On my election as Chairman of the Annopol Jewish Community, I set for myself the following goals:
Conditions in our impoverished town are beyond description. The destitution cries to the heavens. The sacred task I have set for myself, to represent the Jewish community, is beyond my strength; I cannot provide even the absolute minimum. Winter is about to set in, and the poor are without firewood in their homes. With no fuel for their stoves, people remain in bed because of the bitter cold. Imagine these circumstances. We must provide the poor with some firewood and a few potatoes; these are man's prime needs, and without them he cannot survive even one day. Would that I didn't have to write you all this and cause you anguish. After all, you have been doing your share and more, and your help has been great indeed. It has kept hundreds of families on their feet all year, particularly on the Passover, when there must be gladness in every home. Small amounts go a long way in keeping people from going under. This, in brief, is the most important purpose of all.
Nor shall I overlook our wonderful school. We have put so much money and work into it. A hundred youngsters, most of them from impoverished homes, are receiving a modern education. In the winter months each child receives a roll and a glass of milk for breakfast. The hot milk warms the children, coming from their cold homes, and the food nourishes them. All this costs money. Where are we to get it? Please, please, help us, and together we shall fulfill our obligations.
(Excerpts from two letters to Y. Borenstein, New York, dated December 12, 1937 and April 25, 1938)
The situation of the Jews is very precarious, due to the harsh treatment, which Jewish tradesmen and artisans endure as a result of the anti-Semitic boycott program. Therefore, there is urgent need for a credit institution to which the hard-pressed tradesman and artisan may turn for a loan of 50 or 100 zlotys, enough to enable him to stay in business. Several years ago we had a Free Loan Fund, as well as a credit bank. These two agencies had to suspend operations because of lack of capital, but they have not as yet been dissolved. If we were to obtain sufficient capital from the United States and Canada, we could reactivate these important agencies and make it possible for many tradesmen and artisans to stay on their feet. If we had sufficient capital we would also get credit funds from the JDC. It is very important that you talk this over with our townspeople living in Canada, so that jointly a fund of two or three thousand zlotys may be established, for this vital purpose. A one-time contribution of a few dollars to a needy person will ease his life for a certain period, but if the contribution is to be meaningful and constructive, we must have a credit institution which will be there to aid the tradesman and the artisan, to keep them going.
As for the Free Loan Fund, this is certainly the loftiest ethical enterprise that we can establish. Constructive help provided by this Fund, backed with adequate capital, will help substantially 75 percent of the tradesmen and artisans. Their circumstances are beyond description; they must suspend their occupations because they are 100 or 200 zlotys short. They have to pay a ruinous interest; and in most cases, even so loans are unobtainable. The Fund would therefore be your crowning achievement to rally the necessary funds for the efficient activation of gemilut hesed .
Your reservation is fully in place. The Fund must be founded on healthy and sound foundations, so that its operation and success be marked by public confidence and trust. My own suggestions therefore are the following:
I, together with the chairman of the Jewish community, Mr. Bunim Mandelker, an excellent and vigorous person, were the initiators of the original Fund. We put the first monies into it and made the rounds to obtain subscribers. We thus obtained several hundred zlotys, which was lent out to needy people in small amounts, in view of the limits. We held a general meeting and elected a directorate, headed by the two of us.
I can truthfully say that the Fund directorate, chaired by Bunim Mandelker, is functioning with integrity and trust. Of course, it is your right and privilege to request that more members be added to the directorate, people who you think should belong to it.
As far as I am concerned, I shall continue doing my very best to see that this Fund, established with so much toil and effort, should spread and grow. While this institution is neither my occupation nor source of livelihood, I want to see it, as well as all our other public agencies, grow and prosper. I am devoting so much time and strength to it that I certainly wish to see it make progress. This is my reason for writing to you that you may know what will be done with the money, in assuring full and constructive functioning of the Free Loan Fund, for the benefit of Rachov's hard-pressed Jews.
You did write to me that you are awaiting my confirmation of the formation of an association in the town, following which you will see to it that the money for the Fund is forthcoming. Now, at our general meeting there was a spirit of harmony. The new directorate was elected unanimously, as you can see in the minutes, a copy of which you must have already received. We have in the Fund 1,000 zlotys from the JDC and a nice amount of our own capital. Obviously, however, this will not take care all who stand in need of a loan. The war atmosphere is creating a critical situation. Credit has been shut off completely, and the tradesmen and artisans are struggling desperately to maintain themselves. Only one thing can ease the hardship an adequate fund, which will enable the hard-pressed tradesmen and artisans to keep their shops open and to earn their daily bread.
Emissaries sent from the big cities by various Jewish political organizations to visit our small town were much taken with our young people and their political maturity, and they rightly based their evaluation on the developed social and political activity in our midst. A stranger, visiting us for the first time, unfamiliar with our vigorous social life, would be aware of the knee-high mud, the absence of electrical illumination, the small wooden huts and the stillness all about, and would conclude that this town was a "stronghold" of conservatism and backwardness. But this held only for the external. Actually, the town was alive with political parties: Zionists, Poale Zion (left and right), Hechalutz Hatzair, Revisionist, Agudists, Mizrachists and Communists. The "Bund" made no headway in our town. Even when its big guns came from the main cities, they could hardly rally a dozen people to listen to them and accept their ideology.
The Zionist Movement and Program
The Zionist movement reached Rachov a few years after the First World War. Its leaders were Nehama Kompel, Manisl "Philosopher", David Neiman, Aharon Dovid Freiberg, Moshe Meir Wagman. Their "clubhouse" (on the Krashnik road and later at Fabian's on the Opichika road) was always filled with merriment. Talks and lectures were given by Nachmon Gretzki, the tailor from Opola. The yeshiva boys said he was an "apikoros", a freethinker.
The first "stage shows", The Jewish Pinpoint and Hassia the Orphan , were directed by Itche-Meir Zaltzman. The songs were rehearsed particularly on the Sabbath. The shows and literary evenings were a huge success. Among the leading men and women were Sobol, the photographer from Krashnik, Riv'che (Yaacov-Leib's sister), Pinye's daughter Gittele. The heder lads said that "bad things" were going on among the "enlightened" but they didn't specify, lest they be guilty of the "evil tongue"
Later, when the Zionist Organization came in with an extensive program and held the first mass meetings in the clubhouse, its energetic activism attracted many young people. Some of the leaders at that time were public activists and men of conscience. One of the more gifted orators was Avromele Fuchs. Another, Motl Bernholtz, was also instrumental in founding a Zionist branch in our town. Shmuel Blumenkrantz won the youth with his sound ideology and intelligent approach. Avrom'ke Freiberg was a walking encyclopedia; more than once we had to turn to him for information, in our political and economic discussions. His powers of persuasion were matched by his high level of integrity. Among the other activists were Avrom'chile and Hirshl Diamant, Zelig Heshels, Daniel Freiberg, Mordechai Wiesenblit. The womenfolk included the charming Golda Malzman and Esther Freiberg.
The Zionists conducted large fund-raising functions for the Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Foundation Fund. For such national events as the elections to the Polish Seym (parliament), major personalities were sent to Rachov Yitzhak Greenbaum among them. The big fight in the elections was against the religious "Aguda".
Eli Shloimes was a famous comedian. For years he entertained in Warsaw, but once in a while he came to Rachov to see his impoverished parents. When in town he took a hand in the cultural programs of the Zionist Drama Group. He appeared at all literary and art evenings with a special program of satire, directing his barbs against the "noisemakers" and their elusiveness when called upon to render some public service. He had high words of praise, in his act, for the young chalutzim-in-training and those who left comfortable homes and went to Eretz-lsrael, in the 1930's. Eli Shloimes paid particular tribute to the "idealists" the brothers Yeshaya and Yitzhak Fishman, Mendl and Yeshayahu Kramer, Freidele Shilevich, Rella and Beile Boruch-Yosefs, Lea Sheps, Lib'che Fishman.
The Zionist program in Yosel Fuchs' clubhouse contained a regular Dramatic Circle, which included young women of considerable talent. Many shows were produced, first independently and later with the professional group. Among the talented amateurs were the sisters Feigele and Frumetl Alterman, Sarah Feige Goldreich, Esther Hayim-Shloimes, Perl Brick, Esther Freiberg, and the pretty singing prima donna Tzivya Maltzman.
Poale Zion Left had some influence among the working young people. This was when leaders from nearby Ozharov helped them with political and organizational support. The group met in the clubhouse of the leather workers' guild. However, constant strife with the Communists led to splits and dissolution. The few left in the ranks of Poale Zion Left, headed by the idealist David Langman, a plain laborer, tried to avoid the splits by bringing to town the outstanding party leader and orator, Zerubabel.
Rise of the Revolutionary Movement
Rachov had a Revolutionary Party long before the First World War. One of its outstanding figures at that time was the young revolutionary Yudl-Hirsh Borenstein. The elders of the town had many tales and legends to tell about this intrepid fighter. On market days, Yudl-Hirsh used to mount a wagon and passionately address the villagers, in speeches, which attacked the Czar and demanded an independent, democratic Poland. For years the Rachov Jews kept repeating his slogan, which he uttered at the close of his speeches: "Here (pointing to his palm) hair will grow, if the Czar's rule in our Poland will endure".
In 1922, a group of young socialists tried to start a library. Among them were Emanuel Himmelfarb (Fontil), Yoske Sheiner, Israel Silkes, Boruch Gottlieb and Peretz Meirs. Young men and women laborers used to gather in the clubhouse, sing labor songs, hold parties, dances and lectures, and put on skits by Sholem-Aleichem.
Some time later another dedicated group tried to establish a library named for Y. L. Peretz. At its head was a recent settler in our town, Avigdor Damen of Zavihoset. He supervised all the activities: literary evenings, gatherings, lectures, cultural activities all on a high level. However, after two years of existence, the organization was dissolved by the authorities of the Janow District.
In the Lublin archives I came across Document No. 69/26. It stated: "The District Governor of Janow orders the swift dissolution of the dangerous stand, since its proponents are agents of Moscow. In his opinion, it is a blind for Communist activities".
In 1926-27, workers in the leather and affiliated industries founded a trade union, which encompassed almost all of the working young people in our town. The founders and organizers were Boruch Ender, Mordechai Sher, Avremele Gelman and David Freiberg. The first strike intended to bring about an 8-hour working day recruited almost all the workers, and victory came three weeks later. Much of this victory was due to the trade union in Krashnik, then headed by the labor activists, among them Tuvia Kleinman, a worker in a comb manufacturing enterprise.
During 1928-1929, the largest faction was the Communist. A major contribution to the founding of the Polish Communist Party branch in Rachov was made by the Party branch in Zavihoset, then the strongest in our area. Its Rachov leaders Marellenboim, Yuma Reiz, Hirsh-Itche Zilberberg were in contact with the opposition in Poale Zion Left and finally brought about the split.
The trade union club had a fine library of many Yiddish classics on its shelves. Lecturers came from Warsaw and drew fine crowds. Every week there would be question-and-answer and discussion sessions.
The political maturity of the Polish Communist Party was invested mainly in the following workers: Meir Zisman a dedicated idealist and member of the executive, took part in the Spanish Civil War, and during the Second World War was active in organizing the Polish Patriotic Union under the leadership of Wanda Vasilevska, fought in many battles, up to the entry into Berlin, and won the highest honors for his brave exploits. After the war he continued with his dynamic party work in Warsaw. In the leather workers union he was known as an intrepid fighter for labor rights, and was loved for his humane traits and his readiness to share his modest salary with needy friends, just as he had shared his ration in the concentration camps. He has thus remained to this day.
Yehiel Sher a dedicated party ideology man, member of the party committee, fulfilled many missions, particularly in the technical field.
Outstanding in their work among the young people were Ephraim Lechtzier, Aharon Dovid Zisman, Yosef Shlagman and Leiser Rosenblatt.
Yenkel Brick was active for a short time in the League of Polish Communist Youth, and spent much time inculcating the farmers in the surrounding villages with the message of Communism. Later he joined the information staff in the Warsaw headquarters.
The writer of this article, Elazar Goldner, was also in the PCP leadership.
At times, the class differences between the Zionists and the Communists led to personal attacks, abuse and fist fights. Both parties had their quotas of hotheads. At an emergency meeting of the Zionist representatives with the trade unionists, the problem of violent methods came up for a thorough discussion. The appeal of Zilberstein, a quiet and respected teacher in the Tarbut School, to put a stop to the immoral assaults, which were hurting Jewish youth primarily, was received and studied, and eventually the situation improved, as reason replaced violence.
Weekend of Politics, Companionship and Song
All week everyone waited for the Sabbath. After a week of the mundane and routine came Sabbath Eve, and the town came to life. After supper, old and young took to the streets for the Sabbath stroll. The market place was bright in the reflection of candlelights coming through the windows of the houses. Most of the town's young folks hurried to one or another of the clubs. The non-partisans, they who hadn't as yet made up their minds which party they would join, would peep through the clubhouse windows and listen to the discussions going on inside. Most popular were the rehearsals for the dramatic plays; these drew throngs as if by a magnet.
The Zionists and their cohorts begin filling up their clubhouse, after having stopped by the Fuchs sweet shop for sweets, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, enough to last into the late hours and play "big giver" to the girl friend. The lecturer arrives at the appointed hour. The favorite is Motl Bernholtz, as he draws back the curtain on world events, current Jewish affairs, and Eretz-Israel. The discussion, likely to get out of hand at any given moment, is brought to a close by hora dancing.
The benches along the walls are reserved for the older young ladies, they who had come without male escort. Their role is to clap their hands and sing the hora songs at the top of their voices ("Long live Bistritzki and his horas"). The stamping on the wooden floor reverberates through the air like cannon. Only when all stand up for the Hatiqva does silence return to the clubhouse.
Such was Sabbath Eve in Rachov. The Trade Union Hall was no less full. Here, too, crowds came to listen to the lecturer, especially if he happened to be Zolotov from Warsaw or Raskin, the student from Cracow. Raskin used to pay an annual visit to Rachov to see his friend, Moshe Rosenberg, a former schoolmate. He immediately joined the PCP. An expert on Marxism, he drew large crowds to the hall: it overflowed on to the balcony, the garden and into the street. At the end of the lecture, the singing of the "International" could be heard all the way to the Wisla. The party stalwarts exploited the occasion to collect funds for the political prisoners.
Inter-party Cooperation in Drama
The trade union Drama Circle had many males on its roster. The "leading men" were Boruch Ander, David Freiberg, Hershele Shuchmacher, Moshe Shteinbrecher, and Shebche Zalmeles. Their repertoire included "The Dibbyk", "Mote-Melech the Carpenter", "At Night in the Old Market Place", "Back from Hard Labor", and "Rumanian Wedding".
For the proper presentation of these plays, it was necessary to have the cooperation of the Zionist players, although until then each group "outlawed" the other's performances. Mature thinking on both sides led to understanding and cooperation.
A major element in the success of the theatre groups was the presence of Zisl Helman of Zavihost and Fella Shnitzer from Bidgoshetz. Zisl Helman was known to the Rachovites through her brilliant performances in her hometown. Being close to us ideologically, she consented to help us by playing the lead roles in the plays we produced. Fella Shnitzer visited us almost every year when she came to spent her vacation with her relatives in Rachov. The dramatic circles took advantage of her stay to have her appear in their performances. Because of her extensive familiarity with the theatre, she also helped in the staging. Withal, she was modest and unassuming, and played the leading roles in "The Pious Sarah-Sheindl" and "Where Is My Child?" with taste and understanding.
The Mini-Library and Its Founders
Mention should be made of the two young ladies who decided to set up a library, of their own books along with others to be obtained Sarche Diamant and Feige Sheps. These two great friends, charming and talented girls, could always be found on Sabbath mornings in the pretty grove, always in the same spot next to a mound, reading books.
They established the library as a social welfare project. Readers were not asked to pay. Beginning readers were greeted warmly and introduced to the subject. When you stepped into Sarche's spacious dwelling, you were at once enveloped by a feeling of being at home. The girls would ask questions how much had the person read, and what books did he read. As they talked, they easily divined the person's level of intellect. I n their catalogue were many classicists: Balzac, Tolstoy, Anatole France, Gorki, Zarumski, as well as Jewish writers Y. L. Peretz, Sholem-Aleichem, and others. It should be noted that this library gained tremendous popularity among the young people of our town.
The triple strand Hechalutz, Hechalutz Hatza'ir, Tarbut was not torn asunder until we were at the very brink of the disaster; it had grown to be part of the life experience of the town's young people. It arose from an effort (subconscious, at first) to straighten up the bent, breathe hope into those overcome with despair, rescue them from stagnation and decadence, and point the way to aliya.
When you stop to consider (with the wisdom of retrospection) that only ten years separated that first meeting of a group of youngsters (the founding of Hechalutz Hatza'ir in the summer of 1929) from the horrible calamity of war and holocaust, you are dumbfounded. Did you did anyone do enough? Couldn't you, with greater effort, have saved more and more? Or perhaps you yourself were one of those who placed the obstacles, who set up the stumbling blocks and tried to disrupt things; there were such, you know on the right and on the left and at the middle whether in the name of "parental love" or for the sake of religious piety and other "means of redemption".
Read the letters. They will give you a faint idea of the obstacles placed in the path of the young people who tried to find their way out of degrading idleness and spiritual depression. But you will also find some gratification momentary, to be sure as you read about each and every achievement: a clubhouse, at long last; a successful membership get-together; another member added to the roster; departure for the hachshara camp, and, the greatest of all, aliya. Here they are, the first members of your branch to make their aliya. Then you close your eyes and see them, the others who are not with us...
In our town, the branches of Hechalutz Hatzair, Hechalutz and the Tarbut Hebrew School formed a kind of single braided thread throughout their brief existence. There were several tangible reasons for it: they were founded at about the same time and by the same person, and the young people who placed themselves at his side for one activity lent a shoulder to the other, as well, to the bitter end, because each one realized that these were the sources of his revival. The boys and girls sensed that this was the way to their personal escape from spiritual depression, which they couldn't even define. They were drawn to the light, to the song and the bit of the enjoyment of being young.
Among the young families, especially those who were concerned about their children and were inclined toward Zionism or were active in the local branch, there was even a sort of expectancy. As soon as the person appeared (in this case a local young man who came back from his studies) and was ready to assume the burden of the first steps, such as obtaining a permit, establishing contacts with the Central Committee in order to obtain guidance and supervision, and similar details, these families shared the effort and fostered the newborn group.
It may be that, in those days of deep and genuine enthusiasm, people didn't notice the semantic similarity between the two Yiddish words aroistziyen ('extricate') and dertziyen ('educate'). Certainly, however, many felt intuitively that there was a direct association between them. It was almost self-evident the straight line extending from Tarbut through Hechalutz Hatzair and Hechalutz to "hachshara" and aliya to Eretz-lsrael. The one to make note of it was an elderly grandma at a meeting of Tarbut parents; she suggested that Yiddish be taught in the school, claiming that she couldn't learn Hebrew at her age and therefore wouldn't be able to read her grandchild's Hebrew letters. As far as she was concerned, it was a foregone conclusion that her grandchild would eventually go to Eretz-Israel and would certainly write letters in Hebrew, naturally. Her proposal was almost unanimously supported. The school began teaching Yiddish, reading and writing. This instance of Tarbut teaching Yiddish was probably unique in all of Poland. And, indeed, the Tarbut superintendent directly responsible for our school asked that these lessons not be noted down in the class logbook and would not appear in the official curriculum.
When the first pupils of the recently opened Tarbut School marched to the forest on Lag Baomer 1930, followed by the Hechalutz Hatzair youngsters, no one imagined that in less than a decade, everything would come to a halt. No other "marches" through the market square.
Anyone prophesying the apocalypse of the terrible end of our community would have been decried as insane. Yet, who knows? Perhaps the zealots (of the Right and the Left) would have fallen silent, and more would have escaped the fangs of the Nazi beast. But why engage in hindsight wisdom? We leaf again and again through the orphaned pages, which we copied from letters and notes, written by people who were destroyed before they could save themselves and get to us. They will shed light on this path, which wasn't easy either for those who set out on it or for those who walked it to the bitter end. Would that these few pages be a memorial for those who worked and encouraged others, and who desired so intensely to be among the rescued, until the murderous hand cut short their thread of life.
May their memory dwell eternally in our midst.
The first attempt to organize a branch of Hashomer Hatzair was made early in the 1920's. A young man from Tzuzmir, Erdfrucht, came to Rachov for the purpose. He was able to rally several maidens from solid families and to embark on the program. Not having a clubhouse for regular activities, the young man used scouting practices, taking his charges to the nearby forests, on Sabbath afternoons, for scouting, discussions and reading. We young men, the outsiders, used to follow the girls to the groves and remained there all the time, watching the exercises. Erdfrucht showed no interest in the boys, and comments about this flew thick and fast.
However, this activity was far from being a movement. Moreover, at the end of one summer only, the young man left the town. His charges were much grieved.
The "Bnai Akiva" Pioneering Youth
For several years Rachov was without any youth movement, until, in the mid- 1920's, Dov'che the son of Shmuel and Gitele Weinstock, a prominent family in town, tried to organize a branch of "Bnei Akiva", the religious Zionist youth movement. He gathered us in the synagogue yard and spoke to us. The town, he said, was neglected and impoverished, and the future only held despair. Eretz-lsrael was the sole hope; for this, the young people would have to undergo training in kibbutz camps. For Rachov's youth, this was an ideal opportunity. It was decided that we establish a training point and appeal to Yaacov-Leib Rosenberg, owner of the estate, to provide work for the boys on the farm.
We obtained his consent and organized our group. It was summer, the harvest season. Our main job was to gather in the crops and tie up the bales not too easy for the "delicate hands" of boys unaccustomed to manual labor.
Dov'che also organized a course in self-defense. He began with drills, then went on to face-to-face conflict, using sticks, charging and back-stepping.
For several reasons all this didn't last long, primarily because the harvest season had ended, and potato picking was still weeks off.
The few zlotys we earned from our field work, originally intended for organizing a group in the "Hechalutz "movement and opening a clubhouse, were unused. There wasn't enough to divide among the boys. We finally decided to spend the money on beer in the local tavern.
The disintegration of the group, into which he had put so much time and toil, was a bitter disappointment to Dov'che. He refused to try again; the situation in the town distressed him no end, as he expressed it in an article about the town published in Haint.
Training farms popped up elsewhere, besides the Rosenberg estate, but they didn't last. Jews were simply not used to cutting wood and tilling the soil. Matters remained in this state until the Hechalutz and its young wing, Hechalutz Hatza'ir, established themselves in Rachov.
In 1930 Shmuel Blumenkrantz returned from Warsaw. A self-didact as a young man, Shmuel had left the town in the mid-1920's to pursue his studies, and came back from time to time only to visit his family. Now he returned permanently, to organize the Hechalutz, Hechalutz Hatzair, and a Tarbut Hebrew school. His presence and program were just what the town needed, particularly since he had the ability to carry these things through.
The founding gathering was held in one of the empty rooms of Yankele Tarler's (Lichtenstein) flourmill. Several scores of young people showed up. Shmuel explained the aims and purposes of the proposed organization, as well as the obligation, which each member would have to assume. By the time the discussion was over, Hechalutz and Hechalutz Hatzair were a fact. In time, they were to play a decisive role in the lives of many young people.
At the outset, activities were carried on without any financial means. The meetings were held in the mill. With the advent of spring, the locale shifted to the forests and groves, on Sabbath mornings and afternoons. This was how we spent our free time, happy and contented.
There were many Jews who found all of this much against their liking. Jewish fathers and mothers were sure that their children were being torn away from Judaism, from prayer and Torah study, and were wasting their evenings and Sabbaths. More than once there were scandals while the activities were going on.
Celebrating Lag Baomer
Our activities reached their climax, that year, in the celebration of Lag Baomer, which encouraged us and strengthened our ranks. By that time we had managed to create pioneering uniforms of gray. Our plan was to hike to a nearby grove for the celebration. Lag Baomer of that year fell on a Friday.
We arose at dawn, ready for the trip. At the appointed hour, a high ladder-wagon arrived, sent by Yaacov-Leib Rosenberg. We placed aboard the parcels we had brought along. The wagon pulled away, as we sang and waved our flags. We marched through the town, flags aloft. The adults smiled and waved with pride. The non-Jews were confounded; where did those young Jew-boys get the guts to stage the parade?
We crossed the market place and continued to a new neighborhood, Palestine, inhabited entirely by Jews. Again everyone came out to applaud. Thence we turned towards the village of Novy Viesh and entered the grove, which was part of the Rachov estate. There we put up our holiday camp.
We were worried about an assault by the young villagers from the surrounding area, but the day passed without incident. We spent the day in a picnic atmosphere, with games and food, just as though we were in Eretz-lsrael, the land of our dreams.
That Lag Baomer celebration, the first time that we spent a day with nature, without fear, was one of the happiest days in our lives. Everyone who took part in it never forgot it, and the town of Rachov was mightily impressed.
It was almost like an underground movement the boys slipping away from the synagogue, right under the eyes of their parents, and the girls joining them later, at the abandoned flourmill.
And what they heard from the emissary was no less revolutionary: no more living
like peddlers, from hand to mouth; a new life of useful work, in the ancient
"Pioneers are we, in freedom's fight,But how can you sing of pioneering, in hostile and alien surroundings?
Building a land of joy and light. "
The rumor made the rounds of the town: a real "chalutz" was telling things about Eretz Yisrael. Next day more came. Already in the glen, I heard them coming, singing the song I had taught them. Again I told them about the land, where children worked joyfully in the sun, and there was none to make them afraid.
The excitement of the children was genuine, but would it last? I couldn't stay. I had to find a young man who would go on with the work. I found him, by chance. Among the Jews riding in the wagon was a youth. He told me that he had been a member of Hechalutz, but that the branch had fallen apart; each of the members was taken up with his personal problems, but he was still hoping to go to Eretz-lsrael. I lodged in his home, and when I was to meet the children again, I took him with me. He promised to help. He was older than the youngsters but still one of them, romping about happily, despite the jeers of his older friends. On one occasion he told me why he preferred the company of children. He had studied the adult society and found it ethically barren, full of lies and deceit. He remained aloof, searching for his own niche. He thought he had found it in Hechalutz; now, working and playing with the children, he was happy. His group was looked down upon by the older youngsters as "wild street urchins", but he worked with them, and soon they were bringing books to their "meetings" and reading avidly. Their sincerity encouraged two girls, a few years their seniors, to work with them. The girls were members of Hechalutz Hatzair, but for all their enthusiasm, it was not easy. One of them confided in me: "How can I talk to them about things which I myself don't understand completely? At our meetings, the leaders discuss much but explain little. We are short on reading material. And the older people don't take the children seriously."
I moved to another locality, a sleepy village set amidst snow-covered mountains. The few Jewish families lived from trading and rug weaving. The youngsters, even the adolescents, were under strict regimen: by seven in the evening they had to be in bed. Some escaped this regimen by striking out on their own in a neighboring town, working as helpers in shops and stores. By scrimping and saving on food, they managed to save enough to buy fine clothes. Back home on a visit, dressed in their finery, they were the envy of the others.
I established a branch of Hechalutz Hatzair, in this village. All the young Jews belonged to it. We held our meetings in a small room, in the light of a kerosene lamp. The entire branch "property" consisted of a table and one bench plus several textbooks in German, the only ones on-hand. We were about to begin our meeting. About two dozen boys and girls were gathered there. Suddenly the door flew open, and three policemen broke in. We were evidently plotting to destroy the world. They wrote a report, told the younger children to go home and warned the older ones to stay away. There was to be no more clubhouse.
I went to visit a girl in Hechalutz, in a neighboring village. Motherless, she took care of her little brothers and sisters, yet found time to gather other children and read to them.
I entered the house. She came toward me, and even in the dim light I could see that she was trembling. Inside, the children were on the floor, silent. Days later I learned that her father had been murdered by robbers.
A true Jewish daughter! Burdened with the suffering of generations, overcome by personal sorrow, she nevertheless went on with her work with the children, and soon the warm smile came back to her lips. She worked with the children until they understood the importance of what she was telling them. And thus another branch of Hechalutz Hatzair came into being.
Strange, how localities differed in their approach to the movement. In village F. the atmosphere was always one of youthful joy. The clubroom was filled with pioneering enthusiasm; it was much of a home for the members. They kept their work tools here, going out to do odd jobs, to earn enough to help send a comrade to Eretz-Israel. They relaxed in the clubroom, reading, roasting potatoes, singing and dancing the hora. This is how they also furnished a library. Why in F? No answer but no complaints.
Chaikele's parents are there. Little Chaikele is wonderful at playing games, dancing the Kozachok and the Hassidic dances. Her friend Beylke recites a Hebrew poem. Chaikele is sad because her parents can't afford to send her to Hebrew School. But Chaikele understands. I look at her, at the impoverished older folks, trying hard to smile. The "actors" who have come to entertain are hungry, actually hungry. Yet how much charm there is in the Hassidic dance, how uplifted are the voices in the chorus! Outside there is frost on the ground. Outside there is a withering hopelessness, but inside, even though it may wither in time, youth is in full blossom, and the light of love shines in every face.
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