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[Pages 541-549]

The Folkspartei (People's Party)

by Fajwel Fiterman

Translated by Jerrold Landau

It is not with great enthusiasm that I write about the Folkspartei of Mezritsh. A Folkist or even a former Folkist would certainly write otherwise about this. Unfortunately, we did not find such a person, and it would be a historical injustice that, after three books on Mezritsh, we suffice ourselves in the fourth book with brief innuendoes about a party that played such a major role in the political and social life of our city of Mezritsh. I want to note here that writing only about the Folkists in our city and not about the Folkspartei in general is almost impossible, as we will see later. I therefore begin with the rise of the Folkspartei in general.

The Folkspartei in Poland rose under the third occupation in 1916, and played a very significant role in the political life of Congress Poland during the years of the independent Polish regime. Within a brief period of time, the Folkspartei established strong organizations in Warsaw, łodz, Lublin and, among others, in our own Mezritsh.

Noach Pryłucki, the founder of the party and its recognized leader, spoke out strongly against anti-Semitism in the Sejm [Polish parliament] during the early years. Influenced ideologically by Dubnow's Autonomism[1], Pryłucki spoke out against the regime, which recognized Jews only as a religious group, and fought strongly against the national rights of the Jews in Poland. His oppositional performance in the Sejm at that time can be compared to the brave performances of the leader of Polish Jewry Yitzchak Grynbaum.

With his struggle for a Jewish school system and for equal rights for Jewish citizens, Pryłucki attracted the attention of the Jewish public and earned the sympathy of a segment of the Jewish writers, including [Hersh David] Nomberg[2] (Nomberg even served as a Sejm deputy at one time), Hillel Zeitlin[3], and others.

For various reasons, and particularly due to the struggle against Zionism, which, as time went on, became a main principle for Pryłucki, he

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lost some of his friends. Members abandoned the organizations in the small towns. The number of Folkists declined in the centers of Warsaw, Łodz, and Lublin, but it remained stable in Mezritsh. In the best of times, the Folkists did not elect as many representatives in the city councils and communal councils as they did in Mezritsh, where the Folkists had the majority of the votes and formed the largest faction in the city council as well as the communal council, as shown in the following table:

In the City Council in 1927

Folkists 5, Zionists 3, Bundists 4, Hitachdut 1, Poale Zion 1, Communists 1, Small Businessmen 1, Householders 1.

In the city hall, the Folkists had one alderman; and one of their representatives, Shlomo Kamien, served as vice mayor. The Bund also had an alderman. The other factions had no representation in city hall.

Communal Administrators [Parnassim]

Folkists 4, Zionists 3, Bundists 3, Orthodox 2.

It is therefore no wonder that Pryłucki considered Mezritsh to be his fortress. Three members of Mezritsh belonged to the Central Committee. Velvel Twardeszewo, the Folkist activist in our city, was among them.

Why was Mezritsh in particular so attracted to Folkism? It can be stated that in Mezritsh, the cradle of the Bund, there were hundreds of young former Bundists who went to work and had lost their earlier association with issues of class. Those who were influenced by the Bund ideology and were now part of the petit bourgeois class found a home in that party, with its anti-Zionist bent and struggle to elevate Yiddish. Our city, therefore, was no longer the center of Zionist activity that it had been prior to the First World War. Few of the early Zionist leaders had an influence on the town. In general, postwar Zionism manifested itself in pioneering energy, primarily amongst the youth and which of them had voting rights? Poale Zion, Hitachdut, the General Zionists, Mizrachi all of them together could not counteract the influence of the Folkists.

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Therefore, it was difficult for them to achieve significant representation on the city council or in the community.

Through the power of the positions that they managed to achieve at that time, they made efforts primarily to help their voters, as was described later on by a Folkist in an article in the Mezritscher Wachenblatt from April 4, 1930. That also applied to the earlier years. This article refers to a proposal presented with respect to the 1930-1931 budget at a meeting of the communal council. I cite: “In presenting the proposal, our representatives were concerned only with the interests of our voters. Our voters never make fools of us, and thanks to that, we have had victories, and will continue to have victories.” This was indeed the truth. If an individual was numbered among their voters, he might request that the communal taxes be lowered, and might advocate on his behalf in the city council.

It is important to note that, unlike other parties, this political party had no youth organization. It was not involved in any educational work. They party was primarily composed of a small number of “activists”. Their influence over the handworkers and small businessmen (in our city, that class consisted primarily of merchants of pig bristles, former brush workers) was not only based on the anti-Zionist past of that element. Their connection with the masses was reinforced by the personalities involved no less than by their ideology. The Folkist activists consisted of those who were raised among the masses and remained part of them. The “common folk” saw in them the embodiment of themselves, and they gave them their trust.


The Jewish Folkshule (Public School) in Mezritsh

One of the main ideas, if not the main idea of the Folkist ideology was the struggle for a Jewish school system to educate the younger generation in the spirit of modern Jewish culture. The Folkists were devoted to the Jewish Folkshule in Mezritsh. They desired exclusive control of the Folkshule. To that end, they battled against the Bund in Mezritsh. The Bund school, which had earlier been under the leadership of its founder Anuszka Adler, and was so beloved and popular among the Mezritsh Jewish people, had declined from its

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former pedagogical level. The involvement of the Folkists with their partners from the Bund caused the Bund to collaborate for the benefit of the school for an extended period. In contrast to the Tarbut School, where the student population grew from year to year, the Jewish Folkshule remained small and did not develop. The members themselves, with the exception of a small number, sent their children to the Tarbut School, in opposition to their own stated ideology. These students became good Zionists. The result was that the Jewish Folkshule with its few dozen children struggled and was never able to pay its teachers, who were primarily Bundists rather than Folkists. These were teachers who believed that modern Jewish culture was a necessity for the Yiddish speaking masses. They were idealists who believed in the mission of the Jewish teacher and dedicated themselves to that endeavor with their full hearts.


The Jewish Justification of Anti-Zionism

The members of the Folkspartei in Mezritsh, the enthusiastic followers of Pryłucki, reiterated the statements of their leader with regard to Zionism, believing that it would turn the Jewish masses away from their struggle for the “here and now”, and lead the Jewish people toward false illusions of a Jewish home in Palestine…

Today, after the rise of the Jewish State and the murder of six million Jews, and through the vantage point of time, things seem entirely different to us. But in that time and under those circumstances, Anti-Zionism seemed entirely otherwise. Fundamentally, Jewish anti-Semitism, among the Folkists, the Bund and extreme left (and by assimilationists who were few in our city) led to a powerful belief in a “New Order” and a “Democracy of the Citizenry”, which was promoted by the Folkists. Others claimed that Socialism would lead to a free development of all peoples, with our people included.

That idea was no less inspiring than Zionism. The anti-Zionists struggled for their ideals with no less dedication than we, the Zionists.

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The Details of the Dispute Between the Folkists and Zionists

The quarrels between the Folkists and the Zionist parties were not based on ideology. Rather they were based on the Folkspartei's claim that its program best represented the interests of the handworkers and small businessmen. As a result, the Folkspartei found itself in sharp competition with the Zionist parties, which also, represented, or wished to represent, the same element.

In elections to the Sejm, as well as the city council and communal council, both attempted to attract votes from each other. The Folkists interfered and disrupted the rallies organized by the Zionist parties. Things came to blows, let alone the trading of curses. In all cases, youths who likely did not have voting rights took part.

In his “Mezritsh” anthology (published in Argentina, page 144), Dr. Chaim Shashkes talks about his visit to Mezritsh on the eve of the Sejm elections of 1928. He was brought into a meeting in the marketplace against Pryłucki and for the benefit of the Zionist candidate Hartglassen. He writes, “In those days, the large marketplace turned into a seething discussion club, with shouts and blows. Sticks flew in the air. Good brothers acted as if they did not know each other if they supported competing candidates, as the verse states, “Who says of his father and his mother: I have not seen them, his brother he does not recognize, and his children he does not acknowledge”[4]. At the time of the meeting in the evening, the struggle took place in the red brick fire hall. From the podium, I witnessed a large drama, featuring opposing political movements, which would have brought honor to Maurice Schwartz's[5] Kunst theater had he been able to achieve among his actors the same temperamental state as existed among Mezritsh's youth during the elections…”

The Zionists conducted a fierce, bitter battle against the influence of the Folkists. The Folkists did everything they could to maintain their influence. To that end, they first aspired to rule over the Handworkers' Union, and to have hegemony over the guilds. In order to strengthen their power, they also attempted to exert control over the opinion makers of the hospital. They even aspired to the trusteeship of the synagogue and to exert influence over the choice of a rabbi.

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The New Direction in Noach Pryłucki's Politics: Solidarity with the Pilsudski Regime Instead of a Struggle of Opposition

The changing politics of Noach Pryłucki became clear during the elections to the third Sejm in 1928. The Folkists of Congress Poland decided to join the Aguda list, which had always supported the Sanacja Party. Together the two parties drew up their joint list of candidates for the government elections. This was not only a result of a technical agreement, but rather an acknowledged line of the Folkspartei of Noach Pryłucki.

The Vilna Folkists did not agree with this. Faithful to the true Folkism, they, just like Grynbaum, did not give up their oppositional struggle against the regime. As is known, Grynbaum, the leader of the Zionists in Congress Poland, always struggled with the Zionist leaders in Galicia because of their submissiveness. These representatives of Galician Jewry, were the opposites of Grynbaum, and did not follow the path of oppositional struggle. The Folkists of Vilna, Folks-democrats, therefore regarded Grynbaum as an appropriate partner for the elections, and decided to join his list. This list was opposed to the “lobbyist” style of politics and pledged to preside over the struggle for full Jewish national rights.

Instead of opposing the regime, which restricted the national rights of the Jews, the Folkists of Noach Pryłucki's persuasion struggled only against the Zionists. They had no Sejm deputy at this point, so they could not implement anything.

A conference of several Folkists of Noach Pryłucki's group along with Vilna Folkists took place on October 10, 1929, in Lublin, with the goal of uniting both sides. That conference, which demonstrated how weak and small both groups were, brought no results.

In an article published in the Mezritsh Tribune on November 8, 1929, it was stated among other things, that at that conference, the well-known publisher of Moment and one of the pillars of the Folkspartei, Sh. Y. Stopnicki, proposed that they [Folkspartei supporters] join the Zionist Agency, stop the fight against Zionism, and cease tearing the children away from Hebrew culture. Pryłucki stuck to his opinion, however, that the struggle must be directed against Zionism and not against the regime. Prylucki's attitude was supported by his disciples in Mezritsh, as we see from an article by one of

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the Folkist commentators in the Mezritsher Wachenblatt of August 2, 1929:

“The creation of the illusion of a Jewish State has worsened the situation of the Jews in the places in which they live, and has made the struggle for equal rights in their locations more difficult, or reduced it to nothing. On account of the Jewish State, they do not make the appropriate Jewish demands, for they look toward their fatherland in Asia…” (Emphasis is mine F. F..)

Today it is superfluous to conduct polemics with them. However, I have quoted this excerpt in order to illustrate the basis of their political-organizational activity: a struggle against Zionism and solidarity with the organs of the regime. In the city council, for example, the Polish councilors were always incensed at the Jewish brazenness with every proposal of the Zionists or the Bundist representatives. The Folkists representatives were the ones with whom they could talk. In truth, both the Bund and the Folkists were united in the struggle against Zionism, but it must be stated that, in the city council, the Bundists were not afraid of telling the Polish representatives the straight truth. On the other hand, the Folkists very often kept quiet about the travesties of the anti-Semitic Christian councilors. Various facts that were stated in the newspapers of Mezritsh about those years give us a clear picture of the Folkist activity in the city. The Folkists constantly referred to the divisions in the Zionist-leaning Mezritsh Tribune. I do not want to cite them all here, so I will only bring one citation in an article in Głos Międzyrzec: “Why is it that the Zionists attack specifically those Jewish groups that primarily support the regime and the creativity of the regime? The assault on the Folkists leads every reasonable person toward affiliation with the “ratselhafter[6] company of the Zionists.”

This citation demonstrates the political beliefs of our Folkists. I nevertheless do not intend to imply that the Folkists had evil intentions. The Folkspartei of Noach Pryłucki, to which they belonged, was not alone in believing that we could accomplish more by communicating with the regime than by conducting an oppositional struggle. In their way, the Folkists in Mezritsh, followed that methodology.

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Later on, in the 1930s, the Folkists and others considered the Hitler epidemic to be a transient episode. Also at that time, when the knife was already hovering over the neck, the Folkists still did not lose their faith in the future of the Jews in Poland. We all know what the situation of the Jews in Poland looked like at that time. The types of things that took place in Przytyk, Kielce and Brisk[7] generally passed over Mezritsh. In 1937, Polish hooligans burned down the wooden building of the Jewish Folkshule in Mezritsh. The Jews of Mezritsh, both Folkists and non-Folkists, each had their own ideas about the significance of that criminal act. With the belief that “in every generation, they rise up against us”[8], the Jews of Mezritsh did not lose their faith, and helped the Folkists to build a new, larger and finer building for the Jewish Folkshule.

I wish to state the following about the Folkist activists in general: all of them were good, honorable people of the masses[9]. In their activities, they did not act out of self-interest, nor did they utilize their positions in order to enrich themselves. The following were the most important individuals in the Folkspartei of Mezritsh:

Velvel Twardeszewo: A “heimish[10] Jew, not wealthy, who earned his living by processing a bit of pig bristles with his own ten fingers.

Moshe Cukierman: A fat man. In those days, he was not wealthy.

Shlomo Kamien: He was the former vice mayor. He was a friendly, heartwarming Jew.

Bentzi Szajnmel: He was a co-owner of the large iron factory. He had what to live on even when he was not an alderman.

Chaim Kronhartz: He was a photographer, and well-known in town with his studio. He was a calm, modest man.

Dr. Semiatycki: He was known as the “analyst-doctor” by the people of Mezritsh. He was quite witty by nature. It was told: Once, when someone came to him and requested an analysis, Dr. Semiatycki asked, “With my material, or with your material?…” He did not want to speak Polish with his Jewish patients. The Jews of Mezritsh complained, “A doctor who speaks Yiddish, what type of a doctor is he?…” Such was the character of Dr. Semiatycki, the Folkist, and the writer of the Medical Discussions in the Mezritsher Wachenblatt.

All of them were simple, “heimish” Jews, with whom the common folk could carry on a discussion in their simple, poor language.

Finally, a few words about the organ of the Folkists, the Mezritsher Wachenblatt. The newspaper was not at a higher or lower publication standard than the Mezritsh Tribune or the Podliaszer Zeitung. The

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mutual hostility, often written in a tone of personal insult, brought no honor to any of them. However, the Mezritsher Wachenblatt had nothing to be ashamed of from a literary perspective. Incidentally, the newspaper owed its high-quality Yiddish to the teacher Lejb Lew, who left his imprint on the publication. It was not for naught that it was said in Warsaw literary circles that in the sea of provincial newspapers, the Mezritsher Wachenblatt was a golden fish this was also for the good.

Translator's and Editor's Footnotes

  1. Jewish Autonomism, according to Simon Dubnow, was a non-Zionist movement dedicated to the survival of the Jewish nation in the diaspora by means of spiritual and cultural strength. This included the support of self-rule of Jewish communities within their “host” nations, and the rejection of assimilation. See also: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0002_0_01628.html Back
  2. See http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0015_0_14905.html Back
  3. See http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Zeitlin_Family Back
  4. Deuteronomy 33:9. Back
  5. A famous stage and film director. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maurice_Schwartz Back
  6. I am not sure what this term refers to. The German word means “puzzling” or “enigmatic”. Back
  7. For the 1936 disturbances of Przytyk, see http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/Przytyk/prz157.html . Back
  8. A quote from the Passover Haggadah. For the full text in context, see http://www.chabad.org/holidays/passover/pesach_cdo/aid/1737/jewish/Maggid.htm . Search for the paragraph beginning with “This is what has stood by”. Back
  9. Yiddish “Folksmentchen”. This could mean “people of the Folkist inclination,” but I chose to translate it as “people of the masses.” I believe the double entendre exists in the original. Back
  10. Literally “homey” or “homelike”. Generally referring to a person who is unpretentious, warm, and fits in well with the local milieu. Back

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