Zikhron Yaa’kov and Bat Shlomo

family connection to pioneers is not a usual occurence. However, I am proud
to report that such a connection exists on my husband’s side of the family.
And since we are in direct contact with the grandson of Peretz Hertzenstein,
the “chalutznik” who was an active member in BILU [an organized group of
young Russian Jews who pioneered the return to Eretz Yisrael*] in Russia over
100 years ago, the story intrigues me on a personal level.

Old courtyard in Zikhron

A drive past the
lush fruit trees, vineyards and fig trees in Zikhron Yaa’kov and Bat Shlomo
in the Carmel Mountains these days makes it hard to imagine the region as
it was in the early 1900s. In those years, poverty, famine, shortages and
malaria were common in Palestine and all too often killed off whole families.

Peretz Hertzenstein, his wife Chernya,
and their 3 small children settled in Bat Shlomo to farm the land which had
been bought by Baron de Rothschild. Peretz was sent by his fellow farmers
to visit the Baron in Paris to request that the Palestine Jewish Colonization
Association [PICA] give work to Jewish workers so that they would learn how
to farm and thereby be able to support themselves.

Upon his return to Bat Shlomo, Peretz
was beaten by Arab workers. Already weak from malaria, he died a few months
later from his wounds. As he lay dying at the age of 37, he called each son
to his bedside, and commanded each one to remain in Palestine and not to
desert the land. On his headstone, in the old cemetery of Zikhron Yaa’kov,
are the words:

good man in his youth;

Tormented in agony most of his days;

He was until his last days, a loyal son of country, and people

To his sons, he commanded with strength: Please don’t leave the land.

But, in fact, Peretz’s widow and three
sons were ill with malaria, and impoverished.

Ovadia, the grandson of Peretz and
Chernya, and himself a grandfather, tells us: “The little money Peretz had,
he left in the hands of an executor. He wouldn’t rely on a young woman to
handle it. He left instructions that the executor should not free the money
to enable her to leave Israel… The executor gave her a bit at a time. She
remained in Bat Shlomo with 3 little children, all of them ill with malaria
and starving.”

It was Chernya’s young nephew, Amram,
a boy of 15, who was instructed by his mother to take Chernya to Jerusalem
to consult with Rav Kook, the Chief Rabbi.

Ovadia continues, “The family was
in distress. My grandmother was afraid to leave because of her husband’s
deathbed command. The family from Gedera sent Amram to take her to Rav Kook
in Jerusalem. They were not religious but she was a young widow in need of
guidance. The Rav listened, raised his arms, and cancelled the promise she
had made to her husband — thus allowing her and her sons to leave Eretz
Yisrael and go to America. If they had not left, they would have died.”

And so the widow and children left
for America. Poor Chernya felt guilty the rest of her life. She wore only
black – and never remarried.

But the words on the tombstone did
not go unheeded: Ovadia Hartston, Peretz and Chernya’s grandson, was raised
on the tragic tale as a boy growing up in New York. It left a deep impression.
In 1969, Ovadia and his wife and their 3 young children immigrated to Israel.
Ovadia left behind his dental practice and settled on Kibbutz Bet HaEmek,
not far from Zikhron Yaa’kov and Bat Shlomo.

Ovadia’s photo of his grandfather,
Peretz, looks just like all the other photos of anonymous Jews of that period.
But he is not anonymous and his story is very real.

It makes me treasure the lush trees
and vineyards of Zikhron Yaa’kov and Bat Shlomo: there really are blood,
sweat and tears in that soil.

To visit the site and learn how the town has grown and prospered,
consider staying overnight in
a luxury B&B with a private spa located in Zikhron Yaakov.

Text and
photo by J. Isaacson. 

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