The Wind That Shook Prestate Israel’s Emigrants to Crimea

In 1928, around a hundred Jews left Mandatory Palestine for Crimea, then an outpost of Stalin’s Russia. Not the greatest idea.

In September 1927, citing “telegrams from Moscow,” Haaretz reported on negotiations between a head of the Labor Battalion in Palestine and the Soviet government. The goal: to get 100 pioneers to go back and found a settlement in Crimea.

The Labor Battalion chief was Menachem Elkind, who had immigrated from Russia during the Third Aliyah, the wave between 1919 and 1923. He championed “Zionist communism” but eventually despaired of developing socialism in this part of the world.

In 1928 he boarded a ship back to Russia with a few dozen comrades. It was there they would try to establish a Jewish commune.

Not surprisingly, this generated something of a scandal. In July 1929, Eliahu Ben Horin wrote in the newspaper Doar Hayom about “the great loss we have suffered.” “These were Zionists, they were pioneers – perhaps the best of our pioneers – but they betrayed the Zionist idea and betrayed the Land of Israel,” he wrote.

As Joseph Berger-Barzilai, a founder of the Palestine Communist Party, later put it, “While the survivors of the Zionist movement were persecuted in the Soviet Union and their comrades were sent to prison and exile, there was a group of Zionists, former pioneers, agricultural laborers from the Jezreel Valley, who decided to return to the Soviet Union.”

The Soviet authorities gave the Jewish pioneers a large tract of land in Crimea, as well as sheep, a barn, a chicken coop, work animals, a tractor and farm equipment. At its height, the kibbutz numbered some 100 members. It was called Via Nova – A New Path in Esperanto. Elkind envisioned a Jewish commune on the whole peninsula.

Coincidently, as a different controversy rages in Crimea, Haaretz has received a draft of a Hebrew-language book soon to be published: “In the Wake of the Labor Battalion.” It was written by Shira Gurshman, a member of the Crimean kibbutz. The book was published in Yiddish 16 years ago and was translated into Hebrew at the initiative of Israel Gal, a high-tech executive and history buff.

'Get off the ship!'

Last year Gal came across the name of the book in a Hebrew-language Haaretz article by Ruth Bachi-Kolodny, a researcher of early prestate Israel. Gal, who in recent years has spearheaded a raft of educational projects on Jewish history, has a particular interest in the second and third aliyahs and the link between history and literature.

After a long search he found a copy of Gurshman’s book and even managed to contact one of the writer's daughters, who lives in Moscow.

Gurshman, who was born in 1906 in Lithuania, joined the Hehalutz pioneer movement in her youth. In 1923 she immigrated to Palestine and joined the Labor Battalion, quickly coming under Elkind’s spell. By the end of the decade, as a divorced mother of three, she left to join the Jewish kibbutz in Crimea.

Yitzhak Sadeh, a Labor Battalion leader and later commander of the Palmach strike force, accompanied the emigrants to the port. Sadeh called out: “Listen to me Shira, get off the ship! Take the children and come with me. They will lack for nothing! I hope I’m wrong, but you will miss your freedom in the Stalinist prison!”

Gurshman didn’t listen and the ship reached Odessa. “It was the dead of winter and all we had were sweaters and sandals,” she wrote. The group attracted the attention of passersby: “They stop us and admiringly touch our English sweaters. Our sandals, with their thick soles, also attract attention.”

From Odessa the group embarked on a 450-kilometer journey to the city of Yevpatoria on Crimea’s west coast. “The children kept shouting, ‘We want to go home,’” Gurshman wrote. “We put them to bed. In the morning we gave them hot water and black bread. They ate and shouted, ‘We want bananas!’ but they didn’t have the strength to scream for too long. We dressed them in clothes padded with cotton wool.”

The group traveled to the big city in three oxcarts. From Yevpatoria they started out early one morning for their final destination, known as Lot 13. They arrived late at night. “But the next morning I already saw trouble,” Gurshman wrote. “It was an endless field of snow, three cabins and a big house whose torn tin roof banged constantly.”

Deserted plains

The commune members reestablished the institutions familiar to them from back home; they had a common kitchen and dining room, a children’s house and a laundry. There were also romances and love affairs, just like in the kibbutzim.

Gurshman was sent to work in the barn. “It was hard in the barn. It was a cold winter. The supervisor, Lena, was in the barn to make sure the waste didn’t freeze the cows’ feet,” she wrote. “The winds raged on the deserted plains, and when they whipped your face it was hard to breathe.”

The Tatars in the neighboring village didn’t exactly welcome the newcomers. “Will grass grow on the palm of your hand? That’s how something will grow in these fields,” they said whenever they came to the commune to smoke.

Sometimes commune members would take oxcarts to Yevpatoria to bring back bread, oats, barley and wheat. “When they returned some members immediately released the oxen because they came back so hungry and cold they lay down and fell asleep immediately,” Gurshman recalled. “You could walk on them like on a bridge without them feeling it.”

Of course, Elkind was no longer one of their favorites. “If Elkind were alive we'd cut his head off! He took people from a warm place, where there was no need for warm clothes, felt boots and furs, and sent them to this country in the winter with little children born in Palestine!” Gurshman wrote.

She reported saying to him another time: “Elkind ... you dragged more than a hundred people here. What were you thinking? You dreamer, how could you consider such a thing! Just know that I’m going to kill you!”

The Jewish kibbutz in Crimea didn’t last long. “The letters from commune members became more and more gloomy,” Berger-Barzilai wrote in 1962. “The diseases, the hunger and the despair replaced the high spirits and optimism.”

In the mid-1930s the Soviet authorities began to persecute the kibbutzniks, whom they regarded as traitors and Zionists. First they turned the kibbutz into a collective farm and gave it a Russian name meaning “brotherhood of nations.” Later they sent in Ukrainians and Tatars to undermine the farm’s Hebrew pioneering character.

Many kibbutz members left; others were arrested and exiled during the Stalinist purges. In 1941 the Germans murdered those who remained.

Elkind left the kibbutz in 1934 and moved to Leningrad; four years later he was arrested “and to this day we don’t know what happened to him,” Gurshman wrote. She herself moved to Moscow in 1930, where she wrote and published stories and books. She moved to Israel in 1989 and died in 2001 at the age of 95.

“Nothing is eternal,” she wrote. “From that commune, only stories remain.”

Museum of the Jewish People