Lone Wolf
A Biography of Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky

By Shmuel Katz


Copyright © 1996 Shmuel Katz.All rights reserved.
ISBN: 1-56980-042-1

Chapter One


Odessa on the Black Sea, where Vladimir Jabotinsky was bornon October 17, 1880, was the least Russian of all the cities in theEmpire of the Tsars. A new city, founded only at the end of theeighteenth century by a decision of Queen Catherine, it had becomean important international port through the enterprise of avariety of peoples. How this came about was described byJabotinsky himself:

From the hundreds of cities of Italy, from Genoa to Brindisi, a long procession of dark-eyed adventurers made their way towards Odessa: merchants, shipbuilders, architects and smugglers of the choicest variety. They populated the young capital and gave it their language, their light-hearted music, their style of building and laid down the basis of its future wealth. At approximately the same time the Greeks started pouring into Odessa, shopkeepers, boatmen and also, of course, masters of illicit trades. These connected the young port of Odessa with every nook and cranny of the Anatolian coast, with the Aegean Isles, with Smyrna and other ports.

Then came Jews, who cut into the steppes a cobweb ofinvisible canals down which harvests from the rich Ukrainepoured into Odessa. Thus Odessa was built by the descendantsof the three tribes which once created humanity: theGreeks, the Romans and the Jews.

Later came Russians and Ukrainians. The Russians ruled; as for the Ukrainians:

They gave Odessa her superb sailors and masons and--most important--the salt of the earth, those pillars of the fatherland, those real creators of Odessa and of the whole of south Russia--those real, full-blooded human beings: I mean, of course, the tramps . . .

Afterwards came Turks and French and Armenians. In 189258 percent of Odessa's population was non-russian. It was thepeople of all of these nations and their cultures, richly interwoven,who together built Jabotinsky's birthplace "under the laughingsun, among the smells of the sea, of acacia and garlic, mytown, the genuine "and legitimate child though born before itsmother--of a League of Nations."

These circumstances undoubtedly made a deep imprint onthe young Jabotinsky, enhancing and giving free play to the naturalcharacteristics of an independent mind and the inborn qualitiesof a searching spirit.

His childhood was shaped and fashioned by yet anotherpowerful influence: the special social atmosphere of the city. Tothe end of his life, Jabotinsky, in moments of relaxation, wouldlapse into poetic recollection and praise of his birthplace. One ofhis close friends, Israel Trivus, recalled in his memoirs, long nostalgicreminiscence by Jabotinsky--then in his twenties--of thejoys of a childhood and youth in light-hearted Odessa, whose inhabitants"babbled in a dozen languages," so remote from the experienceof the vast majority of Jewish children in the Russia ofhis time.(1)

His early childhood was marked by family tragedy. He wasfifteen months old when his brother Mitia (Meir) died at the ageof six; and when he himself was six years old, in December, 1886,his father Evgeny (Yonah) died after a long illness. He had evibidentlydeveloped cancer--which put an end to a successful careeras manager of one of the great distribution agencies in the graintrade of which Odessa was the center. Those years of illness (andof travel to seek medical succor) laid waste, moreover, the materialsubstance he had accumulated; and the well-to-do family wasreduced to penury.

Hava, the young mother, had now to bring up Vladimir andhis sister Tamar, a remarkably intelligent and serious-minded tenyear old. Hava was not without advisors. She took counsel withher relatives at the home of her brother Abraham Sack, a prosperousmerchant. One of Sack's sons, Miron (Meir), a successfullawyer, offered practical advice. "We have enough educated people,"he said. "Send the girl to be a seamstress, and let the boytrain as a carpenter."

Jabotinsky wrote many years later that this was perhapsgood advice; but his mother thought otherwise. In any middle-classfamily in those days, the very idea of deliberately bringingup a child to be an artisan or tradesman was anathema: it suggestedthat there was something wrong with the child. She rebuffedher nephew,brusquely, and neither she nor her childrenever again set foot in his house. Twenty years later, when thename of Jabotinsky had become a household word throughoutthe Russian intelligentsia and in the Jewish community, Miron,bumping into Hava in the courtyard of the synagogue, asked herto forgive him: he had not meant it, she hadn't understood him.She replied curtly, "I'm not angry. Goodbye," and swept inside.(2)

She set up a small stationery shop, her earnings supplementedby meager contributions from her brother Abraham; andthe family lived in rooms at the back. Even this proved to be beyondher means, and a move was made to an attic. It was not untilTamar, at sixteen, began to earn money from giving privatelessons that the family emerged from grinding poverty. Vladimirremembered those years as a period of want, and he recalled thatthose of his playmates who came from wealthy families. were forbiddenby their parents to visit him in his home lest, as he put it,"they be infected with the spirit of poverty." His mother, for herpart, responded by forbidding him to visit their homes.

Yet in all his writings, there is no hint of any sense of deprivationor envy or bitterness. His sister recalled that some timeafter he had started school, he protested to his mother about thedaily apple she put in his lunch basket. She was, he said, spendingtoo much money on him. Twenty-five apples a month, andeach apple cost a kopeck!(3) (A kopeck was worth about a cent.

He worshipped his mother, who was by all accounts a strongpersonality, of great intelligence and compassion; and as is repeatedlyrevealed in his autobiographical fragments and in thereminiscences of his sister, his devotion and active concern forher never flagged throughout the turbulent vicissitudes of hislife. He was remote from religious observance, but he neveromitted to honor her request to seek out a synagogue to say Kaddishno matter where he found himself on the anniversary of hisfather's death. He sent her greetings each birthday, and at YomKippur's end he, would telegraph an inquiry as to how she hadstood the fast.

It was undoubtedly the warm home atmosphere, the closelyknit relationship between the three and the unlimited love andpride his mother--and, as he grew a little older, his sister too--pouredupon him that generated the famous self-confidence,sometimes even perhaps excessive, that helped him sustain theso-numerous tribulations that he was to suffer later in life.

He was, as even the teachers in his primary school discovered,not an easy child to handle. He was singularly self-willedand did not take kindly to adult reproof. His mother, however,found that one could bend his will by kindness, a lesson she impressedupon his less-tolerant sister. Others, however, were notso patient. A group of children playing in a courtyard one daywere rebuked by a passing Russian officer for making too muchnoise. To reinforce his rebuke, he decided to smack one of them,and he chose Vladimir. One of the victim's contemporaries recalledthat "the boy, then hardly twelve years old, saw red andthrew himself at his assailant, trying to strike back." Hitting anofficer in the Tsar's army was a particularly hazardous undertaking.Fortunately his friends succeeded in holding him back.(4)

For all Jabotinsky's filial devotion, he made no effort toplease his mother by scholastic attainment. He spent a substantialportion of his schooltime playing truant. True to the spirit ofthe city he--and his friends--followed a diversity of preferredoccupations, like fishing in the Black Sea, watching die shipscome into port, taking long walks along the seashore or playingCossacks and Robbers in the city's magnificent park. Similarlytrue to that spirit, Odessan parents, when questioned by theschool authorities, would blandly prevaricate in order to protectthe truants from punishment.

Two years before Jabotinsky passed into a high school, theRussian government introduced for the first time a numerusclausus. Only for every nine Christian pupils would one Jew beadmitted to a school, and that one had to show scholastic excellence.Vladimir was denied admittance to a variety of schools beforefinally gaining acceptance.

He discovered then that quite a few Jewish children hadmanaged to find their way in, over and above the quota. In hisown class, no fewer than ten of the thirty pupils were Jews.

"An important part in the game," he wrote later, "was playedby His Majesty Bribery." As he knew his mother was in no positionto offer a bribe to the headmaster and as he himself wasnever a diligent scholar, he concluded that he had attained the requiredlevel of excellence through the sheer experience he hadgained in failing so many entrance examinations.(5)

The outstanding fact about his schooling to be gleaned fromhis own accounts and from those of his contemporaries is that hehated every minute of it. There was no love lost between him andhis teachers, and he deepened their dislike by making fun of themin class, in caricatures and in a clandestine school "newspaper."In his memoirs, he writes of them with marked contempt and assertsthat "what I learned in my childhood I did not learn atschool."(6)

He recalled specifically that though the classics master tookhis class four times a week regularly for six years, he rememberedpractically nothing of Latin or Greek. It was only twenty yearslater that he learned to appreciate Homer--in Russian translation.Bearing in mind his famous capacity for learning languages,it may be fair to suggest that his poor record in Greek and Latinwas probably less the result of inefficient teaching than of thosefishing expeditions in the Black Sea and the games of Cossacksand Robbers in the city park.

His experience led him to a somewhat unorthodox conclusion.Writing three decades later, he asserts that he cannot understandchildren who love school. "To this day," he writes, "Ihave retained in my heart an instinct to which probably no otherfather would admit: I hate a good pupil, such as does his homework.I reserve my love for the naughty one."(7)

Out of school, after completing a stint of fooling in the parkor on the seashore, from which he sometimes came home somewhatbruised and battered, he would settle down to reading. Heread ill of Shakespeare in Russian translation; he read all thatPushkin and Lermontov had ever written and had a perfectknowledge of all of them before he was fourteen. Tamar, who hadtaught him to read Russian, also passed on to him the English shewas acquiring in high school; for one year he was taught Frenchby a cousin who came to stay with the family; he taught himselfSpanish from a textbook when he was nine. While still at school,he began reading both adventure stories and classics in the originalFrench and English and remarks casually in his autobiographicalfragment that he was taught Polish by a Polishclassmate who wanted him to enjoy Mickiewiczs Konrad Wallenrod.(8)

He early chose his lifelong craft: he began writing poems atthe age of ten, and they were published in the clandestine handwrittenschool newspaper. At thirteen and for the next threeyears, he was sending to editors "innumerable" manuscripts,some of classic translations, some of original articles--but allwere rejected.

Then one day in August, 1897, he discovered in a dailynewspaper an article he had written--under a pseudonym,Vladimir Illiritch--criticizing the methods of awarding marks atschool.

The article was noticed by I.M. Heifetz, the editor of anotherdaily, the great liberal paper Odesskiya Novosti, who wasgreatly impressed by the style and seriousness of the writing.Soon afterwards, as he later recalled, he published in his paper a"lighter piece," submitted by Jabotinsky, "some kind of a legendor fairy tale."(9)

This was followed by a series of literary feuilletons signedwith unknown initials, which attracted widespread attention bytheir unusual topics and their colourful style.

Jabotinsky now took a decision which deeply distressed hisfamily and startled his friends. He had in fact been consideringit--and begging his mother to give her consent--for a wholeyear. He wanted to drop out of school and go abroad to study--andto write. All that year his m. other resisted what she and everybodyelse around him regarded as a piece of madness. Onlyanother eighteen months would bring him to the coveted matriculationcertificate--which in Tsarist Russia for a Jewish childmeant so much more than a mere embarkation point in one's education.It opened the prospect of a university education, theglittering ambition of every Jewish child and every Jewish parent.It carried with it the right to live outside the Pale of Settlementanywhere in Russia. As Jabotinsky himself admits in his autobiographicalfragment: "In short, the life of a human being insteadof a dog's life."

Even in the light of the conditions at school which he foundso oppressive, even repulsive, it was an inexplicable decision, andhe himself was never able rationally to explain why he took it. "Iswear," he wrote thirty years later, "I did not know. It was "justso,' `because. . . .'"

He did finally wring consent from his mother, who insisted,however, that he come back to Odessa to take his final examinations.

In later life he wrote in playful inversion of reality, "To thisday I thank the Lord that I did it and did not heed the advice ofall my friends and all the uncles and aunts." After all, he argued,if he had completed his studies in conventional fashion in a Russiangymnasia, he would have gone to a Russian university, becomea lawyer with rich clients, and when the world war broke out, hewould not have been able to go off to England and be a soldier.He would have remained in Russia until the Bolshevik Revolutionbroke out, and then, as his world view was "fundamentallyreactionary," he would have found himself "buried six feet undergroundwithout benefit of tombstone. . . . Altogether," heconcluded, "I have often considered writing a scientific essay onThe Importance Of Not Being Afraid To Do Foolish Things."(10)

Now seventeen years old, he went off to see Mr. Heifetz,told him he was going abroad and offered to serve as a foreigncorrespondent for Odesskiya Novos-ti. Heifetz gave him thefriendly answer: that it was a foolish thing to do in his last yearbefore, graduation from school.

"Pardon me, Mr. Editor," rejoined Jabotinsky, "I haven'tcome to you for advice. I am simply asking for a job as correspondent."

Heifetz did not fall in with this bizarre proposal; andJabotinsky went to call on the editor of a rival newspaper, OdesskyListok. He came with the advantage of a warm recommendationfrom the noted poet Alexander Fiodorov, who had read and beenimpressed by one of Jabotinsky's manuscripts--his translationinto Russian of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven." The editor, VVNavrotzky, adventurously agreed to give him the chance. He.suggested a choice between two capitals where he had no correspondent,Berne and Rome, but added a condition: that he "mustnot write stupidities."(11)

Thus began Jabotinsky's career as a journalist: a Russianwriter in a Russian newspaper. Neither in his choice of subjectnor in his habits of thought was there a trace of Jewish influence.The suggestion that he came from an assimilationist home isquite groundless. His mother was meticulously Orthodox, and inthe home, he accepted Jewish customs as natural. He acquired aknowledge of Yiddish through listening to his mother talking toaunts and uncles; for a time the famous Hebrew writer YehoshuaRavnitsky, out of neighborly friendship, taught him Hebrew--notwithout effect, for Jabotinsky, in telling of those youthfulmanuscripts that were rejected by editors, mentions among themtranslations of the Song of Songs and of Yehuda Leib Gordon'spoem "In the Depth of the Sea."(12)

It is plain, however, that these were little more than intellectual exercises. Judaism and Jewish affairs had made no imprint on his spiritual development; and for this too Odessa's peculiar and perhaps unique character was the prime cause. just as the city was not "Russian," so also was it not "Jewish." Jews constituted one-third of the population, but they were the least intensely Jewish of all the communities in Russia.

One of the cities included in the Pale, Odessa, had attractedmany Jews intent on escaping the villages of the Pale in order tobreathe the air of what was in a sense an outpost of Western Europeanculture. Chaim Nachman Bialik, the greatest modernHebrew poet, described in a powerful poem of love and rejectionthe life in the yeshiva where pale-faced and often underfed boyspored over and discussed the Talmud from dawn to dark, livingindeed the glowing inner life of the Law, but cut off from theouter world, denied any broadening of knowledge or deepeningof perception they might achieve by reading forbidden text.(13) Itwas from such a seat of learning, the famous Voloshin yeshiva,which produced some of the greatest rabbinical scholars of ourtime, that Bialik himself escaped in order to seek not any fortunes,but knowledge of the world outside its cramping confines.It was to Odessa that he came, and there produced some of hisgreatest works.

Bialik became one of the central figures of an elite generationof Hebrew writers and scholars who made of Odessa one ofthe great centers of Jewish culture in the world at that time. AhadHa'am, the philosopher, Joseph Klausner and Shimon Dubnow,the historians, Yehoshua Ravnitsky, the writer and scholar, andmany other luminaries lived and worked there in the last decadesof the nineteenth century and the early twentieth. It was inOdessa that Leon Pinsker had written his ground-breaking "self-emancipation"--theforerunner of Theodor Herzl's A JewishState--which gave the first impetus to the early Zionist movement.

Other Jews, however, came to Odessa from their villages,and indeed from afar, even from the distant Lithuanian province,with a more material objective--to take advantage of the commercialopportunities offered by the big and thriving city and toenjoy its cultural and social amenities.

It was, as it happened, an element in Russian natural policyto develop Odessa and the rest of the comparatively barren southfor security as well as commercial reasons: Turkey, a central targetof Russian nineteenth-century expansionism, lay directlyacross the Black Sea. To encourage even Jews to contribute tothis development was also a part of that policy.

With economic advancement, though very far from enjoyingcivic equality, many Jews floated into varying degrees of Russification--acquiringa better knowledge of the Russianlanguage, sending their children to Russian schools, or even wanderingaway into complete assimilation. By this time, too, Odessawas attracting Jewish workers and artisans, many of whom hadimbibed socialist and atheistic ideas--and they too lived outside.,the framework

The Odessa community was thus very mixed, bearing a certainresemblance--in spite of official anti-Jewish restrictions anddiscrimination--to the kind of Jewish community which developedin the free countries of the West, where religious Orthodoxywas indeed the dominant theme but where a Jewish childcould grow up as a Jew, conscious of his Jewishness, with yet aminimum of Jewish knowledge. This special, free character ofthe city inspired the Yiddish expression for living in ease andcomfort: "like God in Odessa"--and evoked the opprobrium ofthe single-minded Orthodox Jews who, for their part, coined theverdict that "Odessa was a city ringed by hell-fire to a distance often miles."

Jewish communal life was in consequence very loose. Its lackof cohesiveness was emphasised by the fact that there was noJewish "quarter": there were Jews living all over the city, andthere was no central communal authority. Joseph Schechtman,who knew Odessa at a slightly later period, remarks that thetenor of everyday Jewish life was devoid of any traditionalcolor . . . "Passover was not a real Passover," he writes,"Hanukkah not a genuine Hanukkah. For a boy reared in this atmosphere,there was little to remember, to treasure and to cherishin later life."(14)

Nor did Jabotinsky's schools exude any Jewish learning orspirit. He writes that he cannot even remember whether any Jewishsubject was taught at his primary school, a private establishmentrun by two Jewish sisters; and the Russian public schoolcould certainly not be expected to teach Judaism or Jewish values.Those years moreover--the first half of the nineties--werea dull time in Russian political history (they even had a name forit: bezveremenia--the featureless period), when, as Jabotinskywrites, even anti-semitism--which might have stimulated Jewishconsciousness--"fell asleep." This surely compounded the Jewishpupils' strange indifference even to their own interests.

Jabotinsky recalls that in the seventh class (when he was sixteen)"you would seek in vain any glimmer of what is called `nationalconsciousness.' I don't remember even one of us beinginterested in Hibat Zion(15) for example, or even the denial of civicrights to Jews, though we were only too sharply aware of that denial:each one of us had been permitted to study in the gymnasiaonly after much toll and effort. Each one of us knew that it wouldbe even more difficult to get into university. All this did not existin our consciousness, in our thinking and in our dreams. I supposethat some among us were learning Hebrew . . . but I neverknew who was and who was not learning, so unimportant wasit--like, for example, taking or not taking piano lessons. . . Among the books that we read together, I don't remembereven one on a Jewish subject. All the problems, this whole area ofJewishness and Judaism, simply did not exist for us. "

Yet socially, beyond their lessons and their playing togetherin school--each ethnic group--and there were eleven ethnicgroups among the thirty pupils--kept to itself. In class eachgroup sat together; and after school or games, you did not visityour non-Jewish schoolmates' homes, nor did they visit yours.There were exceptions--Jabotinsky himself refers specifically,with affection, to one Russian gentile friend, Sibolod Lebedintsev--buteven then you drew the line: you flirted only with Jewishgirls.

As for opinions, "neither then nor later," he writes, "perhapsnot until I was twenty or more, did I have any views, either aboutJudaism or about any social or political question whatever. Ofcourse I knew that one day we would have a State and that Iwould go and live there; after all, my mother also knew this, andmy aunt, and Ravnitsky."

At the age of seven, he had asked his mother, "Shall we alsohave a State one day?" and she had answered, "Of course we will,you silly boy."

"But this was not an `opinion'--it was something natural,like washing your hands in the morning and having your plate ofsoup at noon."(16)

He asserts flatly that he had "no internal contact with Judaism."In his own voracious reading, after he had tasted a few ofthe substantial number of Jewish books in the public library, heexpressly excluded books on Jewish topics from his program. Hefound in them "no action, no movement, only sadness and boredom."On the other hand, by the time he left Odessa, he had absorbedand mastered a broad swathe of Russian literature, boththe romantic and the contemplative. He had also, as he reveals,developed a love for Western literature. He mentions Shakespeareand Walter Scott, Dickens, George Eliot and Edgar AllanPoe, Dante and D'Annunzio, Victor Hugo, Maupassant and EdmondRostand, Mickiewicz and the Swedish Tegner.(17) Except forthat earlier fleeting intrusion from the Bible and from YehudaLeib Gordon's poem, there was indeed no Jewish shading apparentamong the multicolored sources that influenced his mind andhis spirit in that Odessan springtime.

In that springtime he had had an encounter of another kindwhich was to have a profound influence on his life. He was fifteenyears old, in his first year at the gymnasia, and a new school-friendinvited him to his home. One of his friend's sisters wasplaying the piano as be went through the room, and seeing "myNegro profile under an unruly shock of hair, she laughed behindmy back"--as she subsequently admitted to him. But "that sameevening I won her favour by addressing her as mademoiselle--somethingnobody had ever done before. She was ten years old,and they called her Anya--Joanna Galperin--and she is mywife."