The Making of a Kibbutz in Calcutta, by Flower Silliman
In about 1939 an Austrian Jewish couple, a Mr. Peter and Mrs. Tehila Krieger came to Calcutta from Jerusalem on a two year contract to teach Hebrew, on the invitation of Miss Ramah Luddy. They became Hebrew teachers at the Jewish Girls School and the Talmud Torah. Their job was to teach us modern Hebrew, grammar and speech. All of us knew how to read Hebrew, but only the Bible.
I remember Mrs. Krieger well - a tall, blonde, slim, no-nonsense woman, with very short hair. She was my class teacher, (Class 4) in 1939. Her English was sparse and we embarked on a journey of learning modern Hebrew (script and grammar).
There had been some Habonim activity in Calcutta, introduced by Sally Lewis who had become familiar with its ideals during a visit to Bombay. The Kriegers were also very interested in building Habonim, and I remember many boys and girls wanted to be pioneers in Palestine. There Keren Kayemet Blue Boxes were already in our homes and the ideals of Zionism captured many of us.
A small “garin” (seed) was planted in a small flat in Park Lane where 8 or 10 men and women (soon to be halutzim) decided to try out communal living (as it was on the kibbutz) in a home they called Bait. The orthodox community stood by and watched disapprovingly – “men and women living together!” Horrifying!
As early as 1941, individuals from the community like Rachel Luddy tried to obtain certificates to make Aliya from the Jewish Agency. However she and others were told that all the certificates were being sent to Europe to save as many Jews as possible. Still, one Certificate did arrive during the War, and in 1944 the first group of young idealists set out from Calcutta. In this group were: Alec Jonah, Rachel Luddy, Mercia Rassaby, Hannie Joshua and Ilana Jonah (child of Alec and Rachel who was one year old).
The group was delayed in Bombay for two months because of delays in financial guarantees demanded by the Egyptian authorities to grant transit visas, as Kantara West was in Egypt. The group finally set sail on a military troop ship. They disembarked in Kantara on the Suez Canal and then took the train to Lydda. As they were English speaking, the Jewish Agency placed the group in Kfar Blum where there were Habonim members from Britain and America. Others from the Bait such as Meyer and Ruby Musleah (siblings), Rachel Levy and Dick Zachai, comprised the second garin from Calcutta. Those who went to Israel after the War were also sent to Kfar Blum and also to Dafna.
Rachel Luddy wrote detailed letters back to family and friends that were passed around the community giving us insight into life in Palestine. Despite their Zionist ideals it was hard for many of those who left to realize their dreams: early kibbutz life required a great deal of manual labor to which they were not accustomed. Some left after a few years.
I would like to thank Ilana Jonah Sondak with her assistance in providing several facts for this article.
(The two letters attached below are from Ilana Jonah Sondak's collection, and offer a fascinating glimpse into life in Israel, of which the community wanted to learn as much as they could.)