Aaron Ninedek, a name synonymous with 'Nudnik' for some strange reason, has penned some wonderful stories of his early experiences both in Betar camps in Australia and also while on Machon in Israel.
When Philip Mirjam said, “There’ll be girls!” I became interested. It was 1952 and we were just finishing Fifth Form (Year 11).
The choices for the summer vacation were,
1. A job at one of the big department stores,
2. Doing nothing,
3. Betar Camp.
“It’s in New South Wales - the Blue Mountains - Mount Victoria - and… There’ll be girls!” I didn’t need telling twice - well I did - but you know what I mean.
We boarded the train at 5.30 pm ready for departure at 6.00 pm. It was “The Spirit of Progress,” Division 5. We weren’t fools. We knew that Division 5 meant that there were four versions of “The Spirit of Progress,” ahead of us. This, no doubt, accounted for the fact that we didn’t leave until 8.30 pm.
I felt fairly certain that the train had been requisitioned from the train museum and, in fact, nowadays, people would pay big money for a trip on a train such as this. We were on it because the fares to Sydney were the cheapest that could be had.
Yes! There was a girl. One girl, named Leah Feder, Shim’s sister. She was quite attractive and very friendly, so that was O.K. I understand that there were other girls, too, but they must have been in a different carriage.
Now teenagers of those days were quite different to teenagers of today. By midnight, we were asleep! I had made a wonderful place up on the luggage rack by depositing the luggage on the floor. I was sleeping soundly when the train lurched to a stop and an announcement was made. ”Everybody change! Take your luggage to the train on the other side of the platform!”
It was 2.00 am. and we were in Albury. The trains in Victoria could not run on the tracks in New South Wales, so we had to change trains. Years later another set of tracks was built from Albury to Melbourne to match the New South Wales size. This means that nowadays, a trip to Sydney can be made without the middle-of-the-night changeover.
The NSW train was, if anything, older than the Victorian train. It was a genuine steam train. It had black smoke coming out of the chimney at the front. We wanted to know why steam was black and were told that the black smoke was from the coal that was used to boil the water which made the steam which made the train go.
When you see pictures of steam trains, the black smoke is always blowing towards the back of the train but upwards. On our train, the smoke blew straight back into the carriages. As it was hot, we had the windows open and the black smoke came right in. It consisted of rather large particles of coal soot which, having nowhere else to go, deposited itself on us, our luggage and over every other visible surface as well as quite a few non-visible ones. Worst of all some soot got into our eyes and we all developed considerable skills in removing these particles.
By the time we reached Sydney we looked more like the miners who had dug out the coal rather than a bunch of eager Melbournites looking forward to a good time.
Yosef Steiner was very persuasive. “There will be lots of people at the Prep Camp, almost as many as at the full camp. It is free, it will be fun and there will only be a little bit of work to do. Besides, Philip Mirjam will be going.” Philip Mirjam was my best friend. Actually, he was many people’s best friend but that didn’t seem to worry any of us.
It was just after the camp in the Blue Mountains and I was interested to see how a camp was made ready in Victoria. That’s how I got to go to the Prep Camp.
The truck was loaded, numerous people clambered aboard and off we went. The site had been chosen and everything had been mapped out. The numerous people unloaded the truck, dug holes for the latrines (sort of like toilets) and for the grease-pit to bury the kitchen waste, put up a marquee to use as a place to eat and assemble, got back on the truck and left.
So Yosef had been right. There HAD been lots of people at the Prep Camp. What he didn’t say was that they would be there for only a few hours and then leave. It was now Sunday evening and the camp was due to start the following Sunday.
Philip Mirjam was there and I was there and a pile of supplies was there and darkness was gathering and I was getting nervous. If Philip had been a jittery type of person I probably would have panicked. He wasn’t, so I didn’t.
Philip immediately took charge, “Let’s organize a place for us to sleep before it gets dark. Why don’t you put up a couple of stretchers and I’ll make sure some of the lanterns work. Then we have a large selection of food to choose from,” he said. In no time at all, I had a couple of stretchers assembled and a fire going and Philip had some lanterns lit and a small feast on the go. Things were beginning to feel quite comfortable.
We slept well and next day Philip laid out a course of action. It was so well planned that by mid-afternoon we were finished! We had all the tents put up, fixed up walls around the latrines, assembled trestle tables, arranged benches and even put up two flag poles. It looked like a campsite!
All we had left to do was to put together the rest of the stretchers and we had a whole week to do that. A whole week! It was now Monday evening and the camp was due to start the following Sunday. What were we going to do, especially at night?
Now Philip was an amazing person. He didn’t boast but wasn’t shy. He talked about the right amount, enjoyed a joke and could tell one from time to time and was unassumingly brilliant.
I told him the two jokes that I knew and he responded with two. I thought of another one and he told another one. I developed this theory about jokes. I said, “All the jokes we have been telling have all been funny because somebody gets hurt. I maintain that ALL jokes are like that!”
“Not true,” he said, and told some jokes which were plays on words. So I expanded my joke theory to include these. Then he told some more jokes. These were not about somebody getting hurt nor were they plays on words. So, I modified my theory to include these. For the next five days, Philip Mirjam kept telling jokes and each time I kept adapting my theory, hoping to catch him out and each time he would tell a joke that fell outside the scope of my theory.
Now, while the jokes were amusing without being particularly funny, Philip did not have a reputation as a joke teller. However, he was able to come up with hundreds of jokes. Like I said, he was an amazing person.
Yosef Steiner, Natziv (head) of Betar at the time, was the producer, director, script writer, camera man, editor and distributor. He bought the camera and the film, the projector and the screen and organised the screenings. He had everything to do with the production of the film except for two things. First, he wasn’t the sound man, because it was a silent movie and second he wasn’t “Nudnik,” because that was me. He did, however, choose me and he chose my nickname.
Even today, almost fifty years later, some friends still call me “Nud.” “Nud,” which rhymes with “could,” is short for Nudnik which means a nuisance or an irritating person. It is easy to see how Yosef was able to get from my surname, Ninedek, to Nudnik.
It all happened when he took up using a movie camera as a hobby. He thought it would be a good idea to make a film to publicise future camps. The film, he decided, should be about an ineffectual camper coming to his first camp. It was to be called, “The Shmendrick Camper.” To play the leading role he chose Philip Mirjam. This was an excellent choice because Philip was very talented and creative and it was certain that he would do a wonderful job.
The filming was to be done at the next camp which was at Kinglake West in 1954. Unfortunately, Philip was not always in the best of health. Just before the camp started Philip got sick and a different person had to be chosen. That person was me and the film’s title was changed to, “Nudnik, the Shmendrick Camper.”
The making of the film turned out to be a lot of fun for me because I was able to behave in my usual foolish manner and this was going to be appropriate for the film. The hardest part was when everybody had to perform a task in unison and Nudnik would be the one doing it wrong. Getting a whole group of people to do marching or gymnastics in unison proved to be a formidable task. Time and again, so many people messed it up that it was just not funny when Nudnik messed it up. We could not afford to film the same sequence several times and later choose the best version. We had to rehearse it over and over and then hope that the filmed version would be O.K.
As there was no sound in the film all our movements had to clearly indicate what was happening. Many of Nudnik’s actions had to be grossly exaggerated in a silent movie manner. There was no script. Everything was made up as we went along. Often, other amusing events that happened at the camp were incorporated into the movie. One such event was during a sicha. One of the people found a comfortable position against a tree. The weather was very pleasant, the madrich’s voice was very soothing and very soon the person fell asleep. The madrich solved this problem by feeding a biscuit to the person who woke up, much chagrined.
The part I enjoyed most was the final sequence which involved swinging across a creek on a rope. It didn’t take a genius to work out that Nudnik was going to get wet and that there was a high probability that others would, too. We had hoped that these others would be fully clothed when they went in and we hoped to achieve this by persuading them that there was no chance of them getting wet.
However, they were suspicious and they decided to be on the safe side by wearing swimming trunks. Nudnik made sure that all these people were justified in thinking they were going to get wet by pulling them in several times while they were “rescuing” him. We reasoned that as long as they wore trunks they may as well get wet.
After the camp, the film had to be put together. This was a time consuming task as well as being quite expensive. First of all the film had to be developed. Each piece of film lasted for only a few minutes. Bad bits had to be cut out and good bits had to be arranged in the correct order. Finally, all the pieces had to be glued together. Yosef spent many hours at this task, urged on by an anxious Nudnik who was living up to his name and was a frequent, uninvited visitor to Yosef’s house.
When the film was finished it was shown many times. As its purpose was to promote future camps it was taken to many venues. I was almost always present to give voice overs.
The film was surprisingly well-liked. It must be remembered that there was no television in Australia until the Melbourne Olympic Games in late 1956. Going to the “pictures,” as we used to say in those days, was a popular form of entertainment. Early television was not good but it was all the rage because of its novelty value. It was in black and white, the quality of the picture was poor and the quality of the programs even worse. “Nudnik, the Shmendrick Camper,” came out almost two years before television and it was not so bad. It would not be fair to judge it by today’s standards.
It must have been effective, however, because the following year, in 1955, the camp was again held at Kinglake West and it was the biggest camp Betar had had up to that time. It was the camp with 162 happy, smiling faces. I like to think that “Nudnik,” helped get some of those people there.
There was only one copy of the film and after we had seen it many times it was borrowed by someone in Sydney where it stayed for a number of years. A few years later, when enough time had passed for people to want to see it again for nostalgic reasons, we couldn’t find it. I’m not sure who tracked it down but when we found it again it was missing bits at both ends. Twenty two minutes of film remains.
Raffi Lehrer, who now lives in Canberra, kindly offered to get the film put onto video. The original film was then sent to Israel where, I understand, more video copies were made. “Nudnik, the Shmendrick Camper,” will live on in posterity.
I dropped a spoon at breakfast one day and bent down to pick it up. When I straightened up, a waiter had already replaced the spoon. Then he took back the one I had dropped.
Out of 500 passengers on board the “Oceania”, I was the only person at breakfast that morning. It was January, 1956, and we had just left Adelaide. We were passing through the Great Australian Bight and it was very rough. There were three of us from Australian Zionist Youth movements going on Machon, a youth leadership course in Israel. Apart from myself from Melbourne Betar, there was Leah Feder, also from Melbourne Betar and Sam Lipski from Melbourne B’nei Akiva. Later, we were joined by Pearl Wende from Perth Habonim.
In those days all our fares and expenses were paid for by the Zionist Federation. We only needed to have pocket money. Nowadays, dozens of people go but they have to pay quite a lot of money. When my daughter, Alana, went in 1994, it cost thousands.
We went by ship. Imagine! In 1956 it was cheaper to travel by ship than by aeroplane. It was like being on a cruise for four weeks, which was the time that it took to get from Melbourne to Italy. We went through the Suez Canal but could not go straight to Israel. We had to go on to Naples where we stayed for one week until another ship took us from there to Israel. The total journey took six weeks.
Our ship, the “Oceania,” was used as a migrant ship bringing immigrants from Italy to Australia. The Italians came mainly from Southern Italy. They were known as New Australians. When we got to Naples, we wondered at the way everybody looked like New Australians. Migrants were made very welcome in Australia in those days. Times seem to have changed somewhat.
On the way from Italy, the ship was packed. There were even dormitories where dozens of men slept in hammocks. Our tickets to Italy were also for dormitory accommodation but as there were far fewer people going towards Italy there was much more room. Sam Lipski and I were moved into better accommodation and we finished up in a four-berth cabin sharing with a couple of very nice Dutch tourists.
We even had a porthole, which meant we were well above the water line. There were cheaper cabins lower down but they weren’t being used this trip. It was also interesting to note that there was one crew member for every two passengers.
Parts of the journey were quite rough. One would often find people leaning over the side. In my innocence, I wandered over to see what they were all looking at and found out they were not looking at anything in particular, they were just being sick.
I seemed to have a cast-iron stomach in those days, hence the episode of being at breakfast by myself. A year in Israel soon changed my ability to hold down food.
On the way back to Australia we flew. The reason was because the Suez Canal was closed. The Egyptians had sunk a large number of ships in it during the 1956 Sinai War.
The aeroplane we were in was not a jet. It had propellers. It flew out of Israel over the Mediterranean, then across Turkey and landed in Teheran to refuel. Then it went via India to Manila where we changed to Qantas for the final leg.
Sam Offman, who was in the next Machon group, went by ship around South Africa and past Gibraltar.
“Let’s go to Shul,” said Sam Lipski. He could have said let’s walk to Rome, (we were in Naples at the time), it would have been just as appealing to me - maybe more.
It was approaching evening on Friday night and Sam was interested to see what sort of service there would be, Ashkenazi or Sephardi. As it was very cold and our pensione was not heated, a walk to shul seemed a reasonable thing to do, especially as Sam had a spare yarmulke.
While Sam was paying attention to the service, which, he told me later, was Sephardi style, I passed the time by checking out the other attendees. Most were dressed in a way which was not quite Western and not quite Middle-Eastern. There was, however, another person dressed in a distinctively Western manner. I was going to say, just like us, but our dress was of the semi-impoverished variety whereas he was well dressed. He was in his early thirties, tall and very handsome. He seemed about as bemused by the service as I was. After it finished he came over to us and introduced himself as, “Lootenant Max Falek.”
It transpired that Lieutenant Max Falek was with the Seventh Fleet which was currently stationed in Naples Harbour. Max’s job was to make sure that all the young sailors in the fleet had a chance to see something of Italy. He organised the tours, admissions, accommodations, entertainments and so on.
When Max heard that there were two others in our group, he wanted to meet them. He met Pearl Wende and Leah Feder and when he heard that we were stuck in Naples for a week waiting for a ship to take us to Israel, he offered to get us onto one of the sightseeing tours to Rome courtesy of the United States navy.
We went by bus and all the other passengers were sailors about our age. They were saying fascinating things like, “See you later alligator,” “In a while crocodile.” It was the beginning of 1956 and we knew nothing about Bill Haley and the Comets or the musical revolution that was descending on the world. We had a wonderful trip and did all the sightseeing things.
Two incidents stuck clearly in my mind from the trip. Although they were minor I have never forgotten them.
The first was when we were walking down a street in Rome in an elegant shopping precinct. Leah was walking and chatting in a friendly manner with a sailor whom we would now describe as an African American. Max and I were walking not far behind and he remarked that that for the sailor this was probably the only time in his life that that he had ever walked down the street with a white woman. This was 1956.
The other incident was on the evening when we came back. Max had taken us to a USO, which was a sort of club for the U.S. services. Everybody was in uniform except for us. Max had told us that if anybody queried why we were there we were to say we were with him. Evidently, many people tried to get in without permission.
After we were there for a while an official looking gentleman came up to me and brayed at me. He was, apparently, asking me a question because at the end of the braying his voice went up in tone slightly. I asked him to repeat what he was saying and he brayed at me again. I still didn’t understand and after two more repeats the situation was getting out of hand. Fortunately, Max arrived at that point and rescued me. I asked Max what the man had been saying and Max said the man wanted to know if I was entitled to be there.
Then Max said it in the same way the man had said it but slower and clearer.
“Ahhh yoo-awl fra-arm the mee-lee-tair-y?”
The penny dropped. “You-all” is the Southern American way of saying “you.” I translated it then as, “Are you from the military?” I was so pleased!
By then I had heard it about ten times and I finally understood.
“Let’s see how far we can go!” I was talking to a Betaria from Rhodesia called Micky. She was a little taken aback, not sure what I was trying to say. “David will come with us!” Micky was a little relieved but still puzzled.
We had a few days off from the Machon and my plan was to hitch hike around Israel to see how far we could get in one day. In 1956, hitchhiking was a normal mode of transportation and was quite safe. There were even designated stops where you could wait and trucks would stop to give lifts. However, there were places where a wait for a lift could take a few hours as soldiers were given preference.
We started off in Jerusalem early in the morning and had no trouble getting to Tel-Aviv. We waited for the next lift with our options open. We could go North towards Haifa or swing around East towards Kinneret. In 1956, what is now the West Bank was a no-go area for people from Israel. It was under the control of the Jordanians and we were not permitted to enter. I have always wondered why a Palestinian state wasn’t set up at that time - before 1967.
The lift we got took us towards Kinneret and then we worked our way to Tsfat (Safed). Finally, we managed to get a lift to Haifa where we arrived after dark.
We had no place to sleep. We knew nobody in Haifa but we had heard that if one was stuck one could go to the police station and they would let us sleep in a cell for the night. So we tried that and it worked. We came into the police station, explained our predicament and waited to see what would happen.
We were made very welcome. One of the policemen was sent out to get us something to eat and another was sent to arrange places for us to sleep. “Don’t worry,” said the sergeant, “We won’t lock the cell door!” Then we were left on our own for a short while.
Now we had heard that Haifa was known as the Red City because of its strong left wing orientation. We had also heard that they were antagonistic towards anything belonging to the politics of the right in general and to Betar in particular.
We decided, foolishly as it turned out, to put it to the test. Before we went into the police station we had taken off our Betar badges but now, while we were left alone we decided to put them on again.
When the sergeant in charge came back in he was smiling. Then he saw the Betar badges and the smile was replaced with a scowl. He immediately ordered us out.
By now it was quite late and we were wandering about without much idea of what to do. We heard footsteps running behind us and we turned around nervously to see who it might be. It turned out to be one of the policemen. Maybe they were going to invite us again to spend the night in a cell but this time, with the door locked.
The policeman told us that he was secretly a member of Herut, a political party that has since been absorbed by the Likud. He took us to the Herut offices and said that we could stay there that night.
Herut offices in Haifa were far from luxurious, just one small room with hardly any furniture. We slept on the bare floorboards that night and were able to tell everyone that the stories of the Red City were accurate as far as we were concerned.
This is the way Spanish speaking people in Israel refer to matters of dubious veracity. Its origin can be determined precisely and with great accuracy. It began in Israel in 1955 and was introduced there by an Australian called Yaacov Miriam.
It is now known that Yaacov Miriam is a pseudonym for none other than our very own Jack Mirjam, sometime leader of Betar. Jack was the third member of Betar to attend the Machon le Madrichei Chutz laAretz, a youth leadership program in Israel lasting one year and more commonly referred to as the Machon.
Previous Betar participants were Yosef Steiner and Shimshon Feder. Shimshon’s sister, Leah, and I followed Jack Mirjam in 1956 as the fourth and fifth Betar participants.
Jack was an autodidact, a self educated person, and as such was prone to treat any unsubstantiated assertions or proclamations with scepticism. In Israel there was no shortage of people making unsubstantiated assertions and proclamations not to mention contentions, claims, allegations and declarations.
Wherever Jack went in Israel he found many of these statements, unsupported by reason or logic. Whenever he doubted their validity he would respond with equally incontestable authority which would demolish the arguments like a house of cards. Who could argue against the insight, intelligence and perception of a response as forceful as,
Certainly not the predominantly Spanish speaking inhabitants who populated the Betar settlements of the time.
When I travelled in Jack’s footsteps the following year in 1956, people would ask me in Spanish-accented Hebrew,
“You are from Australia?”
“Do you know Yaacov Miriam?”
Brilliant! I had worked it out! The answer was 11.00 am. It was perfect and such a pleasure.
The water supply at Mevuot Betar was always too hot or too cold. If one took a shower in the morning before going out into the fields to work, the water was too cold. If one waited until after one came back from work in the afternoon it was way too hot. The reason was that the water pipes were placed on top of the ground and were exposed to the elements. So when one took a shower it was never pleasant.
One day, I had reason to come back from work for lunch a little early at 11.00 am. I hadn’t showered yet and so off I went to do so. The temperature of the water was perfect and over the next few days, whenever I was able to get away at the right time, I would indulge in a beautiful, warm shower.
A few days later, the Ktzin Avodah, or person in charge of arranging the work schedules, came to me and said that it was my turn to fill the kerosene tins. This was not with kerosene but with cow manure. We only had a few cows for milk and the small mountain of cow dung had to be purchased from elsewhere.
We used the manure to put around the apple trees which had been planted by the hundreds. I had done this job on many occasions and it wasn’t all that pleasant, not because of the smell which was tolerable but because the manure had dried quite a bit and tended to deposit itself in your hair, fingernails and any available crevices.
Now it was my job to fill the tins with cow dung. This job was for half a day only and then I was to get half a day off as a reward. I had a morning shift and I worked away quite steadily because I knew that if I could finish by 11.00 am I would be able to have the wonderful shower that I knew about. I only had to shovel away some of the pile of manure because the next few shifts would do the rest.
At 10.50 am I had finished. I went to get my towel, soap and a change of clothes, turned on the water and … nothing. I went away for an hour and came back … still nothing. I was then told that the water had gone off and would not be on again until tomorrow.
The Ktzin Avodah came to me and said apologetically that I should do the afternoon shift as well because it was no use two people being smelly and dirty. I would then get a whole day off the next day.
There was nothing I could do so, with great reluctance, I agreed. That night I had to go to bed in a foul state and even fouler mood. The other occupants of my hut found other places to sleep. I wasn’t sure whether it was because of my foul state or my even fouler mood, perhaps both.
When the water still didn’t come on the next day, I was persuaded to shovel manure for another day. It’s a rather lonely job. The tractor pulling a trailer came by every so often to deliver the empty tins and pick up the full ones. Even they kept their distance.
The water came back on later that morning and I finished about 10.00 am. I had a most wonderful shower and the rest of that day off and all the next day. As it was Friday morning, everyone else had the rest of that day and all the next day off as well.
I am sure that there was a valuable lesson to be learned from this story but I am afraid that I never quite worked out what it was.
I had mixed feelings about the lul - chicken house; some good memories and some bad ones. The chicken house was one of those dreadful places where chickens were kept in cages for the whole of their lives.
One of the worst memories was of the time when I had to clean out the run at the back where all the waste overflow went. It was smelly, slimy and extremely unpleasant. Fortunately, it was only a morning’s work so I suppose it wasn’t all that bad.
An even worse memory was of the time when it was decided to build a second level on top of the first. An outside contractor had been brought in to do the job and his quote took account of the fact that there was an unlimited supply of cheap labour, i.e. free, i.e. me.
There was no nonsense about expensive machinery. The only piece of modern technology was a wooden plank that went from the side of the building which was on a slight hill to the top of the existing building. On the ground there was a large metal tray where two of the people he had brought in mixed cement by hand. Previously, somebody else had carried to the top a whole lot of the large concrete building blocks.
The cement mixer guys filled two metal buckets with cement mix and my job was to carry them up the sloping plank to the brick layer. The full buckets weighed maybe 20kg each. Then I would carry two empty buckets down to be refilled. I did this for eight hours and I wasn’t allowed to stop as the cement would harden and the brick layer was being paid a large amount of money and had to be kept busy.
At the end of the day when I left work I felt as if my knuckles were dragging on the ground while I was walking upright.
A more interesting memory happened one Friday morning. I had an easy job of cleaning up around the entrance to the chicken house. The entrance area had a small yard which was enclosed by a low fence.
Mevuot Betar was at the end of the bus line and the turn-around place was just near the entrance to the chicken house. The bus usually waited there for about ten minutes then started its return journey.
The bus arrived and out got an old man wearing a hat, old clothes and a beard. He had tsitsit hanging out and a general religious look about him.
One of the people of the Meshek had let about a hundred chickens into the small yard and they were scrabbling around as chickens do. The old man turned out to be a shochet who came every week to kill chickens.
He started! With his left hand he picked up a chicken with one grab. I stared in amazement. He had both wings, one leg and the head in his grasp. His forefinger was behind the neck and his middle finger held back the head exposing the neck. His thumb and ring fingers held the wings and the little finger had one leg. Only the other leg remained free.
In his right hand he held the knife. A quick slit and blessing and that was number one finished! It took seconds! He threw the first one aside and picked up the next one. One grab, slit, blessing (maybe it was blessing then slit, or both at the same time, it was too quick to notice.)
He climbed aboard the bus just before it left on its return journey. Some women came around and collected the hundred dead chickens. I was told that the bus usually waited only ten minutes but on Fridays it waited fifteen minutes.
A couple of years later it snowed in the hills around Jerusalem. This only happens about once every five years. When Betty Brisson returned from Machon a little later she told me that the weight of snow on the chicken house had caused it to collapse. I was so pleased as the poor battery hens that were living in rows of small cages were only let out at the end of their useful laying life when they were due to meet the shochet.
There were several loud explosions and then machine-gun fire. Not surprisingly it woke me up. In those days I was a sound sleeper and it would take several loud explosions and machine-gun fire to wake me up. “It’s only the army doing manoeuvres,” somebody who just came in said, “Go back to sleep.” For the rest of that night there were more explosions and more gunfire plus lots of shouting and engines roaring.
In the morning they were still at it. One could see jeeps driving along with large cut-out shapes looking like tanks stuck on their sides. The bullets were rubber and went through the air so slowly that one could see them moving and also see them bounce harmlessly off whatever they hit.
A couple of weeks later it was Yom Kippur. The dining room at Mevuot Betar was closed and each of us who normally ate there was invited to eat with one of the married permanent residents who usually ate in their own house. The only time any of us Machoniks were invited to someone’s house for a meal was on Yom Kippur.
But there was something that we had to do first. It was feared that the Arabs could attack on Yom Kippur so we had to make preparations. Everyone was given a job and I was in a group which involved a great deal of walking.
The way the Meshek was situated was important. Being in the hills near Jerusalem it was placed so that a hill obscured the Arab’s view of the Meshek. On top of the hill was the water tower which could be seen by them and the road into the Meshek which also could be seen.
My group’s job was to walk out of the Meshek down into the valley. At no point could we be seen while we were walking out. We joined the road behind another hill where we also could not be seen. Then we marched back into the Meshek carrying ammunition and weapons. As machoniks we were not allowed to have weapons so we carried ammunition boxes. On the road back in we COULD be seen. It looked like the Meshek was getting reinforcements. We did the whole procedure several times.
Nothing happened that Yom Kippur. Some said that our ruse was the reason. Others said there was not going to be an attack anyway.
A few nights later we were woken up by the sound of a large explosion followed by several smaller explosions and gunfire. Here we go again, I thought.
Some people came in and yelled, “It’s for real this time, get down to the bunkers!” We took no notice of these practical jokers. After a couple of other people came in with the same message my room mates decided to go. I was left alone, so grumbling, I put on my boots and staggered out. It was absolutely quiet and very, very dark. I had no idea whatsoever where the bunkers were. There was nobody around to ask.
I went back to bed and lay down to wait for dawn which came in a little while. I heard voices and investigated. I found out that the first big explosion landed on our water tower. A foolish officer had taken his men up there and was himself killed when the mortar shell hit. Several of his men were wounded. The water tower was less than fifty metres from where I had been sleeping.
Two more mortar shells had landed to one side of the Meshek (away from where I was). By that time the Israelis had pinpointed where the mortar was and destroyed it.
That was not all they destroyed. There had been a large fortified Arab police station on the hill opposite ours. It was totally destroyed.
This action was one of several escalating actions that led up to the Sinai War.
“Kum, Zitz, Ess a Bissel!” I sometimes thought that this must have been another way of saying, “Hello! How are you?” in Yiddish because it was the way elderly Jewish ladies greeted you when you visited them. When I would reply, “Fine, thank you!” they would make me sit down and they would start to feed me.
I could speak Yiddish, so I knew that, “Kum, Zitz, Ess a Bissel!” actually meant, “Come, Sit, Eat a Little!” Of course, “Eat a little,” in Yiddish, means keep eating until you burst.
At the Machon, when we heard that there was to be a Kumzitz, it had nothing to do with elderly Jewish ladies but could be relied upon to include a number of young, attractive ones. A Kumzitz generally came soon after food parcels arrived from home, because these always included real Nescafe.
Food at the Machon was O.K. so long as you didn’t mind eating eggplant fried, eggplant boiled, eggplant stewed, eggplant baked, eggplant grilled or eggplant in salads. But the coffee and the tea! They didn’t taste of eggplant, they had no taste at all. The coffee was a slightly darker colour than the tea but when we tried blind taste tests nobody could tell the difference.
It was my turn! I had a parcel from home with NESCAFE!!! We had devised this special method of making Nescafe taste even better. Put a spoonful in a cup, add two spoons of sugar and the tiniest amount of water. Then stir this paste with some vigour until it became whitish and a little frothy. Add hot water, and HEAVEN!!
“Let’s have a Kumzitz,” I said to my friend Johnny from Capetown Habonim. “O.K. but let’s make it special,” said Johnny. I can get some pans and oil from the kitchen when they are not looking and we can borrow enough hotplates. All we need is potatoes and then we can make hot chips.” This sounded good because hot chips were guaranteed to attract plenty of guests, especially of the young, female variety.
The potatoes were kept locked up. Brown gold. It was impossible to get them. Buying them was not even considered because we had no money.
A delivery was being made to the Machon. The truck driver stood guard at the back of the truck while Yaacov, the Machon roustabout carried the bags of vegetables to the kitchen.
Yaacov was enormous. As tall lying down as he was standing up. As strong as a horse and all muscle, quite a bit of which was between the ears. His enormous girth was completely surrounded with keys. This was in itself fascinating because the only place we could never break into was the kitchen.
He spoke no Hebrew and no English, just Yiddish. As I was one of the few Machoniks who could speak Yiddish, I often had a chat with him. We devised a plan. We waited until he was carrying this great sack of potatoes which weighed more than Johnny and I put together. As soon as he was out of sight of the truck driver I would engage him in conversation. Meanwhile, Johnny, using a sharp knife, would cut a hole in the back of the bag and begin extracting potatoes.
Yaacov enjoyed the chat, not noticing that the bag was getting ever so slightly lighter. He did not seem to notice that I kept asking Johnny if he had enough yet.
We had a great Kumzitz. Our hut was overflowing with all sorts of desirables, some of which were Nescafe and hot chips. Johnny kept the chips coming and we all kept eating until we burst. Those elderly Jewish ladies knew a thing or two about a Kumzitz, but we had made a few improvements on the guest list.
I didn’t know that I was a Litvak. I didn’t even know what a Litvak was. All I knew was that whenever I spoke Yiddish I spoke in my way. There were other people who spoke Yiddish who pronounced some words differently. For example, if I said, “Voss?” meaning, “What?” others would say, “Voos?” meaning the same. Very odd.
Speaking Yiddish was an advantage in Israel in 1956. I estimated that by using English or Yiddish I could speak to three quarters of the population. This, however, did not help me learn to speak Hebrew. The trouble was, if I took the time to work out how to ask a question in Hebrew, I could never understand the answer.
One day, I was on my way to the Youth Farm at Herzlia where we were going to be staying for the Course Shiltoni, or Betar Course. I couldn’t go with the others for some reason which I can’t remember, so I went a few hours later. I hitch-hiked and got as far as the township. I then had to walk the rest of the way.
I asked directions, in Hebrew, and I understood the bit where the guy pointed. He might have been saying not to go that way because that was Jordan, which wasn’t all that far away, but I hoped he was telling me the right way.
As I walked along the road, with orange groves on one side and farms on the other, I spied, in the distance, a man working in a field near the road. It was about ten minutes away so I resolved to speak to him in Hebrew. I not only worked out what to say but I also worked out, in Hebrew, all the possible answers he might give me.
“Yes! Go this way!” “No! Go that way!” “What Youth Village!” “Have you got any money?” “Give me some money!” “Get stuffed!”
I even had time to rehearse and practise. I got close and asked him, in my very best Hebrew, if this was the way to the Youth Village.
He turned around to me and said,
Woronora campsite was on the other side of the river. This side there was civilization. There was a bus to the railway line, a jetty and some buildings. Some people who lived down the river commuted to the city of Sydney every day. They would take their power boat from their home, park it at the jetty, catch the bus, then the train. The whole trip took in excess of an hour. When asked about it they would explain that their lifestyle made the commute worthwhile.
When we Melbournites arrived all the hard work preparing the camp had been done. Everything had been transported across the river by rowboat and the campsite had been set up properly.
It was a wonderful campsite except for two problems. As the river was fairly close to the ocean the water was salty and the denizens of the river were of the marine variety. The worst of these were giant jellyfish known as box jellyfish. They trailed tentacles which could cause painful, and perhaps dangerous, stings. Whenever anyone wanted to swim in the river it had to have all these jellyfish cleaned out. Eventually, swimming was banned because the river simply could not be cleared quickly enough or often enough.
The other problem, with which we Victorians were unfamiliar, was ticks. These tiny creatures with even tinier heads would bite. But they didn’t bite and go away, they bit, buried their head in your skin and stayed. If one tried to remove them inexpertly the body would break off and the head remain. The head carried the poison which was strong enough to kill small animals and harmful enough to cause considerable pain for humans.
One Victorian, presumably unfamiliar with ticks, knew exactly how to remove them properly, head and all. His name was Michael Neiger and he was kept busy for the whole of the camp extracting ticks from people. I am guilty of perpetrating a terrible practical joke on him.
On the last day of camp everything was packed up and had to be transported back across the river to the waiting truck. This entailed many trips by rowboat and took several hours with everyone pitching in. Everyone, that is, except Michael Neiger. He maintained that he had done more than his fair share for the camp and refused to get involved with the packing up. This attitude annoyed quite a few of us and we hatched a plot to push him into the river.
After the last load had been transported across, we all went to the edge of the jetty to have our last look at the camp. We had somehow managed to get Michael to leave his camera and wallet with others for safe keeping.
As soon as Michael got to the edge of the jetty, I stood behind him and pushed. Over he went. I had the presence of mind to step well back afterwards. Others stepped forward to have a look. The first of these was Sam Offman. As Michael fell, he tumbled over. He could see Sam leaning over the edge, laughing. Naturally, Michael presumed that it was Sam who had pushed him in and after he got out began chasing Sam with a view to doing him some harm. It took Michael some years to find out the truth of what happened.
It is now some forty years after the event and I haven’t seen Michael for most of that time. I am still nervous about meeting him.
For the record Michael, I am sorry.
There were many traditions at Betar camps. One of these was that on the second last day of camp everything would be packed up except for the large marquee where we usually had activities. On the last night of camp we all brought in our sleeping bags and the whole camp would sleep there.
Another tradition was the telling of shaggy dog and ghost stories. This was a tradition started by Jack Mirjam and there was no better teller of stories than he. Jack was not always at our camps. When he was and was telling stories he sometimes needed to have a breather and somebody had to take over for a while. I decided to be that someone and, with Jack’s help, developed a repertoire and technique of my own.
On the last night of the Woronora camp there was a commotion going on as usual. Somebody suggested we have some stories to keep us entertained and in a little while it was my turn. People were in a quieter mood by now but there was absolutely no chance of anybody getting any sleep that night.
I started telling a couple of the shorter stories and while everyone was listening it was obvious that it was going to be an all night session.
I had run out of stories so I decided to make one up. Adopting my most menacing, dry, ghost story voice I began the story of, “The Brain.” I continued on like this for about ten minutes, making it up as I went. A couple of snores and some heavy breathing could soon be heard but best of all, no chatter. I had everyone’s attention - at least, those who were still awake!
After another five minutes there were more snores and heavy breathing and I asked whether anybody was still awake so that I could continue the story. About three or four very sleepy voices answered and I knew that in a very short while I would have them too. A few minutes later when I asked there were no replies. I had successfully put the whole camp to sleep! I still didn’t know how to end the story so I decided to save it up for a future occasion.
My experiences in Betar were a tremendous help to me in my chosen profession of teaching. One time, when I was teaching part-time, I had to go to a school camp, which had been organized by some of the other teachers at the school. One night they had planned a camp fire but hadn’t prepared any activities and the kids were getting restless. “Leave it to me,” I said.
I told a few short ghost stories and began , “The Brain.” Before long, all the children were asleep around the campfire. They had to be carried to bed but they didn’t wake. I had done my job well.
My reputation as a person who can put others to sleep has endured but nowadays, it seems, any story I tell seems to work just as well as “The Brain,” once did.
Several Betar camps later, Gary Rudzki told me that he had heard the start of, “The Brain,” six times and had never heard the ending because he fell asleep every time. It’s just as well, of course, because I never did get around to making up the ending. After all these years I have forgotten how the story even started so there is never likely to be an ending.
The bell for recess rang and a message came over the public address system saying that I was wanted on the phone. I was teaching at Geelong West Technical School which is about 70 km from Melbourne. It was my second year out as a teacher and I had spent all the time at country schools well away from Melbourne and Betar.
I was rather nervous about the phone call because I usually didn’t get them at school. In fact, the only other time that I got a call was when I was in Teachers College. It was on 27th March 1957 and it was from Jack Mirjam who told me that his brother, Philip, my best friend, had died.
This call was from Betty Brisson who was Mefakedet of Melbourne. She wanted to know if I would be willing to be the Mefaked of the Junior Camp which was at Anglesea. Anglesea is a beach resort and while I was not averse to the idea of camping at Anglesea I had been out of Betar for a couple of years. In any case, I would not be able to be involved in any of the preparations. Furthermore, why wasn’t she going to do it and weren’t there any other possibilities?
To cut a long story short, or to be perfectly honest, I don’t recall the reasons, nobody else was able or willing to do it.
It was a lovely campsite. It was close to the beach and was in a wonderful bushland setting. The only negative was the mosquitoes but they weren’t too bad. Betty, herself was there and she took over the control of the hashmonaim. Eric Aufgang was also there and he was happy to take on the role of K’Tzin Toran. I was happy about that, too, because he turned out to be a terrific K’Tzin Toran.
Also there was Eve Tauber with whom I became very friendly but as she was 16 and I was 24 it did not seem to have a future as a relationship. The eight year age difference was a little too much. We came together again years later after we had been in other relationships. We got married in 1993 and even though the age difference was still eight years at that time she was 49 and I was 57. Somehow the age difference did not seem to matter any more.
I still had another year to serve in Geelong but I started to become more active again in Betar. Six months later, I became Natziv. This means the head of Betar in Australia. I have to explain this because at a recent celebration of Betar’s 60th anniversary in Australia I mentioned to some of the current senior madrichim that I had been Natziv once. None of them knew what it was! For their benefit this position is now known as Rosh Hanhagat Artzit.
1952: 1 - The First Sydney Camp - Getting There
1953 - Woori Yallock Prep Camp - Philip Mirjam
1954 - Nudnik the Shmendrick Camper
1956: 1 - Machon - The Ship
1956: 2 - Machon - Lieutenant Max Falek
1956: 3 - Machon - The Red City
1956: 4 - Machon - Bool Sheet
1956: 5 - Machon - The Perfect Shower
1956: 6 - Machon - The Chicken House
1956: 7 - Machon - Manoeuvres
1956: 8 - Machon-The Kumzitz
1956: 9 - Machon - VOOS?
1960: 1 - Woronora - Goodbye Campsite
1960: 2 - Woronora - The Brain
1961 - Anglesea and Becoming Natziv
When we reached the campsite all we saw was a paddock on the side of a slope. There hadn’t been Prep Camp or so it seemed but as this was my first camp I didn’t know that this was unusual.
We were quickly shown how to erect a tent and assemble our stretcher. The stretcher turned out to be harder to assemble than the tent and many were damaged in the process.
Then we were given tomato soup to eat. It tasted of kerosene. I understand that this became somewhat of a tradition at future Betar camps.
That night it rained. Not like Melbourne rain which has a tendency to stop after a while or at least subside into a desultory drizzle. Not this rain. It RAINED. And kept on raining and it became so heavy that it was like standing underneath a giant tap.
In a short space of time it was coming straight through our tent as if there were no tent there. We were told that we should have installed a fly. We didn’t know what a fly was but it was explained that a fly was an extra piece of material that was placed above the tent for added protection. We tried to erect one in the rain. We didn’t know that to erect a fly we needed more room at the side of the tents. All our tents had been erected too close together and there was not enough room for a fly.
Next day, the rain stopped. We moved our tents further apart, dug ditches to divert the ground water and erected a fly. We were ready!
That night it rained again. We were snug and dry. For the first ten minutes. The Mount Victoria rain said, “Pah!” and came on through the fly as well as the tent. At that point we found out that neither the tents nor the flys which were supposed to be waterproof, weren’t.
We considered the possibility of erecting a second fly but our attention was diverted by the water swirling around our feet. The ditches we had dug were not deep enough! We had to do some rather hurried diverting ourselves with shovels and spades.
In the morning the rain stopped. We had survived two nights with very little sleep and we were satisfied that we had managed quite well.
Then it started to rain again. We had more tomato soup which tasted like kerosene and later, just for variety, we had kerosene which tasted like tomato soup.
The rain stopped again, our tents dried out, we installed super flies which were waterproof and which, we felt sure, would defeat even the Blue Mountains rain. We made the ditches deeper and better designed and then…
The hailstones came. One of the Sydneysiders said that hailstones in the Blue Mountains could be as big as cricket balls. These weren’t. They were only as big as golf balls.
At that point, I think the camp administration made some quick decisions. Before long we were moved to the local town hall where we all had to sleep in one big room.
Actually, it was fun. We had jokes and activities. On some nights there were movies because the town hall doubled as a picture theatre. I really enjoyed it and so did everybody else. I thought the camp administration had planned it that way deliberately. Not the rain or the hailstones but how to make the best of any situation. A lesson I bore in mind years later when I was involved in camp administration.
1952: 2 - The First Sydney Camp - The Rain
© 2002 Aaron Ninedek