Mendel Portugali was born in Kalarash in the late 1880s. As a teen-ager, he attended a Russian government business school in Kishinev, where he was an excellent student and was especially proficient in mathematics. When he returned to Kalarash during school breaks, his friends were the town’s Socialists and Zionists, including Chaim Greenberg, Yisrael Giladi, and Uriah Feldman.
At the age of 14 or 15, after two years of schooling, Portugali was expelled because of his political activities. He returned to Kalarash, where he lectured workers and distributed revolutionary proclamations to the shtetl’s farmers. Inevitably, he was arrested and brought before the chief magistrate. He was freed on bail of 500 rubles, on condition that he not leave Kalarash until there was a verdict in his case. A year later, he was found guilty and sentenced to five years of exile in Siberia. He was sent to Konstantyn, near an Eskimo settlement where he learned how to fish, a talent that enabled him to survive the difficult years of exile.
Portugali was freed after three-and-a-half years and returned to Kalarash at the age of 18, strong in body and spirit. He worked as a journalist and organized the workers in Kalarash. After moving to Kishinev, he became more involved in the Socialist movement and the police once again kept him under surveillance. He was in Kalarash on October 23, 1905, the day of the pogrom, and was part of a Jewish self-defense group that managed to save many lives and protect Jewish property.
Portugali eventually made aliyah. Inspired by his experiences during the Bessarabian pogroms, in 1909 he joined his Kalarash landsman Yisrael Giladi as a member of the founding Va’ad [committee] of HaShomer [The Watchman], the self-defense organization that guarded Jewish settlements in the north. He lived in a small agricultural settlement called Beit Gan with his wife Tovah, their two children, his mother and brother, and his wife’s father. He loved to work on the farm and he and his brother Yakov often shared guard duty.
Mendel Portugali was on guard duty one night when he accidentally shot himself. His brother Yakov noted sadly that had a decent surgeon been available, he might have been saved — but he died of his wounds the next day.
Credits: This biography is based upon an article by Yakov Portugali in Sefer Kalarash (Arieli Press, 1966). The information was translated and extracted by Jerrold Landau and edited by Helene Kenvin. All rights reserved.