A Family Dispersed

By Sonja Shacknofsky-Setting

My father, Joseph Setting, was born in Keidan in 1910. He arrived in Cape Town on Christmas morning, 1927, then went on to Johannesburg, where he found work with relatives. My grandparents likely sent him to South Africa to get away from the Lithuanians, who were being quite nasty to Jews, especially in the army. 


A letter from Israel, 1941


Kitty Barnett, my mother, was born in London. Joseph met her in Johannesburg and they married a year later. Their first child, Sylvia (Batsheva), was born in 1940. I, Sonja, arrived in 1944.

I still remember hearing my father’s stories about Keidan as a little girl. How beautiful it was, how he used to swim in the Neviazhe (Nevėžis) river and walk in the forest, with its intoxicating aroma. How he would take his mother’s cholent up the road to the baker’s shop, where they would put it in the oven over Friday night for a fee, so it would be ready for Shabbat dinner on Saturday.

My grandfather, Itzhak Setting, ran a flourmill next to his house. If I remember correctly, they lived in Smilger Gas (Smilga St.). My grandmother, Leah Setting, was born in Ponevezh (Panevėžis). I gather that she was a quiet woman. Their eldest child was Hinda, then came my father Joseph, daughter Masha, son Hertzl, another son called Leib and the youngest daughter Chava.  Masha married Yeshayahu Eides; they had 3 children – Miriam, Yehezkel and Pesia. Hinda and Leib died before the war, as did Masha’s oldest daughter Miriam.

My father’s brother Hertzl was sent to Israel a few years after my father came to South Africa. He was one of the pioneers who started kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. He and his wife Pesia had two sons, Amatzia and Yirmiyahu, and a daughter Tamar. In those times it was common for people to adopt Hebrew-sounding family names, especially when they had to go abroad on public missions. For this reason Hertzl changed his family name to Tal.

Hertzl and my father were the only family members to leave Lithuania before World War II. The rest – both grandparents Itzhak and Leah, my aunt Masha with her two children and my aunt Chava – were killed in Keidan on August 28, 1941. Masha’s husband Yeshayahu was killed earlier, on July 23.

I particularly remember one story my father told us. When he was little the Russian authorities, thinking that every Jew was a potential spy, ordered all Jews to leave Lithuania. My bobe Leah had to take all her children on a train deep into Russia. At some stations, Jewish residents would take the refugees into their homes. At one station Leah’s family was told to leave the train, but she had so many children, nobody wanted to take them. Eventually the Rabbi of the town took them to his home. 

My zeyde had stayed behind to save the goods from a shop he had just started. He called it the “one-kopek shop.” He hid the stock in the cellar of his mother’s house. Little Joseph was in a terrible panic — when would he ever see his father again? – but my bobe told him not to worry. One afternoon Joseph awoke from a nap to see his father Itzhak sitting on the bed. He thought he was dreaming. When Itzhak put his arms around him my father asked, ”Papa, how did you find us?” He replied, “If you want to find somebody, you will.” My father was ecstatic.  It turned out that each station kept records of refugees who had come off the train.

When my family eventually was allowed to return home, the goods my grandfather had hidden in his mother’s house had all been stolen.

The end came for my father’s family in 1941. When my father in South Africa stopped receiving letters from Keidan, he was sick with worry. He wrote to the Red Cross, which eventually told him his whole family had been murdered. In 1946, Chaim Geben, secretary of the Keidaner Society in Johannesburg, received a letter from Chaim Ronder, one of two survivors of the massacre in Keidan. Ronder had fled to the Lithuanian forests, where he fought as a partisan. From this letter my father learned his family’s fate. Here is an excerpt:

I received a letter from Itzik Setting’s son, asking about the fate of his family. Sadly, I must answer that his father, mother and sister were killed on 28 August 1941, together with all the other Jews. They were buried in the same 90-meter mass grave. His brother-in-law Yeshayahu Eides was killed with a group of 225 Jews in the first days after the Germans marched into Keidan…”


A letter from Hertzl Setting, at kibbutz “L’Shichrur,” to his brother, Joseph Setting, Johannesburg.

Hashomer Hatzair Kibbutz  “L’Shichrur” (“To Liberation”)
Rehovot, POB 53
March 16, 1941
To Joseph and Kitty,

Many greetings, blessings and mazal tov on the birth of your daughter Sheva. I wish you great happiness from her, and that her upbringing and education should be happy and carefree. I should tell you that bringing up children here on the kibbutz is much less difficult and demands less emotional and physical effort than it does in the private sector. I think I’ve already written you about the way of education here. A common school, a common children’s house, frees parents from childcare chores, from tiring nights when the child cries and so on – all this makes parents’ lives much easier, as ultimately they are workers who also have to take part in the life of the community and also need rest from their everyday labor.

I’ve told you, I think, that I’ve already written you, and I wouldn’t like to repeat things that were already told and written. You surely received the photos I’ve sent. In your last letter you do not mention this. My daughter is developing nicely. She will soon be eight months old, eats very well and her weight, if I’m not mistaken, is close to 9 kg. At this age they weigh them once every two weeks, and sometimes I forget to ask how much she gained. At the beginning they were weighting her every day and I was more updated then. She is already sitting up, and started crawling about two weeks ago. She even imitates sounds. I think she’ll be an adorable daughter. Pesia is healthy; she works in the hen-house. We have fewer hens in the new place than we had in Raanana, but it is in the plan for this year to increase this branch of farming. The work I’m occupied with is very diverse: I sow, plough, reap, gather, all according to the season, and do other work as well, such as carpentry…

Concerning the essence of life on the kibbutz, I’ve written you already many times. I’ve been here already almost seven years. Many things have become clearer. There are many disappointments, but you just keep going. A human being is an extremely complicated machine, with many positives and negatives. When positive meets positive, that’s very good, when negative meets negative – God forbid!

Sometimes I think maybe it’s worthwhile to try another way of living. In the final account, we’re just a handful who chose a collective way of life, without support from the government, without the support of authorities, at a time when the capitalistic sea is raging around us and our way of life – which is simply a war for survival – rules everything. There are many problems tangled together and difficult to untwine. I’m faithful to the belief I arrived at some time ago – not because I’m dogmatic, but because of its rightness, and until now – in spite of all its failures and disappointments – I didn’t like the “accepted” way of life. Still, I wouldn’t reject trying to live as a single worker, fighting to survive on his own. I’ve already told Pesia, that if we had few hundred liras, we could try “private” life, that finally we should try being workers who take care only of themselves and their family, rather than of 150 comrades. Pesia claims that it’s possible to try such a live even without so much money. But to leave the kibbutz without having a roof above your head is to risk illness and poverty, to depending on charity, and to this I will never agree. I also do not want to live with constant worry about making a living, which deprives you of all your humanity. In short, these are the kind of things we discuss sometimes, when our hearts are full of bitterness, caused sometimes by the comrades, and it’s worthwhile to express them to a brother.

You ask about the parents’ situation. I received a letter from them a week ago. They all wrote: father, mother, Chavele, Masha and Yeshayahu. Father has been ill for 10 months and stays in bed. The material situation, as I read between the lines, is not bright at all. Parents with working children have an easier situation. But those in the middle class who are not young, their situation is difficult. Although mother writes that until now they have not lacked clothes and food, the very fact that she writes about a lovely and caring family – for example, about uncle Alter who came from Krekenava and gave father 200 lit to enable him to see a professor in Vilna, or uncle Yakov who brings presents to Chavele and to mother – this alone cries out about the situation – father needs 200 lit to go to a doctor…In addition, they write that the government imposes taxes on them.

Chavele is already in the eighth grade of the Lithuanian gymnasium. She has grown up to become a mature and thinking person, it seems, from her letter to me.

Concerning the help to the family: First I do not know whether it’s possible now to send anything to Lithuania. Second, from the kibbutz I cannot help with anything. Most of the comrades are from Lithuania and Poland, from Hungary and Bulgaria, countries that have suffered badly from the war. Jews there are like hunted animals, or have suffered because of their economic status. And the economic situation in Eretz Israel is also difficult, and we and our 30 children barely survive. I have the impression that you also are not in position to help the parents. In any case, their situation is not very good. The situation for Masha and Yeshayahu who were more or less well-off, has also apparently changed sharply. Their shop was seized and he is not yet working … They hope for a better day.

Yeshayahu writes me, for example, as follows: “Here in our country, Lithuania, the dream of our youth had come true, a dream of equal rights for Jews and Christians, a bright life without worry and full of joy awaits us in the future.” According to rumors that arrived from Lithuania and also based on what I have heard from our envoys who have returned from there, antisemitism there, before the Soviets’ entry, was just awful. Jews couldn’t breathe, they were awaiting the Nazis and oppression against Jews had already started. It’s good that the whole thing went this way. An important Jewish community was saved from the wicked German… And so it seems I’ve written what you’ve requested.

Goodbye to you, your wife and your daughter. Please, fulfill your promise and send me the picture of you, your wife and your daughter. I still do not know Kitty. I’m unable to write her. Although I studied English once and maybe I’ll study it again. But my knowledge is insufficient to write letters in English. I hope this communication link in letters between us will persist.

Yours,

Pesia and Tamar send you their greetings.

To Yosef and Kitty – many greetings!

A few days have passed since I tried to write to you. Just a few words, but still it’s not always possible to find time for this, as we work quite hard all day long. Toward evening we need also to take the daughter for a walk, so the days pass before we know it. Please accept my heartiest congratulations on the birth of your daughter Batsheva. You should find great satisfaction in her upbringing. Our daughter is already a big girl. She is eight months old and is already sitting. We can see her only few hours per day. Every day she is in the children’s house and we’re busy at work. This question of convenience is connected to the known world outlook. I will stop here for now, and try to write a longer letter next time.

Many greetings to you and your daughter.

Pesia.

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