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{Page 312}

The Orthodox Movement in Belchatow (cont.)

The Belchatower Poalei Emunei was one of the few religious organizations that had a worker element (weavers, tailors, shearers, those who worked at home, artisans, etc.). “Tseirei Emunei” were not willingly in the same organization as the children of the manufacturers, against whom they were carrying out a strike. The main principle of “Poalei Emunei” was that only in religious matters were they bound to the Agudah; the organization was independent in all other areas.

It the first leadership were: Shamai and Sholom Borukh Feld, weavers; Jakov Szmulewicz a teacher, Yehuda Leib Kaplan, a weaver and Yitzhak Pigula, a shearer. The ideologue of the organization was Yitzhak Pigula, who also belonged to the executive committee of the first central committee of Poalei Agudas Israel in Poland. He was very beloved and respected by everyone. He was very modest and he did not even sign his frequent articles which appeared in the Agudah press unsigned. He was convinced that the Poalei Agudas Israel had a great mission to carry out in Jewish life, which had to be carried out according to the social laws of the Torah. During the Nazi occupation he continually intervened in the Judenrat against the injustices against the Belchatower Jews.

Until then, the organization carried on varied activities. There were circles in which social problems were discussed, that carried out press reviews, read the works of Dr. Nusan Birnboym and which held lectures about natural science and philosophy. Three times a week, every member had to attend Tanakh [Bible] courses. Most of the work was done by Yitzhak Pigula with the help of Itshe Meir Wolfowicz, Moshe Eliezer Pudlowski, Shmuel Yehoshua Szilit, Dovid Shoyket and Moshe Josef Ltimanowicz..

The Poalei Agudas Israel was one of the strongest organizations in Belchatow. From almost 100 members during its rise, it reached 250 members at the outbreak of World War II (100 older members and 150 in the youth section). The youth section had its own managing committee. The most important activists were: Sender Sendik, Shmuel Kalman, Shlomo Pigula, the Lewkowicz brothers and Avraham Szerman. The youth section dedicated itself mostly to education work.

In 1924, the organization made an attempt to organize a kibbutz with the Piotrkow Poalei Agudah. 25 young men traveled to the noble estate of Niechcic which belonged to the Jewish landowner, Moshe Fefer (the former Jewish representative in the War Council during the First World War). He placed the condition that the young men would have the same hours as his Polish farmhands. The kibbutz had to be dissolved, however, because the Polish workers thought that the kibbutzniks had come to take their bread.

The attempt was repeated in 1931. The kibbutz consisted of 30 young men who did various “unskilled” labor: chopping wood, turning yarns for the dyers, house work for Yiddish families, etc. They were not allowed in the factories because of resistance by the organized workers.

The organization's library possessed over 1,000 books. In the reading room, one could read all the Jewish newspapers from Poland and abroad. The “Volks-Zeitung” [“Peoples' Newspaper”] was removed from the reading room when it started to appear on Shabbos. Later, the Bund's organ was brought back, but the Shabbos issue was still banned.

 

[Poster of the Agudah's United Committee to fight the Free Press,
urging Jews not to purchase the “Volks-Zeitung”]

[Translation of above poster follows:]

Do not bring an abomination into your house!
There is a religious ban!

Jews! Do not buy any newspaper that is printed on Shabbos and Yom Kippur!

Today is the press day of the Bundist organ the “Volks-Zeitung” [People's Newspaper] and it is certain that every religious Jew will be visited by the Bundist boys and girls who will try to sell him a newspaper.

Therefore, we turn to all Jews to whom the Torah and tradition are dear, to all Jews who do not want the souls of their children poisoned by Marxist venom. To them we turn with an appeal:

Jews! The nerve of the Bundist non-believers who step on all that is holy and dear to us, who spread heresy through the newspaper with which they come today to you religious Jews, to convince you to buy – advance across every boundary!

Religious Jews! Will you allow a newspaper into your house that is full of denial and heresy?!

Do you want to let in your house a newspaper that constantly tramples with bitter hatred all that has to do with the Jewish faith, in such a form that one does not find even among non-Jewish Socialists?!

Do you want to buy a newspaper that denies Jewish origins and wants the Jewish people, God forbid, to cease to exist?!

Religious Jews! Will you take a newspaper in your hand that is printed on the Sabbath, that one is forbidden to enjoy, according to Jewish law?!

Do you want to support a newspaper that is happy when Jewish blood is spilled in our holy Eretz Yisroel?

No!!! A thousand times no!!! You must not do it and certainly will not do it.
You must understand that by buying a “Volks-Zeitung” you assist the Bundist apostates with their inquisitorial work.

If you buy a “Volks-Zeitung,” then you soil your honor and the honor of the Jewish religion.

This would be the greatest shame for you!

Therefore, religious Jews, when someone comes to sell a “Volks-Zeitung” to you, you should courageously and proudly answer: Take it back to its owner, you traitor, we will not buy a newspaper that combats Jews and Judaism.

Not one religious Jew should let in his house the missionary “Volks-Zeitung” or if you have already bought a coupon, then rip it apart and tear it up in front of the seducer.

Carry out the destruction of evil amongst you!!!

The United Committee to fight the Free Press

Printing company Zarkowski . Wydawca: Agudas Israel Belchatow

 

The organization also had a choir directed by Yitzhak Muszkat and a drama club, which from time to time gave public performances, sometimes in their own hall and sometimes in the city auditorium and evening courses for the youth and adults.

In 1929 the Belchatower “Poalei Zion” founded a school for girls from 9 to 16 years old. The school, under the name “Khorev,” had four divisions with 150 students. The language of instruction was Yiddish. The school was authorized by the state, and Yiddish, Hebrew, Jewish and general history, religious law, the Jewish bible, and various religious subjects were taught. The teachers were Josef Szmulewicz, Yitzhak Pigula, and Khantsha Fajwicz.

The professional field also occupied a respected place in the activities of the organizations, which even had a majority in the shearers' trade, because Hasidic parents often would teach their children this trade, which was considered as more respectable than all other trades. In the trade committee of the shearers were: Aaron Przybylski, Sucher Litmanowicz, Moshe Liberman, and Yitzhak Pigula.

The Poalei Agudahnikes would actively participate in all the strikes. They would often send men to knock down strike breakers and break panes of glass of Agudishe factory owners.

A group of Hasidic young men,
among whom stands Moshe Lewi,
who was condemned to be
hanged as a partisan.

There were very heated discussions within the groups in connection with membership in the professional organizations. Some (with Abraham Zigmuntowich at the head) demanded that members of the organization should not be permitted to belong to unions that fight Eretz Yisroel.

The Belchatower “Poalei Agudah” acted independently in all the local election activities. Only during the election for the first Kehilla [Jewish self-governing body] did it work together with the “Agudah”. In 1924 the “Poalei Agudah” took part in the election for the office for health insurance. In the election, it received barely 65 votes and did not win a single mandate. In the election only one Jewish representative was elected, and that was Zalman Pudlowski from the Bund. In the first and second City Council elections the “Poalei Agudah” elected two councilmen: Sholom Borukh Feld and Jakov Ishaye Szmulewicz. (In the second City Council election, Shlomoh Muszkat was elected to Szmulewicz's seat).

During the last Seim [Polish Parliament] election in Poland, when the entire Jewish community boycotted the election, and merely the Agudah went along with the Ozon [Camp of National Unity] (the party of the Sanacja government [created by Pilsudski]), the Belchatower Poalei Agudahniks did not participate in the election.

A separate chapter in the Belchatower “Poalei Agudah” was the constant internal factional struggle about belonging to the Professional trade union. The Belchatower organization was one of the most leftist oriented of the Poalei Agudah in Poland. There was a group with Shmuel Kalman at the head that wanted to sever itself completely from Agudah because of its antisocial politics and its rapprochement with the Pilsudski government. A second group, with Sender Sendik at the head, went still further: They demanded full cooperation with the “Bund” and even with the Communists, but the majority, along with Yitzhak Pigula at the head, believed that the “Poalei Agudah” did not need to formulate a new program and had to merely continue with the social laws that were contained in Mosaic Law. It is exclusively to the credit of Yitzhak Pigula, who always managed to resolve the frequent crises, that the organization did not come to a split.

In the last years “Poalei Agudah” exhibited strength with those such as: Abraham Mordechai Szilit, Yona Rozenberg, and Sokher Litmanowicz.

* * *


The Belchatower “Agudah” originated in 1918. Until the Vienna congress of the Anshei Knessia Hagedolah [the Great Congress, a meeting of rabbis that led to the establishment of the Agudas Israel political party], the Belchatower organization called itself “Shlomei Emunei Israel”. The Belchatower Agudah did not carry on any stable activity. Only from time to time, it would mobilize its members for selected activities. The party center was located in the Gerer shtibl [a small Chasidic houses of prayer]. A letter from the Gerer rabbi was read for every action, an appeal to support the action. The Radomsker and the Radziner Chasidim also belonged to the Agudah. The Agudah also had an influence on some of the property owners who prayed in the house of prayer and, in various elections, they often would place the names of property owners who had an influence on the ordinary people on their voting lists. The most important of the property owners were: Kalman Wiwiecki, Yehuda Rozenthal, Moshe Huberman, and Hillel Zajdman.

Among the first and most important Belchatower Agudah activists were: Jakov Hersh Szotlender, Moshe Leib, Avraham Jakov Goldsztajn, Meir Eliezer Szatan, Mikhal Starowinski, and the Belchatower rabbi, Shmuel Yehoshua Szilit. Jakov Hersh Szotlender was a respected elder from Tsarist times. He helped build the new masonry synagogue; during the Austrian occupation he was one of the founders of the communal kitchen.

In 1919 the Belchatow “Agudah” founded the Talmud Torah [tuition free elementary school for poor children]. During the first years, the Talmud Torah was a cheder [school where boys typically learned Hebrew and studied the Torah] where only the Chumash [first five books of the Bible] and Rashi's commentaries were taught. In the thirties, they started to teach secular subjects using Polish teachers. In 1925, the Belchatower Talmud Torah moved to its new building, which was built by Yitzhak Yakov Warszawski, a Belchatower Jew in America. The most important Talmud Torah activists were: Meir Yoskowicz (the “black” Meir) and Hillel Zajdman.

The Belchatower “Agudah” helped to found the “Tseirei Agudah” in Belchatow. It delegated its members, Yisroel Frenkel and Moshe Chaim Grynblat, for the work. The Belchatower Agudah sent Rabbi Shmuel Yehoshua Szilit to the Knessia Hagedolah [the Great Congress] in Vienna in 1921.

Already an organized party, the Belchatower Agudah took part in the elections for the first Seim [Polish parliament]. It supported Rabbi Perlmuter, who was presented in the Piotrokow election district by the Agudah. The Agudah did most of its “campaigning” in the Chasidic prayer houses. Campaigning in the synagogue and in the house of prayer met strong resistance from Zionistic and Marxist oriented elements, which had a great influence on people like the Agudah members. It also had to endure a fight on the part of “Mizrachi” and the Aleksander Chasidim. Only in the City Council election did the Agudah work together with the Mizrachi. Both sides acted in this way in order not to splinter the middle class vote and in order to oppose the influence of the Belchatower “Bund” and of the Jewish Communists.

Agudah lost the first elective competition with its opponents during the first Kehilla election in Belchatow. The block of Mizrachi and the artisans was victorious and Ishaye Yudl Szeslawski, an artisan activist, was elected as chairman of the Kehilla.

The fight about the question of the shochets [ritual slaughterers], which arose at that time, occupied the seat of honor in the first Belchatower Kehilla in independent Poland. After the death of Leibl Muszkat, the cantor-shochet, the Kehilla majority decided to bring Mlot, the Dzialoszyner shochet, here. The Agudah brought a shochet from Podembic [Poddenbice] and simultaneously forbade the slaughtering by the opposing side. The quarrel lasted for years until, in the end, both shochets remained in Belchatow, each side not eating [what was slaughtered] by the other side.

The Agudah received a majority in the second Kehilla election. This occurred only thanks to the famous “paragraph 20,” which provided it with the possibility to reject a number of its opponents [who were not in their opinion religious enough]. The chairman of the second kehilla was Mikhal Starawinski, a Gerer Chassid.

In 1938, during this kehilla's term in office, a heated battle about the election of the rabbi took place. After the death of Rabbi Zemach Tornhaim, Belchatow was without a rabbi for several years, because both sides – the Agudah and the “Mizrachi” – did not have a certain majority, and therefore they suspended [discussion of] the matter. When the Agudah received a majority in the kehilla, it felt more confident and began the struggle.

Every Shabbos the Agudah brought the most respected rabbis from Ger to Belchatow in order to support the candidacy of the Pabiancer Rabbi Horowicz, a son-in-law of Mendel Alters. The “Mizrachi” candidate was the Dobrer rabbi [from Dobra, Poland]. The “Aguda” candidate was victorious, and they were principally indebted to the Kehilla apparatus, which they controlled, for the victory.

The Belchatower Agudah also had its own bank, which was run by Leibl Kon and Moshe Chaim Grynblat.

* * *

 

A group from Beis Yaakov

The religious women's organization “Bnos Agudas Israel” [“Daughters of Agudas Israel”] and the Beis Yaakov School were founded in 1924 by Sura Szenirer of Krakow. Maltsha Borensztajn (chairwoman), Golda Landsztajn, Rywka Frenkel, Beyla Lakhman, among others, were elected to the first managing committee. The actual activity of “Bnos Agudas Israel” started three years later in 1927. At that time, new activists appeared: Malka Koszol – a young woman who was well versed in the Tanach [Bible] and in the Orthodox literature, she worked at the treadle all day, and at night she worked in the Beis Yaakov School; Toba Szatan (the secretary); and Glika Joskowich, a young woman with great capabilities from a poor home, and others. In 1927, the “Bnos Agudas Israel” had 30 members. There would be gatherings four times a week, during which they learned the religious laws from the Shulchan Aruch [the collection of laws and prescriptions governing the life of an Orthodox Jew], Jewish history, and other subjects. The teachers were: Malka Koszol, the female teacher Nowomiast, Itshe Meir Wolfowicz, Moshe Chaim Grynblat, and Israel Frenkel.

The administrators of Bnos Agudas Israel in 1929

A group of activists from Bnos Agudas Israel in 1936
[Additional information provided by Dora Szczukocka Bornstein:
back row, fifth from right is Ms. Dresner]

The Beis Yaakov School was also founded in 1924, and at that time 24 children studied there. But at the beginning of the 1930's, the number of students had climbed to 250. The school had four divisions and its own dramatic circle. In 1928, the school performed three presentations in the Belchatower firemen's auditorium: “Shulamit,” “Bar-Kokhba,” and “Yehudit” [plays by Abraham Goldfaden, who is considered the founder of Yiddish theater]. Only women were permitted to attend the performances.

The “Bnos Agudas Israel” had its own library, which at first consisted only of Polish belles-lettres [“elegant literature” of value for its aesthetics rather than its human interest or moral content]. In the 1930's Jewish books published by the Agudah publishing house in Poland were also brought in. Here were all of the works of Dr. Leman and Rotsztajn, Meshulem Kaminer's Jewish history, and others.

The library was directed by Rywa Przemyslawski. Right before the last war, the Belchatower “Bnos Agudas Israel” put in place a new group of activists, among whom the most important were: Sura Wiwiecki , Chava Starowinski, and Ethel Szerman.

 

Managing committee of the Belchatower Tseirei Agudah Israel
in 1936 with a guest from Warsaw, Dr. Hershel Klepfisz.

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