From the Shtetl to the Promised Land and on…

By Bilha Fish

From the Shtetl to the Promised Land and on…

From the life story of Dr. Aaron and Rachel Chesner


I was born in Terisk, Ukraine, but it feels like my life began when I first met Rachel at Warsaw University at the age of eighteen. I studied dentistry and she accounting. Love at first sight drew me to follow Rachel to Serock, Poland, the shtetl where she lived with her family. I spent seven years commuting between Serock and Warsaw, occasionally visiting my parents in Terisk.


“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. Rachel’s parents, Biltsche and Berl Itzkowitz, treated me like a son, and I became an adopted brother to Haim, Myer, and Gitale his twin, and their older sister, Surale.

The market took place in the town square, and there was a wishing well thought to cure teary eyes. One can imagine what the marketplace would look like from a bird’s view—likely a black sheath of cloth that, upon getting closer, would separate into dots that reveal crowds of Hasidic Jews wearing their traditional dark outfits, accompanied by their modestly dressed wives. Occasionally I could detect Rachel’s mother, strolling along purchasing food for Shabbat. Tall, slim, and elegant, she would dress according to the latest Parisian fashion, in a gabardine gray suit and an interesting hat.


Life got exciting in Serock when we founded Progress, a youth movement that brightened our dark existence under the Tsarist regulations that confined us to a “pale settlement” and restricted our economic and social order. Progress was like a water fountain that satiated our mental and intellectual thirst. It was a modern institution founded by young people who infused an ancient tradition with fresh air.


Our younger kids were learning the Torah in the heder and the adolescents frequented the religious school seated the old-fashioned way, facing each other and following the rabbi’s strict learning methods. The Progress programs exposed us to a more secular life. We exchanged books that introduced us to classic Russian literature and I learned about Tolstoy’s and Dostoevsky’s work. I loved Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina,” and Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.” We were overjoyed when a Hebrew teacher was imported from Warsaw. The kids were permitted to be seated facing the teacher without wearing a kippah, to the objection of the rabbis.


Simultaneously we formed the Zionist organizations Hashomer Hatzair, Mizrachi, Poalei Zion, Professional Union, and Betar. I was a member of Betar, a Zionist youth movement established by Ze’ev Jabotinsky in 1923 in Latvia. Its purpose was to educate, recruit, and protect Jews in and out of Palestine. It became the Irgun, which was one of the paramilitary underground groups fighting the British in Mandatory Palestine and the Nazis in Europe.


Progress enlightened life in the shtetl; the Zionist organizations offered us the possibility of freedom. The different Zionist organizations provoked passionate discussions about differences in national and social issues. But we were all united in our thirst for intellectual stimulation that Progress provided. Progress united us and strengthened our identity as proud Jews. We listened together to music and participated in theater performances. We enjoyed Sholem Aleichem’s (Solomon Rabinovitsh) stories of Tevye the Dairyman, that in 1964 became the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” How truthfully this play mirrored our way of life in the shtetl. Sholem 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.” On a dark day that always made me smile. Those were the evenings that Progress bonded us and chased away the threatening dark clouds hovering above us.

The members of Betar would gather around a fire we built on the ground of a flour mill that belonged to Rachel’s parents and we dared to dream about the creation of a Jewish state. It was there that we rehearsed Hayim Bialik’s poem “City of Slaughter,” which he wrote in memory of the Kishinev pogrom of 1903. Luckily this poem was translated to Russian by the Zionist revisionist and Jewish leader Jabotinsky, whose ideology we followed. The poem called on the Jews to defend ourselves in the face of violence, to prevent being led like sheep to slaughter. It called for a transformation of the Jews to a proud warlike nation. Even today I remember the verse:


“To the graveyard, beggars!

 Dig up the bones of martyred father and brother,

fill your sacks, sling them on backs

And hit the road

to do business at all the fairs;

advertise yourselves at the crossroads so everyone sees,

in the sunshine on filthy rags spread the bones

and sing your hoarse beggar song,

beg the decency of the world!

 Beg the pity of goyim!

Eternal beggars!”


Around that burning fire our emotional rollercoaster between despair and hope reached a height that needed a resolution. Theodor Herzl’s books circulated and the antisemitic Dreyfus Affair illustrated the betrayal of Jews. It emphasized the belief we could never be accepted unless we lived in a land that we owned. It was at that time that we members of Betar felt we needed a change.


Many Jews immigrated to America and among them were my own grandparents, my parents, Fruma and Michael Chesner, my sisters, Clara, Blooma, and Zelda, and my brother, Bernard.

I never tired looking at the love of my life, Rachel, who was the most beautiful young woman I’d ever seen. She had shoulder-length wavy brown hair and smiling big eyes that disclosed a sadness that later intensified when she learned the bitter fate of her parents. As Sholem Aleichem said: “When the heart is full, it runs out of the eyes.” Rachel’s strength of character and zest for life, her ability to sail through stormy days strengthened my love. When she agreed to become my wife, I knew that together we could build a home in a place where we would belong.

On December 4, 1935, we joined our friends and sailed to Mandatory Palestine. I remember us on the deck of the boat, Rachel and I holding hands, watching the twinkling, glistening lights while we approached the port of Haifa. We stared at each other in disbelief as our hands gripped tighter. The excitement on the boat was indescribable and the prayers for safe embarkment filled the air. I remember that my thoughts went back to Abraham, who four thousand years ago settled in Canaan, later known as the land of Israel. I was thinking of Moses, who led us to freedom following forty years in the desert and how he heard the spies’ information about the land he never got to reach. I felt proud, that after the Egypt experience and later the return of the Jews from Babylon, it was us making it happen again.


The immigration to Israel between 1929 and ‘39 was called Aliya Bet and the “illegal immigration” because of the British mandate limiting immigration to a small quota, which intensified in 1939 with the appearance of the White Paper.


The aliya (ascent to Israel) was organized by the Mossad and the Irgun. The Irgun, which operated between 1931 and ‘48, otherwise known as Irgun Zevai Leumi was a pre-Israel Revisionist Zionist paramilitary group whose ideology was a continuation of that of Betar—to educate, recruit, and protect Jews in and out of Israel. Jabotinsky headed the Irgun and his “Iron Wall” article of 1932 expressed the need for a fortified military front to defend Zionism because the Arabs would never agree for Zionism in Israel.


As soon as we arrived in Palestine I joined the Irgun and, together with former partisan and ghetto survivors, we helped smuggle in Jews from Eastern Europe. The spirit of Betar resonated throughout our hymn:


“From the pit of decay and dust

With blood and sweat

Shall arise a race

Proud, generous, and fierce.

Capture Betar, Yodefet, Massada

Shall arise again in all their strength and glory.”


Although the British White Paper restricted immigration to Israel, it brought the attention of the Jews in the diaspora to Mandatory Palestine. In the last decade of Alyia Bet, immigration rose to 100,000 people brought over by more than one hundred ships.


A year after our arrival in Mandatory Palestine the big Arab revolt took place. It was a nationalistic uprising of Palestinian Arabs in Mandatory Palestine against the British administration of the Palestinian mandate. They demanded Arab independence, the end of Jewish immigration, and the end of land purchases by Jews who wished to establish a Jewish home. The revolt left five thousand Arabs dead and fifteen thousand wounded, many executed and detained.


There was an overwhelming threat to daily survival. Rachel was homesick and often took trips to the Haifa port searching for a familiar face getting off the ships. She was hoping for a “Serock Zionist” to share the memory of a bygone life. This provided a fake sense of security but seems to have been more reassuring than the turmoil in Mandatory Palestine. Finally, nostalgia prompted her to visit her parents in Serock. In 1938 she headed for vacation with my two children—two-and-a-half-year-old Avi and one-year-old Carmela—leaving me heartbroken and teary.

Unfortunately she got ill with scarlet fever, which left her with a cardiac disability, and little Avi was afflicted with diphtheria. Panicked, I insisted on their immediate return.


Shortly after their return, on December 4, 1939, the Nazis walked into Serock and silenced three thousand Jews where their ancestors settled 250 years ago. Not a soul was left in the shtetl, not a house left erect. Even the wishing well felt orphaned without water curing teary eyes.


Rachel kept visiting the port in Haifa, this time hoping to find some news about her family. She discovered that her parents, Biltsche and Berl Itzkowitz, were killed in Auschwitz and that her brother, Myer, was shot dead jumping off the train on the way to concentration camp.

Between 1937 and ‘48, the fighting over the land intensified until finally, on May 14, 1948, Israel came to be a homeland for Jewish people, a Jewish state. Zionism was unfolding with the creation of the Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel, gathering the exiles and liberating the Jews from antisemitic discrimination and persecution that they experienced in their diaspora.


Herzl’s dream was realized and his famous quote became a personal motto in my life and in the life of my family and friends: “If you will it, it is no dream.” My daughter, Bilha, used to tell me that anytime she encountered a difficulty, especially during medical school, this quote kept her going. She always thought, “If Israel could became a state, then I can become a doctor.”


Unbeknownst to us, Rachel and I became symbols of strength to our children. Deep down in our hearts, however, we thought of ourselves as refugees that paved the way for others. In our minds—not less important than the realization of the dream of Herzl for utopia in Israel—was the ability to give refuge to our Jewish brothers, the Holocaust survivors of the Second World War.


After the War of Independence and with the mass of immigration, we went through years of austerity. Israel did not have the industrial or economic resources and we lived on food stamps. I am still reminded by my youngest daughter, Bilha, who was named after her grandmother who perished in the war, the drama around her refusal to eat the “treacherous eggs” and drink the milk she despised.


And then a miracle happened. Rachel’s sisters, Surale and Gitale, showed up with their husbands, Vladek and Rufin, and Lika, the dog. We were equally exited with the news that their brother Haim survived and was living in New York.


We were living in a two-bedroom apartment at the time and the living room was filled with Jewish and Arab patients while I was doing my dental work in my clinic next door. Rachel was always at my side, acting as my personnel accountant and deciding the price of my services according to the financial potential of the patients. And so, soldiers, priests, and rabbis did not pay for my treatment. We’d get chickens and eggs from our farmer patients. At night the place became a dormitory when Murphy beds miraculously appeared to relieve our tired bodies. The survival of Surale and Gitale restored our faith in human nature and we were grateful for their Christian/Polish husbands who saved their lives in the camps.


I am now eighty years old, still sitting on my terrace, on a worn-out stool, gazing at the approaching ships loaded with immigrants. Through the years I’ve seen the immigrants coming from Eastern Europe, the Arab countries, Iran, Ethiopia, North America, South Africa, and now I’m watching the arrival of my own people, Russian Jews. They are finally permitted to leave Russia. They are about to enjoy the basic human rights of freedom of speech, to proudly carry their original name, and to be able to celebrate Jewish holidays in the open.


Rachel and I lived through four major Israeli wars: the War of Independence in 1948, the Sinai War in 1956, the Six-Day War in 1967, and the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Our three kids served in the Israeli army. You can imagine that we had our share of worries. Our son, Avi, was injured as an artillery fighter in the Sinai War and it was difficult for him to adjust to civil life after experiencing loss. Eventually he was able to get back to his education and he graduated from dental school. My older daughter, Carmela, went to law school at night while she served in the army.


My younger daughter, Bilha, served in navy intelligence. She ended her military service and became a first-year medical student in Italy but the Six-Day War erupted and she deferred her final exams to the fall in order to defend our country. Some of her friends were injured and a few were killed, a heavy price to pay for the conquest of Jerusalem.

This brings me back to the unforgettable day of May 14, 1948, when David Ben-Gurion declared an independent Jewish state of Israel. We were sobbing, remembering the members of our families who perished, and simultaneously feeling proud to live in a land of our own. The excitement of having Zionists such as Ben-Gurion for prime minister along with a first Israeli president, Chaim Weizmann, was incomparable.


Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism, described the future Jewish land as a utopia, “a state to be a light unto the nations,” where science, technology, and working the land will be developed. In his book “Old-New Land,” three main issues were discussed: equal citizenship, a socio-economic structure for the country, and the relationship between state and religion.


The state of Israel in many ways indeed represents a light unto the nations, especially in becoming a safe haven to Holocaust survivors and continuing to open her arms to immigrants and refugees subject to antisemitism in the diaspora.

In this aspect, our state is still in the making. Our historical story was realized but it is framing an unfinished picture. The same issues that Herzl predicted are still facing us.


As I’m sitting on my old stool staring at the Haifa beaches and simultaneously watching the sunset of my own life, I’m praying for the day when we can all live in peace in our Promised Land.