Saved From History's Black Hole

Journalist Yigal Sarna began investigating the life of his non-biological grandfather, and uncovered the tale not of a great man, but of an adventurer who possessed many Israeli characteristics long before there was an Israel

The name of Shmuel (Sami ) Hochberg, one of the founders of Nes Tziona, is engraved on a sign posted at one of the town's junctions. On the sign, he is listed as one of the town's founding dozen - pioneers who purchased land in the area, southeast of Tel Aviv, started families and organized agricultural-communal work in the settlement.

Sami Hochberg

Hochberg died well before the establishment of the State of Israel. He did not rank as one of Zionism's important leaders, nor was he a trailblazer in local politics. The journalist Igal Sarna considers Sami Hochberg his non-biological grandfather, since his mother was married for some years to Hochberg's son, Emile, before she met Sarna's father.

When Sarna started to write about his mother's life, he came across the story of this man, the father of her first husband - a journalist and editor, a restless individual who liked to wander the world. It was Hochberg's peripatetic personality, in fact, that brought about his violent, premature death. Sarna followed his travels around the globe, and wrote about Hochberg's life in a newly published book, "Sokhen Mefukpak" ("Dubious Agent," Masmerim publishers, in Hebrew ).

Sarna defines Hochberg as a man of small stature, a second- or third-rank historical figure who became enmeshed in a few grand episodes. For Sarna, the study provided an opportunity to tell a local history from the intimate standpoint of a mostly forgotten figure. The book depicts Hochberg as a real character, a person motivated by an array of calculations, in addition to his Zionist ardor; his life had inspiring moments, and also some not-so-wonderful experiences.

Sami Hochberg was born in 1869 to a solidly established family of farmers in Bessarabia (today in Moldova and Ukraine ). Studying business in Odessa, he became exposed to the Hovevei Zion movement. In 1889, he journeyed by sea to Jaffa, and joined a group of settlers at Nahalat Reuven, south of Rishon Letzion. He coaxed his father into sending him money for the purchase of land in the area. With two brothers who joined him, Peretz and Zvi, Hochberg planted vineyards; a few years later, he returned to Bessarabia, and came back to Eretz Israel with his parents, four sisters, and all of the family's capital.

The Hochbergs settled in Wadi Hanin, which, with Nahalat Reuven, later became Nes Tziona. When the colony became mired in economic difficulties, and the Hochbergs' savings ran out, Sami found work as a teacher at the Mikveh Israel agricultural school nearby, and went with his first wife, Milka, to live on the premises. He had, in this period, an affair with another woman, who gave birth to Hochberg's first child, Shulamit, who died at a young age from a disease. When Milka committed suicide, Sami moved to Tiberias, where he began teaching at a school associated with the Alliance Israelite Universelle network; he never returned to live with his family in Nes Tziona.

In Tiberias, Hochberg became romantically involved with Rosa Duek, who was also employed as a teacher at the Alliance school. The two were married in Beirut in 1903; as Alliance emissaries, the couple traveled to Iran to establish Jewish schools there for boys and girls.

Sarna dwells on letters that Hochberg sent from Senna, Iran, to senior Alliance officials in Paris, and compares these missives to reports that Hochberg sent to his family in Nes Tziona. Writing to his Alliance bosses, he elaborated on difficulties and innumerable expenditures he encountered, and made repeated requests for money. Hochberg's letters to Wadi Hanin, on the other hand, were filled with promises of financial assistance - apparently in response to his family's precarious economic circumstances and its mounting hostility toward a son who was pursuing a career overseas.

Sarna quotes a letter sent by Sami Hochberg to his brother Tzvi in January 1904: "You accuse me falsely of coolness in relations to you; I am at a loss to understand what I have done to you. For days I was lost and aimless: I longed so much to see my ailing parents. But what can I do, I am tied to the complications of my life, which have brought me to a faraway land."

In Senna (also called Sanandaj, today in Iranian Kurdistan ), Sami and Rosa's eldest son, Theo, was born. In 1908, a special inspector was sent by the Alliance in Paris to audit the Hochbergs' expenses in Iran. This review found financial irregularities: Hochberg was suspected of fraud; he lost his job, and had to leave Iran immediately. Rosa and Theo traveled to Aleppo, Syria, where Emile - Hochberg's second son and the first husband of Sarna's mother - was born.

Colleague to Jabotinsky

Hochberg traveled to Constantinople (Istanbul ), the Ottoman capital, where he met a young, enthusiastic Zionist journalist named Ze'ev Jabotinsky; together with a local Zionist, Victor Jacobson, Jabotinsky and Hochberg decided to create a newspaper designed both to promote Zionist interests and to persuade Ottoman authorities that Zionists were loyal to the empire.

Hochberg became business manager of the newspaper, called Jeune Turc. Sarna's book describes him as a wheeler-dealer who tried his hand at any number of things, and who was described by his contemporaries as a "dubious character." Richard Lichtheim, who had served as editor of the Zionist journal Die Welt before joining Jeune Turc, described Hochberg in one of his books as a "strange character who dabbled in a number of professions in a life full of changes and turnabouts ... This diminutive man's heart was dedicated to Dr. Jacobson and to Zionism, but he wanted, first and foremost, to secure money. For him, politics and profit were not distinguishable concepts."

The late Dr. Michael Heyman, who served for many years as director of Israel's Central Zionist Archives, relates in Sarna's book that Hochberg is not the only such character to disappear in Zionist historiography. "I've come across many such persons in the Zionist Archive - you don't know where they lived or when they died," Heyman reflected. "They disappear suddenly and leave black holes."

The one moment Hochberg achieved any notoriety occurred in May 1913, when he wrote a detailed report for the Zionist leadership about Arab nationalists. Sarna writes that this is the only document authored by Hochberg known to historians. Hochberg declared in it, "If Zionism chooses from the start to maintain close ties with Arab nationalism, we will prevent extremists from leading them." Hochberg even took part as an observer in the 1913 Arab Congress in Paris, and tried to forge an agreement between Zionists and Arab nationalists; his effort failed.

When World War I erupted, Hochberg returned to Constantinople. In the meantime, his relatives in Nes Tziona lived in dire poverty, and were even close to starvation. Sami's father, Mordechai Hochberg, died in 1914, at age 76; five months passed before word of his death reached his son. The elder Hochberg died with feelings of resentment and anger toward his son for having left the Land of Israel, and for wasting or misappropriating family funds. Sarna discovered that after 1915, Hochberg made frequent trips to Romania, which at the time was neutral in the war, and that he spied for Germany. His mission was to encourage Romania to shed its position of neutrality, and join the Central Powers.

Hochberg worked for the German military attache and ambassador in Bucharest, and also for Germany's military intelligence. In 1916, after visiting his wife and sons in Switzerland, he was detained at a crossing point in a region of Transylvania, then controlled by Hungary, and kept in custody for several months. After Romania invaded Transylvania and declared war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany's ally, Germany declared war on it, and Hochberg's mission became obsolete. At the end of 1916 he was deported back to Constantinople.

In February 1917, Sami Hochberg died, after falling ill after a meal at a Constantinople restaurant. He was 46, and his symptoms suggested poisoning - at the time a well-known method of disposing of undesirable elements in the Ottoman Empire. Sarna was unable to track down his place of burial. Was Hochberg really poisoned, and if so, by whom? No investigation was undertaken at the time.

'They got rid of him'

Igal Sarna has a theory: He believes Hochberg was involved in too many matters, became trapped by various newly defined national borders, and ultimately fell into the wrong hands.

"Zionism was a clever movement comprised of sophisticated people who were extremely attentive to [diplomatic] processes," he says. "In contrast to Sami, who was 'gripped' by Turkey and Germany, Zionism identified the new boss: the English. Hochberg was a horse who knew only one stable: the Turks. When he returned to Istanbul the empire had already crumbled, and he became a burden to the Turks and Germans. So they got rid of him."

Sarna traveled in his subject's footsteps, trying to draw inspiration from places where Sami Hochberg lived and visited. He writes about hotels in Istanbul and Paris, and coffee shops in Cairo, while sitting in them and listening to their walls, trying to hear echoes of events that occurred a century ago.

Little is left of old Nes Tziona other than memorial stonesand a few old houses that are being torn down right now; a new multi-story building is being constructed over their rubble.

"I live in a house where my grandfather lived, and this is the house where I was born," Reuven Hochberg declared on the phone. But the structure that was home to Tzvi Hochberg, Sami's brother and Reuven's grandfather, was torn down by a contractor, and a new apartment building was built in its stead. The contractor persuaded Reuven to buy an apartment in the building, and hung in the lobby two old photographs of Nes Tziona and a memorial plaque.

Reuven Hochberg states: "Sami was a man of the world, but he did not leave descendants. In contrast, my grandfather spent his life in Nes Tziona, and had five children, who sired a wonderful clan of dozens of grandchildren and great grandchildren." Reuven was surprised to learn that Sami Hochberg in fact did have descendants. Not only Igal Sarna, who has adopted him as a non-biological grandfather 90 years after his death - but also genuine grandchildren. Sami's oldest son Theo had six children; they came from different mothers, and were born in different points on the globe. In Paris, Sarna tracked down one of Theo's daughters, who is mentioned toward the end of the book.

In 1907, Sami's brother Tzvi Hochberg established Nes Tziona's first school, and served as its principal for 24 years. His will, which includes innumerable letters, salutations and speeches, is kept at Nes Tziona's founders house. One of his distant descendants is Amiram Hochberg, who 14 years ago murdered his spouse Shlomit Bleichman and her mother Ida, and tried to bring their son to Switzerland. He is serving a life term in prison.

Sarna relates that as he investigated Sami Hochberg's meandering life, he found early traces of what subsequently became Israeli traits: a survival instinct, dexterity in the international arena, impatience and a need for instant gratification. "The Diaspora elements come back," Sarna concludes. "Sami is a character from the past who is tied to the present, as well as to our future. The problem is that we, too, are liable to end up like him, in anonymous death, in a kind of black hole."