It is 1932, and a 2-year-old girl is playing happily on the lawns and underneath the palm trees of Kibbutz Degania in the Jordan Valley. Her name is Ze’eva Vardimon, and her parents, Bluma and Eliezer, are veteran kibbutzniks.
Her name, Ze’eva, was very unusual, and her parents reluctantly explained to whoever inquired that the child had been named in honor of the 50th birthday of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, founder of the Revisionist Zionist movement. Ze’eva couldn’t understand why her name seemed special and also couldn’t understand why, when her Uncle Abba came to visit the kibbutz, he was asked to leave.
The little girl grew up, and at age 12 came across a bundle of letters from Abba to his sister Bluma. Among them was one saying, “Please look after my ‘deposit’ [pikadon in Hebrew] – my daughter Ze’eva.” She said nothing and quickly put the letter back where she had found it. But it was then that she realized that Uncle Abba was actually her father, and that his sons, Ya’akov and Yossi Ahimeir, were not her cousins but her half-brothers. Only at the age of 19, when she was living on Kibbutz Urim in the Negev, did Ze’eva reveal to others what she had learned. She changed her family name from Vardimon to Ahimeir, and the names of her parents from Eliezer to Abba and from Bluma to Hassia.
Ze’eva’s actual mother, Hassia, nee Gershkovitz, was the first wife of Abba Ahimeir. She evidently suffered post-partum depression and was unable to care for the child, so Ze’eva was sent to live with her Aunt Bluma, Abba’s older sister, in Degania. When Hassia died of tuberculosis in 1938, Abba married Sonia Estrakhan, who became the mother of Ya’akov and Yossi. When Abba and Sonia Ahimeir wanted to take Ze’eva back, Bluma and Eliezer adamantly refused to surrender her.
Seventy years later, Ze’eva (now Zavidov) still refers to the Degania couple as “Abba” and “Ima.” It was clear to her during her childhood, even if at the time she did not fully understand the loaded historical circumstances, that the name Ahimeir was anathema to the people at the kibbutz.
“As a young girl I learned to keep my mouth shut,” she says now, drawing a finger across her lips.
Last month, Ze’eva Zavidov and Ya’akov and Yossi Ahimeir embarked on a family “roots” tour, sponsored by Limmud FSU (former Soviet Union), the organization that holds conferences around the world to connect Russian-speaking Jews to their Jewish heritage and identity. The visit began in the former shtetl of Dolgi, where Abba Ahimeir was born, and then the group went on to the nearby large, country town of Babruysk, in what is today Belarus.
Abba Ahimeir grew up in Babyruysk, together with several other pillars of the Zionist movement, including Berl Katznelson, the intellectual founder of the Labor Zionism movement; Kaddish Luz, the first Speaker of the Knesset; Yitzhak Tabenkin (Berl’s cousin, and a pioneer of the kibbutz movement); and the poet David Shimoni, who among other literary talents, had translated Pushkin into Hebrew.
The first written record of Jews living in Babruysk is from the 15th century. By the end of the 17th century, 395 Jews were recorded as having paid a poll tax there. The town was incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1793, and in 1808, its Jewish residents numbered 504. There was a steady increase in the Jewish population of Babruysk following the Napoleonic wars and by 1897, 60 percent of the population of 34,336 were Jews, most of them employed in crafts, industry and trade.
A branch of the proto-Zionist Hibbat Zion movement was established in the town, a Jewish socialist movement began to develop in the 1890s, and Zionist groups became active in the early 1900s. The Katznelson and Geisinovich (later Ahimeir) families played an important role in Jewish cultural and public life. The Jews of Babruysk suffered pogroms after the 1881 assassination of the Russian czar Alexander II, nevertheless, the Jewish population of the town peaked in 1923, at about 20,000 – 54 percent of the total. Blood libel rumors circulated in the spring of 1926, but the authorities intervened, averting a pogrom.
On June 28, 1941, Babruysk was occupied by German troops. Believing that the latter would not target civilians, many Jews stayed behind; others fled eastward to the Soviet Union. Consequently, some 20,000 local Jews were shot and buried in mass graves. A ghetto and labor camps were established in and around the town and soon the Nazis began systematically executing the Jews in the ghetto.
On a visit to Kamenka, a grassy glade some eight kilometers from the town, we are told that the remaining Jews were marched along the road in the snow in the winter of 1941. Some mothers concealed their babies and in desperation passed them over to bystanders who were watching. Five hundred Russian soldiers were forced to dig ditches and were then shot and fell into them, followed by some 10,000 Jews. By 1943 all the labor camps in the area had been liquidated and the remaining Jews killed. The few who escaped joined the partisans in the surrounding forest. On June 29, 1944, the Red Army liberated Babruysk.
In August 1948, after a long struggle, the surviving Jews of Babruysk, most of whom had returned after fleeing east to the Soviet Union, succeeded in opening a synagogue, registering a religious community of more than 1,000 members, which the communist authorities closed after a few months. Thereafter, worshippers gathered for prayer in private homes.
By 1959 there were 15,600 Jews, most of whom meanwhile left for Israel and elsewhere. Today, according to Rabbi Shaul Habibo, the town’s young Chabad rabbi of Tunisian origin, from the Israeli city of Kiryat Malakhi, there are now about 2,500 Jews in Babruysk – including a small Reform community. It was only in 1989 that a Jewish religious community was permitted to register officially.
‘My brother Meir’
Abba Ahimeir was a journalist, historian and political activist. He was born Abba Shaul Geisinovich in Dolgi in 1898, moving to Babtuysk as a young boy. The family moved to Palestine in the early years of the 20th century. From 1912 to 1914, he attended the Herzliya Gymnasium high school in Tel Aviv. In 1914, he was in Babruysk for the summer and was unable to return to Palestine when World War I broke out; he was forced to complete his studies in Russia. He participated in a Zionist Conference in Petrograd (later Leningrad and then St. Petersburg) in 1917, and in 1920, left Russia for good. He changed his surname to Ahimeir – literally, “my brother Meir” – in memory of his brother who had been killed in a Russian pogrom.
In Palestine, as a follower and close associate of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Ahimeir established a radical and extremist branch of the Revisionist movement, and later a group known as the Brit Habirionim, which can be loosely translated as “alliance of thugs.” In 1933, British Mandatory police arrested several of its members, including Ahimeir, charging them with conspiring to murder Haim Arlosoroff, a prominent leader of the Labor Zionist movement, on the Tel Aviv beach – an event that deeply traumatized the Yishuv, the Jewish community of Palestine at the time. The murder has never been satisfactorily explained to this day, despite an official inquiry in 1982 that exonerated Brit Habirionim. For his part, Ahimeir was never charged with a crime, but he was detained for some time. Conspiracy theories still abound – it was other Jewish extremists; it was Arabs; even the work of German agents because of an uncorroborated love affair between Arlosoroff and Magda Ritschel, who in the interim had become the wife of Josef Goebbels.
Brit Habirionim was a clandestine, self-declared fascist faction within the Revisionist Zionist movement, active between 1930 and 1933, and founded by Ahimeir, the poet Uri Zvi Greenberg and writer Joshua Yeivin. The organization’s ideology was known as Revisionist maximalism and, to a large extent, was modeled upon Italian fascism. It called for the Zionist Revisionist movement to adopt the principles of the Mussolini regime to create a “pure nationalism” among Jews, rejecting communism, humanism, internationalism, liberalism, pacifism and socialism.
Ze’eva says that she once confronted her father, who died in 1962, demanding that he tell her the truth about the Arlosoroff affair. “He told me, ‘I swear on the names of my children and my parents that neither I nor any of the Revisionists had anything to do with the murder of Arlosoroff.’” Ze’eva remembers how when Bluma wanted to attend the Arlosoroff trial in order to demonstrate support for her brother, the secretariat of Kibbutz Degania refused to sanction the bus fare. Kaddish Luz privately gave her the money so she could go.
Ze’eva adds that her father told her that his adversaries would have believed it, “if they had been told that in Russia, I had dried up the Volga.” She says the association with the name Ahimeir, and by extension, the Arlosoroff affair, lingers to this day and she has often been the victim of historical hatred. This is confirmed by her daughter, Ada Zavidov, the rabbi of Kehilat Har-El in Jerusalem, the oldest Reform congregation in Israel, who says that even three generations later, mention of her grandfather’s name in a conversation is likely to elicit negative reactions.
In an unusual historical constellation, another participant in the roots tour was Gita Vered-Katznelson, the 86-year-old niece of Berl Katznelson, one of the intellectual founders of Labor Zionism, an instrumental figure in the establishment of the modern State of Israel, a co-founder and editor of Davar, the influential newspaper of the workers’ movement, and a founder of the Clalit health maintenance organization.
Berl Katznelson and Abba Ahimeir grew up together in Babruysk and enjoyed a close friendship despite being at opposite poles of the Zionist movement. Katznelson grew up in the Hovevei Zion movement, and from childhood was determined to settle in Eretz Israel. In Russia, he taught Hebrew literature and Jewish history and in 1909, he immigrated to Palestine where he worked as a farmer.
Together with his cousin, Yitzhak Tabenkin – also from Babruysk – Katznelson was one of the founding fathers of the national Histadrut labor federation. Katznelson was especially known for his desire for peaceful coexistence between the country’s Arabs and Jews. He was an outspoken opponent of the Peel Commission’s 1939 partition plan for Palestine, and stated: “I do not wish to see the realization of Zionism in the form of the new Polish state with Arabs in the position of the Jews and the Jews in the position of the Poles, the ruling people. For me this would be the complete perversion of the Zionist ideal...”
Gita Vered-Katznelson remembers that poet David Shimoni had been present at her wedding, and that he had been Abba Ahimeir’s teacher in Babruysk.
Two photographic exhibitions specially created by Limmud FSU were displayed in the Limmud conference in Minsk and later in Babruysk. One, curated by Dr. Joel Rappel, depicts the life of Abba Ahimeir and was introduced by Yossi Ahimeir; the other, curated by Yoram Drori, shows the life of Berl Katznelson and was opened by Vered-Katznelson. Both exhibitions will also be shown at the next Limmud FSU conference in Israel – in Eilat at the end of the year.
Ze’eva Zavidov’s brother Ya’akov Ahimeir, born in 1938 in Ramat Gan, is a familiar face to all Israelis. He is a current-affairs editor and presenter for Israel’s Channel 1, and the host of its Saturday night foreign news and culture magazine, “Ro’im Olam.” As befits a senior journalist, he keeps his political beliefs close to his chest, but has no hesitation in expressing his admiration for his father.
Ya’akov received the Israel Prize in 2012 for his work in the field of communications, and two weeks ago it was announced that he is the 2016 laureate of the B’nai B’rith World Center Lifetime Award for Excellence in Diaspora Reportage.
Ze’eva’s youngest brother, Yossi, born in 1942 in Jerusalem, keeps the Revisionist flame burning. He is a journalist and chief editor of the ideological quarterly Ha-Umma (The Nation). A Knesset member for the Likud party in 1995-96, he is director general of the Jabotinsky Institute, in Tel Aviv. Founded over 70 years ago, the institute’s aims are to foster and disseminate the legacy of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and the Revisionist movement, and to encourage scholarly research. Yossi has also established, in his parents’ old home in Ramat Gan, a small private museum called Beit Abba, containing family memorabilia and all the books and articles written by Abba Ahimeir during his lifetime.
In another interesting historical reversal, it would seem that despite Ze’eva Zavidov’s loyalty to her heritage and her father’s memory – together with a visceral dislike of David Ben-Gurion for “betraying” her father by not showing any support for him during the Arlosoroff affair – the Degania influence of Labor Zionism seems to be the predominant theme in her life.
Ze’eva states proudly that she was an active member of Peace Now, and her daughter, Ada, remembers her mother participating in almost daily demonstrations of the Women in Black, an anti-war movement, outside Begin’s official residence during the Lebanon War, and later, during the first intifada. Two years after the 1982 massacres at the Palestinian refugee camps Sabra and Chatila, in Beirut (then occupied by Israeli forces), she wrote to the editor of Maariv and asked him to publish in her name a declaration that if Begin was not going to set up a committee of inquiry into that event, then she would prefer that he not set up one in connection with the Arlosoroff murder. Her appeal was published on the front page of the newspaper.
Ze’eva remembers participating in demonstrations against Jewish settlement in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. “I saw that almost all the other demonstrators, including the Israelis, were waving Palestinian flags. I was deeply offended and asked them why there weren’t any Israeli flags as well.”
She regrets what she sees as the betrayal of the current right wing of Likud of its democratic and progressive origins, and points out that it has been deprived of its moderate and liberal voices, citing the disappearance from the active political arena of people such as Benny Begin, Dan Meridor, Michael Eitan and even President Reuven Rivlin, from the party’s leadership. “Unlike my father, they, unfortunately, are not fighters,” she says. “Bibi is the root of all evil. He lacks any moral compass.”