Zionism in Europe
My Youth at Hashomer Hatzair

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"I was born in a little village in eastern Slovakia called Nemešany, on 29 December 1914, under the name Helena Grunwald...."

My Friends

During my studies I made friends with girls from Jewish as well as non-Jewish families, such as Edith Lefkowitz, daughter of a butcher, and another one whose father was a pharmacist. On many occasions they used to invite me to their home so that I would help them as well (probably with the study material).

 I, on the other hand, wasn't used to hosting friends as grandma's house was on the other side of town. Another friend was Malka Lipner, who lived in the city but studied at a public school operating in the same manner of mixed age groups. I also had friends in neighbouring houses on the same street. Uta Stein was my best friend-our friendship lasted more than sixty years till her death. We studied in the same school in the same class. She was the shortest in class and I was next in line before her. We both became activists of the Hashomer movement, which predated the Hashomer Hatzair in Slovakia......

My Youth at the Hashomer Hatzair

Hashomer Hatzair activists came from Poland and established branches in Slovakia at the Carpathian mountains, then part of Czechoslovakia, and today in the Ukraine. By nature this movement was similar to the Scouts.

In XXXX an international conference was held in Vrútky, where the first branch Hashomer Hatzair in Czechoslovakia was established. When the international scouts day was celebrated, me and Uta including five other children, [received] the official uniforms: a dark blue skirt with folds, grey shirt woven with a white shoelace (positioned on the upper chest) and a tie. In the morning we went out to the synagogue dressed like that, and then to school. We did not ask for anyone's permission, just showed up there the way we did, filled with pride and enthusiasm before all the teachers and other students. That was the beginning.

The Hashomer Hatzair branch stood down the street where the school was. It was a house with three rooms, two study rooms and a library. Outside there was a large yard with trees, playground and a separate bathroom. The rooms had no floor, and we, the young activists, swept the floor with street brooms. We decorated it and took care of it as if it were our own.

There at the branch was the first time I encountered the tin box used for collecting donations to the Keren Kayemet L'Israel. We used to go through businesses in the city and homes of Jewish families asking for donations. We always wore the official uniforms, which filled us with a sense belonging to something greater and important.

At activities we used to hold discussions, play and learn Hebrew. Our guides told us a little bit on Israel, on Zionism, and Jewish dignitaries such as Max Nordau and others, as well as on socialism, bolshevism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (communists). In the evenings Talmud lessons were held at the Jewish school on the premises, which were not obligatory.

In 1928, after graduating from the high school for girls, we moved into grandparents Moritz and Bertha's house in Smizany, my father's parents. Moritz had a factory for soda water and lemonade. My father bought a truck and distributed crates with drinks in the area. In the meantime I kept on studying in the city at a commercial school. This school had a major in handicrafts such as sewing. In that year registration was low and it was decided to shorten the study period from two to one year by condensing the study material.

Tova, Viola and I studied there in that year. We were more mature and studied theoretical studies as well as home economy, stenography and blind typing with a typing machine.

On weekdays I went to school by train, and on Saturdays by foot. At that time I was very observant and made sure not to break the Shabbat. As Jewish students we were allowed not to write on Saturday.

I was already fourteen, an age when one starts wondering and thinking about life. Joining Hashomer Hatzair and all the activities I took part in, gave me a new perspective on life. I started thinking and wondering on what was going on in the world, asking questions that not always had answers. For example, how is it possible that the world was created from nothing? Something cannot be created from nothing then.

Gradually I let go of my religious observance, though still reserved a little place for God in my mind, while looking at the world through realistic and rational glasses.

At home were conflicts: mother was observant, and father, on the other hand, liked eating pork meat. She allowed him to do so given that he does so on newspaper and not tablecloth.

In 1929, a year of world economic repression, Slovakia was affected as well. I graduated from the commercial school and was looking for a job [in order] not to become a burden on my family.

I turned to uncle Moritz, Helen's husband, and asked for his help. He tried looking for a job for me and Tova. Various people such [as] a businessman and lawyers, promised me a job as a secretary, but their promises were empty. Eventually I found myself a job at a nearby village as secretary of a distributor and nanny to his children. He had three children and their grandmother was living with them in the same house. As part of my job I used to live and even sleep there. In the mornings he would dictate letters to me that I typed them into a typing machine. Later on I helped his children with their homework. My presence at the house had a positive effect on them, as they wouldn't fight with each other or make noises.

After a while I returned home and was back on the lookout for a job. Browsing through the newspaper I spotted a wanted ad for a assistant to a 9-year-old girl. Since I already had experience with children, I decided to respond. Education and mastery of several languages were an advantage, and I got the job.

It was a Jewish family, the Rotenbergs, and their daughter Tatiana couldn't stand straight, walk or sit. She may have also been hyperactive. I treated her like a comrade at Hashomer Hatzair with friendliness, and in time she responded accordingly. She became calm, learned to listen and how to behave herself according to her chronological age. Her parents were satisfied-the mother asked me to sit with her and recite stories. On Saturdays and holidays the family used to go to tourist resorts, such as the city of Zvolen, and I came along with them. At that time I visited many places new to me which I did not know before. In every new place I looked for the blue tin box of the Keren Kayemet L'israel foundation, and at grocery stores for Jaffa oranges (a trademark of oranges grown in Israel and exported abroad). I was looking for contact with fellow Zionist activists. I then contacted the administration of Hashomer Hatzair and asked that new branches be established at the places I visited.

The money I earned I used to send to my mother, who I knew needed it so much, and [in] this way [it] helped my family. During the summer vacation the Rotenbergs moved in with Tatiana's grandmother, who highly appreciated me. Her house was in southern Slovakia, close to a townships where branches of Hashomer Hatzair were already running. In that summer we travelled a lot-I even recall we once joined a group of tourists from the USA and visited the many karstic caves in that area. I remember one of them in particular-big and beautiful. It took us two hours to go through its entire length.

Leaving for Zionist Training

It was 1932 and I was almost 18 years old. I decided to quit the job at the Rotenbergs and got back home to my parents and family.

When I turned 18 I received an invitation from the administration of Hashomer Hatzair to partake in Zionist training in the Carpathian mountains, in Mukachevo (today in the Ukraine).

It caused a stir at home-mother did not object to [my] moving out of the house but could not hide her worries and sorrow. She just cried. I, on my part, wanted her to resist and not to cry. Despite of her feelings she packed me a blanket, clothes, shoes-just about everything necessary for every day life. That as well as groceries and home-baked foodstuff, cookies and all sorts of goodies. I had a suitcase where I packed my belongings, and a big sac containing a feather blanket. Mother hugged me tightly and wished me good luck. Father, who had a truck, came to pick me up to the train station. He wasn't much of an emotional person, but before we said goodbye he told me: "if you do not find your place there, do not hesitate come back home." At the train station father came across a friend of his travelling to Košice, and asked him to watch me on the way. He then gave me a little money of what he had, and said goodbye with a hug.

This is how I left home. Only once more did I get to see my family in 1936, when I came back to say goodbye before I immigrated to the then Palestine.

I went on the train with all my belongings and headed off. I [disembarked from] the train at Mukachevo, all excited of the unknown life expecting me, and discovered I forgot mother's package on the train. I went to the station manager and asked that the package be brought back, but it was already too late-the train set on its way with all the goodies on board. I left the station towards a big court where carriage drivers were waiting.

I turned to one of them who looked Jewish to me, and asked him to drive me to a place of meeting set in advance. I knew it should not be far away from there, but the driver wanted to make more money and drove on and on in circles throughout the entire city. Eventually he stopped by a branch of the Betar youth movement and offered me to get down there.

I refused and demanded that he drive me to the address I had. Again he drove through the entire city until he finally stopped by a house of a Jewish family, hosting students of the local Jewish gymnasium. I was relieved. I paid him a few crowns, took my suitcase and the sac and got inside. 

A couple of friends were waiting for me there, including Moses Gross, David Mandel and others, who later on established kibbutzim like Kfar Masarik, Haogen and Ma'anit. They took me to a kindergarten where a member of the Zionist training, Yona Sofer, was working as an assistant. At the kindergarten she kept aside wholegrain bread and milk for the Zionist activists returning from their work in agricultural fields. This is how I myself got to the Zionist training. I was member number five or six of that group, where I ate for the first time in my life wholegrain bread, which tasted sour.

This training camp, established by Zionist and pioneer youth movements, trained youth already dubbed as pioneers, to various types of harsh labour to ease their acclimation in Palestine. Usually a house or a farm was rented-during the day they used to go out to work, whether in the city or in the fields, and got back in the evening. Some of the women stayed home and were in charge of making food for the entire group. In the evenings there was an atmosphere of soul searching discussions on matters beyond everyday life: revolutions, socialism, ideology and points of view. We learned folk songs of Eretz Israel, danced into the night and even had love affairs between members of the group. 

Various people went to the training [camp] in Mukachevo, among whom was Benjamin Winter, and together we later on established in kibbutz Ma'anit under the British Mandate. On the training I met Benjamin for the first time, and we became a couple.

* -- From the memoirs of  Yardena Winter nee Grunwald,  entitled "Memoirs of Yardena."  You can read Yardena's memoirs in its entirety within the Museum's "Stories from our Ancestral Homes"  by clicking here .




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