1852 – 1943
1912; The Belkin siblings
from left; Fanny Wilbush, Israel Belkin, Sonia Chankin, Olga Chankin and Shimshon Belkind.
by Irit Amit-Cohen
The oldest child of Meir and Shifra Belkind, Olga was born in the small town of Lahoysk (38 km. NNE of Minsk) in 1852. She attended her father’s heder, learning Torah and Hebrew. As a young woman she decided to move to St. Petersburg to study midwifery. Since Jews were forbidden to live in the city unless they had studied a profession which the authorities considered essential, she studied telegraphy and worked in the city’s railway station, helping her family with her salary. She began her midwifery studies but interrupted them briefly to move with her family to the district capital of Mohilev, where their home soon became a meeting place for young Jews who were deliberating on their Zionist path. She then returned to complete her studies in St. Petersburg where her two siblings, Shimshon (1865–1937) and Fania (Fanny Belkind Feinberg, 1860–1942), lived with her. Their home became a meeting place for revolutionary students, writers and thinkers active in Hovevei Zion, as well as a shelter for women who gave birth out of wedlock.
Among those influenced by the nationalist awakening in Europe, especially in Italy and the Balkans, were a group of some fifty young students at the University of Kharkov and their friends. Despairing of universal and socialist ideals and believing they would never attain equal rights in Russia, they named their movement Bilu (an acronym of the Hebrew words of Isaiah 2:5, “Beit Ya’akov, lekhu ve-nelkhah”—House of Jacob, come let us go). Their goal was to establish a national pioneer movement, immigrate to Palestine and set up a cooperative agricultural settlement that would serve as a model for all who came after them.
The members of the Belkind family, especially Olga’s brother Israel (1861–1929) and sister Fania, stood out among the founders. Olga attended the movement’s meetings and also those of the maskilim and Hovevei Zion activists. Israel moved to Palestine in the summer of 1882 and was followed by Fania two months later, while Olga remained in St. Petersburg to complete her studies. In 1886 she traveled to Palestine and came to Rishon le-Zion “to see her siblings and friends ... Intending to return and finish her university studies, she went for a ‘brief’ visit which lasted the rest of her life” (Smilansky 21).
In Rishon le-Zion, in the course of a rebellion of farmers and workers who refused to accept the sponsorship of Baron Rothschild, she met Yehoshua Hankin (1864–1945). His family, who were among the early settlers in En Kara (En ha-Kore) and founded the agricultural settlement of Rishon le-Zion, were among the first to leave after the failure of the rebellion against the Baron. Olga and Yehoshua were married in the agricultural settlement of Gederah in 1888 and a year later moved to the Ajami section of Jaffa, near the home of Yehoshua’s parents, Yehuda Leib and Sarah Hankin.
Olga, an “elegant, professional woman,” was twelve years older than Yehoshua and many people doubted whether the relationship between the young man of twenty-four and the thirty-six-year-old midwife would last. While Yehoshua, a self-described “procurer of land,” hurried from place to place in an effort to purchase land for Jewish associations and companies who wished to settle in Palestine, Olga delivered babies. She became well-known among the Arabs of Jaffa—effendis, sheikhs and Bedouin tribal leaders who lived on the sandy stretches south of the city. At the end of the 1880s no one yet believed in Yehoshua’s skill as a real-estate agent, but they trusted Olga. Contemporary photographs show her holding a whip to protect herself while riding on a white donkey among the Bedouin tents and in the streets of Jaffa. On one occasion, while she was delivering the infant son of a wealthy Christian Arab of Jaffa who owned land south of the city, she learned of ten thousand dunams for sale in Wadi Deiran. She told Yehoshua about this, and in 1890 he completed his first land deal. That same year it was the site on which the moshavah of Rehovot was founded.
Ze’ev Tiomkin (1861–1927), an engineer and dedicated member of Hovevei Zion who was a friend of Olga’s from youth, came to Palestine in 1891 to organize land purchases for the associations and companies that wished to settle there. He appointed Yehoshua as the chief agent of Hovevei Zion, thus greatly furthering his career.
While Hankin was involved in buying lands in the Jezreel Valley, Emek Hefer and the Galilee, a great crisis broke out, later known as the Tiomkin Era. This crisis, caused by the growing demand for land, the profiteering that accompanied its purchase and the Turkish decrees concerning land purchase and settlement in Palestine, led Tiomkin to leave Palestine, leaving Yehoshua penniless. The purchases he had begun were cancelled and creditors started to pursue him. Over the next few years his world fell apart, while Olga continued to deliver the babies of the women of Jaffa and pay her husband’s debts.
Things changed profoundly in 1907, when the Palestine Office was established to manage affairs in Erez Israel and with it the Israel Land Development Company, which acted as the agent in purchasing land and selling it to Jewish buyers. Yehoshua Hankin was invited to join; his fluency in Arabic, his expertise both in Turkish law and in the customs of the Arabs of Palestine and especially his wide acquaintanceship with the landowners continued to earn him a reputation as more knowledgeable on land in Erez Israel than any other dealer or agent. In 1910, when Hankin bought the land of the village of Fula in the Jezreel Valley, Olga was fifty-eight years old, but neither her age nor Hankin’s success stopped her from continuing to work as a midwife, in the hope that the difficult years would never return. When World War I broke out Hankin, like many businessmen in Palestine, was charged with treason, arrested, imprisoned in Jerusalem and deported to Sivas in Anatolia. Olga went into exile with him even though she was not required to do so. They traveled by train and coach for a month until they reached Istanbul. The intervention of the American consul in Turkey led to their place of exile being changed from Sivas to Bursa, where they remained until they were permitted to return to Palestine. On September 7, 1918, Olga and Yehoshua returned, first to Haderah and then to Tel Aviv. In October 1918 Olga received a British passport.
Olga retired from midwifery after their return to Palestine. As Yehoshua became ever more successful, purchasing some six hundred thousand dunams of land throughout Palestine, Olga remained in his shadow, forgotten. When Yehoshua turned seventy-five a house was named after him in Kfar Yehoshua, but Olga was not present. She died two years later, in 1943, and was buried in the grave Yehoshua had prepared. As Smilansky wrote in 1946: “On Mount Gilboa, facing his mighty land enterprise in the Jezreel Valley, Hankin dug a grave for her. He had prepared these graves here for her and for himself while she was still alive. He mourned deeply for the companion who had shared in all his life’s work. Year after year he visited her grave, accompanied by the children of the Jezreel Valley and their teachers.” He died two years later, in November 1945, and was buried beside Olga.
While streets named for Yehoshua Hankin exist in almost every city in Israel, only one neighborhood in Haderah, Givat Olga, commemorates his wife. Few people know that the neighborhood got its name from the home Yehoshua built for himself and his wife on a calcareous sandstone (Kurkar) cliff overlooking the Binyamin Bay, south of Nahal Haderah. The house is still there, on the border of the large land purchase Hankin made in 1891 for the private associations that founded Haderah. It overlooks the lands of the coastal plain which Yehoshua Hankin bought in the 1920s and 1930s, a memorial to the childless couple, their work and their love.