Two life-changing choices in Shanghai: becoming a member of the Soviet Youth Club & of Betar

Apart from going to school, in Shanghai I also first became a member (& I feel like noting here that one of the first titles for a novel I wanted to write was The Member [ambiguity intended]; nothing came of it, apart from many pages of writing that I subsequently burned, another story I may tell one day) of two organizations that were in one sense very contrary to one another & in another sense quite similar; & in retrospect I have to say that my childhood membership in both of them had a profound influence on the course of my life.

004 sha r 03The two organizations were the Soviet Youth Club, & the (right-wing) Zionist (not that I would have understood either of these two concepts then) youth movement Betar. In fact, the second of the two photographs I have of myself from those Shanghai years is a tinted studio photograph of me dressed in my Betar uniform.

The first of the two that I joined was  the Soviet Youth Club, whose activities were held in the mansion & the expansive treed & gardened grounds of its parent institution, the Soviet Club, in a lovely tree-lined street in the French Concession. I liked going there.  By then I could already speak and read Russian. I started learning Russian because I loved reading, and until the Japanese takeover of the International Settlement towards the end of 1941 (after Pearl Harbor) I’d been going to an English-speaking school & had learned English, & was already an avid borrower of children’s books from a library near the school. When that happened I could get no more books in English. But I was already addicted to reading, though neither or I or my parents would have put it that way then. It was probably one of them who came up with the idea. There was a really good Russian library in the French Concession, which had been left alone by the Japanese because they & the Vichy government of France were already allies. So I could learn Russian. With my gift for languages it shouldn’t be hard. Much of it was like Polish. The different alphabet could be learned quite quickly. So one day I went to the Russian library, & came home with a primer containing the Cyrillic alphabet and the basics of Russian grammar, and a Russian-Polish dictionary. With these & some help from my father (he had spent some years in Moscow as a student & knew Russian well) it was not difficult. After a short while I was borrowing children’s story books, and we would also get a Russian newspaper everyday.

Every afternoon there was a news broadcast in Russian about the progress of the war, & surprisingly soon, & quite suddenly, I was understanding more & more of what was said. And I was also understanding something about this war that had brought me here, to China, where I already understood we would have to live until the war was over, and I was able to follow its progress with optimism. I realized that the Russians were the only ones holding back the power of the Nazi advance. With the adults I longed for the Allied invasion that would help the Red Army in its lone and heroic struggle against the monstrous Nazi machine. By the time I was really proficient in Russian, the situation at the Eastern front was turning. Every day brought another major achievement or advance, and the announcer read the names of the Marshals and Generals responsible for the triumph, and told of those who had been promoted or awarded the Order of the Soviet Union or other glorious decoration.  A twenty-one gun (or sometimes less, depending on the greatness of the victory) salute followed the announcement, and the orchestra played the Soviet national anthem, and this always excited me and filled me with emotion. I knew the names of many of the marshals who led the Red Army to victory in these battles, and they were among me many heroes then, as stalwart and heroic as Robin Hood or Sinbad. On the map on the wall above my desk I kept moving my little red flags on pins westward. And from then on it was a daily event, sitting by the radio, taking notes, marking the map, checking with the newspaper, and afterwards, sometimes, drawing & writing a one- or two-page newspaper in English and translating or simply writing in English the major war news from the Soviet sources.

It was probably at the library that I first heard about the Soviet Youth Club. Here is something I wrote maybe a couple of decades ago, when I probably remembered more about it than I do now:

The Soviet Youth Club. I go with my mother the first time, we see a movie there, my first movie, a big screen, in Russian, black-and-white, and then we go outside the barracks-like building to another on the right of the entrance drive, three-storied, white outside, red flags, and inside are large framed photographs of Stalin who is already my hero from Pravda, and then she takes me to a leader who signs me up and I can come afternoons whenever I like, there’s a games room and there are hours of organized games, with an instructor, a whole group of children running towards one of the group whose back is turned, and stopping when he turns around on a count, not to get seen moving, and hide-and-seek, and volleyball for the bigger kids, and other competitions, group singing, movies, parades, where kids march carrying huge red flags, and huge photographs of Stalin. Now Jesus was lost to me it was good to know the world had a fine father in the great Marshalissimo, and being in the Soviet Youth Club was like being part of a vast Soviet rear cheering the struggle and advances of the heroic Red Army. I felt very proud of this, especially when I was allowed to carry a red flag with an embroidered golden hammer-and-sickle in one of the parades. But I didn’t make any friends there. And I missed Joboy.

At some later stage I also joined Betar. I don’t remember if I first heard about Betar at school, from one or some of my classmates, or whether some friend of my parents had recommended it to me. I also don’t think I understood much of what it was about, I don’t remember having had feelings of wanting to go to Palestine to fight for a Jewish state with a Jewish majority on both sides of the Jordan, which I think I only learned much later was this movement’s declared aim.

Betar was in a large four-story building near the border between the French and the English Concessions. The house had many rooms, and on meeting days, different groups met in different rooms for some of the time, after an assembly parade held either in the large back yard or on rainy or colder days in the large hall on the first floor. In many ways it was like another kind of school, except that you went there once a week, and wore a uniform, and there were groups that were above school age. I liked the uniform, which was something like the uniforms the American soldiers I so liked and admired wore, though instead of khaki it was dark brown, & it had some azure trimming here & there, and adjacent narrow strips of azure and white on the folding cloth cap you wore over one side of your head just like the G.I.s.

The older Betarím (they used the Hebrew form when speaking about themselves, a member of Betár was called a Betarí, and the plural was Betarím, all accented on the last syllable) and the commanders of the groups wore azure ties, but we in the younger groups wore an azure scout-scarf trimmed with white.

I vaguely remember the large hall with a blue & white flag (not like what the flag of the State of Israel would be after 1948, but just like the Polish flag, a broad horizontal white strip with a broad horizontal azure strip beneath it instead of the red horizontal strip of the Polish flag) on the wall & large portraits of the movement’s three iconic figures (Herzl, Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky, google them if you don’t – & want to – know who they were), whom we youngsters may have been told about but I really can’t remember any of the content of the things we were told during our group meetings (though I can easily imagine what they were, based on memories of things I learned later, but see no reason to do so here). We also played games, & learned Hebrew songs. & also did a lot of parade drill, which I liked best of all. I really tried to be good at drill, and I was good at it. I wanted to be as quick as possible in my body’s responses to the commands given by our lovely brown-haired mefakedet (commandress would be the literal translation, so I may as well coin the word). All the commands were given in Hebrew. Some time after I joined we started practicing for a gala parade to be held at a soccer ground, to which all our parents, and functionaries of the Zionist movement and the Jewish community would be invited. I enjoyed the preparations, & remember especially enjoying the actual occasion when it took place.

I have no more actual memories about my time as a member of Betar in Shanghai, & when I left Shanghai in late 1946 I don’t think I gave any further thought to whatever stories I may have been told or ideas I may have been fed there, or even to the activities I’d enjoyed or to people I may have been fond of – until I discovered Betar once again, maybe three years later, in Melbourne, which set me off on the Zionist course of my teens & young adulthood, during which I moved progressively leftwards, from Betar to Habonim, from Habonim to the then-Marxist Socialist Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, and later became (for about three years) a member of one of its kibbutzim, Nirim, across the border from Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip  – & then left the kibbutz, & moved to Tel Aviv, & went to the university, & met Nitza, & married her more than fifty years ago now, & we lived for several decades in Israel until we moved here almost 14 years ago (but I’ve mentioned some of these things in earlier pages, & they’re also all chapters for later; here I just wanted to point out that if I hadn’t joined these two organizations in Shanghai none of the later chapters of this story might ever have happened…)

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