Sam and Esther Naimark: A Life Together in Palestine

Although many Jews sought refuge from the trials of living in Eastern Europe by immigrating to the United States, the Zionist Movement which gained strength in the 1920s and 1930s, encouraged young Jews to immigrate to Palestine and recreate a Jewish homeland.[1] There had always been a Jewish presence in Palestine since Biblical times, but it was greatly diminished after the Bar Kokhba Revolt against Roman Rule in 132 A.D., and Palestine became primarily an Arab country. After the fall of the Roman Empire, it was ruled by regional powers, and was absorbed into the Turkish Ottoman Empire from 1517 to 1917. The Ottoman Empire disintegrated after World War I, and France and Britain divided the Middle East into zones of influence. In 1918, Palestine, which included what are now Israel, Jordan and the West Bank, was mandated (assigned) to Great Britain. Jewish immigration to Palestine, which had begun in the 1880s, accelerated after the British took control. Sam and Esther Naimark were among the Jewish pioneers.

As children in Europe, Sam and Esther joined the Zionist group, Ha-Shomer Ha-Zair, (the young guard), in their hometowns. After coming to North America they continued their affiliations and supported the establishment of a bi-national state in Palestine, where both Jews and Arabs would govern on a parity basis with each group enjoying communal autonomy. Ha-Shomer Ha-Zair members established a number of kibbutzim in Palestine.

Sam Naimark remembered becoming involved in Zionism as a child in Russia:[2]

“Two of my sisters attended the Polish school in town where they received a secular education. But no Jewish boy was allowed by his parents to attend a Polish school. Jewish boys were sent to cheder. A cheder consisted of a rabbi who instructed eight or ten boys in his own house. The rabbis only taught Hebrew and the Jewish religion, nothing else. There were several chedars in Turiysk.

“In 1924, I went to a cheder and I hated it. But that year a Hebrew school was started by the Zionist organization,  Ha-Shomer Ha-Zair. I must have been about nine or ten years old and I came home one day and announced, ‘I’m not going to the rabbi anymore. I want to go to the new school.’  So I was beaten up pretty much by my father. But it didn’t help. I’d run away from the house. My father wanted me to learn about the Jewish religion. The purpose of the Hebrew school was not to teach religion but to teach the history of the Jewish people. That’s what interested me. My father finally gave in and let me attend the school–myself and my older brother Aaron. That’s where the idea of becoming a pioneer and going to Palestine actually started.

“When I saw the terrorist activities against the Jews, and what they did to the women, the Jewish girls, I would think, ‘Why can’t the Jews have a land like any other people?’  I was not aware that at one time, two or three thousand years ago, we did have our own land. When I came to the Hebrew school my eyes opened up and I saw that years ago we Jews were an independent nation.

“The Zionist movement sent leaders to organize young kids from age six and older into groups. The movement didn’t care about the old people, because most of the old people believed that nobody could rebuild Israel until after the coming of the Messiah. In the Zionist movement there were about a dozen different organiza­tions with different political philosophies of how to rebuild Israel. The belief of our organization was that at the age of eighteen you have two choices: either you go to Israel or you drop out of the group.”

Esther Bloom Naimark became involved with Ha-Shomair Ha-Zair, as an eight-year-old child in Rozhan, Poland:

“The leader of the group in Rozhan was Ari Buchner, a teacher. We used to have lectures, discussions, and outings. We played games and participated in all kinds of activities that eight years old can do. My family had a big house and all our friends used to gather there. My father even took part in the Zionist discussions. We talked about books and Israel. It was OK with him because Israel was in­volved and we weren’t wasting our time playing around like kids.

“We never thought of getting a higher education. I only completed grammar school. Our education was Dr. Herzel, and books written about the Zionist organi­zation “

After Sam Naimark immigrated to Canada in 1927 with his parents, he continued his involvement with  Ha-Shomer Ha-Zair.:

“I knew that  Ha-Shomer Ha-Zair was a world-wide organization and that there had to be a group in Montreal, and sure enough, in a short time I found it and joined right away. That’s where I spent most of my time. I was eighteen years old, and I was eligible to go to Palestine, but at that time the British already restricted immi­gration. They only issued so many certificates and only allotted so many to each country. The Zionist organizations in turn allocated so many to each political group.

“In Canada, in 1932, all they permitted our group was five certificates. And being the youngest member–there were a lot more members older than I–I couldn’t get a certificate. So five members left and I remained behind, but not for long. Three months later I decided to go to Palestine on a tourist visa from Canada.

“Only trouble was, that I didn’t have enough money to buy a ticket on a ship. I think the ticket cost somewhere close to three hundred dollars. I had saved over two hundred dollars. I wasn’t short very much, but jobs were hard to get.

“In 1932, I finally saved enough money. I was going on 19. I went by train to Hali­fax, then across the Atlantic by ship to France, and from France I took a ship across the Mediterranean to Egypt. I spent four or five days in Egypt before I crossed the Sinai Desert by train. I saw the whole city of Cairo and a couple of cities on the Suez Canal. From the train I was driven to Haifa and my friends met me and took me to the kibbutz.”

Neither Sam’s nor Esther’s family wanted their children to leave North America for Palestine. Esther remembered:

“The difference between my going and Sam’s going was when he left Canada it was almost like a protest against the family. My brother understood my need to go. He tried to stop me but it wasn’t done with animosity. It was done out of love. He sat down on an easy chair and I sat down on a hassock near him. He said, ‘I slaved and I worked so I could have you here because I wanted my family. I wanted us to be together and now you are leaving. You can have anything you want here. You can have a good life; you can get married; you can have a family of your own. But we would be one, together.’

“And I, like a fool, said I resented very much that I was already twenty-two and hadn’t had an education. College was out of the question. The fact that I was growing up in the United States, gave me the expectation that I should have gotten a better education, but that never came into being. I don’t know if it was the up­bringing I had within the Ha-Shomer Ha-Zair, organization or what, but I didn’t know how I could accomplish anything if I didn’t go. I would have to go to work. My family meant a lot to me, but I left for Palestine with a good feeling, that I was doing what I was taught to do. It’s like if you graduate from college in computer science, you go to work in computers, you follow up. I followed up, too.

“My sister Shoshana and I had been very close. We worked together, we slept in the same bed, we went to school together and we went to the Zionist organization together. So when Shoshana left for Palestine in 1932 without me, I decided I wasn’t going to stay in New York. I left in 1933.”

The Kibbutz at Chadera

Sam came to Palestine as part of the first group from his Ha-Shomer Ha-Zair  organization. According to Sam:

“We were nine pioneers from Montreal, New York, Toronto, Chicago, and Boston. We went to one of the older kibbutzim that shared our political beliefs to get some experi­ence to learn how to build a kibbutz from scratch. We lived there for nine months. In the meantime new members started to come along and we expanded into a group of about twenty-six, twenty-eight.

“A kibbutz is people. The main thing is the people. The Jewish National Fund [JNF] supplied the land to build kibbutzim. They leased it to the kibbutz for a dollar a year to make it legal. They gave us a plot of land in a town called Chadera, half­way between Haifa and Tel Aviv. Chadera was a temporary site until we could acquire land to settle. On that plot of land there were three kibbutzim: one from Poland who were from the same organization as ours; we, who were supposed to be the first American kibbutz in Israel; and the third kibbutz was from the Irgun.[3] The plot of land was on the edge of town on the path to the ocean. But there was nothing on it. We had to build housing there, and everything else a group of thirty, fifty, or a hundred people would need. We started from scratch.

“Most of the income was provided by people like myself who were strong and healthy. We would go outside to the union, and the union would give us jobs. Most of it was in construction. I never saw a paycheck. It went directly to the kib­butz.”

Esther, who had come from the United States, found her way to the same kibbutz as Sam; that is where they met: Esther recalled:

“Our kibbutz was a combination of people from the United States and Canadian groups. When I arrived I knew almost everyone from Canada. They had boarded the boat in Canada and came through New York. When we found out that a group was leaving, we New Yorkers used to get on board and just sort of dance and sing and wish them well and spend some time with them before they left. But this guy [Sam] had gone through Halifax. And who did I go for?  The unknown.

“We were working together. We had a factory for making tiles about a mile outside the kibbutz. There was six or seven colors on every tile. I put on the colors, because I was very quick. After I arrived, the kibbutz give me about a week to rest up and then Sam took me horseback riding to the factory. So that’s how we met. It was in 1933.

“Sam knew Hebrew very well. And the others knew it, too. My Hebrew came later. If I spoke English or Yiddish the others wouldn’t talk to me. But Sam talked to me because he wanted to please me. He was different from any man that I knew. I picked Sam because of his character. He never went to school, but he can talk to you about American history, European history; he knows everything from reading. When I used to walk with Sam, we talked like two intelligent people. And I found him very close to my way of thinking. In 1934 we were married.”

Leaving the Kibbutz

Sam explained why he became disillusioned with the kibbutz:

“While we were in the Kibbutz economic conditions were very bad. We had to fight to get any job, even at Jewish enterprises, because Arab labor was cheap, and we couldn’t exist on the same kind of wages the Arabs could. We were pioneers there to rebuild the land. And that’s what we actually did. We drained the land where it was filled with swamps and malaria. Some friends of mine lost their lives from malaria. Now, after fifty years this drained swamp land is the richest cotton-growing region in the world. The land elsewhere in Israel was all desert. And we brought the land to life with our plain hands. There was no machinery or power tools.

“At the end of 1935 immigration was pretty slow from the United States because the decision makers gave most of the certificates to Jews in Europe. They knew that Jews in the United States were not in any danger. In order for our group of Canadian and American pioneers to come before the Jewish National Council (JNC) and demand our own parcel of land, we needed more members. We had to have at least sixty, seventy members, to get the JNC to talk to us. So someone came up with the idea we should unite with the Polish kibbutz. Some of us including me were against it. We knew for certain that within the next two months another group of about twenty-one members from United States and Canada were coming. Certificates had already been issued for them. So we asked to delay the decision because we wanted to have a real first American kibbutz, not a mixed one.

“Well, it was nights until midnight we had discussions, hot discussions, fights–not fist-fights– but verbal arguments. And they won. They didn’t want to wait and they won. As a result, at least twelve or fourteen of us left the kibbutz at that time.”

Esther described how Sam fought to keep the kibbutz American:

“They had a meeting and decided to unite. Sam and a dozen others were against it. They said that if we unite the Aliyah–immigration–from America will stop altogether. They wanted more Americans to come. But the majority voted for uniting. So those who were against it left.”

But that wasn’t Sam’s only reason for leaving. According to Sam:

“The main motiva­tion I can never forget. In Canada they never told us that our group was actually the organization most to the left in the Zionist movement. The difference between our organization and the Communist party was that far”, Sam said holding up a finger and thumb. At one time there was a yearly meeting from all the kibbutzim in our town, Cha­dera. It was on a weekend, so naturally I went. I wanted to hear what it was all about and see who our leaders were. That was during the Stalin terrorist activities in the Soviet Union. Stalin killed twenty million of his own people. It didn’t bother me that Russia was a Communist country. If they wanted it that way, it was OK. But I sat in that meeting and I heard our leaders praise this butcher, Stalin. When we went out I walked home with a friend of mine from Montreal and I said to him,

‘You know as I was sitting and listening I thought I was sitting in a Communist party meeting.’ And that was personally the main reason why I left the kibbutz, that particular group.”

Leaving the kibbutz was a difficult choice for Esther:

“I came to Palestine and at first I wasn’t sure about the kibbutz life. I knew that I want to be a Zionist and I could be in Israel, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to live in the kibbutz or if I wanted to live autonomously. Kibbutz life is communal living. You don’t own a thing. The children share a children’s home. You see your children at four o’clock to play with them and then at six o’clock they go back to the children’s home and they feed them and put them to sleep. I wasn’t sure I wanted that. But after I met Sam I realized, who needs that part of it, the home and the cooking and the shopping. I argued with Sam. I said, ‘You came to Israel to stay in the kibbutz. They are in the same movement as we are.’  I wanted to stay. But he didn’t.”

Esther’s decision to leave with Sam was influenced by the fact that they were about to have a baby:

“I was married now. I was young. I was pregnant when we left the kibbutz. And it got to a point where I wanted what was good for my child. What was I going to do, leave him [Sam]?  So I went with him.”

They left the kibbutz and lived privately in Chadera for about a year, staying in a rented room. Sam had a steady job in the building line. At that time construction was considered to be the best paying job in Palestine. Although the couple had left the kibbutz, their old friends did not forget them. Esther remembered:

“When my baby was born, a car came on a Friday night from the kibbutz. They said that the kibbutz was making a little party for us be­cause of the birth of the baby. We danced and sang until four o’clock in the morning. Elaine was the second baby born of people from the kibbutz.”

Many years later, the couple continued to communicate with and support their old kibbutz. According to Sam:

“Just before we left Israel, the JNF acquired the land for our kibbutz, where they are now, at Ein Hashofet. Two years ago the kibbutz celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. For many years we thought that after we made some money we would eventually go back. We have visited Israel a number of times over the years. Esther’s sister Shoshana remained in Israel as a key member of Ein Hashofet, and died there several years ago.”

The Haganah

By 1934, the last year that Sam and Esther Naimark spent in Palestine the political climate had changed drastically. Jews in Germany were becoming desperate to escape Nazi tyranny. The British tightly controlled immigration, allotting only 14,300 immigration certificates that year, of which only 3,577 were allocated to German Jews.[4] To get around the quota, the Jewish Agency instituted a campaign to smuggle Jews into Palestine. Most of the illegal immigrants arrived by boats piloted by the Haganah and were secretly brought ashore by Haganah members on land. (The Haganah was a Jewish defense group that later became the Israeli army.)[5]

In 1934, 45,000 Jews, mainly from Germany arrived in Palestine.[6] The campaign to run the lasted for 14 years until the establishment of the state of Israel enabled Jews to enter legally. The Arabs protested the Jewish immigration, and Great Britain, dependent on Arab oil, tried to stop this flow of Jewish settlers into Palestine, often capturing Haganah ships at sea and interning Jews in Cyprus. The British maintained their tight immigration restrictions even after it was known that the Nazis were acting on their plan to kill all the Jews in Europe.

Sam recalled these times:

“Hitler’s reign of terror had already begun in Europe and people were desperate to escape. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Jews, mostly young people with the help of their families or through Jewish organizations raised the money to immigrate. Zionist organizations chartered steam ships, often condemned freight­ers like the Exodus to bring in these immigrants illegally to Israel. The British intercepted many of these ships and they sent them to Cypress for the duration of the war. I myself was an illegal immigrant. I arrived on a tourist visa and simply stayed. I never got a certificate and I couldn’t legally register my marriage. Esther and I got a Hebrew marriage license.”

Every member of the kibbutz up to a certain age had to join the Haganah. Although he had left the kibbutz, Sam joined the Haganah in 1934. That’s where he learned how to use a rifle.

“We lived only about an hour’s walk from the ocean.” Sam recounted. “For some reason the British ships never came too close to us. The Haganah was able to intercept some of the ships of illegal immigrants. We would signal a ship and it would anchor about three miles offshore. Then we would go out in rowboats or motorboats and take these young men and women, ages from sixteen to thirty, from the ship and bring them to our kibbutz. Everything had to be done at night under the cover of dark­ness. And then we’d spread the illegal immigrants out all around the town of Chadera, change their clothes to make them fit in better, and they would mix in with the rest of the population. Ninety percent of the immigrants already knew Hebrew from Europe. The British knew what we were doing and they started looking for the illegal immigrants. We told them to go ahead and look. Look any place you want, we don’t know anything about any illegal immigrants. But we knew plenty. There were hundreds and thousands of them. Helping Jews enter Palestine was the main job of the Haganah at that time until the real fighting started.

“The fighting began in 1936 with terrorist activities–the Arabs against the Jews. The Arabs attacked any place where they saw a Jew or any settlement which was isolated. For strategic reasons, kibbutzim were given land in isolated places. They were to intercept the Arabs before the Arabs could come into the cities. It was very, very dangerous. I kept getting letters from my mother begging me to come home.

“I worked quite a distance from the town and it was too far to walk and too dan­gerous. The Arabs used to ambush Jews. They hid in the bushes and when they saw a Jew they’d kill him. But when they saw a Jew carrying a rifle they would run away. The Arabs were cowards. The Haganah allotted our kibbutz three rifles for protection. The kibbutz gave me a rifle and a donkey to ride to work. So the smart one, my wife, writes to my mother, ‘Don’t worry about the riots because Sam goes to work every day with a rifle….’ The letter arrived on Yom Kippur and it was pinned to my mother’s door. She found it when she returned from shul. She cried for days and it was the story for our leaving.”

Esther elucidated:

“To us carrying the rifle was a privilege. Other people went to work without a rifle. They were in danger. At least Sam had something to protect himself.”

She recounted how she and Sam decided to leave Israel:

“Elaine was a year and a half old when we decided to leave. My sister Shoshana begged me to stay. ‘That baby was born is Israel. Why are you leaving?’ And I said, ‘I’m a married woman now. I have a husband.’

“The terrorism was there, all the time, so I just submitted. I just gave in. Aaron sent us the money to come back, and so in 1937 we left Israel for Montreal.”

Sam was unsure of the reception he would receive when he returned home:

“I wondered what my father would do. After all he had kicked me out of the house. He liked Elaine, his grandchild, so he welcomed me back.”

The transition was not easy for Esther:

“I cried for six months after we came back,” she said. “Then I realized I couldn’t go back to Israel. The kibbutz would have welcomed us back, but I wasn’t in a position to go back. And then a few years went by and the life I leading wasn’t the kind of life that I had before I left New York. I was my own self. I was very independent. I worked and I had money and I did what I wanted.”

Return to North America

Sam and Esther returned to Montreal in the depths of the Depression. They had no money and moved into a small house with Sam’s parents, Menya and Jacob, and his siblings Dora, Eddie, Mary, Norman, and Henry. Sam remembers:

“We had very bad times when we came back from Israel. The Depression was still on and many times we said to ourselves, ‘What did we do?  Why did we come back?  Why didn’t we remain in Israel?’

Esther recounted how they coped:

“The house was a two-bedroom home and it was cramped. They had a day bed in the living room where the girls slept, and there was a small room off the kitchen where we stayed. Our bed went from wall to wall and the crib was near the window. To put the baby in the crib, I had to climb over the bed.

“I was forever sad and crying. My brother-in-law Eddie was the one who kept me going. He saw the way I saw things. There was one room in the house that was entirely dark, it had no window and it was used for storage. One day Eddie came home and called me into that dark room. He said, ‘Esther, nothing lasts forever. There will come a day when you will forget all this. You will survive it.’  And that kept me going. Since then I really have had a soft spot for Eddie.

“We had no money to go out on our own and we were just waiting for a chance for my family to take us to New York. Sam tried to get a job in Montreal but jobs were scarce. My mother-in-law found out about a butcher who wanted a partner. So my father-in-law gave Sam two hundred dollars to go into partnership with that man. Sam knew as much about butchering as I know about flying, but he tried to learn. Soon the butcher went bankrupt and the money was lost.

“Then Sam and a cousin went into the broom business. They bought brooms from big manufacturers and sold them to local stores. Sam never drove a car in his life, but he got into a truck and he drove it. In the snow, and ice, everything. He was desperate. He had to start something but that fizzled out. My sister and brother in New York sent me money and they sent me bundles, especially bundles with clothes for the baby. I wrote to my brother one day and said, ‘Look, you can’t fill up a sack with a hole. Everything goes right through. No matter what you do I can’t accomplish anything with it. The only thing you can do for me is help me to leave this place. I want to come to New York.’

“Finally I did get there. In New York my brother gave Sam a job right away in his bakery. I rented an apartment and announced that I wanted to go to work. So my brother gave me a job in the bakery, too. Sam went to work at two o’clock in the morning and I went in at four in the afternoon. By four I had the baby bathed, she had her lunch, and she had her nap. When Sam came home dinner was on the stove and he fed the baby. They both went to sleep at six o’clock. I walked home at twelve o’clock at night and Sam was up and getting ready to get to work. That went on for a few years.”

Sam remembered:

“I always had a job but I wasn’t making any money. I was working as a truck driver for a bakery delivering bread. I was getting $18 a week for six days, I don’t know how many hours it came to. I gave Esther the $18, she paid the rent and fed the child. By Thursday she was broke. So she had to borrow $5 from her brother until Friday when I got paid. Then she paid him back.

“Her brother was very good friends with the head of the Teamsters Union in New York and through him I got into the Union. Union wages at that time were $9 a day, 5 days a week. So right away instead of making $18 a week for six days of work, I was making $45 a week for five days work. Then as the outside man in the bakery, my boss told me if I could get them more customers he’d raise my wages. Well I got him so many customers that my wages rose to $18 a day. I was able to open up a bank account and save money. From then on the financial worries were over.”

After ten years the Sam Naimark family was ready for another move — one that would make their fortune. Sam told how it happened:

“In 1945, I had vacation time. I saw an ad in the paper where an old man was looking for somebody to drive his car out to Los Angeles, all expenses paid. I couldn’t resist it. When I came into Los Angeles I said, ‘Oh my God, this is wonder­ful–exactly the same climate as Palestine. I couldn’t take the climate in New York. In the winter the cold, the summer the sweat. So I came back, and announced, ‘We’re going to Los Angeles. Pack everything, put it in the car, and I drove out again, this time with Esther and the two children. [By this time their daughter Dena had been born.]

“We had a few thousand dollars saved and so we bought a business in Glendale–a beer joint–where we sold sandwiches, cigarettes, candy, and all that stuff. We did pretty good there until the first Bob’s Big Boy was built three blocks away. Next we tried a few more things until finally I went into the liquor business. I had two stores and that’s where I made my money.”

[1]This was, of course, before Israel became a state.

[2] Sam and Esther’s quotes were edited by Eleanor O’Bryon, the first writer for the Paul Gass Family History project. It is not known whether the Naimarks approved these changes. To see the original transcript of their interview, click on the Sam and Esther Naimark Interview.

[3] The Irgun was the armed, underground Jewish movement in Palestine.

[4] Palestine Report. His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Island to the Council of the League of Nations on the Administration of Palestine and Trans-Jordan, 31 December 1934. Republished by United Nations Information System on the Question of Palestine. Online <!OpenDocument > Data downloaded 16 March 2005.

[5] The word Haganah means defense, to defend yourself.

[6] “Timeline: The Jewish Agency for Israel, 1934.” Department for Jewish Zionist Education, The Jewish Agency for Israel, Israel, 1992-2005. Online <> Data downloaded 16 March 2005.