Book Review: The dogged pursuit of a distant Zionist dream

June 2024
Bev Miller

There are many unsung heroes who contributed to the early settlement of Jews in pre-Israel Palestine. Through the 1920s and 30s it was a time of near unimaginable hardship in a country which is now a first-world nation, but which, then, was a malaria-infested, impoverished, backwater of the world. There are also many myths regarding these first immigrants; their courage and unwavering determination to work together to overcome overwhelming odds and create a new life in an ancient homeland. But, as always, what is passed on through the generations is a greatly modified version of the day-to-day realities of those who left the familiar to face the unknown. 

Ronnie Miller recently completed, or, at least, partially completed, a voyage of research, and uncovered a fascinating tale of one of these largely unknown trail-blazers and the fundamentally unprepared community which followed him to the Palestine mandate area. Nathan Eliashvilli was one of the most significant Zionist leaders of Georgia in the mid-1920s. He led approximately 60 of his fellow Georgians to Palestine during what is known as the Fourth Aliyah, and promised to return to lead many more. Unlike what we often hear in the iconic songs or see in the popularized photos of the settlers in Zion, the first years of these Georgian Olim were years of unrelenting adversity that often led to bitter internal disputes and distrust, sometimes culminating in acrimonious estrangements. Making the story of Nathan Eliashvilli even more unanticipated and compelling were letters written to Eliashvilli from desperate Georgians left behind in the nascent Soviet Bloc. These personal missives were only serendipitously and recently discovered and shed new light on the struggle of the Georgian Jews, both those who escaped to Palestine and those who were trapped behind the newly emerging Iron Curtain. 

One of the most satisfying but also unsettling aspects of conducting research is that you can start down one path, reasonably confident as to what you will discover, and then, due to circumstance, accident, and fortune, find yourself traveling down unimagined trails. As Miller continued with his research, made extremely complicated by the CoVid pandemic and long periods of travel bans, he came across numerous elements of the story of Eliashvilli and his Georgian compatriots which challenged many of the truths he had learned as a child in Israel and had continued to believe as an adult researcher and historian. 

What is certain is that Nathan Eliashvilli was born in 1893, in Tskhinvali, in Northern Georgia, and that even as a teenager he had adopted the view that there was an urgent need to establish a homeland for the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael. Zionism was Eliashvilli’s religion, and Practical Zionism, working the land, was his aspiration for the day-to-day practice of his religion. What became obvious is that there was no consensus, even within the Zionist community of Georgia, as to which path was the safest and surest path to deliverance for the endangered Jewish population.  Discovering the evidence of feuds and outright betrayals within the community was a constant source of surprise and some disappointment, but also galvanized even more interest in seeking to understand these tumultuous times in a little known Jewish community.   

After the occupation of Georgia by the Bolsheviks and the establishment of the Soviet regime there, Eliashvilli believed that the period of Jewish existence in Georgia had come to an end. Eventually, after many roadblocks, he managed to take with him 17 families to mandate Palestine and attempted to settle with them near Petach Tikvah. 

Tragically, and contrary to many of the stories we tell, the situation of the Olim of this group upon their arrival in Yisrael was catastrophic. These newcomers experienced hunger, disease, depression and outright despair. The Zionist organizations which they had expected would support them and guide them through their first years of acclimation were often ill-quipped, under-resourced, distracted, or disinterested in their challenges. There was also the ugly undercurrent of racism as Georgian Jews, these Caucasus Jews, did not neatly fit into the usual categories of Ashkenazi or Sephardi, so they fell into a crack that led to underfunding and the ignoring of their near insurmountable difficulties.  

Even while these calamities were occurring, Eliashvilli continued to receive letters from Jews in Georgia, imploring him to help them make Aliyah. Eliashvilli, a prolific writer, did not reply to these entreaties, even as they invoked close friendships and family ties.  Miller’s research eventually revealed the poignant reasons behind Eliashvilli’s unexpected silence and failure to return to lead others to hoped-for safety. With our vantage point in the 2020s we know that many of those left behind in Georgia did not survive the Second World War, and many more lost or repudiated their identity as Jews through the long years of Soviet rule.

Those Olim who had traveled to Palestine with Eliashvilli have their own life stories. Most, not all, are stories of success, in all the various ways success can be defined. One such story belongs to the children and grand-children and great grand-children of Nathan Eliashvilli. Ronnie Miller is one of the two grand-children of Nathan Eliashvilli.

For someone who loves the puzzle and investigation of historical inquiry, research never ends. Miller is now embarking on new avenues of exploration as he studies the lived experiences of the Georgian Olim to mandate Palestine.

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Caption: Members of the group of 60 Georgian Jews who followed Nathan Eliashvilli to Palestine in the mid-1920s.