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Investigations into the Jewish History of Lyakhovichi: Rubin Kaplan of Baranovichi


This is a page in our Biography section. Click on the "Biography" button in the left-hand column to read other articles in this section.

Continued From: The Memoirs of Rubin Kaplan of Baranovichi - His Departure from Russia after World War One, and his arrival in Eretz Israel

The Memoirs of Rubin Kaplan of Baranovichi
"In Palestine - 1922" - an excerpt from the Memoirs of Rubin Kaplan by his granddaughter Alison Greengard, all copyright retained. All photos are also copyright to Alison Greengard unless specifically noted.

Tel Aviv 1923, Rubin Kaplan to far right with shovel
click to enlarge
“I recall a photograph I have standing at the test, shovel in hand, with all of my group of chalutzim, including Mr. Kitzis, who was a Histadrut leader. Some from that group are now in Israel, some in America, one in Australia.”

“The camp was dwindling from day to day. My friend Mordechai Rotenberg, told me a few days later, his face glowing, that he had contacted Kibbutz Kinneret, and the he had been told to come out. And he added – would I join him? He would see to it that I was accepted. I said, No, sorry. I was then sure that I was the vanguard for the whole family. I had already bought an incubator in Vienna, I owned a bicycle and some money, and I hated the Poles and the Communist Russians.”

“Then came a stirring incident in the camp. A girl fell asleep on the beach. An Arab passed by riding a donkey and attacked her. The girl came back to the camp crying. Someone notified the Haganah and she and a few men kept watch for several nights, trying to see if she could recognize the Arab. She did so early one morning. The man, from Sheich Moanis, was on his way to the Jaffa market, but never got there. He was soon castrated. A long series of incidents followed – attacks and reprisals. I recall a Jewish milkman on his way to Tel Aviv with cans of milk who was totally castrated in reprisal, and some time later I saw him swimming at the beach, boasting a gold tube which had replaced what was taken from him.”

“One day, walking among the sand dunes, I saw long black pipes stretching out into the distance, and not a soul to be seen. I climbed a sand dune and was approached by a well-dressed man. He looked me over, asked a few questions – where did I come from, where was I staying, etc. – and then asked if I wanted to work. This was more than I had expected. Certainly, I said. Surely, I exclaimed. Well, he said. You see these pipes? They have to be cleaned from sand and painted with tar. I asked when I could start, and we settled on the next day. I would be paid by the piece. He mentioned a few piasters for each pipe painted inside and out. I didn’t care about the price. The challenge was in the doing. I asked if I could bring a friend to help me, and was encouraged to do so. Two landslite from my group, Karalitzky and Mukasey, were soon my partners. The next morning found us busily cleaning and painting. We even had a method for doing the insides. A rag on a stick served as a brush, and the work went smoothly. We earned a good half pound a day for a whole week. Come to think of it today, March 23, 1980, as I write these words, it was almost fifty-seven years ago to the day….The first money I earned in my life was connected to pipes…fate?”

“Since I didn’t go to the kibbutz with my friend, I was soon out on the road working in Schnunat Borochov (Now Eer Ganim). We pitched tents on a bare hill, two boys and two mattresses to a tent. Some worked at digging a trench to lay a water line. I was at a wheelbarrow, digging where Kupat Cholim is now located. Later in 1932, we rented a room in a house on that same hill. The girls prefered making gravel for the trench, rather than cooking for the large group. In the morning we would air out mattresses, and one day when I picked up my mattress, I found a large snake curled up underneath. That was when I wrote my first article.”

“We decided to hold an evening called “Open Newspaper,” and I described my impressions of our arrival. A few copies were made, and as a result of the praise I was given I mailed a copy to my parents. When they replied, they asked if I had really written the article. I was very insulted and hurt…but I didn’t become a writer anyway…not for a long time.”

“My partner in our tent was my landsman, Lou Kurchin. One evening he took my tea kettle, filled it with water, and took it to a fire to boil the water. Our tents had no lights or lamps, and I was out of the tent at the time. When the water boiled he returned the tea kettle, left it at the entrance, and went to get some sugar, In the meanwhile, I returned and walked right into the boiling water. It splashed on my left shin and burned off the flesh. I was laid up for several weeks.”

“I recall a photograph I have standing at the test, shovel in hand, with all of my group of chalutzim, including Mr. Kitzis, who was a Histadrut leader. Some from that group are now in Israel, some in America, one in Australia. When the digging in Schunot Borochov ended, a few of us from our Tzeirei Zion group were invited to join the Baranowicher Kvutza, not as members, but to pitch tents near them and enjoy the benefit of a day’s work when they needed extra help. I bought my own tent, a used British army tent, and shared it with a friend. A few old boards knocked together served as a bed, and I made a rough table and a little bench, since I was always handy with tools. These, together with my tea kettle, comprised my household. I still have my large fork and spoon from home as souvenirs. We lived in a circle of ten or twelve tents. The leaders of the group were Max Gershuni and another fellow, both of them in their thirties. The tents were located where the Carmel Shuk now stands. Behind us were a few houses and barracks, among them Engineer Berman. His wife, of the Rubenstein family of Baranowich, took singing lessons from my father, so they knew me.”

“A little hill of sand separated our tents from the Arabs. Somewhere on that hill was our outhouse, which served as our only toilet. Our tents also served as protection for the houses in the rear. The “old” Baranowicher were members of the Haganah and carried revolvers, but they didn’t make us join the Haganah, since they feared that we would demand to also become full members of the work group.”

“In the middle of the circle of tents we placed a large empty barrel, into which we threw things we discarded – mostly old shoes hardened from the concrete. They would get stiff and heavy and impossible to wear. One of our group, named Moshke Feldenkrais [founder of the Feldenkrais Method of Somatic Education] , who later became famous for standing David Ben-Gurion on his head. To us he was Moshke. He was a plump fellow who loved sports. I was his partner in wrestling. Since he was of fair complexion, he would emerge after a workout with me on the sand with his face red as a beet. This was caused mainly by his contact with the sand. One day the two of us were horsing around, throwing old shoes at one another. Since my aim was good, I hit the mark and my shoe landed on him. This was unforgiveable and he began to chase me, shoe in hand, around the tent. Suddenly he turned around and faced me. He hit me squarely in the chest with the heavy shoe and I passed out. A doctor was called, and the first thing I recall was his checking to see if I had blood in my ears. I survived, but it is possible some damage was done. Moshke disappeared before the doctor arrived, and was gone for two days. He silently snuck back. He later went to Paris, where he wrote a book on JuJitsu. He finally became a physicist of some kind.”

“There was little else to do for entertainment. A narrow strip of concrete was poured on Allenby Street, and since there was hardly any traffic on the road in the evenings, the owners of bicycles had the road to themselves. I among them, raced along that strip like crazy. One evening, while riding at full speed, my handlebar broke off on one side. I plunged head down through an open gate and landed inches away from a building foundation – another miracle.”

“There was one moviehouse in Tel Aviv, called Eden. But who went to a movie? Once my friends and I did go. I’m not sure if I had a ticket or not, since I remember climbing over a window. We also went to see a Frenchman who read minds and performed wonders. I sat next o Moshke Feldenkrais, and he wrote down a sentence on a piece of paper, put it in his pocket, and raised his hand. We were sitting in about the center of the hall, and after awhile the Frenchman pointed to Moshkeh and asked, “What have you?”. Moshke said, “I wrote something in Hebrew, and it’s in my pocket.” “Can you concentrate on it for awhile, and I will try to read it”, said the Frenchman. Moshke concentrated, and the Frenchman repeated what was written, in broken Hebrew. That I will never forget, and since then I believe in mind reading.”

“In those years the agricultural school Mikveh Yisrael was far, far from Tel Aviv, and required traveling through Jaffa in order to get there. One Saturday, a group of boys decided to go to Mikveh, but not through Jaffa. We preferred to go through the fields, where the Arabs were cutting wheat or something. There was no way back, and we had to keep moving forward, but we were really scared. We hastily decided that each of us would keep his right hand in his pocket, as though we were holding weapons. We passed close to a large family, and the older man smiled at us. We felt stupid and ashamed, but we had good reason, for there were killings and reprisals that went on daily. In the area which presently is between Dizengoff Center and Allenby Street, there was an empty field which served us as a football field, and was considered “out of town”. A fight between Jews and Arabs broke out one day, and a twelve year old boy was killed. A few days later, an Arab was killed when someone hit him over the head with a board. The Arabs insisted on a funeral procession through Tel Aviv to their cemetery, which was situated where the Hilton Hotel stands today. I may have confused the facts, but there was always trouble, that’s for sure.”

“Life was truly miserable. The shoes and clothing from home soon deteriorated, and I had grown out of them anyway. A day’s pay was twenty piasters. I remember cleaning apartments and getting only fifteen piasters. But who needed more than a pair of shorts? These were available for fifteen to twenty piasters, and we bought and discarded army shoes, which we wore to work. After work we walked around barefoot in the deep sand in our yard. The only problem was that the sand was full of giant fleas, and after sitting for a few minutes our feet were covered up to the knees with black fleas. They had to be scraped off. The only solution was to soak the place with water for a long time. Then the fleas would disappear for a few days, only to return, invigorated. It was very hot in the tents that summer, but in the winter we froze, and we covered the tents halfway with sand to keep the wind out. Our main entertainment was football, which we played barefoot.”

“The Baranowicher Kvutza once had a big job in Jaffa – a bank was built by the Anglo Palestine company at the beginning of Shderot Yerushalayim, near Butrus Street. I was an expert “tacharnik”. Tachka in Russian means a wheelbarrow. I would walk a full wheelbarrow loaded with concrete, on a narrow board, flip it up and dump the concrete in the forms. It wasn’t easy, but I had the strength and the knack for it. Hundreds of Arabs worked near us, digging in another part of the building. They carried t he earth on their shoulders in a basket. Their foreman got wheelbarrows for them to use, but to no avail. Most of the Arab workers came from nearby Syria, from the Horan Mountains. They were paid ten piasters daily. They would eat pita with onion and drink water, roll up in their long garments, lie down by the fence, and sleep ‘til morning. Still, despite their bad conditions, they kept coming, and we had to compete with them. We watched them at lunchtime, taking off their shirts, and picking out lice.”

“As time went on there was less and less work. To our good luck, a nearby grocery was owned by a landsman named Shinitzky, and he gave us credit. We bought delicious round white loaves of bread. The “lakerdah” fish (mackerel) was very cheap, and also margarine and chalvah, so these were my staples. Someone told me that in Jaffa I would find cheap meat, so I tried to buy a piece there but found that I didn’t have the money. The butcher grabbed a long knife and took after me. Did I run…and that was the end of Jaffa meat for me. Gershuni once brought a green fruit full of leaves [artichoke], something we had never seen before. He cooked it, fried it, chopped it, and finally threw it away.”

“Times grew worse daily. I sold the incubator and ate up the money. I remember a very sad Passover. No one invited us to a Seder, no one seemed to care. That Passover I ate bread….I don’t remember seeing any matzah. My debt to the grocer kept growing, and I wondered if he would stop giving me credit.”

“ As times grew worse, my friends in the tent began to disappear. Without a goodbye, without any notice or confiding anything to anyone. A few went to America, some to Canada, one to Australia, and even back to Poland. Everyone felt deep shame in leaving the country, so did I. But they say that an army marches on its belly, and the equivalent in Hebrew is that without flour there is no Torah. I started to think of going to America. There I would learn a trade that would be best for Palestine and come back and be independent. I confided my idea to my parents. My Polish passport had been taken from me when getting off the boat at Jaffa. No one knew where it was, so the police issued me a pass which entitled me to travel. It had my name and picture on it, said that I had come from Poland. I still have that pass, and with it I went to Jerusalem to get a visa to America. I had to return the next day, and so found myself a place to sleep, in a house on Jaffa Road, where a landsman had a room. The room did not have space enough for two, it was that small, so he gave me a blanket and suggested that I sleep on the roof, where it was airy. And so I did. I didn’t mind the roof, but the mosquitoes were eating me up. I finally fell asleep, and the next thing I knew the sun was blinding me. I reached for my shirt and pants, but alas, they were so wet from the dew that I could have wrung the water from them. Not having much choice, I hung my clothes to dry and waited a long time before I was able to get off the roof.”

“I got an American visa surprisingly easily. Now I had to say goodbye to Jerusalem. This wasn’t easy. I went to the kotel, the Western Wall, and prayed there. At that time, one had to pass through narrow Arab streets. There was a short and narrow space before the wall. Many beggars sat around, one a very black woman who I remember because she was so black. She said a few words in Hebrew – she must have been Ethiopian. While at the wall I put my hand in between the rocks and found a small chip of stone which I took with me. I still have it. But my conscience always bothered me. I have always cherished that piece of rock, and traces of smoke from burning candles can be seen clearly on it.”

“I went into the Mosque of Omar and paid five shillings to enter, removing my shoes before going in. I entered together with a high British officer and his wife. I am convinced that over the cave in the center of the mosque there was a white rock, high as a tent. This is the way I described it to whomever I told that I had been inside. Since the Six Days War I have been there several times, and over the cave there is a funny rock only five feet high, surrounded by a fence. I felt funny as though I had made up the story. When Helen and the kids, Karen and Ali, visited in 1968 I decided to take an Arab guide to show us around, and I asked him if I was right in remembering a high rock over the cave. He said, Yes, but that whenever a new mosque was built, they would take a piece of that rock and place it in the new mosque. Later on that practice was stopped by the Jordanians.”

“While in Jerusalem I went to see my friend and landsman, Yehoshua Weinger, from Baranowich. He was about ten years my senior, and was also my tutor. His father worked leather, making parts for shoes, straps for horses, etc. His shop was on the market place. Yehoshua was a scholarly boy and knew Talmud well. He became an ardent Zionist, grew to know the leaders and their writings, and became a good speaker himself. He took me into the Tzeirei Zion and activated me, too. You can see me in a photograph of the Tzeirei Zion standing next to my first teacher, the one with the beard. This Yehoshua Weinger was later a member of Kibbutz Yagur near Haifa. His son became Consul in London. At that time Yehoshua lived in Jerusalem and was a member of a group that cut stone. I went to look for him, and was told that he was out in the fields where Kiryat Moshe stands today. It was the middle of the summer, hot, with the sun standing over your head. I found him standing with a heavy metal bar in his hands. He was drilling holes in the rock, just by lifting and dropping the bar into the rock. The hole was then filled with powder and ignited. The drops of sweat on his face were the size of large peas. An earthen jug filled with water was near him. When he saw me, we embraced. I loved him and respected him. When he asked me what I was doing in Jerusalem, I broke down and cried bitterly. He comforted me and assured me that I would soon be back. He was right.”

“During that summer of 1923 I received word that my father was gravely ill with pneumonia. When word spread that the chazzan-shochet was ill, people gathered around the house. Doctors came and went, and one day he just stopped breathing. He had a very high fever, and the cry went out that he had passed away. The people in the house were crying hysterically while outside the house people gathered near the windows as the news spread that the Palonker Shochet, as he was called, had died. Just then, as someone put a feather to his nostrils to see if there was still breath in him, father sat up in bed and asked for a drink of water. Later, when everything had calmed down, he was asked what had happened to him. He explained that two men dressed in white came to him and lifted him from his bed to a new , clean bed, and he woke up. Since that sickness, a new name was added to his name, and he became Chaim Menahem Yoel. Mother and my brothers had gone to synagogue to pray for him, and added the name Chaim. It was the custom to add a name while praying in synagogue for a very sick person.”

This picture in the 1930s shows the family of Rubin in Baranovichi, surrounding his parents Menahem Joel and Chaya Kaplan. In all of the parts of this memoir, you can hear Rubin's plans to be the vanguard of his family in Eretz Israel, to establish a home to which his family could come. Sadly, it was not to be.

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You Need to Read this First Person Report
If any of your family were Zionists, halutzim, emigrees to Eretz Israel, you need to read this memoir. Rubin Kaplan filled many diaries in the years discussed here and over his lifetime, and then turned to those sources to reconstruct for his grandchildren that young man's viewpoint. I was captivated by the profusion of detail, and the boundless optimism of this young Zionist - the webmaster Deborah Glassman