Shalom Life | April 19, 2015

A Russian Novel: Fiction Becomes Fact

70 Years After the Fact, Israeli Writer Has a New Following

By: Nathan Roi

Published: February 3rd, 2012 in News » World

A Russian Novel: Fiction Becomes Fact
Seventy years after the onset of “Operation Barbarossa” when Nazi Germany launched its unpremeditated attack on the Soviet Union, bringing in its wake the death of three million Jews, there is a great deal of interest among Russian readers in the first book by the Israeli writer Meir Shalev, called in the original Hebrew, Roman Russi or “A Russian Novel” and in its English edition (translated by Hillel Halkin,) “Blue Mountain.”

The book’s story is told from the viewpoint of Baruch Shenhar, a bit of a schlemiel who tends to accept everything he hears. He grew up with his grandfather who came to Palestine during the Second Aliyah (1904 -14), and he tells the story of when he left the pioneering moshav in the Jezreel Valley where he was raised, and of the family and the village up to the creation of the State of Israel.

The Hebrew book, which became an instant bestseller, was published in 1988 by the Israeli publisher Am Oved, which was founded in 1942 by the Zionist leader Berl Katznelson, himself born in Bobryusk, Belorussia. The book has since then been published in several languages.

The landscape of the Jezreel Valley, the legends concerning the early Zionist pioneers, the flora and fauna of Eretz Israel are at the core of Roman Russi. And the story before you is a latter-day reincarnation of just such a Roman Russi.

Yulia Dor, the director of the Israel Cultural Center in Kiev, was born in Berdichev, Ukraine, and immigrated to Israel at the age of 19. The Center is making great efforts to advance appreciation and knowledge of Israel’s cultural life among local residents. Some months ago, she was approached by Chaim Chesler, founder and chair of Limmud FSU for Russian-Speakers, to help create a memorial to one particular Israeli pioneer who made his way to Palestine. His name was Nehemia Rubichov. Nehemia was the father of Yitzhak Rabin, later to become prime minister of Israel, and his sister Rachel.

Chesler made it his business to try and locate the village where Nehemia was born, although he had been told by the local authorities that they thought it had been obliterated in “Operation Barbarossa.” Together with Yulia Dor, and based in information they had gathered, they pored over documents and maps. Chesler contacted Dalia Rabin, Yitzhak’s daughter, who suggested he talk to Rachel on Kibbutz Manara. He called Rachel, who said that she had her father Nehemia’s identity card. She looked at it: “The name of the village on the card is Sidorovichi,” she said.

“I am standing at the entrance to the village right now,” Chesler told her; “Would you like to come and see it? The surprised Rachel suggested he speak to her nephew, Yitzhak’s son Yuval Rabin, director of the Oris Green Energy investment company. Yuval’s answer was immediate: “Yes, I would like to come.”

Some months later, in March 2010, Yuval Rabin accompanied by Chesler and a group of Limmud FSU activists, arrived at the village. There he inaugurated a memorial plaque in Ukrainian and Hebrew to his father Yitzhak and his grandfather Nehemia, on a deeply snow-covered area opposite the village’s cultural center.

Nehemia was born in Sidorovichi, Ukraine, in 1886 and in 1905 left for the USA, subsequently changing his surname to Rabin. In 1917, together with a group of young volunteers from the Jewish Legion, he made his way to Palestine. There he met and married a fiery activist and fervent communist called Rosa Cohen (after the Russian Revolution of 1917, she became known as “Rosa the Red.”) Perhaps the nickname was bestowed on her because of a more famous revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg, born in Zamosc in 1871 (then Russia, now Poland) who adamantly opposed Lenin’s terror tactics and was brutally murdered in the Spartacist uprising in Germany in 1919.

Rosa Cohen, daughter of a Habad rabbi, Yitzhak Cohen, was born in the town of Moghilev, Belorussia, in 1890. Her father opposed the Zionist movement and sent Rosa to a Christian high school for girls in Gomel, enabling her to acquire a broad general education. Early on, Rosa took an interest in political and social causes. In 1919, she sailed to Palestine. After working on a kibbutz on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, she moved to Jerusalem. There she married Nehemia and Yitzhak and Rachel were born.

According to his grandson Yuval, Nehemia was evidently a very unusual man. After the death of his wife Rosa in 1937, he lived until his dying day opposite the old cemetery in Trumpeldor Street, Tel Aviv. Leah Rabin, Yitzhak’s wife, wrote in her autobiography that Nehemia acted as both father and mother to Yitzhak and Rachel, because Rosa was totally absorbed with her public work and the Haganah and did not have time to devote to the household.

After that first visit to Sidorovichi, Chesler informed the village dignatories that they would be returning with a sculpture commemorating the Rabin family. Chesler then began the search for a suitable artist.

He located a sculptor, Roman Vilgushinsky, from the town of Buczacz, Ukraine, the home town of Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Israel’s Nobel prize winner for literature, who had already created a sculpture of Agnon which is displayed on the wall of his childhood home in Buczacz. Chesler commissioned Vilgushinsky to create a stone bas-relief, based on an old photograph showing Nehemia embracing his children, Yitzhak and Rachel.

Some months later, Yulia Dor received a phone call from the security officer in the Israel Cultural Center in Kiev. “A package has arrived addressed to you.” The package, weighing 124 kilograms, seemed highly suspicious, but after opening it gingerly, the sculpture was revealed. The sculpture was delivered to Sidorovichi and installed in the library (newly named “The Rabin Library,”) of the local community center.

Chesler duly informed Yuval Rabin that “Operation Nehemia” had been successfully completed. Fourteen months after the initial visit, Rabin, Yulia Dor, Chesler and a group of Limmud FSU activists, found their way once more to Sidorovichi, on a date which, by design, happened to be the eve of “Operation Barbarossa,”exactly 70 years earlier.

“One of my father’s dreams was to be able to come to the village where his father was born,” Yuval Rabin told me. Before setting out for the village, the group gathered in the Israel Cultural Center, before the plaque that commemorated the opening of the Center by Prime Minister Rabin during his state visit to Ukraine, one month before his assassination. “I remember it well,” said Chesler, who had been present then. “Hundreds of people had gathered to see the Israeli prime minister and witness the event and it was a very moving occasion.”

In Sidorovichi, there had been a power cut that morning, so the sculpture was hastily transferred outside so that the ceremony could take place. The Limmud FSU delegation together with Yuval Rabin and Yulia Dor were warmly greeted with a traditional welcoming ceremony of bread and salt

In a moving ceremony, interspersed with Ukrainian folk songs, the sculpture in honor of his father and grandfather was duly unveiled by Yuval Rabin. Chesler then handed over a fitting gift to the Rabin Library of Sidorovichi - a copy of the newly-published Russian edition of Meir Shalev’s Roman Russi. Fiction had duly become fact.

re-posted with permission from The Jewish Agency

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