Family Trials


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 The Weizmann family in Pinsk, Belorussia, 1904. Standing (l-r): Masha, Anna, Moshe, Fanya and her husband Feivel, Fruma, Chaim, Gita and Shmuel Weizmann. Sitting (l-r): Haya and Abraham Lichtenstein, Minna, Rachel Leah, Ozer and Yehiel Weizmann, Miriam and Chaim Lubzhinsky

“Whatever happens, I shall be well off,” Rachel Leah, Dr. Chaim Weizmann’s mother, used to say. She implied that if communism succeeded, the family would continue living in Russia with her son Shmuel, the “revolutionary”; and if Zionism succeeded, they would move to Palestine with Chaim. Ultimately, as Chaim Weizmann writes in his autobiography Trial and Error, “she spent her last years very happily in Palestine – along with most of her family.”

But two of Chaim Weizmann’s siblings – his brother Shmuel and sister Masha – stayed behind in Russia. When Stalin imposed a reign of terror on the country and its citizens, both paid a heavy price for their failure to emigrate.
Shmuel Weizmann and his wife Bassya, 1930s
Shmuel was the seventh of the Weizmann children (Rachel Leah had given birth to fifteen children, of whom twelve reached adulthood). Unconvinced by his older brother Chaim’s Zionist ideas, he was a “socialist” who joined the anti-Zionist Bund movement and entered into passionate arguments with Chaim.

Due to restrictions on the number of Jews admitted to universities in the Russian Empire, he studied engineering in Zurich. After the 1917 October Revolution, he believed in the “bright future” promised by the communist party. But his loyalty failed to save him.

Around 1930, Shmuel was sent with a delegation of engineers to the United States, to buy equipment for the Soviet Union’s growing heavy industry. On the way back, he stopped in Eretz-Israel to meet with his mother and the rest of the family. Upon his return to Moscow, Shmuel and the rest of the delegation members were arrested, charged with treason and sentenced to death. Shmuel was acquitted at the last minute, but danger continued to hover. In the mass purges of the late 1930s, he was arrested again. His brother’s standing as a famous Zionist served as one of the excuses for charging him with Zionist activity and with spying for England and Germany. He was executed in 1939. Only in 1955, two years after Stalin’s death, did his fate become known to his wife and children.
Shmuel’s grandson, the geophysicist Dr. Azary Gamburtsev, who lives in Moscow, has discovered that the bodies of Stalin’s victims were cremated at the “Donskoye” cemetery in Moscow. Today, a stone memorial there commemorates the “innocent victims of political repressions, 1930-1942”; it is surrounded by plaques with individual names, put there by the families of the deceased.

Masha Weizmann, the ninth of the Weizmann children, studied medicine in Zurich. She had gone to Switzerland in 1908 with her sister Anna (“Annushka”), who studied chemistry. Upon their return to Russia, during World War I Masha was mobilized to serve as a physician on the front. There she met Vassily Savitsky, then a cavalry officer. They married after the 1917 Revolution and moved to Moscow.
Masha Weizmann
Masha and Annushka visited Eretz-Israel in the late 1920s but returned to Russia. Only in 1933 did Annushka move to Eretz-Israel, where she worked in the Daniel Sieff Research Institute. Masha and her husband remained in Russia. In the late 1940s, in the mounting wave of persecutions and arrests, Vassily was sentenced to five years imprisonment in the Gulag. In February 1953, Masha was arrested too. One of the charges against her: several months earlier, when her brother, the President of Israel, had passed away, she had been spotted crying in front of Israel’s embassy, whose flags had been lowered to half-mast as a sign of mourning.

Masha was labeled a “bourgeois nationalist” and charged with engaging in Zionist propaganda, defaming the Soviet regime, plotting to leave the Soviet Union and listening to hostile radio stations, including The Voice of Israel and the BBC. Like her husband, she was sentenced to five years in Siberia, but just then Stalin died, and she was released.
About a year later, Dr. Vera Weizmann, Chaim’s widow, visited Moscow. Thanks to her appeal to the Soviet authorities, Masha and Vassily managed to obtain permission to emigrate to Israel.

Shmuel Weizmann’s grandson, Dr. Gamburtsev, clearly remembers taking leave of Masha, his grandfather’s sister, even though more than fifty years have passed since that day in the 1950s. Masha and Vassily’s apartment was freezing cold and entirely empty except for a piano, at which a girlfriend of Masha’s, clad in a fur coat, was playing Chopin.
Memorial for victims of the Soviet regime, including a plaque with the name of Shmuel Weizmann, the Donskoye Cemetery, Moscow
On February 11, 1956, Masha and her husband arrived in the port of Haifa. Aboard the boat they were welcomed by Masha’s nephew Ezer Weizmann (son of her youngest brother Yehiel), then a senior commander in the air force. Waiting for them on the pier were other family members, among them Annushka Weizmann.

Masha and Vassily moved in with Annushka in her house in Neve Matz Residencies on the Weizmann Institute campus. Masha went to work as a doctor in Rehovot. Institute residents remember her warmth, love of life and sense of humor. She continued to live on campus after Annushka’s death in 1963. About 11 years later, Dr. Masha Weizmann passed away. And in 1989 – 15 years after her death – she was cleared of all guilt in the Soviet Union, by a decree of the Supreme Soviet.

Special thanks to the Weizmann Archives, and to Michal Brenner, Reuma Weizmann, Dr. Azary Gamburtsev and Prof. Igal Talmi.