The Mohel Family (continued...)


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Mohel home in Mlynov. Courtesy of Dani Tracz.
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Yaakov, Dvorah and Chaya (Chaika) Mohel. Courtesy of Dani Tracz.
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Batya (right), Yehuda's older sister, and Bouzia (left). Courtesy of Dani Tracz.
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1926 Nest of Hashomer Hatzair. Yehuda is back row, second from the right. Courtesy of Dani Tracz.
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Yehuda (back row, 2nd from left) and friends. Courtesy of Dani Tracz.
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Yehuda with pen in hand, secretary of Hashomer Hatzair nest in Mlynov. Courtesy of Dani Tracz.
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1928 Farewell Party for Yehuda (center in white shirt). Courtesy of Dani Tracz.


Yehuda in the Land of Israel (Mandate Palestine)

Yehuda sailed from Trieste, Italy in late October 1929 with a Hashomer Hatzair group. When he first arrived, he saw people riding on very small horses and wondered how these little horses could possibly survive. They turned out to be donkeys an animal he had not seen before in Europe. After an initial period, Yehuda joined a group going to Kibbutz Binyamina, a functioning kibbutz whose members had made aliyah six months to a year earlier. Everyone lived in tents and did difficult work. As a vegetarian, Yehuda had even more meager rations than others.

In addition to the hard work, Yehuda encountered an unfamiliar ideological framework on the kibbutz, one he would resist and which would lead ultimately to his being deported from Palestine. The framework involved the interpretation of Marxist-Leninist thought within Zionism. Back in the Diaspora, Yehuda had been taught that Marxist-Leninism meant solidarity with the international proletariat, not just a focus on the Jewish worker. By contrast, the ideology of the Kibbutz focused on Jewish national identity within a socialist framework and stressed the importance of pure Jewish labor.

Note: This kind of ideological divide was familiar to Jewish socialists back in Russia who had to choose between pure socialism that wanted to annihilate national identities and ethnicities, the Jewish BUND which tried to implement a socialist framework within a Jewish ethnic context and the Labor or Social Zionism which wanted to marry socialism and Jewish nationalism. All of these variations on Marxist-Leninist thought were embraced by subgroups of Polish Jews.

The fear of an Arab attack in the kibbutz also gave Yehuda pause. Why were they at odds with the Arab workers when they should be making common cause with Arab workers. He also began to understand that the Jewish National Fund had acquired land in Palestine through dubious methods that cut the local Arab farmers out of the process. The local farmers had no documentation of their long-standing land rights and they were too far away from the city centers to participate in property transactions or to protect their rights. Yehuda was not alone in becoming convinced that the Hashomer Hatzair kibbutzim in Israel were not fulfilling the principles of Marxist-Leninism that he had been taught. Nor was he the first in Palestine or in the kibbutz to get involved in the Communist Party.

The Palestine Communist Party was founded in 1919 and changed its name to the PKP (“Palestinishe Komunistishe Partei”). The party perceived Zionism to be reactionary, not a liberation movement. Yehuda joined the Party Committee in Kibbutz Binyamina and participated in long discussions and arguments with kibbutz members particularly about the organizing of Arab workers. Eventually the kibbutz implemented a ideological purity test that Yehuda failed.

Expelled from Kibbutz / Deported to Poland

Expelled from the kibbutz, Yehuda headed to Haifa. There he got involved in the PKP, which was operating as an underground organization with clandestine activities. The British police for their part were trying to identity and arrest its members. Seeking to understand Arab laborers better, Yehuda got a position in Public Works and began working alongside Arab workers. During this period, Yehuda began to get close to his future wife Riva, who had made aliyah in 1932 and was a friend of a friend.

Eventually, Yehuda was caught by the British. After being jailed twice, he was deported back to Poland, his “home” country. He was arrested again in Poland for Communist activities and sentenced to between eight and ten years in prison. Riva was also deported from Palestine to Warsaw for being a Communist during the same period. With the help of her brothers back in Poland, she began an effort to free Yehuda. In August 1939, after serving 4 years of his sentence,Yehuda was released from prison due to a general amnesty that was declared two weeks before the outbreak of WWII.

Back to Mlynov

Yehuda and Riva returned to his hometown, Mlynov. Riva was shocked by how simple their home was and Yehuda’s sister later teased her about how elegantly she was dressed. During this time, Riva got pregnant with their eldest son, Vitek, though they were not married. Naturally, Yehuda’s father, Eliezer, the shochet and mohel, began exerting pressure on them to marry. Yehuda remembers the conversation going something like this:
[his father Eliezer:] "Look, I know you are a communist and anti-Orthodox, but I want you to have a wedding. You are a communist, you have your perspective and your principles, so let us try for a compromise. We will do it in a quiet way so that no one will know. The rebbe will come, two witnesses will come, and we will write the ketuba (marriage license), we will sign, we will make a chupah (bridal canopy) - and that’s it. We will do it quietly so no one will know."

[Yehuda]: "So why do you need it? If people do not know, why do you need it?"

[Eliezer]: "Because when I come to the synagogue people talk about it, that my son is living with a woman without a chupah and without wedding vows, and the children will be bastards, and it is not right, that the son of the town’s shochet... (p. 201).

Riva would have acquiesced but Yehuda was stubborn and refused.


Relieved When the Russians Arrive: 1939

Yehuda and Riva went on a “honeymoon” in August 1939 to get away from family pressures but cut their time short in light of the pending War. They were extremely relieved when the Soviet tanks arrived nearby and Mlynov fell under Soviet and not German control. Their socialist dream had come true. They rented a small flat in Mlynov. Yehuda was elected head of the local council because of his past communist connections. His papers as a Communist official would later help him and his family survive in Siberia.

When their son Vitek was born in 1940, Yehuda's father Eliezer, the shochet and mohel, began to exert pressure on Yehuda to have his son circumcised. Yehuda’s sister Batya tried to convince her brother to comply. But Yehuda refused and decided to leave the city to escape the pressures of his family. Later in life, Riva recalled that when Yehuda was no longer a communist he regretted his decision (pp. 214–15).

Then Germans Attack: June 1942

When the Germans attacked Russian-held Ukraine on June 22, 1942, Yehuda and Riva were in the nearby town of Demydivka visiting Yehuda's aunt. His sister Bracha (Bouzke’leh) was also there with them. They managed to get a cart and a few horses. They pleaded with Bracha to join them but she refused and ran back to Mlynov to be with her parents. She would perish with them.

Yehuda and Riva, with young son, Vitek, joined a huge convoy of fleeing Ukraianian soldiers, Russians, and Jews all heading towards Dubno. Confusion reigned on the road with masses of people walking east. In Dubno they bumped into Yehuda’s brother, Yaakov, and his wife Batya (née Katz), and his sisters, Chaika and Dvorah, who also fled Mlynov. Their parents remained in Mlynov too old to flee with the two younger daughters Bracha and Yenteleh. The siblings later learned that the Germans arrived in Dubno an hour or two after they fled further east.

Along the way they had to dive to the ground as bombs dropped nearby. After seven days they eventually made it to Zhytomyr, which was still in Russian-held Ukraine. There they managed to get on a train to Kiev further east. They were in Kiev on July 3rd, 1941 and heard over loudspeakers Stalin deliver his famous first speech about the War. In Kiev, they managed to get on a boat on the Dnieper.

Fleeing East

A long journey ensued by boat and train towards Astrakhan and Karalat on the Caspian Sea, a total of nearly 3,000 km. Yehuda tried his hand at fishing but there was no real work. They eventually left on a ship to Atyrau (then called Guryev) a coastal city in Kazakhstan today. After a short stay there, the family headed to Siberia where Riva’s sister was living (now northeast Kazakstan). They arrived in Akmolinsk (now the capital Astana) and from there they continued further northeast to Turgaistroi. The total distance of the escape route was about 6,200 km over a period of seven or eight months.

Yehuda was soon taken into the Work Army ("Trud Armia") which were units of men and women who were recruited to help at the front. He was then selected to join the Russian Army. After an intensive training for commanders, Yehuda's group was sent to the front. Yehuda was left behind in the train station and there was always uncertainty in the family whether he did so deliberately. In any case, he was arrested and accused of being a deserter.

What saved him ultimately were the papers from Mlynov showing he had been head of the Mlynov Council when the Soviets occupied the area. They finally released him and sent him back to the Workers Army (Trud Armia) that was in Akmolinsk. Riva traveled to see him with their newborn son, Dani, who was born March 15, 1943.

Yehuda worked for a time in Akmolinsk before enlisting in the newly forming Polish Communist Units (Armia Ludowa). There they changed his Jewish sounding name from Judka Mohel to the Polish, Wacław Tracz. At the time, Yehuda firmly believed that after the War there would be no distinction between Jews and Poles, and everyone would be Polish. For the rest of the War, Yehuda was gone for long periods of time at the front and returned to his family only briefly with frost bitten hands.

After the War

On May 8 1945, the Germans surrendered and the war ended. Riva and the children left Siberia and eventually made their way to Wroclaw, Poland which had recently been liberated from German occupation. Yehuda continued serving in the army.

Eventually, Yehuda and Riva went back to Mlynov. Yehuda had already learned the fate of his parents and two younger sisters. Earlier in 1944, his brother Yaakov received an account from another Mlynov survivor named Sarah Neiter. A reconstruction of that letter by Yehuda's brother Yaakov appears in the Mlynov Memorial book. The Nazis entered Mlynov a few days after Yehuda and Riva fled. The remaining members of the family hid in the cellar. The Germans sent in hungry dogs which found them and the whole family was shot.

Settling into their lives in Wroclaw, Poland, Riva established and ran a kindergarten and Yehuda served with the army as the person responsible for regional security on behalf of the Party. It took quite a long time for Yehuda and Riva to learn of Stalin's crimes and become disenchanted with the party. Yehuda was discharged from the army in 1953, part of the the first wave of explusions of those with Jewish origins. Yehuda finally turned in his party card in 1956 when Stalin's crimes became known. Riva at the time still wanted to hold onto hers. The realization of what the Party had become under Stalin was difficult to believe and acknowledge. They had invested most of their adult lives in the Communist vision.

After 1956 it became possible to travel to Israel. The family applied and was refused permission to leave Poland on multiple occassions. Finally, at the beginning of May 1961, their request was approved. On May 31, 1961, they took a train to Vienna, got on a plane two days later, and on June 3, 1961, they landed at Lod Airport.

Return to the beginning of the Mohel Story or read the book-length account of Yehuda and Riva's lives.


Compiled by Howard I. Schwartz, PhD
Updated:October 2022
Copyright © 2022 Howard I. Schwartz

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