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The Road From Buchenwald

In the soil of Israel, 100 survivors of Nazi concentration camps are planting a new home at Beer Ya'aqov.

Hulton Archives/Getty Images

Across the hillside of Beer Ya’aqov, Fred Diament drove his tractor, cutting deep furrows in the hard earth. The Palestine sun had burned his skin almost as dark as the earth, but it could not hide the “39927” tattooed on his arm. Nearby at the stables, where Yashur Posnyak was unloading hay from his wagon, you could see the number on his arm, too. And in the kitchen on top of the hill, the arm that stirred the soup had its number. In the vineyards, the orange groves and the barns, the arms that picked the grapes, pumped the water and milked the cows—all had their numbers.

For these people were the survivors of Germany’s concentration camps. Here, on this hillside, they were building an agricultural cooperative, known in Israel as a kibbutz. They were building a dream that had started ten years before, and they called it Kibbutz Buchenwald.

It was a big, sweeping farm that had belonged, ironically enough, to a family of German settlers. When the war started in 1939, the family supported the Nazis, and the British had deported them. The hillside, shaded by eucalyptus trees, was cool, so the farm buildings had been turned into a rest home for officers. The land had been rented to a rich Arab. When the British left Palestine, they had given the land to the Arab Legion. But Jewish units from nearby Beer Ya’aqov defeated them in a quick skirmish in April. Now, with deep trenches still circling the base of the hill and mine fields sown along the road to Ramie, the survivors of Buchenwald had come to bring the earth back to life.

We stood on the hill near the duster of houses that the German farmer had built many years before. They were thick-walled and painted yellow in the massive style of the Rhine Valley. The largest house had a clock tower, but the clock had stopped. Half the windows were broken, and doors and tiles from the floor had been ripped out and taken away by the fleeing Arabs.

In the orange groves off to the right, the water flowed sluggishly through the irrigation ditches, for the Arabs had even crippled the pumping station. The trees had not been watered for months, and many of them were turning brown and dying.

“We are trying to save them,” Fred Diament said. “We have repaired the pumping station and are getting water to. the groves. We have to build chicken houses and incubators, because the country needs eggs badly. As for the houses — .”

He pointed to the low, squat building on the side of the hill, where General Allenby, who took Palestine from the Turks, lived for a while in 1919, and which was going to serve temporarily as the children’s quarters. Behind it was the main building with the clock tower, which would house most of the families. “There are holes in the floor. Pipes torn out. But we cannot bring our children here until the buildings have been cleaned and repaired. There is much to be done. After years of waiting to settle on our own land, there is suddenly so little time and so much to be done.”

Throughout Israel, there are more than 200 kibbutzim, started as early as 1909 and ranging in size from a hundred members to a thousand. Some are affiliated with a specific party like Mapai, which is Socialist: Others belong to Hashomer Hatzair, part of the Marxian, but non-Communist Mapam party. But Kibbutz Buchenwald is unique. It has members from all parties. It has members who are religious, and others who are completely non-religious. But it is unique above all because it is the only kibbutz in Israel which has sprung from the survivors of the German concentration camps.

“For years behind barbed wire,” said Diament, “this was only a dream. Now we must make it come true. We must show that we still have a will to live and work at our own future, not only for ourselves, but as a symbol for the rest of the Jews of Europe who are still waiting to reach Palestine.”

For Fred Diament, the dream started one day in 1939 when the Gestapo came to his house. He was 15 then. Until he was 21, all he knew was the barbed wire of Oranienburg, Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

For Yashur Posnyak, it started the day the Germans invaded Bialystok, Russia. With 40 other boys, he escaped to the hills, and blew up German railroads and supply tracks, and ambushed German patrols. Then one night he went back to Bialystok to search for his parents. The Germans caught him, and tortured him to make him talk about the partisans, but he told them nothing. Finally they sent him to Buchenwald.

For Aron Ohnhaus and Shoshanna Heyman, it started on a German farm where a hundred Jewish boys and girls were training themselves for kibbutz life in Palestine. For a while, the Nazis thought it was a labor camp and left them alone. Then in 1942, they were arrested, and most of them taken to the gas chambers. Of the original hundred, only five survived.

“It was only the dream of the kibbutz,” said Diament, “that kept us alive. We talked and planned for the day that we would start our kibbutz in Palestine. We lived collectively just as we do now. We divided the little food and water we had. We made contact with the underground. If there was a list of a thousand people to be drawn up for the gas chambers, somehow we managed to cut it to six hundred. There were plenty of others, just as strong as we were, who had nothing to hold them together. They quarreled over every scrap of food. They became beasts. They fought among themselves, instead of fighting the Germans, and they lost the one thing that kept us going—the will to survive.

“After the liberation, we decided to start our own kibbutz immediately. There were 20 of us who had stayed together through the camp. Then we were joined by a few others like Zwia Wiszick, who looked like a Polish girl and managed to spend the war as a slave laborer. We wanted to work. We wanted to dig our hands into the earth and produce something real. We heard about a German farm near Eggendorf, and got permission to go there. After two months, we moved to another farm at Geringsdorf, in the American sector, because we thought it would be easier to get from there to Palestine. We bought some blue cloth and made a Jewish flag. And on the main building we wrote ‘Buchenwald Kibbutz’ in big, Hebrew letters so that all the Germans of the countryside could see it and know that we had survived.

“But we still had no idea how to get to Palestine. Then an American chaplain, Rabbi Marcus, came to visit us. He took care of us like a father and got in touch with the Jewish Agency, trying to get us certificates to enter Palestine.

We waited for months. Finally eight certificates came, but our kibbutz had grown so quickly that only some of us could go. They sailed from Toulon in September and reached Haifa two weeks later.

“I was with the second group of sixty. There were no more certificates for us, so we decided to go through the underground. We made contact with units of the Jewish Brigade of the British Army, which were stationed in Europe. First they transferred us to Bergen-Belsen, the collecting point of the underground. Then one night, without warning, they told us to pack. They gave us British uniforms to wear, and loaded us on British trucks with the girls inside so they could not be seen. We drove until we reached Antwerp. All along the way there were patrols of the Jewish Brigade, guarding the road for us. At Antwerp, they hid us in two large houses, and we stayed there for months.

“One night they loaded us on trucks again. This time we were dressed as German prisoners of war. More immigrants joined us at Nancy and Liége, and soon there were twenty-four truckloads, with a regular escort of jeeps from the Jewish Brigade, rolling through France. At one place, the French threw stones at us, thinking we were really German prisoners, but we only laughed. Later on, at a bridge, some British MP’s got suspicious. But the Jewish Brigade major, who was in charge of the convoy, stood up in his jeep and shouted orders just as if we were a party of generals on our way to a reception.

“At Marseilles, our ship was waiting in the harbor. It was only 400 tons, and there were almost a thousand of us, jammed into the hold. But we didn’t care now. We were really on our way. Then, at Corsica, a French patrol ship stopped us. The Hagana’a men, who were in charge of the ship, told them we were going to South America. But the French captain didn’t believe them and said he had to wire Paris for instructions. In the meantime, it grew dark; we started our motor and slipped away.

“There was no more trouble for the next ten days, but a few hours from Haifa, a British patrol plane spotted us and signaled a British cruiser. The cruiser chased us and we had to stop. The British boarded us with their tommy guns, and we all came up on deck and made it so crowded that there was hardly room for them to move. We hoisted the Jewish flag and began to sing the ‘Hatikvah.’ We could see the British were nervous, and when they got us into Haifa harbor, the shore was lined with British soldiers. They took us to a detention camp.

“For a while it looked as though we’d have to start the long road all over again. After six years of it, we were sitting behind barbed wire again, only this time it was British instead of German. But we were lucky. After a week, they released us. We were one of the last groups that got through. A few days later, they began deporting all immigrants who came by way of the underground to Haifa.”

A kibbutz does not spring up over night. It takes land. It takes chickens and cows and horses. Above all, it takes a knowledge of farming and farm organization. It takes training in cooperative living. The members of Kibbutz Buchenwald spent two years getting these essentials. First, they affiliated themselves with Afikim, a veteran kibbutz in the Jordan Valley. There, each member spent over a year becoming a specialist in a specific job. They learned about fertilizing and irrigation. They learned to run a cooperative laundry, to organize a school, to raise bananas and work a tractor.

Early in 1947, they decided the time had come to start on their own, Afikim had given them a hundred chickens, and from the money they earned, they bought two cows. The Jewish Agency agreed to lend them a piece of land at Rishon Le Zion. Actually, it was just a training ground where fledgling kibbutzim could live and grow until they found permanent land of their own. The few buildings were old and dilapidated. Most of the single men and women had to live in tents. The farm was small and sandy. Until they could plant and harvest their own crops, the only way to earn money was by hiring themselves out as laborers in the surrounding orange groves.

But they learned how to organize and run a kibbutz. “Every day,” Diament said, “was a new problem in democracy. We talked everything over at general meetings. Then we would vote, and everyone had to follow the decision of the majority. Sometimes this was hard. There are certain jobs, such as working in the banana fields, which no one likes. But if the general meeting decided that a certain member should learn that job, it was his duty to learn it, or else leave the kibbutz.”

After six months of training at Rishon Le Zion, the kibbutz decided to find a piece of land for a permanent home. They applied to the land settlement office of the Jewish Agency and were given the sweeping farm of almost a thousand acres near Beer Ya’aqov. But before they could to it, the second phase of the war began, on July 10, and Beer Ya’aqov suddenly became an important base for the attack on the large Arab city of Ramie. Members of the kibbutz who were in the army were transferred to Beer Ya’aqov, and during the heavy shelling by the Arab Legion they dug protective trenches around the hill and set up a command post in the basement of the main farm building. Then the Jewish Army took Ramie and the larger city of Lydda, nearby. By the beginning of the second truce, on July 17, the area around Beet Ya’aqov was secure, and Kibbutz Buchenwald was ready to become a reality.

Now the dream that had started behind the barbed wire in Germany took shape. The Department of Settlement sat down with the officers of the kibbutz and worked out a $45,000 budget that would be given them as a loan to be repaid over a period of 25 years. There was $11,000 for seed and fertilizer, and $9,000 for mechanical equipment like plows and wagons. To repair the pumping station and install modern sprinklers for irrigation in the vegetable garden, another $9,000 was allotted. Six thousand dollars more was for the purchase of cows; $3,000 for an incubator and chickens; $3,000 for the restoration of the old buildings; and $3,000 for topographical surveys.

Today, the plows and seeds this money has bought are already becoming a part of the earth of Kibbutz Buchenwald. The vegetable fields are being planted with tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots and potatoes. Four hundred acres of corn are being sowed. In the large groves on the bill sloping toward Ramie, there will be fifty new acres of olive trees.

The pride of the kibbutz is the tractor from America. “It was a gift,” said Diament, who is the chief tractor driver. “An American businessman named Sam Rothberg came to visit us a few months ago. When he saw we had no tractor, he said he owned a tractor plant in Peoria, Illinois, and he’d send us one when he got back. Even if you had the money, you couldn’t buy a tractor like that in Palestine, and when it came, there was a real holiday, with singing and dancing. The next day, when I cut the first furrow, everyone came out to watch. Then, a week later, the Army requisitioned the tractor to build anti-tank trenches at a small village near Lydda. I went along to drive it and had just work when the Arabs counter-attacked and took the village. There I was, sitting in the middle of the village square, with firing going on all around me. So I took my rifle and started firing too. Soon our reinforcements came up and drove the Arabs back. There were four bullet holes in the tractor, but nothing vital had been damaged. When I finally brought it here after Lydda had been captured, everyone stopped work and there was another celebration.”

Even with its hundred men and women working from dawn to dusk, the kibbutz has already found that it is short-handed and needs at least 50 more members. At the moment, this shortage is being met only by the trickle of immigrants who came from Cyprus. A more pressing social problem is the numerical disproportion between the two sexes. Of the 100 members of the kibbutz, 60 are men and 40 women, and of the latter, 25 are already married. Housing conditions were bad at first. There are almost no luxuries. Women are often needed in the fields to work alongside the men. As a result, except for girls trained for kibbutz life by the pioneer youth movements, few women over 21 are likely to apply for membership, and there may soon come a time when the men at Beer Ya’aqov far outnumber the women.

The kibbutz also has had to face the issue of private property. Since it is a socialistic coöperative, everything is owned by the community. But soon after their arrival in Palestine members began to receive gifts of radios, or small luxuries like ash trays, and there was strong sentiment that they should be allowed to keep them. After months of experimenting, a compromise was finally worked out. Today, members can keep such items as radios, but only on the condition that they are available for the use of any other member.

Actually, no one at Buchenwald worries about the lack of luxuries. “People often criticize our kind of life,” said Diament, “because we can’t run down to the corner for an ice cream soda or go to the latest movie whenever we want. But we’ve made these small sacrifices in return for much more important things.”

The members of Kibbutz Buchenwald are not only building their own community, but they are opening up a new frontier for a new state. In their passionate love of the soil, they are peasants. But they are also intellectuals, translating agrarian socialism into reality. They are creating a culture, as new as the latest atomic tests, as permanent as the soil they are rooted in.

You can see this culture ferment and take shape any evening at the kibbutz. By 6:30, the workers have come in from the fields. By 7:30, they are crowding into the dining halls. The table is stacked with tomatoes and cucumbers from their own garden, which will be mixed with sour cream made of milk from their own goats. The eggs are from their own chicken houses, and the fruit from their groves. The bread is the thick, brown bread of peasants, but the talk sounds like the dinner talk of Oxford or Harvard. Someone is discussing Sinclair Lewis’ latest book. Another is debating the importance of the Marshall Plan in terms of Israel’s economy.

After the dishes have been cleared away, Meir Ahuvel, chairman of the cultural committee, reads two essays by members of the kibbutz. One concerns the education policy which the kibbutz is now considering for its schools, and it is debated hotly for half an hour. The other is gay and fanciful, and the room fills with laughter. Then Ahuvel calls on another member to play a song he has just composed. “We need new music that is not an imitation of other countries, but comes from the soil of Israel,” Ahuvel explains. “We need to express the love of our soil, the spirit of our fields, and of our work together.”

When the music is over, someone else brings out an accordion, and everyone starts to sing. It is a wild, triumphant song—sad in spots with a sort of Slavic sadness—but essentially martial. Then they dance. They join hands in a large circle for the “Hora,” the traditional dance of the Jewish youth movement. The circle goes round and round, faster and faster, with short steps backward and to the side. Some of the men and women drop out, but still the dance goes on, until it seems that no one could possibly dance that fast and that long. By the time it ends, even the strongest are exhausted.

“Six years ago,” Diament says, “I never thought we would be alive. And now we are dancing. That is the dream. That is really the dream come true.”