After her inspirational talk, Bernice met with a smaller group of us to talk about more practical matters. The first thing she did was light a cigarette.
“We have to strengthen our defenses. So far we’ve been lucky that we haven’t been attacked. I’m not sure how much longer that will last. Many of the kibbutzim in this area are now targets of Arab raids.”
“What should we do?” I asked.
“First, we build our fence higher and post more guards. Second, no one should be allowed to travel outside the kibbutz alone. Third, I will look into ways for us to obtain more weapons.”
It was good that Moshe had the foresight to create a cache of guns on the kibbutz, and that Devorah had trained everyone old enough to hold a rifle how to use them.
“I will go to the Haganah to ask for more arms,” Devorah said.
I was proud that my daughter was the one who stood up to help defend our kibbutz, but I was also scared that she was again placing herself in harm’s way.
“That won’t be necessary, Devorah,” Bernice said. “Moshe can do that for us. Thank you for volunteering. I have another job in mind for you.”
I don’t know who was more curious about what Bernice was thinking, Devorah or me.
“So Bernice, what are our good friends the British doing about the Arabs?” Laban asked.
She laughed in between puffs from her cigarette. “The British are worse than no help at all. After the Arabs are allowed to go on a rampage for a few days and murder scores of Jews, they show up with sufficient force to stop the violence. God forbid, they should intervene during the initial attacks or, horror of horrors, prevent them in the first place. Usually, they end up arresting more Jews than Arabs.”
“But surely they see that we are innocent victims who need protection.”
“Hah,” she spat. “Tevye, you have a lot to learn about politics. The British fined the Arab villages, but the Mufti protested the Chancellor’s ‘brutality.’ So, what did the honorable Chancellor do? He announced an inquiry into the conduct of both the Jews and Arabs. Can you imagine that we, the victims, should be equated with the murderers? That’s politics, Tevye.”
Bernice hardly looked like the political powerhouse she had become, sitting in her flower patterned dress, wooden shoes with unkempt auburn hair, which she continually brushed from her large darting eyes. The cigarettes she pumped in and out of her mouth were the main distraction from her bulbous nose, which reminded me of a knot on the trunk of a tree.
“So, what will happen next?” I asked.
“Can I see into the future? If you’re asking me —”
“You’re the only one here,” I said and received an icy stare through the haze of smoke.
“The British will hold an inquiry and they will find that the Arab violence is caused by Jewish immigration. The gates will then be pulled more tightly shut. And do you think that will satisfy the Arabs? Of course not! They’ll stay quiet for several weeks, maybe even a few years, and then the attacks will begin anew. And they won’t stop until we have been driven into the Mediterranean.”
Bernice saw me nodding.
“You agree, Tevye?”
“I have always hoped we could find a way to live in peace with our neighbors, but my friend Sheikh Jabber said the same thing. In fact, he warned me about the violence. He said the Mufti’s men were claiming the Jews were trying to destroy Al-Aqsa Mosque. He said the fellaheen would listen and rise against us.”
“Your friend is a prophet — a prophet of doom.”
“There’s more, Bernice. He also said the war would continue until we were driven into the sea. Even if we repelled them in the short-run, he said they would continue to fight us for as long as it took to destroy us.”
“It doesn’t take a prophet to know that, Tevye,” Bernice said, waving her cigarette. “It’s what I’ve been trying to tell the Executive Committee, but many of the members still want to talk; they believe we can reach an understanding with the Arabs if they understand we mean them no harm. It’s tepshee, absurd. They will never accept a Jewish state in Palestine.”
“So, what do we do?”
“Well, the politicians will continue to negotiate with the British in London. Weizmann still has some influence. But we will have to be better prepared to defend ourselves and, if necessary, ready to go to war to liberate our homeland. Right now, we are far too weak.”
“But,” I interrupted, “Moshe said we have troops.”
“Troops? Hah! We’ve got boys with a handful of pistols and old World War One Enfield rifles. Our priority must continue to be aliyah. We must bring as many Jews as possible to Palestine. In fact, that is one reason, I’ve come. I need to talk to you alone for a minute, Tevye. Excuse us, please.”
Bernice got up from the table in the dining room and walked outside with me following. She stood so close to me, I felt like I was smoking the cigarette with her.
“I want to talk to Devorah about a special mission.”
“No King David’s Devorah. Or course your Devorah. She is fearless and already has done work with the Haganah. We’re going to be increasing our efforts to bring in illegal immigrants and I would like her to be involved. We can use a nurse. There’s a new plan to try to smuggle the immigrants in by sea, but I’m told the ships are floating death traps. Most aren’t seaworthy, and we’re afraid the long days at sea with little food or water will kill the weaker passengers. Even the strong ones will come down with diseases, and some bring their illnesses with them here. We’ve got enough problems without importing foreign germs.
“This sounds too dangerous Bernice. Why can’t a man do it?”
“I see you haven’t left your old world ideas completely behind yet. You’ve seen women do all the jobs of the men here on the kibbutz.”
“Not for lack of trying. Anyway, we have men involved, but we need her skills as a nurse. I’m sure if the Haganah asked her, she would do it, and you probably would never know she was involved. But I feel that you are like family Tevye, and I wanted you to know the sacrifice we will be asking of her — and of you.”
I could almost feel Bernice’s eyes on my face. She stared at me without blinking, looking determined to have my assent. It was never easy to say no to Bernice. But is she asking too much this time? Four of my daughters are separated from the family. One is already dead.
Damn Chaim for what he did to my Shoshie!
How can Bernice expect me to put one of my children in danger? Golde will be heartsick and it will give her something new to worry about all the time, as if she needed an excuse to suffer.
On the other hand, it is an honor to be asked to serve your people, and a tribute to Devorah that she is so respected and needed. How can I stand in the way of her fulfilling her duty to the yishuv? Then again, what choice do I have? No more than when she ran off to join the Haganah in the first place. She will want the responsibility and I will be powerless to stop her from doing whatever is asked of her. Maybe God put the name Devorah into my mind when she was born so that my daughter would follow in the footsteps of her biblical namesake.
“You’re right, Bernice. Devorah is a brave girl. And a stubborn one. I’m sure she will do it, whether I approve or not. As it happens, I approve.”
I watched Bernice take a long last drag on the cigarette before stomping on the meager remains with her shoe.
This excerpt is from Mitchell Bard’s novel, After Anatevka – Tevya Goes to Palestine available now in paperback and on Kindle.