Bilha Chesner Fish
Israeli immigrant, author, radiologist

From the shtetl to the promised land

Aaron and Rachel Chesner
Aaron and Rachel Chesner

As we prepare to celebrate Israeli Independence Day, I remember my parents’ journey 85 years ago to a life in the Promised Land and everything they did to help others achieve that goal.

Aaron Chesner was born in Terisk, Ukraine, but his life began when he met my mother, Rachel, at Warsaw University. He was 18 and studying dentistry. She studied accounting. He told me that love at first sight compelled him to follow her to Serock, Poland, the shtetl where she lived with her family.

“Serock on the River” was settled where the Narew and Bug rivers meet. Crowned by enormous mountains it was a magical and poetic place for love to flourish. My mother’s parents, Berl and Biltsche Itzkowitz, for whom I was named, treated my father like a son.

It was in Serock that my parents founded Progress, a youth movement that my father said was “like a water fountain that satiated our mental and intellectual thirst.” They listened to music, shared Russian literature, and enjoyed Sholem Aleichem’s stories of Tevye the Dairyman that would become “Fiddler on the Roof.”

“How truthfully this play mirrored our way of life in the shtetl,” my father said. “Aleichem’s famous quote always resonated with me: ‘No matter how bad things get, you got to go on living even if it kills you.’”

My father also joined Betar, a Zionist youth movement established by Ze’ev Jabotinsky in 1923 in Latvia. Betar members dared to dream about a Jewish state. They read Theodor Herzl’s books and rehearsed Hayim Bialik’s “City of Slaughter,” written in memory of the Kishinev pogrom of 1903. The poem urged the Jews to defend themselves and not be led like sheep to slaughter.

My mother’s strength of character, zest for life, and ability to navigate stormy days strengthened my father’s love: “When she agreed to become my wife,” he said, “I knew that together we could build a home in a place where we would belong.”

And so, on December 4, 1935, my parents joined their friends and sailed to Mandatory Palestine. My father’s grandparents, parents Fruma and Michael Chesner, and his siblings, Clara, Blooma, Zelda, and Bernard, had already left for America.

“We were on the deck, Rachel and I holding hands, watching the twinkling, glistening lights while we approached the port of Haifa,” he told me. “We stared at each other in disbelief as our hands gripped tighter. The excitement on the boat was indescribable and prayers for safe embarkment filled the air.”

My father thought about Abraham, who 4,000 years ago settled in Canaan. He thought of Moses, who led Jews to freedom after 40 years in the desert. He was proud that now it was his turn.

As soon as they arrived in Palestine my father joined the Irgun and helped smuggle in Jews from Eastern Europe. A year later, Arabs held a nationalistic uprising and demanded independence and the end of immigration and land purchases by Jews. Five thousand Arabs died, 15,000 were wounded, and many executed and detained. My parents’ survival was threatened daily.

My mother was homesick and often went to the Haifa port in search of a familiar face. In 1938 she decided to visit her parents in Serock with Avi, my 2-and-a-half-year-old brother, and 1-year-old sister Carmela. My father was heartbroken. But when my mother fell ill with scarlet fever and Avi got diphtheria, my father arranged for their immediate return.

Shortly after, on December 4, 1939, the Nazis walked into Serock and silenced 3,000 Jews. Not a soul was left in the shtetl, not a house left erect.

My mother would return to the port in Haifa, this time hoping to hear news about her family. She would learn that her parents were killed in Auschwitz and her brother, Myer, was shot dead jumping off the train to the concentration camp.

Israel became the Jewish homeland on May 14, 1948. My father adopted Herzl’s famous quote as his motto: “If you will it, it is no dream.” The same motto kept me going, especially during medical school. I figured if Israel could become a state, then I could become a doctor.

After the War of Independence and massive immigration, my family went through years of austerity. Israel lacked industrial and economic resources and we lived on food stamps.

And then a miracle happened. My mother’s sisters, Surale and Gitale, arrived with their husbands, Vladek and Rufin, and Lika, the dog. We learned that brother Haim was living in New York. Their survival restored our faith and we were grateful for their Christian/Polish husbands who saved their lives in the camps.

Many years later, my 80-year-old father would sit on his terrace and gaze at the approaching ships bearing immigrants from Eastern Europe, the Arab countries, Iran, Ethiopia, North America, South Africa, and his own people, Russian Jews.

“They are finally permitted to leave Russia,” he told me. “They are about to enjoy basic human rights of freedom of speech, to proudly carry their original name, and to be able to celebrate Jewish holidays in the open.”

As he stared at the Haifa beach and watched the sun setting on his own life, my father prayed for the day when we can all live in peace in our Promised Land.

About the Author
Bilha Chesner Fish, MD, is an Israeli immigrant and distinguished radiologist. She journeyed from Israel to medical school in Italy, to New York City's most esteemed hospitals, and to Long Island, where she founded Manhasset Diagnostic Imaging and Pathways Women's Health. A longtime advocate for community service and women's empowerment, Dr. Fish's first book, "Invincible Women: Conversations with 21 Inspiring and Successful American Immigrants," (2020, Hybrid Global), aligns with her commitment to stand up to hate, racism, and fear born of misinformation. She holds master's degrees in studio art and art history and is a member of the Women's Forum of New York, which champions leadership, empowerment, and education for women. Dr. Fish lives in New York City and Sag Harbor, New York.
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