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CHAIM KAHANOVICH, an 18-year-old Polish Jew, caught his first brown glimpse of the Holy Land from the deck of a steamer in November 1924. He would never leave. Dark-haired, short and solid, Chaim brought with him a teenager's blazing passion and an ideologue's stubborn commitment to a cause. The long, slow journey had taken him from Warsaw by train to the Black Sea port of Constanta, then by ship through the Bosporus Straits and across the Mediterranean to Palestine. There at last, rising like the back of an ox from the blue water of Haifa Bay, was the sere ridge of Mount Carmel the Promised Land.
From his boyhood study of Torah, Chaim would have known that Carmel was the place where the prophet Elijah faced down the pagan priests of Baal and fled the wrath of Queen Jezebel. But he had not come to Palestine to study Torah. He and his comrades were called halutzim pioneers and they had made aliyah (literally the ascent) to the Holy Land to plow the soil, plant grapevines and citrus groves, raise chickens, tomatoes and children, and to found a new nation.
I know the details of Chaim's life and circumstances because he and his wife, Sonia, were relatives of mine (my maternal grandfather was their first cousin), and I recently went to Israel with my oldest daughter, Emily, for the first time to retrace their journeys and uncover what I could about our family's story a story of immigration shared by thousands of others. What made this trip especially inspiring was that I was able to cover so much of Israeli history: in this ancient but recently conceived nation, the founders lived just a generation ago. It's as if the children and grandchildren of Washington, Jefferson and Adams were around to give interviews and point out historical sights.
So with Chaim and Sonia's three middle-aged children, Leah, Shimon and Benny, as our guides, Emily and I made a kind of roots pilgrimage to farmhouses and cemeteries, museums and archives tracking 25 years of Chaim's life. We were fortunate because our Israeli cousins proved to be tireless family historians. Drawing on letters, interviews and stories they remembered, they put together a written account of Chaim's emigration and early life in Palestine. They unearthed and translated a lengthy interview they had recorded with their mother shortly before her death. They introduced me to elderly relatives and friends who had lived through that period as children and to others who had come to Israel after surviving the Holocaust. Museums and archives in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and online databases helped, too, providing context, background, color and precious pieces of the genealogical puzzle.
Making our home base in Netanya, a rather drab but beautifully situated 1970s-era beach town north of Tel Aviv with a weird mix of French and Russian clientele, we began our journey where Chaim began his in Haifa, looking down from the famed Bahai Gardens perched over the city on the slope of Mount Carmel.
From the gardens' uppermost level, Haifa today has some of the topographical drama of Genoa or San Francisco lush, green manicured terraces step down to a cityscape of red tile roofs and white low-rise apartment buildings; a working harbor, more muscular than pretty, bustles behind a breakwater; the azure bowl of a perfect bay opens beyond palms and beaches. The contemporary city also has its share of the depressing sprawl that blots much of Israel's coastline. It was very different when Chaim disembarked here in 1924. Mixed Arab and Jewish then as now, the city Chaim saw was a tight enclave huddled between port and mountain. Mount Carmel, which today is thickly planted with luxury hotels, university campuses and condos, was largely wild.
It probably took Chaim and his comrades the better part of a day to creep by train from Haifa to the Sea of Galilee in Palestine's northeast corner. We did the 50-mile trip in Benny's car in under an hour and a half. But it felt like crossing into a different world, or several different worlds. A few miles east of Haifa, the congested suburbs drop away and the land opens up into the cotton fields and citrus and avocado groves of the black-soiled Jezreel Valley. On the other side of a range of hazy blue mountains, the landscape alters again to something vaguely reminiscent of the Rocky Mountain foothills tan soil, scrubby vegetation, the air noticeably warmer and drier. We crested a rise, and suddenly, there at our feet was the immense turquoise teardrop of the Sea of Galilee (known as Kinneret in Hebrew) bordered by a patchwork of irrigated farm fields.
The lakeside city of Tiberias, on the western coast, offers the full panoply of tourist amenities, with resorts, spas and water-themed amusement parks. There is also plenty of recreation on the lake itself boating, fishing, camping and tours geared to Christian pilgrims who come here to see where Jesus was baptized (the exact spot is believed to be in the Jordan River just south of where it flows out of the south end of the lake) and to sail on the water that bore his feet. We were here not to relax or commune with God but to see the region where Chaim lived first and always loved best.
The south shore of the Sea of Galilee (in fact a freshwater lake fed and drained by the Jordan River) was the site of some of the earliest successful Jewish agricultural settlements, starting with the Kinneret Colony in 1908. Since the area is almost 700 feet below sea level, the climate is quite toasty most of the year (and blazing hot in summer), though if you can stand the heat, it's a stunningly beautiful region and remains largely unspoiled. Chaim, during his first two years here, lived and worked not on the lakeshore but at a small isolated satellite settlement called Mount Kinneret, way up in the hills.
His sons had never been to the long-abandoned colony, and so with Benny driving and Shimon manning the GPS, we spent about 15 minutes careening around one-lane roads past mango groves, date palms and prickly pear until we found a place to park near a path that descends from the road into a bit of rocky scrub bisected by a stream. Today not a scrap remains of the collective farm that Chaim and others struggled to sustain here on a few precipitous acres. Benny cut the engine, and in the balmy silence, I tried to imagine the shock Chaim felt when he first laid eyes on the place. I knew from my research that he probably slept on boards laid over empty gasoline cans; that his hands split open and his back cramped from the toil of coaxing crops from the stony ground; that he had no privacy.
Ultimately, life at Mount Kinneret was too rugged and precarious even for Chaim, and in 1926 he moved down to the Kinneret Colony, a walled agricultural compound of eight small houses set back a few dozen yards from the shore. That was our next stop. After driving down the mountain, we met with a man named Mulik, a settler in his 80s with a phenomenal memory, who showed us around a small museum housed in a former pharmacy at the colony's entrance. Every early settlement and kibbutz has its own museum or archive. Some, like this one, include just a few simple rooms of photos and farm tools; others, like the museum at the nearby Degania kibbutz, offer a fuller picture of the nation's natural and human history. Mulik steered us to a grainy photo of the colony taken in the 1920s eight houses bake in the sun in a landscape that looks as bare and crumpled as the Dakota Badlands.
"See that house with the flat roof?" asked Benny, pointing to the third building in from the right. "That's where the Cohen family lived. They hired our father as a farmhand, and he lived in the shed beside the house." We strolled a hundred yards from the museum, and there was the house, a modest unadorned bungalow shaded by a small front porch. The flat roof has been raised and tiled and a few tropical shrubs now grow in the yard, but the shed where Chaim boarded remains the same a rickety stucco outbuilding with one tiny window. Nevertheless, according to the history my relatives had put together, Chaim had spent the happiest days of his life here. "Chaim loved the place and the Cohen family loved him," one passage reads. "He often took the children sailing on the Kinneret. There was romance in the air."
After lunch, we wandered down the lakeshore a glorious vista composed of wide swatches of saturated color, soft green in the irrigated fields around the lake, powder blue in the mountains ringing it, deep royal blue on the lake's surface. My cousins said that the place gets busy during holidays, but on the afternoon of our visit a couple of sailboats skimmed by, tiny waves lapped the shore, and a light haze muffled the distant mountains. It all felt ancient, serene, far from the world. But history has cast its shadow here, too. Shimon pointed across the water to the Golan Heights. "That's where our older brother, Arik, fell." I knew the story well: Arik, Chaim and Sonia's tall, handsome, athletic firstborn son, was serving as a major in the Israeli army tank corps when he was killed on Oct. 12, 1973, by a Syrian shell in the Yom Kippur War. Shimon and Benny talked about driving us to the spot where their brother died but for reasons they kept to themselves, decided there wasn't time.
In January 1929, Chaim, suffering from malaria (which was epidemic among the settlers), left the Kinneret and moved to another fledgling colony that of Herzliya, near the Mediterranean coast. Israel is so compact that we were able to retrace his journey in a matter of hours. In the course of a single day we looped from our hotel in the coastal city of Netanya, up to Haifa, over to the Kinneret and back to Netanya in time for dinner; the next morning Shimon whisked us from Netanya to Herzliya in about half an hour.
Today a seaside resort north of Tel Aviv with gorgeous beaches and plush high-rise hotels alongside leafy villas owned by diplomats and business tycoons, Herzliya in Chaim's day was an agricultural training center for garinim groups of young Jewish farm workers. The Beit Rishonim (Founders' House), a small museum devoted to Herzliya's past, wonderfully captures the struggle and ardor of the early modern Jewish settlers.
While Emily and I browsed the museum's photos of sweaty young men (and a few women) digging wells and planting orange trees in the desolate sand dunes, Shimon filled us in on the family history. Chaim had been working in Herzliya for three years when his cousin (and soon to be wife) Sonia joined him from Poland in 1932. She and Chaim were married in December 1933, and a year later moved 20 miles up the coast to the village of Kfar Vitkin to join a newly formed moshav (a cooperative farming village akin to a kibbutz but with families farming individual plots and raising their own children).
Though now engulfed in the sprawl creeping north from Tel Aviv, the 150-family Kfar Vitkin moshav has retained some of its agricultural character. Citrus and avocado groves (and tennis courts) fringe the farmsteads, a big feed and grain distribution warehouse looms beside the village center, and the smell of cow manure pervades the air on warm evenings.
We visited the tiny stucco box of a house that Chaim and Sonia built for their family, which would come to include four children and Sonia's father, who had miraculously left Poland to visit family in New York mine before war broke out and joined his daughter in 1948. What surprised me was how small the plots were barely bigger than a good-size lot in the American exurbs. Chaim became the moshav's driver, and his sons fondly remember hauling produce and eggs into Haifa with their father in a dusty old truck.
Then, when he was in his early 50s Chaim suffered a stroke that left him partly paralyzed and unable to work until his death in 1965 at the age of 59.
Before dinner one night, Benny brought Emily and me up to the moshav's cemetery on a breezy hillside outside of town. We wandered, while he translated the names on the headstones: Arik; Sonia's father, Sholom Tvi; and Sonia, whose stone was inscribed not only with her own name and dates (1910 to 1996) but also the names of her two sisters and her mother. They have no graves of their own because they stayed in Poland, and perished along with 14 other relations.
Our final days in Israel were dedicated to learning what we could about the lives and deaths of these relatives. To pursue this search, we left behind the mountains and coastal farming villages where we had spent the first part of the week and headed to the nation's two major cities one of them ancient, the other not even a century old, both rushing rapidly into an uncertain future. Specifically, we were intent on visiting two major cultural institutions, one in Tel Aviv, the other in Jerusalem, dedicated to helping the Jewish people untangle and come to terms with their past.
In Tel Aviv we devoted most of our time to Beit Hatfutsot (the Museum of the Jewish People, commonly called the Diaspora Museum) on the campus of Tel Aviv University. Two floors of multimedia galleries packed with dioramas, replicas of Jewish artistry and architecture, historic film clips, snatches of music, photos, models of synagogues, and searchable computer terminals conjure up 2,000 years of Jewish exile in all corners of the world. I was most interested in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, where my family had lived for hundreds of years, and though I found much that was redolent of the spirit of the past, there was little specific to my search.
I had hopes of learning more in the ground-floor database room, where a couple of helpful English-speaking archivists are on hand to guide visitors at no charge through searches of digital genealogical and historical files. But I had already visited the museum's Web site before I left home, and the same information came up. Far richer was a search for our family's shtetls on the Yizkor (memorial) Book Project run by Jewish Gen (jewishgen.org/yizkor/).
Toward the end of the week, we headed to Jerusalem. We did a bit of sightseeing from our guesthouse in the Old City, and then spent a full day at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in West Jerusalem. In the brief five years since it opened, Yad Vashem's history museum has become a rite of passage of sorts for all history-minded visitors to Israel, and after spending a day there, I could see why. The galleries designed by Moshe Safdie enclose indeed almost imprison you in a nightmarish maze of photos, film clips, posters, artifacts and scale models of death camps: the whole story of the destruction of Europe's Jews from the rise of Hitler to the liberation of the camps. I stood weeping before a film clip of Jewish prisoners forced to run from trucks to the killing pits of Ponary outside the Lithuanian city of Vilnius, where Nazis machine-gunned tens of thousands and bulldozed earth over the bodies. One of Sonia's brothers-in-law probably died there. I listened to a guide explain how crystallized pellets of the poison gas Zyklon-B were dropped into sealed death chambers at Birkenau. I gazed at photos of children starving to death in the same ghetto where Chaim and Sonia's family was imprisoned.
The Diaspora Museum brought me close to the vanished sepia world where my family once lived. Yad Vashem immersed me in the hell in which 17 of them died. But it also shed some light on one aspect of my family's history that had never been resolved.
Right before my visit, I had e-mailed the names, dates and places of birth of my relatives killed in Europe to Rita Margolin, a staff researcher in the Yad Vashem archives. She had uncovered one bit of information that my Israeli relatives had not known, and she shared it with us when we stopped by the archives. Shortly before the war ended, one of Sonia's nephews had been deported from the Vilnius ghetto to a slave labor camp called Klooga, where he died at the age of 16 exactly how remains unknown.
This 16-year-old prisoner, No. 641, Chaim and Sonia's nephew, was Benny and Leah and Shimon's first cousin. They have his pictures in their family albums; their mother visited his family in Vilnius, then Vilna. Another relative, a survivor of the Vilna ghetto we met with in Tel Aviv, told us that the nephew fell ill with scarlet fever in the ghetto and went deaf.
After two emotionally draining days, we left Jerusalem for Hadera, the city north of Tel Aviv where my cousin Shimon lives, eager to share this new detail at a party the family gave for us on our last night. Chaim and Sonia's three surviving children were there, along with most of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren maybe 25 people, all of them living in Israel, all of them living, because two starry-eyed halutzim had left Poland some 80 years before to make a new life in the Holy Land.
David Laskin, a Seattle-based writer, is at work on a history of his
family. This artlcle was published September 29, 2010. A version of
this article appeared October 3, 2010, in the New York Times, entitled
"When History Speaks."
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