Without a doubt, one of the most extraordinary figures to arrive in the Land of Israel during the second aliyah was Manya Wilbushewitz Shochat. She was born in 1879 in Lososna (near Grodno in Ukraine) to a wealthy Jewish family. Her grandfather had supplied equipment to Napoleon’s army and enjoyed a privileged life in Grodno. Between his work and his many mistresses, he was rarely at home, so his wife managed the family’s property. Both of Shochat’s grandparents were assimilated Jews whose lifestyle resembled that of their Christian neighbors. However, Shochat’s grandmother was from a renowned Jewish family that owned a large Jewish publishing house in Vilna and her brother Samuel Joseph Fuenn was a scholar and writer.
Shochat’s older brother Isaac made aliyah in 1882 with the Biluim. Three years later, he committed suicide due to unrequited love. In 1892, another brother, Gedaliah, made aliyah. Two more brothers later joined him, Nahum and Moshe. Nahum became an important industrialist. His innovative methods in food production brought about the invention of margarine and full-wheat bread. Later he established the Hadid soap factory, followed by the Shemen factory – both of which produced various olive oil extracts.
Shochat sought out her own path. She too suffered from depression frequently. Upon completing her studies, she asked Gedaliah, who was then a partner in a large carpentry shop in Minsk, if she could work for him. She began working in the shop’s office, and then moved on to drafting. After she learned carpentry, she worked as a carpenter.
A year later, she rented a room that became a meeting place for young Jewish revolutionaries. They included the leaders of the recently established Bund socialist movement as well as the idealists who would go on to found the Zionist labor movement.
In 1905, Shochat travelled to France to raise funds to establish cooperative settlements in Palestine. At their meeting in Paris, Rothschild reacted angrily to her criticism of the existing settlements. When she asked Zionist leader Max Nordau for support, he suggested she seek psychiatric care. In July, she attended the seventh Zionist congress in Basel, where she met Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi, then 18. The two became fast friends.
In Paris, Meir Kagan awaited her. An organization for self-defense of Russian Jews had sent him to ask Shochat to help raise funds for it to acquire weapons. She turned to Rothschild, who initially refused to assist. She approached him again, along with a French officer she had met at a French socialist gathering. This time, Rothschild agreed to provide 50,000 francs and the officer connected Shochat to a munitions factory in Liege, Belgium.
Shochat’s next mission was figuring out how to smuggle the weapons into Russia. She packed them in suitcases with double bottoms and equipped herself with forged passports and disguises. She succeeded to reach Odessa, where she stayed at the home of a wealthy family that had gone on vacation and left its apartment at the disposal of the Jewish self-defense organization.
A few hours after she arrived, the doorbell rang. Shochat, disguised as a servant, opened the door. A young man was standing in the doorway. He claimed to be searching for something and succeeded to spend an hour telling Shochat about his activities. When he asked her if there were weapons in the apartment, she realized that he was a police spy.
Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi describes the incident in the biography she wrote on Shochat: “Having no choice, she pulled out of her pocket a small pistol equipped with a silencer, a present from the munitions factory, and shot him. Manya hid his body in a closet. Late at night, when she was told that the detectives who had surrounded the building had left, she put the corpse into one of the suitcases, hired porters who took the suitcase to the train station and sent it to a fictitious address.”
She returned to the Land of Israel in 1907, making her way to the childrens’ village at Shefiya, which her future husband, Israel Shochat, directed. It was there that she became acquainted with his circle of friends who would be active in founding the Jewish defense organization called Hashomer (The Guardsman), from which the Haganah and later the Israel Defense Force would develop. Among them were Israel Giladi, who never wore shoes so that he could feel the land, feel the land; the giant muscular Moshe Givoni, a descendant of a Zichron Ya’akov family; pistol carrying Zvi Becker, known as the Cossack; wide shouldered Mendel Portugali; the horseman Yehezkel Nissanov; and hermit like Alexander Zayid, whose equestrian statue, the only one in Israel, still stand guard over the Jezreel Valley.