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[Page 513]

Professional Unions in Mezritsh
and the Struggle for Factional Hegemony

by Avraham Blusztejn of Ramat Gan

Translated by Jerrold Landau

We can state, with pride and accuracy, that Mezritsh was one of the first, as well as one of the only, provincial cities with an organized professional [labor] movement during the last quarter of the 19th century. Mezritsh takes place of honor in the literature concerning the workers' struggle for a better standard of living.

The nature of the struggle was mostly economic, especially in the first period, since the Czarist government regarded such organized workers' actions as political acts.

At first, the struggle was to repeal the akord system, and against the so–called middlemen. The middlemen took the work at the factories by the pod[1] and paid the wages to the workers. The workday generally had no limits. Work began on Saturday night immediately after havdallah. The achievement of a 12–hour workday was a great victory at that time.

During that period, the brush–making industry was spread throughout many cities of Czarist Russia, including Kovno, Vilna, Volkovisk, Minsk, and Mezritsh. Those cities had created a guild that met several times a year in order to deal with communal issues and ideas, as well as to promote better working conditions.

The headquarters was located in Vilna. The first conference took place there in 1895. A short time later, the “Der Veker” workers' publication began to appear, published by the brush–workers and tanners. The brush–workers and the tanners were the only trades that were centrally organized during that era. All other trades had only local unions.

With the Czar's proclamation of the famous manifesto[2] of 1905, the unions began to conduct semi–legal political activity. The Bund led the efforts on the Jewish street.

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A large proportion of the studying youth was sympathetic, and played an active role in the [unions'] work. They even handled publicity efforts among the masses of workers.

In Mezritsh, as in many other cities, the religious people opposed the struggle of the workers for better conditions. Many religious Jews were employed as factory workers, and the religious leaders opposed every attempt to struggle, even for purely economic reasons. It was said that Rabbi Szapira posted announcements in the schools that one must oppose the “Buntovchikes[3].

In this brief article, I wish to lay out the struggle for party hegemony in the professional unions in Mezritsh between the two World Wars.

The inter–party struggle for control over the professional unions in Merzritsh flared up alongside the rise of the Communist Party when Poland became independent.

After the war, as soon as the independent Polish Republic was founded, two political forces arose among the Jewish workers: the Bund and the Communists. All other political groups that had been active before the war disappeared.

The struggle for hegemony was sharp in nature. The Bund wanted to hold on to their positions [as leading representatives of the workers] at any price. The Communists, on the other hand, drawing their power from the Russian Revolution, wanted to break the Bundist stronghold at any price.

Both parties became fully involved in organizing the professional unions, which had come to a standstill during the long war years.

The organizers of the brush–workers' union were well–known labor leaders during the pre–war era, such as: Sane Szersznajder, Yankel Boksenbojm, Yankel Tugender, Shalom Frydman (Braker), Shoile Ajdelsztejn, Lajzer Grynbojm, Mottel Ajzensztejn, and others.

Yankel Tugender was the first secretary. The union headquarters was located in the home of Mordechai Wysznia (Lep) on Lubliner Street. That era was the finest in the life of the workers' movement.

A youth division, with its own management committee, was also set up alongside the [main] union. The following people were members of the management committee: Michl

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Epelzaft, Shlomo Oksenhorn, Yankel Berezowski, Shlomo Rojtsztejn, Yankel Kawe, Mordechai Hekaus, and others.

A representative of the upper leadership participated in every meeting.

There were also attempts and efforts by Poalei Zion [Zionist Workers] to create a caucus. In the late 1930s, with the war closing in, a group of brush–workers organized themselves into a collective with the aim of going to the Land of Israel and creating a cooperative there. Their plan did not come to fruition due to the outbreak of the war.

The founding of the two cooperatives [Bundist and Communist] forms an interesting chapter in the history of the Mezritsh brush–workers' unions.

In the mid–1920s, Bund headquarters organized a brush–workers' cooperative in Mezritsh, in which several dozen members of the trade participated. The Communists organized a cooperative at almost the same time.

Unfortunately, this did not last very long. The [brush–making] business had become very complicated in that economic era. Raw material was acquired with great difficulty. It was even more difficult to sell the finished product. The exporters dictated the price, and one was simply dependent upon their goodwill.

Credit difficulties also played an important role. One had to have the means to persevere. There was no shortage of internal quarrels and mutual accusations. This can be said about both aforementioned cooperatives.

The Communist cooperative was headed by an active man, who was, however, not a member of the trade. This was Kamieniecki, Motel Fajerman's brother–in–law. The trade and business director was Itche Diszel.

Bundist leaders Shoile Ajdelsztejn, Motel Ajzensztejn, Berl Wernicki, as well as the non–party members Izik Hechtman and Moshe Michl Chait headed the Bundist cooperative. Those latter two members were also sent as part of a delegation to the Mezritshers in America. The purpose of their mission was to obtain help in sustaining the cooperative. They were to collect the waste from the American brush factories and send it to Mezritsh to be processed.

Incidentally, it should be noted that several dozen brush–workers from Mezritsh who survived the war set out on a journey. They arrived

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in Israel in 1948–49, and organized a cooperative called Zifim.

As has been said, Mezritsh was one of the centers of the brush–making industry until the outbreak of the First World War. After the war, Mezritsh became almost the only center in Poland. In 1923, a conference of the brush–workers' unions from 11 cities (Bialystock, Vilna, Trestina, and others) was held in Mezritsh. This state of affairs – of mutual cooperation [among the unions in the various cities] – was sustained until 1930, when [the] Mezritsh [union] remained almost alone. The brush–workers' union then joined with the Warsaw leather–[makers'] union.

In the aforementioned era, Mottel Ajzensztejn was the chairman and Berl Wernicki was the secretary of the brush–workers' union in Mezritsh.

The postwar period [post–WW I] was one of the finest and most prosperous. Over two–thirds of the working population [of Mezritsh] was employed in the [brush–making] field. More than 500 people were organized by the union. Many large and small factories were established. The larger factories became party strongholds.

We must mention here that a factory with over ten steady workers was considered to be a serious enterprise. This was the case, in the first post–war years with the factories belonging to Wajsglas, Cytryn, Sztejn, Pogazszelec, and others. They also employed many temporary workers, especially women, to wash and collect the bristles. Their numbers sometimes exceeded the numbers of the permanent workers.

The situation was different in the dozens of small factories where the owner would work with the help of his wife and children. From time to time, they would hire only a few temporary workers.

The struggle [between the unions] for supremacy within the aforementioned large enterprises was difficult for the “Left”[4]. The large factories were controlled by the older generation, which held deep feelings for the Bund. On the other hand, the small workplaces were influenced by the Left. The conditions in the small factories were incomparably harsher than in the large ones: the wages were lower, the sanitary conditions were unbearable, and the main [point of contention] was that the workers labored on a provisional basis. Those factories produced merchandise on a contingency basis, and, until [prior] inventory was sold, the workers were often laid off – often for long weeks.

Obtaining [employment] in one of the large factories was

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fraught with great difficulties. An exception [to this rule] would occur if a worker was considered a specialist, or if a worker was needed to fill a crucial position.

The antagonism between the permanent and temporary workers was sharp. The antagonism reflected in the delays in political action during the years when the brush–workers' unions were united. The union's administration was purely Bundist; the Communists were always in the minority opposition.

The few functionaries were Yankel Tugender, Kramasz from Siedlice, Berl Wernicki, Chaskel Sztejn, Shepsl Ekerman, and Chaim Miller from Wengrσw.

In the years when the two unions were combined, union work was carried out, though it was marked by sharp divisions. Every strike, however, (and these took place very often) was administered by a united front. It was different during the years when the two unions were separate.

Communist activity within the leather–workers' union was less effective than that of the existing legal unions that joined the [union] headquarters. Communist activity was carried out in a semi–legal manner, and the authorities followed every move. [Communist union] representatives Shlomo Jawerbaum and later Misha Minc put a great deal of effort into searching for positions for the temporary workers, which could only be found in the aforementioned small factories. It must be mentioned that the officials of both unions met more than once, and serious conflicts and difficult disputes ensued in which workers from both sides participated. At times, such conflicts ended with injuries and arrests.

During the aforementioned years, each union declared separate strikes. Of course, such strikes were doomed to failure from the outset. They always ended with smears and accusations from the other side. In the final years before the Second World War, there was another move toward unification and joint effort. The ratio between the powers did not change: the Bund remained a majority, and the Left was in the opposition.

The brush–workers were the dominant power among the workers in Mezritsh. All other trades together, from the needle–workers to the leather–workers, did not have the numbers to change the ratio of power. In

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these other unions, the struggle between the two sides [Bund and Communist] for political domination was conducted with the same sharpness, but with less enthusiasm.

The needle–workers' union consisted of several dozen members, and both the [Bund and Communists] participated in the [leadership] committee, along with their own very active members, such as Yosel Horn, Michael Nussbaum and others from the Bund, and Rachel Morawiec, and Rachel and Lyuba Rozen among others from the Left. The power ratio [between the Left and the Bund] was the same as among the brush–workers.

The situation in the leather union, to which the shoemakers, stuffers, and tanners belonged, was different. During the first post–war period, the tanners, who were mainly Bundists, dominated the leather union. Their members formed part of the union leadership, including Ajdelsztejn, Rojzen and others.

As the Leftist influence strengthened, the tanners' faction seceded. At that point, the union was completely controlled by the Left, and they concentrated their most energetic members there, including Avraham Ajchenbojm, Noach Bronsztejn (Fisz), Leibel Wald, Aharon Pokerman, Chaskele Rotenberg, and others. The latter also served as the secretary for several years.

The union established its headquarters at the home of Leahle Opes on Tzebrochener (Broken) Street. All of the Communists' political activity was in fact devoted to [the cause articulated by] the headquarters. A Poalei Zion faction existed only in the lumber union. It was under the leadership of Yisrael Manes Gorfinkel, who, incidentally, later became an active Communist.

The Left Brush–Workers' Union, which seceded, also operated from the same headquarters [location] for a long time.


Translator's and Editor's Footnotes

  1. Akord system – a system used by middlemen for taking a portion of the profits; Pod – A Russian unit of measure (40 Russian lbs.) Back
  2. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/October_Manifesto Back
  3. Seemingly a derogatory term for the Bundists. Back
  4. In this chapter, “the Left” refers to the Communist affiliated labor unions. Back


[Pages 519-536]

The Bund in Mezritsh
between the Two World Wars

by Yosef Horn

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Introductory Lines

The writer of these lines did not intend to write history or apologetics. He was an insider of the Bund organization from his youth and onwards. His native city was Mezritsh. He and some of his friends of that time were enthusiastic participants in actively shaping and helping to strengthen Jewish life in Mezritsh, and the lives of our people in general. He documents incidents from life in Mezritsh, regarding the Jewish workers' movement, and actions that improved the lives of the Jewish masses.

A series of books has already been published about Mezritsh. In her book The History of the Brush–Makers' Union by Sofia Dubnow–Ehrlich, published in Warsaw in 1937, the brush– makers' union and strikes of Jewish workers are described at length. Aside from her book, there have been, over the course of decades, a number of others [on the topic of] the Bund Movement in Mezritsh. The author of these lines, a Mezritsher for generations, wishes to share what he remembers, about that which was lived, fought for, talked about and written about, in the city and beyond, about the Bund in Mezritsh between the two world wars. He will note Bund activists who should never be forgotten.

 

At the Beginning of the World War in 1914

I was a child of eight when the First World War broke out. At that time, I was studying in the cheder [traditional Jewish elementary schoolroom] of Herschel Brukirer (Diamantsztejn, a Hassid of Biala). We were still hearing echoes of the famous Beilis trial[1]. In response to the taunts of Polish youths who shouted “Beilis, Beilis”, Jewish youths would respond with the following words, set to a tune, “Beilis Zya, Maczoch Gnia,” [Mendel Beilis lives and the priest Maczoch is rotting in jail].

When Jakobczyk from the city council let it be known, through a proclamation in the market, that those fit for military duty, including the civil servants below the age 40, would be drafted as soldiers, a pall fell upon all the streets. Liba Rojza the baker–woman [who lived] near the Talmud Torah lamented for her brother (the drozkozh[2] Lozer Pocz) and [pleaded that he] should be exempted [from military service], so that his four “swallows” would not be left as orphans.

[Page 520]

Bogomolni, the cantor of the Great Synagogue, uttered such a sigh that many people wept in anguish.

In the alleyway on Lubliner Street where we lived at that time, not far from the bridge, it suddenly became gloomy. Reb Herschel Zhelechower was an impoverished but scholarly Jew who worked for Domb the tailor, in a tannery. He considered himself to be something of a clairvoyant, and used to say during the war that he could “see everything” during the night, and that he saw clear signs that the war would not last long.

Neighbors from the alleyway would gather at the home of Moshe Blecher [the tinsmith] (Rabinowicz), along with Barnbaum, in the garden, and talk about the war. Some time after this, several Jewish families left for Russia. Pinchas the tinsmith's went to America and Vove Perlman left for Argentina. The youth grew up, some became workers, and two went to study in the Yeshiva of Radin[3]. Vove Perlman (Sara the widow's son) later became a distinguished rabbi, and Josef Perlman (the son of Chaim Reuben of the Herring) became a merchant after he returned from Radin.

 

Under German Occupation

Life in the city changed completely. The brush factories were closed, and, without the pig–bristle [industry], most people were left unemployed. New “house wanderers”[4], [families] whose husbands were away at war, [leaving] the wife and children hungry, would make the rounds of the houses on Friday evenings. They would collect morsels, rolls, whole or half challas, from which they would feed themselves an entire week.

Many people would go out to the nearby woodlands to collect blackberries and mushrooms. Others would go into the forest to collect twigs so that they could cook a bit of porridge. One Friday night, during the Kabbalat Shabbat service at the Beis Midrash near the bridge where my father Fiszel Farber worshipped, we children saw a soldier, shot by a bullet at the front and wounded in the hand. The soldier was Herschel Zauberman, who was saying kaddish for his father at that time. In those days, during services, Binyamin Szusterson occupied a seat at the eastern wall of the Beis Midrash of the Bridge, as did Rabbi Yankel Wachtfojgel of blessed memory (from the Meah Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem), a visitor from the Land of Israel who was unable to return there[5].

It was at that time that we heard, in the alleyway in which we lived, that a Bund committee was attempting to

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ease the suffering of hungry families. [Also] at that time, a Jewish workers' library was created.

From the time the war began, less than a year passed before Mezritsh came under the control of the German Army. Lieutenant Kvap, a cruel man, used to torture the population. Adding an extra measure [to the fear of the townspeople], the German patrols would shoot bullets [into the air]. Izik Zukerman, a young lad, (whose sister Chava Reichtaler–Zukerman lives in Israel), was killed in this manner.

The German occupation lasted for years, and the German authorities greatly tormented the people. Passing by the Jewish firefighters' building, one could see suffering Russian prisoners, begging for a morsel of bread. The Germans requisitioned houses and did not care that the population was suffering. At times, the Bund would protest against the German occupation authorities, and against their zeal for punishment.

The “Mezritsh Folks–Zeitung” dated October 1, 1926 states: “the impression and the ruckus caused by the protests were serious, and they secretly murmured among themselves: Again the Bund?!!” Further, the “Mezritsh Folks–Zeitung” (published by Y. Horn and Y. Sztejn) stated: “With the outbreak of the German revolution, and the arrival of the stormy years, the representatives of the Bund and personalities from the newly created workers' council took full authority in the city in order to try to improve the situation of the workers.”

Youth and adults borrowed books from the workers' library, and the city library. Discussions were held about Yiddish and Hebrew books, as well as about the Socialist International. Group readings, from books by Jewish authors, were offered. The library also stocked translated books, including those of August Bebel, Karl Kautski,[6] and others.

 

The Russian Revolution and the Following Years

Newspapers would arrive in the evening, on the train from Warsaw. Young people from the alleyway would sit together at our house on many evenings, reading and discussing the “Moment”. Large headlines, with letters as big as fists, shouted out from the [newspaper's] front page announcing the abdication of the Russian Czar. It further announced that Kerensky[7] had come to power, in addition to other news. Soon after, some articles appeared, which examined the Kronstadt Rebellion[8], while others discussed Lejbele Bronsztejn (Lev Trotsky)[9].

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The youth in the alleyway offered their opinions, and we discussed the Socialist International, Social Democratic parties, and the meaning of a Soviet Russia. My older brother Chaim, who had already spent two years as a gaiter stuffer, began to bring journals and books into the house, and he frequently went to gatherings. He went to the Bundist club in the tea hall and eventually belonged to a circle that was later called the Jugent–Bund–Zukinft [Future Bund Youth].

 


A group of members of the Bund Youth Zukunft
In the photo: Michel Nussbaum, Berl Wernicki, Yechezkel Stejn, Golda Zukerman, Freida Tenenbaum, Chantsha Zukerman, Feiga–Tzirl Grynbaum, Moshe Czenki,
Y. Horn, Leahtshe Gelibter, and Leah Gas

 

After some time, Shalom Hertz from Warsaw (a publicist and author of a series of historical books) came to [work with] the youth [of Mezritsh] and created the Bundist Youth Organization. The youth at that time included: Yosel Kacman, Lejbel Mandelblat, Avraham and Herschel Ajchenbaum, Tovia Czarnebroda, Bluma Elenzweig, David Wajnberg, Chaim and Yosel Horn, Feiga Goldfarb, Chaya Erdfarb, and others.

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A short time later, May 1st arrived, and the Jewish workers demonstrated in the streets. A meeting took place out in the open on “Arkes” Place near the courtyard of Count Potocki, and the pledge of the Jugent–Bund–Zukinft was led by Avrahamele Ajchenbaum, who had received great acclaim in the city. (He joined the Leftist[10] party after some time). The youth lived a political life, and eagerly waited for the old regime to fall and for better times to come for everyone.

Bundists, Bundist sympathizers, and working people in general elevated themselves spiritually and politically, and grew in their individual aspirations. Mezritsh brush–makers dressed well and took advantage of the world. Working made life worth living. They took their goodwill everywhere. Lectures took place, theatrical performances were presented, and well–known Bundist personalities visited Mezritsh.

In 1905, Baruch Wladek spoke in the large Beis Midrash. After 1920, Vladimir Medem[11] gave a lecture in Berman's hall (Berman worked at the pen–handle factory). Medem lectured on the theme of “The Jewish Worker and the Jewish Intelligentsia.” In the morning a celebration took place in the “Groser [Great] Club.”

Some time later, Beinish Michalewicz spoke in the large Beis Midrash and the theater hall. The following people came as guests: Ch. Erlich, Victor Alter, Yosef Lenczysnski–Chmorner, Yaakov Fett, Baruch Szepner, David Najmark (Aryeh), Victor Shulman, Shlomo Gilinski, Gershon Zybert, Artur Zigelbaum, Herschel Himelfarb, Dr. Ignasia Aleksandrowicz, and others.

“Leftist” groups appeared in the brush–makers' union and the clothing union, and the “Leftists” also had a great influence in the leather union. The KomBund[12] was formed at about this time, but dissolved some time later. There is mention of a meeting of the Bundists on the premises of the brush–makers' union, with the participation of Herschel Himelfarb and Herschel “Metalowiec” (Bekerkunz, who now lives in Canada), where they discussed various issues including conditions for admission to the Bund, of which there were 21. The majority [of the workers] supported the rightist Bundists, represented by Herschel Himelfarb, while several “Leftists” voted with Hershel Bekerkunz, including Sane Mars (a shear cutter) who was killed in Soviet Russia.

Battles began to take place on the workers' street and in the unions, and things often came to blows. For the most part, the Bund

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held a majority in the brush–workers' union and in the clothing union (including the furriers). The leftist factions, however, grew and non–aligned groups were created within the brush–workers' union, headed by Moshe Michel Chait, Avraham Brenzilber (the triller), Izik Hechtman (died in Bolivia), and Lajzer Feldman (the son of Miriam the wheelwright), who died in Buenos Aires. The following members of the clothing union were non–aligned: Yankel Amien (died in New York), and Itche Dzyk (the brother–in–law of Avrahamele Brezer).

The Bund held a majority in the unions and in the central council, and work was conducted in accordance with “Bund doctrine.”

 


Activists in the Bund Youth
First row, standing from right: R. Fajerman, Sh. Rojtsztejn, Y. Sztejn, P. Grynbaum
Second row, seated: Y. Kave, A. Germantel, Y. Kagut

 

A night school was created in the Jewish People's School in the “TSYSHO”[13] department. Alongside the unions, it directed the Morgensztern Sport club, a library, and a Socialist children's organization. It concerned itself with distributing the “Folks Zeitung”, “Jugent Weker”, books and literary journals of the Culture League.

In calm times, concerned about what was happening to the youth, people would discuss older members who had traveled afar. They also

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mentioned sons and daughters of means who would collaborate with the Bund in difficult times, including: Reb Motel Frajdman's daughter Malia, Avraham Bialastock's older son, Zelik Lew (Reb Gedalia's son), and the son of the Bialer Rabbi, who was very close to Bund.

May–meetings of the Bund would take place in the Great Synagogue from time to time. Speakers included Yossel Furman, Shoila Edelsztejn, Fajwel Erdfarb, and Berke Wernicki. Bundist institutions included schools for forging political consciousness, organizational maturity and readiness for practical work.

The following is a story regarding political maturity. About 40 years ago, the Bund faced the question of whether or not to join the Socialist International. There were two main factions. The first, headed by Erlich and Alter, was in favor of joining, and the second, headed by Y. Chmorner and Chaim Wasser was in favor of holding back. There was also a small minority headed by Isser Goldberg, which had leftist ideas. Heated debates took place in the Mezritsh Bund. On one occasion, Erlich and Alter came, and on a second occasion, Chmorner and Wasser came, but none could sway the opinion of the members. Of the 120 members in the party, 62 were in favor of separate factions. At that time, Yosel Horn [the author], a young member of the Mezritsh Bund Committee, traveled [as a delegate] to the famous Bund convention, that took place in Łodz.

 

Bundist Clubs and other Institutions

The workers in Mezritsh built institutions of stature that valued culture. Whoever recalls the Bundist clubs of Mezritsh, remembers that the movement had a strong positive effect. The “Great Club,” tea hall and library in the building of Chaim Rotenberg (the largest Yiddish bakery in the city) were well known. People would go there to meet, discuss, exchange books, and enjoy themselves, and it was very homey there. A trick was played one time when, from a Zionist balcony on that house, Dr. Esther Mangel spoke about the Balfour Declaration. After her speech, Shmuel Itzel Erdfarb and Srulke Erdfarb (Michaelke Fiszer's son) opposed her. Then, as Dr. Esther Mangel responded, one heard people calling out. Every meeting under the open sky left a strong impression.

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Later, the Great Club was located on Prszanka, in the building where the Polish court was formerly located. The Club was [housed in] a large cultural center, and going there was a joy. After some time, the Great Club rented Mordechai Wysznia's (Mordechai Lep's) house on the bridge. There was a garden, and a large buffet–table in the yard. The library hall was comfortable and full of books. The librarian at that time, Lemel Silberglajd, would sit in a festive manner, and Chaya–Rachele Zawilewski (Shia the gaiter–stuffer's daughter), who became Lemel Silberglajd's girlfriend and later, his wife, would hand out the books. Vl. Medem would attend parties in that house; lectures, literary evenings, singing with the youth, and recitals would also take place in those halls. A series of study groups on political economy and Yiddish literature were also presented.

As the years passed, the Club moved to the “Broken Street” where a row of large brush factories was located. There, in the large yard of Shmilie Fajerman's home, meetings took place. In addition to local speakers, Bundist personalities such as Ch. Sh. Kazdan, Shlomo Mendelson and others would offer lectures. In those places, more than 40 years ago, I was present at farewell evenings for Bundists who were leaving Mezritsh: Shoile Edelsztejn left for Argentina, Moshe Grynsztejn left for Mexico, Shlomo Cytryn left for Argentina, and Yisrael and Sima Ajzensztejn (Shmulik's son) left for Windsor, Canada.

In those years, the Bund undertook an action to build up its membership, for the movement had grown. When unemployment was high among the brush–makers, the Bund in Mezritsh, together with the Bund Credit Central in Warsaw, created the “Borster” Producers Cooperative that employed approximately 100 people. The Bund supported its own sports club – “Morgensztern” – for decades, led by the sportsman Avraham Fiterman (Shmuel the knowledgeable's son). For many years, the Bund had its own wind orchestra, led by a student Mytusz Wiedra (Vove Kozene's grandson). For a few decades, a consumers' cooperative existed on Lubliner Street (near Freida Malie's grocery store), where Chaya Rivka (Cukierman) served as the chief purchaser for many years.

Bundist influence grew as both old and young people drew close to the movement. The main powers were: Naftali–Velvel Yankel Peshe Rivka's Gelberg (died in New York), and the engineer Itche Birski (Nosibirski, the son of the owner of the “Bajner” factory on Warsaw

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Highway). Over time, a group of younger people rose to the fore, Yechezkel Sztejn among them. The movement grew and required its own written publication. Yosel Horn, Yechezkel Sztejn, and Herschel Borowski were designated to edit the Bundist publication.

In 1926, a single edition of the “Mezritsh Folks–Zeitung” appeared. After that, a four–page “Arbeter–Informator” was published every two weeks on Moshe Feldman's printing press. Later, the “Mezritsher Arbeter Shtime” began publication at Reb Shaya Yosef Rogoszyk's printing press, where, his son Yankel (living today in America), and the young Nachum Zito (living in Tel Aviv) also worked.

 

The Class Unions

I have read in a series of places that Mezritsh had more than 1,200 brush–workers. The number is not likely exaggerated, though not all brush–workers were union members. Those who worked in the large factories and workshops, such as those of Hirsch Lejb Cytryn, Shimon and Gedalia Wysznia, Meir Simcha Fajerman, Mordechile Sztejn, Lejbel Cukerman, Moshe Cukerman, Shaya Lajzer Pogoszeliec, Simcha and Melech Wajsglas, Manes and Elia Perlman, Byumtche Cytryn, Ziskind “Kozszuszka,” Berl “Polkowonik” (Rosenberg) and others, were all members of the brush–workers' union. Union membership reached 900. Managing the union was never easy.

Of course, the large factories and mid–sized workshops had made progress toward better working conditions. [In the workshops of] the so–called “Small Jews” [small workshops] things were much worse for many reasons. There were issues between the workers and manufacturers, and there was no shortage of bickering between them. Any chairman of the brush–workers' union was required to have a great deal of patience, and had to put up with a lot. For example, Motel Ajzensztejn was one of the most popular chairmen of the union between the two world wars. He was trustworthy, well–oriented, smart, and, above all, a first–class worker, whom everyone wanted to have at their side.

The majority of the managing committee was made up of Bundists, but the “Left”, as well as a few of the non–partisan individuals, were also included. It was not easy at general meetings on the eve of, or during, a strike. One had to gird oneself when dealing with the pig–bristle manufacturers. At times, the union sealed collective agreements [involving all the factories], and at other times, there were separate agreements with individual manufacturers. If one had already given in to

[Page 528]

the “meddlers,” the chairman was often [more] stubborn with respect to the “tziplech shobers[14] or the washerwomen and “gatherers.” Chairmen of stature throughout the years included Berke Wernicki and Shoile Edelsztejn.

The secretary of the organization played an important role within the brush–workers' union. This task would occupy entire days. In some years, the secretary was Shepsl Ekerman (Reb Moshe Gedalia Wynszenker's son). For many years, Binyamin Kramasz of Siedlce served as the secretary, and Yaakov Blank (the grandson of Elya Arke) served as the assistant secretary. Today, the latter is an esteemed Jewish teacher and cultural activist in New York. Chaim Milier from Wengrσw, today an important activist in America, served as the secretary immediately prior to the Second World War.

The brush–workers' union made a name for itself, and established a reputation for good organization and struggle. There were months of lockouts and strikes when many working families literally went hungry. The writer Y. Y. Zinger once came to write about the brush–workers, and the writer Alter Kacizne took photographs of the brush–workers' families during the time of the strike. The photos were published in the “The Forward”[15], and later in the anthology A Disappeared World collected by R. Abramovich. Portrayals of the Mezritsh brush– workers and the brush industry were published in a series of newspapers, journals, and books. Jewish poets composed songs about the Mezritsh brush–workers.

When the brush–workers of Mezritsh were employed, the city thrived. There were other sources of livelihood. The clothing union of Mezritsh numbered 100 members: male tailors, female tailors, seamstresses, dress cutters, hat makers, and the like. Approximately 40 fur– workers belonged to the clothing union. The longtime secretary was Michael Nusbaum. M. Mini was active among the fur workers.

The approximately 90 female workers of the Rotenberg match factory were also organized. This factory was located behind the old cemetery on the Bialer highway.

Second only to the brush–makers, workers earned a fine living as tanners. The tanners worked with ducat and soft leather in the tanneries belonging to Pinia Fiterman, Chaim Gorman, Yaakov Judel Gorman, Yankel Goldman, and others. A crisis ensued when the foreign market for soft leather collapsed. Some of the workers took up other jobs, and others emigrated. Elia Tame, the bookbinder's son, took up bookbinding; whereas Moshe Ezra Edelsztejn, Avraham Malach,

[Page 529]

Michael Kamien, and other tannery–workers hoped for better times. The tannery workers in Mezritsh were a small but tightly knit family.

 

In the City and Community Council

When Poland became independent after the First World War, the Jewish population wished to vote for the city councils. In Mezritsh, Jews made up the majority of the population, and when elections came in 1927, the 24 elected councilors included 17 Jews and 7 Poles.

On the Jewish street, Zionists, the Bund, the Rightist Poalei Zion, the Folkists, the “Res,” the small business union, and [simple] householders all entered [their names as candidates for] election. The city council also had a Jewish majority. There were two Jewish aldermen were Berl Wernicki from the Bund, and Bentze Szejnmel from the Folkists. Shlomo Kamien was the vice–mayor. From the Bund, Itche Birski, Berke Wernicki, Shoile Edelsztejn and Alter Sztarkman served on the city council. At the first [city council] meeting, Itche Birski began reading the Bundist declaration. At a certain point, he began reading it in Yiddish. The Polish councilmen could not tolerate this, and they shouted and whistled. Itche Birski did not stop, even though this was noted by the Starosta [district head].

The writer of these lines came to almost all the city council meetings, and saw how the entire Jewish “gallery” came to life when Itche Birski attacked the anti–Semites with his words. Birski fought to improve the situation of the poor, to create work for the unemployed, to support Jewish institutions, to pave the [roads in the] poor neighborhoods, to set up electricity, etc.

On the city council, Dr. Josef Kaplan and Nota Hausman represented the Zionists, Motel Goldberg represented Poalei Zion, and Elia Kozes represented the householders. All of them, however, looked forward to Itche Birski's words. There was no shortage of issues needing to be addressed, as the situation of the Jews in Poland was becoming progressively harder and darker.

*

The first [Jewish] communal elections took place in 1924. Women had no voting rights. Men from the age of 25 and upward had voting rights. The following parties ran for the first elections: the Zionists, Bund, Folkist, and Orthodox Jews. In later years, the Rightist Poalei Zion also ran.

[Page 530]

Twelve Parnasim [administrators] were elected. The division of power among the Zionists, Bundists, and Folkists was almost even for a number of years. Itche Birski, Motel Ajzensztejn, and Hirsch Lejb Borowski were elected from the Bund. The Zionists on the communal council were sincere, and wrote reports for the Mezritsh Jewish weeklies. Jewish institutions received large subsidies, and Motel Ajzensztejn held impressive lectures.

The “Podliaszer” newspaper edition published November 27, 1936 tells about a great battle for the office of communal chairman. The Zionist faction received five votes, as did the Bundist candidate. In accordance with the voting regulations, a lottery was to be conducted. Yechezkel Sztejn of the Bund was selected as the chairman, and Ch. Borowski as vice–chairman.

Mezritsh was not erased from the Polish map, but Jewish Mezritsh – on the Warsaw–Brisk railway line – is no more. Everything that was Jewish was turned into a mound of ashes. When the Second World War ended, Mezritsh was left without its Jews (aside from four old people near the cemetery), and the communal council of Mezritsh was officially dissolved.

 

Strikes of Bundist Activists that Remain in Memory

Itche Birski –– Itche Birski, the engineer, was among the most beloved and popular Jews in Mezritsh for many years. Young and old knew him, greeted him, and held him in great esteem. His family name was Nosibirski, but Itche called himself Birski. He worked for the benefit of the individual, the public, and the party. To the extent that he was able, he worked for no wages. He had a great deal to offer.

Anyone who wanted to ask something of him could find him in the Bundist Consumers Cooperative. When there was a need, he became a teacher, later a communal administrator, and still later, a representative on the city council, where he played a major role. He was a good, beloved person and friend. He taught us, the youth, about political economy and also about Yiddish Literature. Everyone had great respect for him.

Naftali Velvel Gelberg – Early on he was nicknamed Anatol. He worked for a time as a teacher in the Jewish Folk School under the leadership of Madame Adler (the wife of Shepkes the dentist). In the first edition of the “Mezritsh

[Page 531]

Blihung” issued before the First World War, Naftali Velvel Gelberg published a “Psychological Study.” He was very active in the Bund – speaking, writing, and conducting impressive undertakings.

We should also point out that Naftali Velvel Gelberg brought stature and zest to the Bundist movement of Mezritsh. Later on he lived in Warsaw and worked as an officer of the JOINT[16]. For a time, he was also the secretary and an officer of the Jewish Writers' Union in Warsaw. He later immigrated to Canada, and from there to New York. He worked as a teacher, wrote in the “Forward” on occasion, participated in journals, and visited several countries as a representative of Cyco[17]. During my first visit to New York, I met Naftali Velvel Gelberg, and was [a guest] in his home. He had aged, however, and lacked enthusiasm. He died in New York several years ago.

 


With Vladimir Medem
From right, standing: Ch. Borowski, Y. Birski, Sh. Erdfarb, S. Rosenblum,
M. Bialystocki, Y. Firman, M. Moshinski

Sitting: Y. Tugender, B. Wernicki, Sh. Edelsztejn, Vladimir Medem, B. Ashkenazi,
N. Gelberg

 

[Page 532]

Shmuel Helfenbejn –– I knew him as the only son of Baruch the “Yellow Hat Maker,” who helped his father at Passover, and later as an activist in the Bund. Older members have a great deal of praise for Shmuel Helfenbejn and his activities. He wrote appeals in Yiddish, German, and Polish, and was the secretary of the Bund for several years. He suffered from tuberculosis and died young.

Yosel Furman –– He had two jobs: brush–making and making gaiters. Over time, he became an activist and speaker in the movement. Yosel Furman spoke at meetings in the Great Synagogue. After some years, he immigrated to America, where he worked in a dress shop and taught at night. I saw Yosel Furman at a meeting of the Mezritshers in New York in 1959. He wrote an enthusiastic article in the New York “Free Workers Voice” (“Freie Arbeter Shtime”, December 4, 1953), about the Mezritsh memorial book published in Buenos Aires in 1952. A few years ago, Yosel Furman visited Israel with a group of Mezritshers. Yosel Furman died in New York.

Berke Wernicki –– For many years, he was a major figure in the Mezritsh Bund, in the brush–workers' union, in the central committee, and in a series of conferences. He was a counselor and later an alderman on the city council. “Comrade Berke”, as he was affectionately nicknamed, was responsible for a great deal of activity within the organization, and held high offices throughout the years in the brush–workers' union and in inter–party committees. Later, he worked and was active in Vilna.

Berke Wernicki died, old and sick, in America, where he lived during his later years. Our fellow native in New York, Yaakov Blank, wrote to me that he used to visit Berke Wernicki and discussed Mezritsh and Mezritshers with him.

Shoile Edelsztejn –– There were four [Edelsztejn] brothers. Three of them were Bundists: Moshe–Ezra, Shoile, and David. Chaim Lejb was a religious man. Shoile was greatly beloved and recognized in the town as a serious Bundist activist and speaker. He served as chairman of the brush–workers' union on several occasions. He worked for and chaired mass meetings, gatherings, and celebrations, and was a counselor in the first elected city council. Shoile was one of the country's leaders of the council of professional–class unions and also a member of the Bundist party council. His departure for Argentina in 1928 left a void.

[Page 533]


Shoile Edelsztejn

 

In Argentina, Shoile lived with his wife and children in Avejaneda[18], a city near Buenos Aires, where he and Pesach Edelsztejn owned a workshop for paintbrush bristles. Shoile became very ill and died at the age of 46. His wife Pese Tenenbaum, who was the granddaughter of Aharon Molier, lives in Israel, as does Shoile's son. A second son lives in Buenos Aires.

Shoile Edelsztejn was active in the Jewish school of Avellaneda, in his local community and in the Bund of Buenos Aires. Mezritsh was Shoile's world and his life. [Upon leaving Mezritsh,] Shoile Edelsztejn was like a plant that has ceased growing, and that can be pushed over [easily].

Motel Ajzensztejn –– He was called Motel “Bolnik.” The Bund and the brush–workers' union were his world. He was active in professional and political work. He served many times as chairman of the brush–workers' union, in the leadership of the Bund, and as a parnas of the community. Motel Ajzensztejn's polemics against the brush manufacturers were well known. His sharp words and discussions were legend and his faithfulness to the movement was intense. Motel Ajzensztejn was murdered along with his wife and children during the years of the Second World War.

Herschel Borowski –– He came from Łosice, where he studied in the Beis Midrash until the time of his wedding, after which he became a reasonably–priced shoemaker. In the Bundist movement of Mezritsh, he frequently served as secretary, and he directed important work. He was the leader of the Bundist Consumer Cooperative, and served for several years as the correspondent for the Bundist daily newspaper in Warsaw and its sales manager in Mezritsh. On the day of a special publication, approximately 1,000 copies of the “Folks Zeitung” would be sold under Herschel Borowski's direction. The Medem Library and the club were his second homes.

[Page 534]

For many years, H. Borowski was the Bundist parnas of the community. He was killed during the [Second World War], the years of destruction. As is noted in the book In the Years of the Destruction of the Jews published in New York in 1948 by “Undzer Zeig”, Ch. Borowski, Golda Zdanowicz, Avraham Zdanowicz, Alter Sztokman, Moshe–Ezra Edelsztejn, Moshele Grynbaum, all belonged to the Bundist committee and to the special couriers[19].

Yechezkel Sztejn –– Yechezkel belonged to the young Bundists, which founded the Jugent–Bund–Zukinft. He came from a working [class] home – they called his father the vest–tailor. Yechezkel Sztejn was devoted to learning. He excelled at the Folks School and was one of the elite in the vernacular [non–religious subjects]. His responsibilities grew quickly in the Bund. He was the secretary of the brush–workers' union for many years. He was involved with the Bundist publications in Mezritsh, and was the Bund's representative to the sick fund. He was sent to the communal council and was elected as chairman.

His wife, Feiga Tzirl Grynbaum and their child were murdered. He survived miraculously. After the Second World War, he went to Mezritsh, Paris, and moved on to Melbourne, Australia, where he died young, leaving behind a wife and a son.

Sala Rosenblum and Bela Ashkenazi –– [Sala and Bela] were female Jewish teachers from Warsaw. Winkler, the director Hebrew–Polish Gymnazjum at the time, brought them to Mezritsh. It was not long before they became active in the Bund. They prepared city council candidates for their exams, led clubs in Jugent–Bund–Zukinft, led a choir together with Manie Friedlender (the daughter of the feldsher[20] of Warsaw), and held lectures in civic halls.

During the second year that Sala Rozenblum and Bela Ashkenazi were in Mezritsh, they were always mentioned in a positive light. Both later became teachers in Jewish schools in Warsaw. Bela Ashkenazi married the teacher Anshel Szapiro, who was very close to the Bund.

*

[Page 535]

Among those who played roles as Bundist activists in Mezritsh, those who served as chairmen stood out, and were held in esteem – each in his own way. We must also mention those who were not in the forefront. From the younger generation, there were: Tevye Czarnewroda (The grandson of Reb Moshe Mahler the monument engraver). He later settled in Canada with his wife, where he died young. The faithful Bundist Moshe Grynsztejn lives in Mexico, where he is active in Bundist work. Shlomo Cytryn stood out in the Bund as a doer and a speaker in Mezritsh, and also in Buenos Aires, where he settled in 1928. He did not get lost there. For a time, he was the chairman of the Y. L. Peretz School and a representative of the Bund on the Buenos Aires community council. He and his wife Freidel Bakalasz died young. A hall in the Y. L. Peretz School and Center was named after them. Shlomo Roitsztejn was a doer and activist in the Jugent–Bund–Zukinft. After the Second World War, he went to Latin America, lived in Bolivia, and then settled in Buenos Aires.

Hundreds of youths played their part in the Bund organization, each according to their strengths. Shmuel Itzel Erdfarb, Shlomo Nota Erdfarb (he went away to Russia), Moshe Erdfarb, Rachel Elenzweig, Rivka Elenzweig, Mordechai Moszinski, Sara Zylbergleid, Yankel Moszinski, Chaya Moszinski, Aryeh Zakamski, Moshe Czenki, Yosef Perkelwald, Sara Helman, Mordechai Ekhaus, Shlomo Oksenhorn (in Israel), Henia Fajerman (Mexico), Adman (Canada), Mordechai Fiszer (Freiklat), Moshele Krajnberg, Kiva Grynblat (in Brazil), Sima Perkelwald, Yisrael Ajzensztejn and his wife the “Black Sima,” Shaya Zdanowicz, Avraham Zdanowicz, Golda Cukerman, Chantshe Cukerman, Herschel Cukerman, Rivka Cukerman and her husband Izshe Pomeranc, Itzele Gormantel, Yisrael Kawe, Itzke and Moshe Altbir, Rachel Fajerman, Berele Hochman, Chana Malach, Feiga Tajblum, Nechama Rozenbaum, Zelda Rosze, Motel Sobelman (lives in New York), Yitzchak Kogut and his wife Elke (living in Netanya), Yisrael Pesach Edelsztejn and family (Buenos Aires), his older son and family (living in a Kibbutz in Israel), Moshele Grynbaum (died in New York), the Bobroisker: Sane and Gitel Epsztejn (Gitel died in Israel), Shlomo Sznajderman (lived for years in Argentina and then settled in America), Henech Nusbaum, Rajzel Szwam, and others.

During the years of the Second World War, the following were active in the Mezritsh Bund organization: Shimon Bir, Yankel Bir, Aharon David Dimant, and others. The founders and activists prior to 1914 are mentioned in the chapter “The Bund in Mezritsh Before the First World War.”[21]

[Page 536]

I would like to mention other names, but I no longer remember them now. From the deceased whom I should have mentioned but did not recall, I beg forgiveness. Of the living whom I did not mention, I ask that they should not hold it as an offense. I did not even write about myself.


Translator's and Editor's Footnotes

  1. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menahem_Mendel_Beilis Back
  2. Drozkozh is probably “dorozkarz,” meaning a driver of “dorozka”. For more information, see: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Droshky Back
  3. For more on the Yeshiva of Radin (or Radun), established by the Chofetz Chayim see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radu%C5%84_Yeshiva Back
  4. Seemingly a term for beggars who go door to door. Back
  5. See pp. 267–269 of this book for a chapter on Rabbi Wachtfojgel z”l. Back
  6. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/August_Bebel and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Kautsky Back
  7. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aleksandr_Kerensky Back
  8. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kronstadt_rebellion Back
  9. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leon_Trotsky Back
  10. It is unclear whether “Leftist” is a reference to the Communists, or to the Leftist faction of Poalei Zion, which differed from the Bund in its support of Zionism. Back
  11. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_Medem Back
  12. KomBund – The Jewish Communist Labor Bund in Poland. For more information, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_Communist_Labour_Bund_in_Poland Back
  13. TSYSHO – an acronym for Tsentrale Yidishe Shul–Organizatsye (Central Yiddish School Organization). For more information, see: http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Tsysho Back
  14. These are evidently nicknames for various factions. A “Shober” is a crowbar, and “Tziplech” seems to refer to irritating persistence. This term may refer to those who are strongly persistent and irritating. Back
  15. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Forward Back
  16. Referring to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. For more information, see http://www.jdc.org/about–jdc/history.html Back
  17. Cyco – Pronounced “Tziko”. An acronym for Tsentrale Yidishe Kultur–Organizatsye. For more information see http://www.cycobooks.org/about.php Back
  18. Probably referring to Avellaneda, now a neighborhood of Buenos Aires. For more information, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avellaneda Back
  19. Special couriers – it is not clear what is referred to here, but from the context might be some sort of war–time underground organization. Back
  20. Feldsher – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feldsher Back
  21. The chapter referred to, “The Bund in Mezritsh Before the First World War”, can be found on pp. 431–438 of this book. Like this chapter, it was written by Yosef Horn. Back


[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

[Page 542]

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.

[Page 543]

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

[Page 544]

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.

[Page 545]

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.

[Page 546]

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

[Page 547]

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

[Page 549]

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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