His wife rushed to get him a glass of water and the stunned dining room resonated with the words “vermin and abomination!”

To this day, I sometimes joke around and imitate that shattering cry of Itkin’s, and cast about for the calming glass of water.

The second peak of that night came with the remarks of Ephraim Gilai, the pedagogue. He got up, pale, and addressed the secretaries and the assembly. Beyond the windows of this dining room, he said, Karsh’s children are with their friends avidly taking in every word spoken here. As a teacher who believes in our education, I want to stop the discussion immediately! It is inconceivable to conduct it this way. I will not allow a kibbutz member to be lynched in front of his children! I demand that the discussion be referred to a special committee and that this be put to a vote now!

Unbelievably, the motion passed. How wise Ephraim’s remarks sound today, after all those years. It was later recounted that with this call, he also settled accounts with Kovner. He reminded his listeners of how Kovner had joined up with the despicable Menachem Begin, and how together they led demonstrations against the German ambassador-designate. If joining up with Satan was wrong, Ephraim asked, how could it be permissible to join with Begin?

But it’s not certain Ephraim ultimately agreed with all of the special committee’s decisions. I quote again from bulletin No. 2102: “Accordingly, ahead of the meeting of the executive of Kibbutz Artzi/Hashomer Hatzair, which will discuss this subject, namely the relations with Germany, Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh declares that the following motions be adopted:
“No ties or relations of any kind will be maintained with Germany. Furthermore, no case that deviates from the ban on ties and relations with Germany such as buying necessary machines and so on will be approved other than by the kibbutz assembly, and not by a simple, regular majority.”

The “turbulent affair” swept over our kibbutz like a great, cleansing cathartic storm. For a time, the members felt like they were living on a small kibbutz, but in the shadow of lofty events, sublime ideas, proper values and a distinctive sort of morality. But gradually things returned to their regular, erosive, petty course and the night of the “vermin and abomination” faded into oblivion.

Dairyman Karsh, who was a few decades ahead of his time and the person who perhaps innocently sparked the whole ruckus left the kibbutz. For many years he did volunteer work in a large hospital in the center of the country. Amrami, the young secretary, who also left, spread his wings and went on to important public positions. Kovner was awarded the Israel Prize for literature in 1970, founded Beit Hatfutsoth Museum of the Jewish People, and occasionally fomented minor public controversy. He was a riveting intellectual until his death. Itkin, the devoted orchard man, lived to a ripe old age, but never returned to the public arena as he did then, with his cry of “vermin and abomination.”

Veteran educator Ephraim died on his watch as a teacher at a relatively young age, after gradually retiring from public life. It’s doubtful whether people look back fondly on his effort to prevent the public lynching on that stormy night. And I, who am still occasionally disturbed by the painful episode, sometimes wake up at night, perspiring and fearful, imagining that I hear Itkin shouting outside my window: “Whoever wants to return to the country of Satan is vermin and an abomination!”

Not long ago, a friend told me he had witnessed an attempt at reconciliation between Kovner and Karsh: In 1979, 14 years after the events recounted above, Kovner staged a poetic play for the kibbutz jubilee, entitled “The Eleventh Commandment.” He wondered aloud whether to invite Karsh the cowman to play the part of the yekke in the play. It would be nice, Kovner said, if Karsh, of all people, of all the yekkes, would portray the representative of the immigration from Germany that underlies our kibbutz. In the end, Karsh was not invited. There is no doubt that the memory of the night of the “vermin and abomination” distressed Kovner himself.