Student Years and Wanderings

In the early summer of 1912, when I was a tall seventeen-year-old youth, my wish of several years’ standing came to fulfillment: I traveled to the land of Israel. My father still had not seen the land of Israel, but he made it possible for me to visit the land, then a Turkish province. I departed as soon as the term in the Gymnasium was concluded. By now I had finished the seventh “class” and one year was still left before graduation. I went first to Kursk to meet my companion, the arrangement having been made by my father. Mr. Supraski was not of my age—he was 36 years old, the father of a family, and a delegate to several Zionist Congresses. I stayed one or two days at his home. The arrival of a gymnasiast from the capital was an event in the dull life of a few young girls in Kursk and they came to meet me in the garden of Supraski. A little dog bit me as I approached the waiting group, but true to the code of behavior, I did not even turn around—yet the signs of the dog’s teeth could be seen decades later.

From Kursk we travelled by train—stopping I believe at Kiev—to Vienna. There we stayed for a week. I went to museums, spent time at the Prater, and attended a meeting of the Parliament, which I remember only hazily. With Supraski I went to the cemetery where Theodor Herzl’s tomb—in black granite if I remember right—was next to his father’s grave. Another part of the same cemetary was Christian. I was in a mood that found expression in an elegy.

From Vienna we went to Trieste—a bustling city, then a part of the Austrian empire and its chief port. After two days we boarded the “Vienna,” the boat on which, I believe, Herzl had made his voyage to the land of Israel about a decade earlier. This was my first sea voyage. The blue water of the Adriatic and of the Mediterranean, the seagulls following the ship, crimson stony Crete, and the colorful sunsets, all impressed me. In Port Said we spent one night, and the silvery calm water of the port, with numerous boats and shouting Egyptians, was again a new and exotic scene to my eyes and ears. We traveled now in the first class of some Ottoman ship, and the food, served with innumerable dishes, including big cakes with candles burning inside casting a reddish illumination, had a flavor out of the Thousand and One Nights in the capital of el-Rashid. Because of the Turkish-Italian war our ship went all the way to Beirut. There I lent my passport to a Jewish youth who had left Russia to escape service in the Tzarist army. After he entered the country (Ottoman Turkey), the passport was brought back to me on board, and I went to visit Beirut and the American University.

We came to Jaffa, and shouting Arabs in boats tossed about by waves took us off the ship far from the shore and brought us to the stony steps; Supraski read me a letter from my father, and reminded me to kiss the earth for him—he had not yet been in Israel, the land of his dreams. But I reserved the carrying out of my father’s wish until a visit to a hill in Rehoboth.

Tel-Aviv was three years old. I still see it with the Gymnasium on Herzl Street, the only store near the railway track, and a little stretch of a boulevard and a few streets. On Nahlat Benjamin Street I shared my room in a little house that pretended to be a hotel with Kaplansky, a young engineer, who later became known as a political figure. Bezalel Jaffe, a distant relative, was one of the founders of Tel-Aviv, and I was received warmly at his home. We attended some classes at the Gymnasium.

Supraski made the itinerary. We visited Rishon le-Zion, where we were shown the vinepresses. I bathed in a reservoir in an orange grove in Nes-Ziona. In Rechoboth, at a private party in the house of an American cantor, I saw a girl whose face and figure caught my imagination; she had large dark eyes, a Roman nose, was dreamy, and was an embodiment of my taste then, an Oriental beauty; she was, as I found out, only fourteen years old, but ripe for that age. I was in love with her at first sight. I hardly spoke to her, if at all. The next morning a lady guest at the little hotel in which we were staying volunteered to show me where the girl lived and we went to a little one-story house with green shutters; the girl—Esther Bashist was her name—came out, and I saw her again. For many years she was in my thoughts my future bride. To her and her little house I wrote some poetry, and for the next ten years, in faithfulness to her, I preserved my “innocence” or celibacy, until I found my real companion in life.

We went as far south as Katra (Hedera), and on donkeys’ backs traveled to Ekron and Hulda. Then we went to Jerusalem and to the Wailing Wall. I was deeply impressed by the old city with its narrow streets, and by everything I saw there. Leaving Jerusalem for Tel-Aviv, I wrote in the train a piece of poetry “At the Wailing Wall.” It was, I believe, the first of my writings ever printed.

The journey from Tel-Aviv to Haifa took three days, the wagon being drawn by tired horses through deep sand dunes; there were no paved roads. We stopped at Petak Tikva, Hedera and Zichron-Jaacob, and I remember many details of these overnight stops. From Haifa we went by train to Merhavia. This was the only settlement in the Emek (the plain), presently teeming with settlements; and it had no building but the old sarai of the sheik who had sold the “village” and the land. I slept in the field among the tall sheaves of harvested rye and watched the full moon. We went on to Degania, which was new then, crossed the Jordan, slept in Kinnereth on the shore, went up to Poria in the mountains, and spent time in Migdal. My father was the initiator and organizer of the group that had purchased Migdal, but he himself did not participate in the ownership since he wished the movement he started to be democratic and popular and not exclusive, as Visotzki and other people whom he influenced to purchase the land wanted it to be. We did not go farther north, nor did we visit south of Hedera. At about that time Ruhama, in the south—my father’s second “pioneer colony”—was in the throes of being born.

We spent five weeks in Palestine. I parted with Supraski, who felt a little ill in Tel-Aviv, and I went to Egypt on the deck of an Arab boat. I slept in the life boat that was suspended above the deck, alone amidst the barefoot Arabs, probably pilgrims. On the train from Suez to Cairo it was so hot that I could not help but drink water from the tap in the dirty toilet compartment, and I wonder than I did not catch some disease. In Cairo I spent several days, went up the Cheops pyramid, pulled and pushed by three paid guides, and sitting to rest halfway up felt the immensity of the structure over the great valley.

On the streets of Cairo, as before in Vienna, prostitutes approached the seventeen-year-old youth, without evoking in him even the slightest desire to follow them.

In Alexandria I boarded a Russian ship bound for Odessa. I visited Piraeus, went to Athens, and climbed the Acropolis—and was almost late getting back to the ship. In Smyrna, on Turkey’s Aegean coast, I went with two students from Petersburg to see the town and the surroundings; from afar our guide pointed out the place where, he said, Troy once stood—which, I understand, could not be the true site. Two oarsmen in their boat carried us to the ship in Smyrna harbor. The two cocky students in white helmets had some disagreement with the oarsmen, and when one of the students pulled a revolver out of his pocket to intimidate the men, one of these, a true bandit, beat him over his helmeted head with the oar, and only the helmet saved him; there was blood to all sides. I bent down to help the wounded, and the people who witnessed the scene from the ship told me later that by this movement I saved myself, since the other oarsman, behind me, was about to stab me with his knife. The shouts from the ship made the oarsmen let us out, to another boat, or to the ship itself.

In Istanbul I wandered alone, saw Hagia Sophia, visited Perun and Galata. I saw the dirt and the colors of the oriental city, and the little wooden cubicles on the streets where brothel women called to the marines. Then, back on the boat, I remember its quiet glide through Bosporus, a storm in the Black Sea, and the landing in Odessa and a walk on its promenade above the port. From there I proceeded to Kiev. On Kiev’s main street I chanced to meet Supraski who was on his way back from the land of Israel.

It was the middle of the summer when I returned to Moscow. Riding in a horse-driven carriage through the street where Mme. Chaulet lived, I was filled with reminiscences of the years I used to visit her almost daily between the ages of seven and ten. Returning from the south, the summer in Moscow felt chilly. On August 16 (old style), as usual, the classes started. I had before me my last year, the eighth class.

Already the year before I had edited the class journal, actually printed it on a typewriter several times; the main illustrator was Golz, a pupil who first studied with Daniel, but being twice left to repeat a year, was now with me in the same class. To be an editor gave me some pleasure.

Once there occurred a small—or in the world of a Gymnasium class a big—disturbance. The class had to announce to the German teacher that our homework was not done: there had been an evening of dancing in some girls’ school the night before. As the teacher’s favorite, I was asked by the class to announce the failure. The teacher did not accept the collective “strike,” and called the Inspector. Finding the class in revolution the Inspector summoned the guards. The end of the story was that Gorbov and I got a miserable mark in conduct and were barred for a season from the balls and concerts—the big events in the Gymnasium—and forbidden to visit any place of amusement in town for many months. I heard that at the teachers’ meeting even our exclusion from the school was considered. I certainly was not a favorite of the director, Vasily Pavlovitch Nedatchin. He had a reputation as a liberal, but I am not sure that he was free from antisemitism—he was something of a libertine; certainly he had an affair with the mother of a close school friend of mine, who by now was in a lower grade. Yet Nedatchin compelled our French teacher to marry a girl whom this teacher, a bachelor, had made pregnant.

As two years before, I worked hard. I excelled in mathematics. Before graduation the final exams had to be passed, and I remember especially the written mathematics examination: it was held, as other exams, in the very big and high-ceilinged Aktovi Sall (Festivities Hall), each student at a separate desk, distanced from all other desks. I finished a full forty minutes before the next one (Golunski) and handed in the examination papers and left the hall, and certainly there were capable students among my classmates.

I knew history books by heart, and won high praise for my Russian composition. My permanent protector was Boris Ivanovitch Dunaev. His lectures were inspired. He loved the old Russian literature and traveled in northern regions and collected bylins, or songs and ballads, often of epic character. Once the teacher of English, Eduard Isaievitch Radunski, stopped before me in the class, and could not help telling me that at one of the teachers’ meetings Dunaev had expressed his belief that I would be the future great Russian poet.

I, too, liked the old Russian bylins, and the charms of the language. And whether it was the story of Protopope Abbakume, sent away into exile for heretical views, or the song about the young merchant Kalashnikov, by Lermontov, or the tribulations of Turgenev’s Rudin, whom I defended in a circle on literature under Dunaev that came together some evenings, I lived in Russian literature, and everyone thought that after graduation I would study philology. Once during the physics lecture, I believe it was the last year, I was observed by the teacher Baranov reading a book by Merejnovski on Tolstoi and Dostoievsky, and he, with some measure of respect to this interest of mine, took the book away and gave it to the Inspector (second only to the Director) Vladimir Pavlovitch Goncharov, who was also the librarian; but I was not scolded. I studied Latin second to none in the class; however in modern languages I did not excel, neither did I show great interest in natural sciences, if there were any courses in the last grade; but Russian, mathematics, Latin and history were considered the basic subjects.

It would take many pages to write of the colleagues who studied with me. Certainly there were talented men among them; I have already mentioned Zavadski, who became one of the leading stage directors in Russia. Some never proved their abilities because the war (World War I) and especially the revolution either killed them or reduced them to littleness. Of poets in our class there were three: Kharlamov, Gorbov, and myself. The first of these was an introvert; with Gorbov, however, I was on close terms.

About the time we finished the last grade and graduated, Kharlamov printed a booklet of his verse, and Gorbov and I printed a booklet together, each of us contributing, I believe, twelve pieces of poetry. I paid for this edition since Gorbov had no money to spend, as he said. We chose a miserable little press, which after the proofreading reset the pages—apparently they needed to use the types for some other printing job while waiting for our corrections, and so there were new typesetting errors introduced after proofreading. The booklet, entitled Stikhi (Poetry) was a success among our friends. At about the same time, or a little earlier, my poem “At the Wailing Wall” was printed in Rassviet, the leading Zionist weekly (or bi-weekly) published by Daniel Pasmanik, in Petersburg; it was the poem I had written on the train on leaving Jerusalem the summer before. A few months later, visiting the editorial room of Rassviet, I was told by the editor that I should continue to write.

I finished the Gymnasium in 1913, which was the three-hundred-year jubilee of the House of Romanov on the throne of all Russia. I received a gold medal at graduation, an equivalent of “summa cum laude.” It had on it the pictures of the first and last of the house of Romanov. Golunsky, Murahovsky and I were clearly the best in the class. Murahovsky was a silent, friendly, and industrious pupil. But in our class seven gold medals were given, and it was said that it was on account of Nedatchin’s, the Director’s, leaving that year, that the school made this rather unusual “splash”—unless our class had a true collection of very capable students.

The summer after my graduation—and what a feeling of freedom and relief—we three brothers spent several weeks in Finland. There, after a visit in Viborg and Helsinki (Helsingfors), we came to an isle in the Scheres. The travel by steamboat between the innumerable islands, with the sea narrowing to the size of a river and then again broadening to wide expanses, was an unforgettable experience, and throughhout my life I have wished to visit those islands once more. On the small island on which we landed we left our luggage on the pier with nobody to take care of it, and found it still there when we returned after finding a room in the house of some fisherman. Possibly we spent there a week. With Alexander I went to Abo (Turku of today). Again together with Daniel, we went northward from Helsinki on one of the lakes, so numerous in Finland, and descended southward, slowly, on a boat that went through many sluices or gates, the level of water being adjusted after each descent from gate to gate.

Though I had graduated from the Gymnasium with a gold medal, I was not accepted to the Moscow Imperial University because that year a new measure was introduced. Until that year of 1913, Jews were accepted only if they excelled—thus the recipients of medals filled the numerus clausus. But this arrangement compelled the Jewish gymnasiasts to study hard and thus many of them became the best students in their classes. Therefore in 1913 the antisemitic minister of education Kasso changed the procedure to a “lottery” ; henceforth not the Jewish students with the best marks, but those few to whom chance was gracious, would be accepted. At the offices of Moscow University I met an aspirant by the name of Burstein, from Balti in Bessarabia, who told me in advance that he would win the lottery, since his father was the managing agent on the estate of an important Petersburg bureaucrat. And in fact he won the lottery.

I did not regret at all not having been admitted to the University in Moscow, and made plans to study abroad. I thought of Italy, and bought a book to study Italian. Together with the choice of land of study I had before me the choice of the faculty—and this, to the surprise of those who knew me, was to be medicine. Actually my mother was insistent on that. I cannot claim that I myself had a strong inclination to this field, or that I had a burning desire to help humanity as a medical doctor. Yet I did have rather strong desires to be of some help, especially to my own race, and so ancient history, and in particular the history of the Jewish people was not unfamiliar to me. I was most interested in literature, but not in studying philology, which appeared too dry to me; I also felt an inclination toward architecture and interested myself in chances to study it—but not seriously enough. Actually, I was not attracted by any profession, and led a detached or dreamy way of life. In medicine I was interested in ophthalmology, and several times visited the Rumiantzevo library, the largest in Moscow, reading there on eyes, and even devising a plan for reducing myopia by cutting off a slice from the lens, thus decreasing its refractory power. For medical studies I had a certain disinclination, not believing in my abilities in chemistry, and thus in pharmacology. Before his exams, I gave some help in composition to my brother Alexander, who finished his Kommarcheskoe Uchinie (High School) the same year as I did; but I was aware of his far greater abilities in chemistry, a subject that did not attract me.1

My father advised me to talk over the choice of university with a lawyer, Urison, a friend of his; he advised me to choose Montpellier in the south of France. I still remember many episodes of my journey to Montpellier. One late evening and night I spent on the train, my neighbors being people of show business or the circus. I stopped in Frankfurt on Main and observed a Zeppelin over the town, then a new sight. I did my sightseeing dutifully, visiting the Rothschild library; then I continued my journey. I arrived in Belfort early. Having to change trains, I went to see the lion carved into the rock of the outside wall to commemorate the defense of the stronghold in 1870. Passing through Dijon and Avignon, I came at night to Montpellier and slept in a hotel near the railway station. The next day I found a room in a pension close to the Roman viaduct.

About five hundred Jewish students from Russia gathered at Montpellier; it was the time of the trial of Beiliss. Every day at some fixed hour when the mail and newspapers arrived, we would crowd the two rooms of our fraternity library where the detailed records of the trial were read to the assembled crowd. Many would stand under the windows in the quiet narrow street to listen to the newspaper readings from the Kiev courthouse, where the trial of Beiliss went on for weeks.

It is a matter of historical record that Tzar Nicholas II was the instigator of that trial, in which Beiliss (and by implication the entire Jewry) was accused of using gentile blood for matza (unleavened bread). The police and the government knew the real murderer of the boy, but let the female criminal appear as a witness for the prosecution. The civilized world shrugged it off as it had the Dreyfuss trial nineteen years earlier, but this time not Beiliss only, but clearly the entire Jewish people was under indictment.

The campaign against the Jews of Russia was formulated early in the twentieth century by Pobednoszev, the head of the Holy Synod: “A third will emigrate, a third will be killed, a third will assimilate.” Too true was this prognostication.

Among the students in Montpellier the socialist party of Bundists reigned supreme; the main speaker was a student named Fleischer. The Zionists were as if not present at all; nobody confessed openly to such leanings. Once when after the reading of the newspaper report the Bundist spoke provocatively, I answered with a speech. This proclamation of Zionism spread among the students like wildfire, and before long we had the majority in the student meetings. I was chosen to be the group’s chairman, and a student who had also just started his studies, Michael Marek, was elected as one of my assistants. He, too, had come from Moscow, but there we had not known each other. There was also a student from Israel, Garber: he was from Petah-Tikva, and was studying medicine at the insistence of his parents, although he loved agriculture. Another student from Israel was Baharav; the large majority of students, however, were from Russia and from Poland, then a part of the Russian empire.

Once, after a meeting, five of us climbed over the iron rail and walked on top of the aqueduct, a tall and narrow structure from Roman times, possibly just a meter wide, with no rails, as tall as a six story building and possibly a kilometer or more in length. It was evening, and seeing the numerous lights below and in the distance it appeared as if one could see the entire Provence. On the way we sat down, but it was frightening to stand up again; and when the one going in front announced to the one who followed, and this to the one behind him, that there was a bend—a new direction in the aqueduct—Baharav, who was supposed to be behind me did not answer; and we did not know whether he had fallen down until we reached the end. We went to the end, then returned to the starting point, and found him standing there.

One evening after a heated debate at a meeting, where I was among the disputants, Marek and I in our colorful student berets started toward the fishing village on the Mediterranean seashore to cool ourselves off by a long night walk. We ate and slept in a little chamber in the village and in the morning we continued southward, climbed towards a castle built a thousand years earlier by Charles Martel, saw the expanse of the Mediterranean—at the other end, we knew, was the land of Israel—and wandered farther amid the dunes and the lagoons.

Back in Montpellier, soon after the classes started, we were unpleasantly impressed by the rigorous discipline and the disrespect shown by the teachers to the pupils in one of the classes—this was far different from the freedom we had known as students in the universities of Russia. Standing on the platform near my home, from where the aqueduct started, with a bright view stretching in front of us, I suggested to Marek that we not continue the classes but go together to Israel—to which he gladly agreed. Our friends in the group were impressed by this decision; to us it seemed to be merely the natural and immediate consequence of our Zionist attitude.

We traveled to Marseilles; from there we wrote home of our decision. Visiting the geographical society of Marseilles, we asked to be shown maps of the Sinai peninsula, since we had a fleeting idea to cross the peninsula by foot, thus repeating the desert wanderings of the children of Israel. We were dissuaded from the plan, being made aware of the lack of roads and of our own lack of preparation. This course would have been rather perilous, if realizable at all. We bought two revolvers in Marseilles.

Climbing the hill on which stands the church with a gigantic Madonna on its roof, we looked out at the island made famous by the novel The Count of Monte Cristo, which I had read many years earlier when I was about twelve. Then we boarded a ship; it brought us to Egypt, again on the blue waters of the sea familiar to me from my travels less than a year and a half earlier. In Egypt we found letters from our parents. My mother regretted my decision to drop the study of medicine, but my father wrote me an enthusiastic letter and blessed me on my road. Marek’s parents thought his step unwise. Marek’s father was a publisher of art books in Moscow; he eked out his existence, and it was an effort to send a son to study abroad. Michael’s monthly check was not big, less than half of mine. Neither did Marek’s parents feel bound to the land of Israel in any way.

In Cairo we climbed the pyramids, but once again I omitted visiting their interior—faced with the choice, it appeared more interesting to spend money for the ascent. By boat we came to Jaffa. In Tel-Aviv we received from Bezalel Jaffe, one of the leading citizens and a remote relative of my mother, a letter to Eisenberg, the director of Agudath-Netaim, in Rechoboth. We were seen only by his assistant, and were included in the cadres of plantation workers on a day-to-day basis. We took two rooms in the “colony,” as Rehoboth and other settlements were called, and ate in a primitive laborers’ kitchen. But of work in the field not much was done: it was the rainy season and during the rain we had to stay home and were not paid. One day we worked at slicing the earth and pulling out the roots of ingil, a strong weed, and my tallness was not an advantage since the work was done in a bending position. Another day we worked in planting. And again ceaseless days of rain. Some days we subsisted on chocolate powder and condensed milk, preparing this drink again and again. In our room, I read Dostoievsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and was impressed.

I met Esther Bashist at the square where mail was received, and again on a late afternoon on the hills near Rehoboth, when other girls were with her. I languished, hardly exchanging a word with her. This was untypical since among my friends in the Gymnasium I was the most daring and able to start an acquaintance with a girl, surprising these “wolves-to-be.” Here I was without initiative and without speech.

Marek and I would go to visit the huts of the shomrim (the sentries): this was the romantic period of the movement and the shomrim, who guarded the plantations and who rode horses, were the heroes whom the youth of the colony would come to visit, and sing or dance.

For our mail Marek and I used to go to Jaffa, a walking distance of five hours in each direction, but it did not appear to us impractical to make this trip each time on foot. On the way, in Nes-Ziona, we would take oranges in some grove—to take for one’s meal was regarded as permitted—and bury a few in sand and find them on our way back from Jaffa.

On our way we slept one night in Rishon le Zion. Since during those days the founding meeting of the Histadruth was taking place, presided over by Ben Gurion, there was no place to sleep under a roof, and we slept on the benches in front of the large synagogue building. In the middle of the night some pious man awakened us and brought us to sleep in a Hassidic prayer house; it was a cold winter night.

At the end of December—and we had long since given up the idea of working for Agudath Netaim (all we earned was a few silver coins)—we made our way afoot to Ruhama. It was the southernmost Jewish settlement. The first day we walked as far as Castini, which until the founding of Ruhama had been the southernmost of the Jewish settlements. There we slept. Early the next morning we were again on our way, being told that to find the way to Ruhama we had to follow the track of wheels, since Arabs at that time did not use vehicles on wheels but traveled on foot or rode camels. The entire day we hardly met any human beings. To the left were mountains at a distance, and once at the foot of a distant slope we saw what appeared to be the ruins of a large ancient town. The sun and the moon were of the same size, and like two equal arms of a balance stood symmetrically in the sky, the moon very shiny and the sun somewhat dimmed. When the winter’s early darkness fell rather suddenly on the semi-desert, we thought to lay ourselves down on the sand of the moon-lit desert for sleep. But when we had already selected the place to lie down we heard from afar the barking of dogs and we understood that the Ruhama farm was close by. We now traveled in the dark through valleys along some winding wadi and came to a farm yard. When we stood in front of some one-story building we heard from inside dancing and singing—it was Friday night—Am Israel hai ad bli dai: “The people of Israel is alive and so forever.”

This settlement, Ruhama, owed its existence to my father. It was founded by the group Sheerith Israel, which my father had organized. The idea of redemption of the soil in the land of Israel first took shape when the Israel Colonization Association, a Baron Edmund Rothschild Foundation, began its work in the 1880’s. The entire Herzl movement added but very little to the program of land redemption. In 1895 Warsaw Jews founded Rehoboth, and somewhat later The National Fund started a few points like Degania and Merhavia. Poria, a small settlement, was built above the lake of Kinnereth (Galilee), by the private endeavor of Americans.

In about 1909 Migdal on the shores of Kinnereth Lake was begun at my father’s initiative. In the years 1905 and following he had influenced by personal efforts one by one a group of prominent Jews in Moscow to participate in the redemption of land in Palestine, not by donation of a few rubles to the National Fund (Keren-Kajemeth), but by an investment of substantial sums. Vissotzki and Gotz, rich Jews, were among the members, and Dr. Tchlenov, too. The latter was a leader of the Zionist movement in Russia. When a group was organized and land purchased, the farm that was founded was called Migdal. I remember with what unusual devotion and effort my father made this possible. It had not yet been tried, and nobody could think in terms of a national business action, buying land in an Ottoman province, governed by pashas and Ottoman law. My father needed to persuade people, but by nature he was not what one calls a “talker.” So he “spoke his heart.” His idea was not to have one settlement in Palestine, but to have a central cooperative, composed of Jews of Moscow, whom Jews of other Russian towns would trust, and in whose steps they would follow. This cooperative he intended to call Sheerith Israel. This name, familiar to him from his prayers when a youth in the yeshiva, was holy to him: “the remnant of Israel.” Yet the group he organized decided to be exclusive and was disinterested to gather around itself more groups and to found more settlements. Then my father, again neglecting his own business, devoted his time and energies to creating a new group. Endlessly he tried, visiting those of his acquaintances whom he thought could be persuaded to become members of Sheerith Israel. The sum pledged by each member was about five thousand rubles, a substantially smaller amount than for Migdal, yet large enough in those days in Russia; it was to be paid in installments.

My father started this one-man crusade, as was said, when the revolution of l905 had not yet been suppressed, and a pamphlet by Prof. O. Warburg was disseminated by a messenger when it was not very wise to do so. Buying land in Turkey was seen as a political activity abroad and must have aroused the Tzarist administration’s suspicion. My father asked to have these activities legalized. He was called before a committee of the Governor-General in Moscow. He was ill on the day he had to appear but went nevertheless, together with Prof. Schor, a concert pianist and prominent figure. The matter, discussed and questioned before this bureaucratic assembly, was referred to the administration in Petersburg. But my father, who went there with a fever, fell sick with pneumonia. The sickness dragged on—he was sent to Menton in the south of France to recuperate, but he had Dr. Buchmil, an orator who had participated in Zionist congresses from the first one on, come out to him, and engaged him to travel to certain districts in Russia to try to find people interested in sacrificing part of their property to invest in the land of Israel. Yet Dr. Buchmil failed in the task. Upon his return from abroad, my father resumed his Sheerith Israel work, as soon as he was able to do so. Whenever he would obtain another signature on the list he carried with him, he could not refrain from showing us that the list of names was growing. And how many times did he fail, too, to influence the men he went to see! He was oblivious of his own business. The expenses incurred by the organization work he carried gladly; in his entire life he always gave, never took from anyone. Finally, when he had about forty signatures, a group from Bialostock joined.

There was land for sale in southern Palestine. Dr. Ruppin, then new in Palestine, looked for a way to realize the purchase. Dr. Tchlenov influenced the group to invest the funds in Gemama, in the district of Gaza. My father wished to start from the extreme Negeb, from el-Arish, which was under the British, who governed Egypt; this was in line with the idea of Dr. Herzl, who thought of beginning in the small area outside of the Turkish province. Yet Gemama’s land was bought. My father was asked by the group to choose a Hebrew name for the new settlement, and he chose Ruhama; in the prophet Hoshea, the rejected daughter, symbolizing the Jewish people, is renamed Ruhama, the one to whom grace and compassion are shown. In most settlements, especially in those founded by Baron Rothschild, the settlers employed the cheaper Arab laborers, thus making it impossible for Jewish workers to get a foothold; but my father insisted that in Ruhama Jewish workers should be hired. Then he stipulated that ten percent of the land should be owned by the workers; finally, that only Hebrew should be the language of Ruhama. When the “colony” was founded, the members of the group gave my father a palm tree, which stood in our apartment.

Marek and I arrived in Ruhama in the last week of April of 1913. Until then, I believe, nobody of the Moscow group had been there to see the place built. Hirschfeld, a farmer from Rishon le Zion, was chosen as manager, and he was eminently fitted for the job, where Jewish work and the Hebrew language had to be honored. He offered to let me see the books, but I was not interested to check on what he spent. Marek and I worked a little in the field, with other workers, their number being about thirty, or we rode horses.

The pride of Ruhama was its artesian well. At a depth of about fifty meters water was found and thus the problem of settlement in the south seemed solved from the standpoint of water. Gemama, the former name, means actually Waste or Deserted Land. The new name was prophetically chosen.

We stayed in Israel during the winter months. Memorable and dear is the religious experience I had when I went alone to the “cave of Samson” in the afternoon, alone in the deserted height, and returned in the dark.

In spring Marek and I returned to Moscow, traveling by fourth class. A few days after coming back I contracted diphtheria. But I was tall and generally in good health, and I pulled through.

In the spring of 1914 I entered the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and took pre-medical courses in the natural sciences. I had the opportunity to hear lecture of Henri Bergson, then a visiting professor at Edinburgh. But I was handicapped by lack of familiarity with the extensive nomenclature, especially in botany and zoology. For the first time I had a spell of indecision—I had to compel myself to persevere in my resolve to study medicine. There was in Edinburgh a very small Russian colony. I stayed for only one term.

On my return to Moscow for summer vacations the Sarajevo crisis was ripening. Soon there was war, and I was stranded in Russia. My parents were at that time in Germany, and with difficulty they made their way back via Switzerland and Bulgaria.

I enrolled in an institution which was not under the Ministry of Education, but under the Ministry of Commerce. The University of Moscow since its formation had enjoyed autonomy, which meant that there were not trustess, the university being managed by a rector who, instead of being appointed by the government, was elected by the professors. Now the reactionary government of Tsar Nicholas II wished to take away this autonomy from Moscow University, and this caused the rector and most of the professors and anybody with a good name to leave the university and to found a new school under th Ministry of Commerce. For this reason it was called the Commercial Institute, but actually it was a full-fledged university. The best minds in jurisprudence and philosophy were teaching there. I studied at the Institute for the next two years, taking courses in philosophy, law, ancient history, and other subjects. Of these my favorite subject was ancient history. But since the Institute had no medical faculty, I sought admission to the Medical School of Moscw University. After one year at the Commercial Institute I was admitted, following an interview with the new minister of education, Graf Ignatiev. For this I had to travel to Petrograd (the present Leningrad). I explained to the minister that I had a letter from the Dean of the University of Edinburgh that any points I would earn at Moscow University would be credited to me in Edinburgh. Graf Ignatiev, unlike his predecessor and unlike his own father, was a liberal man, and I was admitted, along with several other prmising students, into the second year of study. For the next year I studied simultaneously at both universities.

In the year 1915-1916 I took a very strenuous program in medicine, besides a program in the humanities. I undertook to cover the entire course on anatomy in the two terms of a year. There was also a platonic but very emotional experience in the spring. All this together caused my athletic body to lose its resistance; and to work in an unhygienic and poorly ventilated anatomic theater certainly exposed the students to all kinds of infections. In the spring I lay down with signs of pneumonia and, according to the doctor, of the Fraenkel and Friedlander type simultaneously. At first my father called a doctor whom he knew as a Hebrew writer. Whether he was a good writer I do not know, but as a doctor he treated me for abdominal typhus. My brother Alexander, alarmed by my worsening condition, insisted on calling a doctor who had cured a friend of his. Dr. Loewenthal, a small and slenderly built elderly man, was kind to the patient, but harsh on the family, demanding strict rules. There was a consilium between the two doctors, and they raised their voices one against the other. Dr. Loewenthal became my healer.

In the late spring of 1916 I went to the Crimea, and after a summer there, returned to resume my studies. The next term I again worked furiously. But before the new year 1917 I still felt run down and went to Kislovodsk in the Caucasus. There, in the mountainous resort, I took a room in a pension, but a few days later I found out that before me a patient dying of tuberculosis had used the same bed and mattress. I moved out and took another room. Once, walking on the snow-covered hills of the Kislovodsk Park, I spat blood. Seeing blood on the white snow, I became depressed and thought that I had become sick with tuberculosis. I applied to a doctor. He had a five-ruble note on his table, as if left by a previous patient, but, since I found it there again on the next visit, I realized that it was a sign to the patient not to leave less (in Russia there was no practice of billing a patient; money was usually stuck into the the doctor’s hand). The doctor assured me that there was nothing seriously wrong with me. So I could again turn my thoughts to problems not concerned specifically with myself and, walking in the streets of the Caucasian village, I wrote page after page of The Third Exodus, a pamphlet of religious fervor and Zionist zeal. In this work I urged that the nations of the world that would convene after the war should right a wrong and create a Jewish state in Palestine. I believe many sentences from the pamphlet became prophetic after World War I, and even more so after World War II.

At the end of February 1917 Kislovodsk, together with the rest of Russia, became excited by the news from Petrograd (as St. Petersburg was then called because of war with Germany). Every new day brought exciting news. The Tzar, last of the Romanovs, abdicated. I remember that day. Full of emotion I went across the hills of Kislovodsk; I met an old man. He seemed unaware of the news, or it did not mean much to him. “O little birds, little birds—such a snow, no food for you? How will you survive?” said he.

I left for Moscow. The land was in exaltation. Those years of war had witnessed Rasputin’s baleful rise to power over the Tzarina, and hence the Tzar, and hence the country. An illiterate “monk,” a debauching fraud, Rasputin hypnotized and mystified her as his mental prisoner; any prospective prime minister had to crawl to him and kiss his hand to be appointed—this was the case with prime ministers Gromykin, Stuermer and Plotopov. These were the days of World War I, and the Tzarina, originally a German princess, was suspected of disloyalty to Russia and its army.

Prince Yssupov and a few monarchists lured Rasputin to a dinner party and killed him in order to save the monarchy from complete perdition. This was the beginning of the revolution; ten weeks later, the war lost, the land in anarchy, the Tzar was forced to resign and Prince Lvov formed the Provisional Government, with Kerensky as minister of justice.

After two weeks in Moscow I left again for the Crimea, where I remained for eight months, mending my health, living in a village in the Crimea’s mountainous crest. I returned to Moscow at the news that a new revolution, of the end of October, had changed the order in Russia. The October Revolution of 1917 was followed by the Civil War. The White armies were brandishing anti-semitic slogans. The train did not go straight to Moscow. All was in a state of great strain. In the fall, with the country already under the Bolsheviks, I printed my pamphlet, The Third Exodus, under the pen name Immanuel Ram.

I spent the winter and the following spring as an intern in the clinics, and also attended the course of Prof. Ross.

On an evening in late November or early December 1917 I was in Moscow, only a few weeks since the street fighting against the regime of Kerensky was over. Some of the buildings showed the wounds of the battle: many stuccoes were pocked by numerous bullet-holes, and here and there a larger hole in a brick wall showed where artillery shots had fallen. There was no jubilation, as there had been in February, some nine months earlier, when the regime of the Tzar fell; the atmosphere was gloomy, either because such is the late autumn in Moscow, or because the fratricidal fight, at a time when Russia was still engaged in war with Germany, was a cheerless affair.

But the white Columned Hall of the old Nobility House was illuminated. The place had not yet been designated for the meetings of the All-Russian Soviets; and so soon after the October (actually November) Revolution, many of the activities which soon thereafter were to be banned were still possible in Moscow. The Jews of Moscow came there to participate in a festival: on November 3, during the very days when the city was in the grips of the street fighting, the so-called Balfour Declaration had been proclaimed by the government of Lloyd-George in England. It was not yet the foundation of the state, but the promise of a national home was made—a very unusual message, awaited for some two thousand years. Only a couple of years earlier, such a “messianic” event would have been laughed down by the same Jewry in Moscow. But the last two months were by themselves an apocalyptic time. The Jews of Moscow filled the white columned hall, the place of many glorious ball festivities in the past. I, too, went there. I was at that time a student in Moscow University, in my early twenties. All the places in the brightly illuminated hall were taken, and I stood to the side of the platform, built for the presiding officers, speakers, and notables of the community, or of the Zionist movement. I stood leaning on one of the big white marble pillars, hidden from most of the public by this pillar. Among the notables on the platform the absence of one person was conspicuous: Dr. Jacobson was the president of the organization that called the meeting; and if I was not wrong, I had seen him at the beginning of the evening—but then he disappeared.

As I stood there, and the speakers replaced one another on the platform, my face must have glowed with some inner light—not because of what the speaker said; not even because of this very festive convocation; I had believed that this event would come, and therefore was less aroused by it than those for whom it was above all expectations. But still my face must have glowed with some not everyday expression, because I was suddenly approached by a stranger, who made his request in the very first sentence: “I am a sculptor; I would like to make a sculpture of your head. Would you like to sit for me?”

The man was not exactly small, but somewhat undersized. He had long hair, sticking in strains, which should denote an artist; on the other hand, he had something proletarian, even plebeian, in his face and figure. His face, and especially his forehead and his nose were bony, and the skin was brownish-sallow, tautly stretched and thin on the forehead, but lying in deep faults on his cheeks. He looked up to me; nevertheless, there was in his bearing something of a prince newly-recognized from the crowd of beggars, as if he was the man of the day. His age may have been thirty-five, but these must have been thirty-five years of deprivations. His Russian was very bad: not as of a foreigner, but as of a Jewish man who had spent his life entirely in a Yiddish-speaking community. Actually, I had never heard a Russian Jew so poorly in possession of the language of the country.

I asked him his name, and he spoke it—Itkin; it was familiar to me, and actually, I had already anticipated that he was Itkin. For the last two weeks I had read a few times in the newspapers about him. He really was the sensation of those days, when today one would think nothing could have been sensational in Russia next to the political revolution, or the events on the German-Austrian front. But it was not so. Itkin was the unusual news. The newspapers—there were still the bourgeois dailies—wrote about an exhibition of his works shown to a select crowd. But the story around him or, better, his discovery, was interesting. He had been a cobbler in some small town in south-western Russia until this very year. I believe he did not even have his own shop, but worked for somebody else; and in the time that he could spare from work or sleep he produced some unusual carvings. Then three sisters, baronesses—the titles were not yet abolished in Russia—all three unmarried, living in Moscow, became aware of his existence and work, interested themselves in him, and brought him to Moscow; they put at his disposal a mansion that belonged to them. All this was told in the papers, which also reproduced prints some of his sculptures.

Hearing his name, I told him that I had heard about him, and could read the satisfaction on his face. Before he gave me his address—to which he invited me to come in a few days—he interrupted himself and said: “Have you heard? Jacobson died of a heart attack.”

We stood in the back of one of the marble pillars, between the platform and a room in the back, in which some activity was going on. I was surprised, since I knew the man. We inquired in the room: it was true. Dr. Jacobson had felt badly, apparently had a heart-attack, was ushered home, and died there. But we were told not to spread the news. The festivities of the Balfour declaration went on, and the organizers thought it better not to sadden the gathering by the news. There were speeches and singing, the large crowd not suspecting that the organizer of the affair had died the same evening.

Outside the weather was windy and cold. All the leaves in the parks and boulevards of Moscow had already fallen, patches of snow lay in the streets, and the wind zoomed in the wires stretched between the poles.

A few days later, at the appointed hour, I was ringing at the door of the mansion, in one of the side-streets. The mansion was not large, but it was not a private home; it had all the attributes of a mansion: the elaborate facade in front, the expensive iron work, the very large and tall windows, the luxurious marble staircase. The sculptor came down himself to open the door. Possibly the house had been put at his disposal because otherwise it would have been requisitioned by some revolutionary group, not necessarily communists. At that time groups of people calling themselves anarchists rang bells, requisitioned private autos, or occupied villas, and there was no person or agency with which one could lodge a complaint.

Itkin led me upstairs to his studio—a room with a big window—probably a drawing room until recently. There he showed me several of his works. One was the head of a murdered man, his skull deformed by a blow—a Jew killed in a pogrom. It was impressive and even now, thirty years later, I remember the face. A large reclining figure of clay—he was still working on it—called “Russia” was a deformed woman with archaic, even animal features.

Then he asked me to sit down, and started preparing his clay on the rack, looking at me from time to time. When he had a large enough ball of clay on the wires of the rack, he started to work. After about half an hour of modelling, Itkin stopped, and turning to me, said:

“Do you remember the evening I spoke to you in the Hall of the Nobility, when the chairman, Jacobson, was ushered home, and died? Do you remember?”

Of course, I remembered it.

“You see, Dr. Jacobson wished me to make his portrait. We talked it over and we agreed that as soon as the festival affair was over, he would no longer be so overburdened, and he would come here. So he said he would come on Monday, after that festival week, at five o’clock in the afternoon. At the celebration I heard, and I told you, that Jacobson died. Well, it was a pity. But I knew him only slightly; he was not my friend, and I struck this appointment out of my mental calendar.

“But when it was Monday, shortly before five in the afternoon, strangely, I could not do any work. Sadness gripped me...” Itkin looked at me, his face was pale and strained, and he searched for words. The words did not come easily to him, and he brought them out as if unproperly fashioned or chiseled.

“Yes, I sat there, sad, and thought, What is man? Here a man was to come to me in a few minutes to make his portrait, but he will never come. I will never make his portrait. What is man? Clay? Not even fired clay. Just dust. And what is his spirit that endures? Vanity of vanities? There was his desire to have his features retained in clay, and the model is dead, dead forever; what is man, and what are his days on earth?

“As I sat here on this Monday, two days ago, at this hour, thinking these sad thoughts and deliberating over man who is just grass that dies overnight, as the clock started to sound—one—yes, he was to come—two—but he will not come—three—because he is dead—four—dead forever and ever—five—and the doorbell rang. I expected nobody and was startled. I shook a little as I went down the steps. I opened the door. There was a messenger. He said:

‘I am sent by Mrs. Jacobson.’ And he gave me an envelope. There was a note. It said, ‘Please come to take a mask from the face of Dr. Jacobson, my husband.’

“He had kept his word.”

I listened all this time without interrupting the sculptor; when he ended his story, we both sat in silence—he absentmindedly kneading clay with his hands, looking to the reddish hue of the pale grey sky, until it turned dark.


  1. Alexander later became an outstanding chemist, and, as I was told, winner of the Lenin prize.