By Chaviva Frank
Today almost forgotten, but once a legend, was Manya Shochat. The well known Zionist activist's life resembled an imaginative Hollywood soap opera, except that it was real!
Born Manya Wilbushevitz in 1879 in the town of Lososna near the city of Grodno in Russia to an atypical Jewish family. He grandparents lived like gentiles making a very good living as suppliers to the Russian army. Her father, on the other hand, raised her with the spirit of Jewish traditional life. He was a deeply spiritual man and this left an imprint on Manya.
Manya grew up in the turbulent years of Russian political and ideological turmoil. At this time it was not uncommon for a worker to have to toil between 12 to 14 hours for his meager wages. It was also the time of the Jewish secular movements who also had their answers to end the Jewish plight. Manya left home at an early age to work in a sweatshop because she wanted to experience the plight of the common man.
Most of the idealists at the time were revolutionary idealists who believed that the workers salvation could only come through the overthrow of the Russian government. Manya thought differently, she felt that the solution mainly was in the education and organization of the workers in non political (meaning not anti government) union activity.
Amongst the groups current at that time were the Bund which believed in the alleviation of the Jewish problem through better material conditions, together with socialism, but were anti Zionist although quite pro-Jewish culture. At the same time there existed the beginnings of the Zionist movements that called for the Jews to leave Russia and immigrate to Israel. Manya had her own ideas and did not enter into Zionist or even Jewish identity thinking until later in her life, as we shall see.
During a crack down on the Russian activists, she was arrested and imprisoned. Because of her simplistic and dedicated belief in the betterment of the Russian proletariat who was impressed with her sincerity, she became friendly with her interrogator, Zubatov, a high Russian official, who agreed with her philosophy. He tried to help her. Eventually she was released and she tried to bring her philosophic ideas into action, but after another cruel crack down by the Russian authorities she felt force was a necessity and she became a gun smuggler, purchasing and smuggling guns to defend her group.
During this period, she had hid some guns in a house and later became aware that the Russian police were watching the house. Suddenly a young man came to the door seeking refuge from the police. Manya let him in but during the course of their conversation, she became convinced that he was sent by the Russian secret police to find out about her activities. She pulled out a small handgun that had a silencer on it and killed him. She loaded his body into a trunk and sent it to a far destination. From that point on, whenever anyone was killed mysteriously, she was suspected of doing it.
In 1903, the infamous pogroms of Kishinev erupted and the Jews of Russia suffered a devastating blow. Manya began a turning point in her life. She and her comrades met and decided to dedicate themselves to helping the Jews. The pogroms had made a fundamental change in Manya, now she was completely dedicated to the redemption of her people. They decided on a plan to assassinate the Russian minister of the interior, Plehve, who hated the revolutionaries and Jews. With a complicated plan, Manya was sent to Berlin to raise funds. While she was there, the Russian police uncovered the plot; most of Manya's friends were arrested, tortured and executed.
With this bad news, a chapter in her life closed and a new one began. Not able to return to Russia, depressed with the loss of her comrades, and the failure of their plot, she decided to visit her brother, Nachum, in Israel. Her brother was the founder of the famous Shemen oil and soap factory in Haifa. With her brother and several newly found friends they made an extensive tour of the country meditating on the future of the land and imbibing in the rich biblical past. Manya became a new person. No longer concerned with the Russian revolution, but with the development of the Land of Israel and the betterment of the Jewish workers.
At this point it is important to mention that Baron Rothchild had invested much money in purchasing lands in Israel to bring back agriculture back to a barren land. Each plot of land was administered by a Jew. This Jewish administrator hired Arab workers to work the land. To protect the small farming, estate he hired more Arabs to guard the property. The immigrant Jews, on the other had could not compete economically with the Arabs since the Arabs lived in nearby villages in small houses. They also had a small amount of land to plant for their own crop and several small animals to augment the small wages paid. To make matters worse, the hiring of Arabs inspired other Arabs searching for better wages to come from neighboring lands to Israel.
The Jews, on the other hand, had no homes, they immigrated, but there was none to help them; the Jewish Agency had many years to go until it was created. The Jews lived together, with many people sharing one small room. They had little income to purchase their daily bread.
In addition, she noted that the agricultural farms never maked a profit. There was no incentive for the Arabs to work hard to achieve more crops. The administrators were accustomed to never producing a profit and relied on more funding from Baron Rothchild.
Manya reasoned out the idea of a communal farming experiment, utilizing the Jewish labor, training them to work the field by day and to be their own guards at night. Instead of having Arabs work the land, and employing Arabs to guard the land, have Jews farmers work in a co-operative that would include both the tilling of the land and the guarding of it.
She approached several of Baron Rothchild's administrators, but only one thought that the idea had any merit. She went to see Baron Rothchild in France and convinced him to allow a trial on one of the existing farms. This experiment was a success. Manya proved that Jewish laborers had the ability and the incentive to make the Land of Israel bloom plus the tenacity to stand guard over their own fields against Arab bandit gangs.
Soon Manya and her friends formed the "HaShomer" group, a secret group dedicated to the armed guard of the settlements. They gave birth to the first communal settlement, called Sejera, later changed to Ilaniya, located between Tiberias and Natzeret. Afterwards, Degania was organized and started. The communal agricultural settlement became a success due to the backbreaking labor and the self sacrifice of those brave and courageous settlers. Manya, herself participated in the physical toil as well as the guard duties, in addition to her administrative role.
The Arabs were not fond of these settlements for they took away their livelihood. Manya tried to promote peaceful cooperation with the indigenous Arabs but try though she may, with small success, peace was never a viable substance.
During this period she met her husband Israel Shochat, a dashing and idealistic man who shared the same philosophy as Manya. They were married in 1908 and had two children, Anna and Geda. At one point Israel went together with David Ben Gurion and Yitzhak Ben Zvi (a future President of the State of Israel) went together to study Turkish Law in Turkey. Since Turkey was the administrative government in Israel, knowledge of Turkish law was fundamental.
Manya spend all of her years in service to the communal good. She took upon herself special task, such as fund raising, smuggling in guns in to protect the settlements. She was successful in both. She set an example to all through her hard work in menial chore, guarding, and administrating the co-operatives.
At one time Manya and her husband were arrested by the Turks and exiled to Brusa, Turkey. They spent several years there until they were able to leave. Their daughter Anna was born there during their exile.
After World War I, the British ousted theTurks and began limiting Jewish immigration. Manya worked to help in smuggling Jews in from the Diaspora. She helped found Tel Chai in the upper Galilee, which became a center for importing smuggled weapons from Lebanon.
In every national cause, Manya was active. Giving of herself 100% to the needs of her friends. In the eyes of the nation and in the eyes of her friends she set the example of a self-giving and courageous woman.
Unfortunately, everything has its price. Manya's marriage was not a happy one. Her husband, Israel, became a womanizer. They separated, Manya spending her time in the communes, and Israel living his life with his various female friends in Tel Aviv.
Even her children did not acknowledge her. Her daughter Anna told reporters that she never had a relationship with her parents. She quipped to David Ben Gurion, who asked about her famous and courageous mother, that she was an orphan. Raised with the knowledge that the Land was first and foremost, she never forgave her mother and father for their lack of attention. Their son, Geda, choose to end his own life.
Perhaps with out Manya's contribution, the Land of Israel would had to find another venue to redeem itself. She could be rightly called the mother of Israel's kibbutz's, if not the mother of her own children.