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{Pages 148-199}

Belchatow 1914 – 1922

By Avraham Laib

Translated from the Yiddish by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

[with comments in brackets]

I do not remember if there was ever a census in Belchatow, only that by all estimates, the population of Belchatow was 10,000: there were 6,000 Jews and the other 4,000 were Poles and Germans. Because of the proximity of the German border (55 kilometers in all), and perhaps for other reasons, there were many Germans among us.

As we see, of the Belchatow population, Jews totaled 60 percent, but the activity of the Jews gave everyone the impression that it was a 100 percent Jewish shtetl [town]. All of the businesses and shops, except for the whiskey and pork shops, as well as the apothecary, belonged to Jews. It was the same with the factories: of the dozens of factories located in the shtetl, only one belonged to a German baron, and the owners of all of those remaining were Jews.

Belchatow is located a little apart from the larger world because it does not have a direct railway line. The closest railway line for the shtetl is Piotrkow, 24 kilometers from Belchatow, and at that time the trip to Piotrkow by ox lasted three or four hours and, in order to reach Lodz, it was an additional four hours. A trip by automobile that now takes one hour then took eight hours under the best circumstances. And Lodz, as we will later see, was very necessary for the people of Belchatow, because Belchatow actually lived off Lodz.

There were two aspects to the character of Belchatow, and as paradoxical as it may sound, two extremes: on one side were the Hasidim and on the other side, the proletariat. Compared to other cities and shtetlekh [towns] of the same size or even those with a much larger population, and compared to all of the neighboring shtetlekh, our shtetl found itself at a much higher level of development.

If we speak about the development of the shtetl, we must also be sure to remember the names of several people who are very much “to blame” for the fact that those from Belchatow were and remain educated, conscious of their status and cultured, a situation that might not have existed without these people. These are the Messrs. Gershon Perkal, Menachem (I do not remember his second name) and Ahron, Ahron the beloved, the dear Ahron Bergman. It should be remembered here that none of the three listed friends were from Belchatow. They only lived in and had an effect on Belchatow at various times, some less and some more. Later an entire range of comrades arose who affected everyone in their time and in their way. Comrades Zalman Pudlowski and Yehezkeil Birencwajg distinguished themselves and reached the level of local leaders and teachers.

Belchatow, in contrast with other small Jewish shtetlekh in Poland, did not live from the air, but from hard toil. Belchatow was a factory town, a weaving town. And almost all – the largest number directly and the smaller number indirectly – lived from weaving. There were a dozen larger and smaller mechanized factories in which almost exclusively all of those who worked were Christian workers. And although the factories belonged to Jews, it was very difficult for a Jewish worker to gain employment in these factories. As most of the manufacturers were pious Jews, they did not want to cause Jewish workers to desecrate the Sabbath and they believed that if Jewish workers could work only five days a week, it would not be worthwhile for the manufacturers. Therefore, the Jewish weavers were forced to work on handlooms and each Jewish worker's home was a small factory of two, three or four stools, depending on how many children the worker had… Consequently, the Polish weaver had his hour for lunch and his designated hour when he ended his workday, and for the Jewish weaver, the workday never ended.

It has already been mentioned here that Belchatow lived off Lodz. It occurred for the following reasons: the Belchatow manufacturers brought the raw materials from Lodz and they were worked on then in Belchatow. Then the completed goods were taken back to Lodz to be washed, dyed and pressed (in the Belchatow-Lodz “jargon” it was called: apreturn) and actually immediately sold in Lodz. And if a Belchatow shop owner needed some goods for his shop, he, too, had to go to Lodz.

A particular type of middleman between Lodz and Belchatow were the liverantn [contractors] (this is what we called them). They did not need to possess any property, only a good guarantee and a little nerve. They took advantage of the fact that in our shtetl the workers' wages were much lower than in Lodz. They brought raw material from Lodz and had the work done by us and took the finished goods to Lodz and made a very fine living from this, a lot better than the weavers themselves.

So that the Belchatow manufacturers and contractors would be able to be competitive in relation to the Lodz manufacturers, all of the expenses for bringing raw material and returning the completed goods and also the manufacturer's transportation (which was not cheap) were placed on the accounts of the Belchatow workers. Thus against their own will, the Belchatow workers were a very considerable competitor in relation to the Lodz workers. The Belchatow weavers suffered from double competition: on one side they had to work more cheaply than the Lodzers and on the other side they had a great deal of competition in the form of the peasants around Belchatow.

All of the peasants in several dozen villages around the shtetl were weavers. Two hand looms were found in each hut. Little was woven by the peasants during the summer months because of the field work. The villages worked full steam during the winter months. And they worked almost for free, because their main earnings were not from weaving. It is not hard to imagine the situation in which the city hand weavers found themselves.

The greatest victims of this system were self-evidently the Jewish weavers. They worked for endless hours. The days were as long as the exile and Thursdays never ended because of the coming Shabbos. Most of the weavers worked an entire night on Thursdays.

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The Kultur Fareyn [Culture Union] was founded on the 25th of January 1915 with 50 plus members. The “Union” was a non-party organization. But it was known to the founders that under the innocent name Kultur Fareyn one would find the Bund. An entirely new epoch began in our shtetl with this founding. How does the song go? “New bird, new songs…” And actually we began to hear notes different from those that we were accustomed to hearing until then.

There once had been a Bundist revolutionary movement here, but this had already been long forgotten. And those who had not forgotten continued to try to forget it.

This was the famed year 1905. Belchatow's sons and daughters, as well as Gerer and Aleksander Hasidim, carried red flags through the streets and publicly sang songs against the czar and also against God… It is no surprise that the “better” Jews made an effort to forget. Then came the sixth year; the largest number of revolutionaries were exiled to Siberia. A number escaped to America and it became quiet. The majority of them, who later survived their terms of hard labor, left for America. Several Akhdus Yungen [United Youth] remained. They behaved modestly; in the best situation, they prayed “privately.” They were almost never seen in the open.

The Kultur Fareyn overran the shtetl by storm. We rented a large apartment with several rooms and a library of several hundred books immediately blossomed. A choir under the direction of Lev Herckowicz was founded (he is now in Israel). Later the direction of the choir was transferred to his young brother, Hercke (died in 1920). A little later a dramatic circle was also founded, whose first director was Shmuel Reich (died in 1919). Each administrative body established the appropriate managing commission and they carried out their activities very successfully.

We always searched for an appropriate candidate as librarian; he needed to advise the readers about the kind of books they should take for reading. The librarian had to know all of the readers in order to know what to give everyone.

An entire array of reading circles of various groups and categories was established in order to attract our members to read. There was even a group with which it was necessary to start with the alef-beis [a,b,c's – beginners]. Henekh Pigula led this sort of circle and he simply taught how to read a newspaper. Another group was “taught” beautiful literature. This was done in this way: the lecturer read a chapter of Sholem Aleichem, [David] Pinski, [Sholem] Asch or [Hersh Dovid] Nomberg, or took several of [Moshe Jacob Alter, known as Morris] Rosenfeld's poems, Yehoash [Solomon Blumgarten – known for his translation of the Bible into Yiddish] or A. Reisin [Abraham Reisin – writer of Yiddish poetry and short stories] and, after reading, a part of the group tried to explain their opinions of what was read. A discussion developed and the lecturer always was the final judge… Y.L. Peretz, for whom there was a special circle of listeners, was taught in the same way.

A. Twordowksi led the circle for socialist literature. He took a chapter of Kautsky's Erfurter Program[1] or a chapter of Marx's Kapital, read it over and then analyzed and explained it in simple, popular Yiddish for as long as it took to knock it into our hard heads. A. Bergman led the class in political economy.

Once, during such a lecture, our man of letters, Y. L. Goldsztajn, entered our meeting hall and although he did not belong to our circle (he stood at the head of the Zionists), he became so fascinated by the lecture that he asked to be permitted to attend the course. And for a short time, he actually was one of our best listeners.

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We made our first public appearance in front of the shtetl on Purim in 1915. We arranged an evening with a not too large program in our own meeting hall. There were several recitations, several songs were sung by our choir for the first time. And then we danced the entire night. The impression made by our evening was colossal. And although our apartment did not hold more than 200 people in usual circumstances, this time more than 350 visitors gathered and no one felt it was crowded.

The evening did not happen as easily as it seems. Immediately at our public announcement in the neighborhood we recognized the first great conflict with the elite in the shtetl. We were then under German occupation. Several days before the evening we painted a few posters, sent a delegation to the office of the commander and after proper enlightenment, they permitted us to hold the evening, placing the official stamp on the poster. There was great turmoil when the “proper” Jews saw the posters in the street. They ran to the rabbi, held meetings and consultations and finally, after a short report, ended with the commandant withdrawing permission. And if this was not enough, meetings were simultaneously forbidden with the explanation that “five people together was considered a meeting and they would bear the consequences that the law provided for illegal meetings during the time of crisis.” It should be understood that it was bitter to our souls. We were not concerned about saving the evening, but we saw a further purpose of the “proper Jews” and this did not please us very much. We did not rest and again sent a delegation to the office of the commander. After a great and difficult effort we succeeded in “convincing” them that we had nothing against the German government… We only hated the Czarist regime.

When we again had permission for the evening, we still were afraid that the Germans would again let themselves be “convinced” by the “proper Jews.” We sent a delegation to the rabbi and through the rabbi offered our “visitor's card” to the “proper Jews” of the city. We gave them to understand that they should not make a mistake about us, that we were no longer youngsters and we warned them that from now on they should not mix into our matters so that we would not have to mix into their businesses…

During the entertainment we had a visit from the entire commander's office. The orchestra played several German marches. One of our comrades recited several poems
by Heinrich Heine in German for them and they were “convinced” that we would not pick a quarrel with the German Kaiser.

They spent two hours with us, danced and spent a great deal of money at the buffet. The next morning a policeman went through the streets and tore off the placards on the walls saying that meetings were forbidden.

In addition to the material side, we had a great moral success. We were the theme of the day for a long time and weeks after, our first appearance was still being commented upon.

From then on we became an important force in the shtetl and they began to listen to our words. We became a group of which they began to take note.

At that time we had a political group that was not yet well known by the public but its existence was recognized. This was the Zionist organization. It did not have great political credit. Its activity was still limited then. To their praise, it should be remembered here that the first library in Belchatow was created by the Zionists. The library existed in the period before the First World War and young Belchatowers exchanged books twice a week. It should also be remembered here that the first books for that library were donated by Yankl Elbinger and Moric Frajtag. It should also be stated that a library already existed in Belchatow in 1905, but for understandable reasons, not publicly. After the revolution was suppressed, the books were moved into a private home and were read in secret.

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We began to spread and intensify our work. We added several rooms to our apartment. Our cabinetmaker comrades (Itshe Winter, Shimeon Szmulewicz, etc.) removed several walls and made moving walls out of them. That is, if it was necessary, the walls could be “bundled up” and several rooms became one large hall which could hold several hundred people. In addition, they built a small stage out of the last room. We then had an entire theater where we held smaller shows in our own hall.

We bought books and enlarged the library. A reading room was set up that was open daily and was well visited.

From Lodz we brought Comrade Ahron Bergman who brought a great deal of life into the shtetl. A teacher by trade, a person with party seniority, he arranged the work on a secure basis. First of all, he detached the “Culture Union” from the Bundist organization and created two separate managing committees. It is true that the “Union” remained Bundist, but it was decided members of the “Union” should not belong to the Bund. On the contrary, in order to join the Bundist organization, some had to first go through a “quarantine” in the “Culture Union.”

We then created a children's school. Several dozen children enrolled and they were taught in two groups. A little later, the friends Rukhl Likhtenfeld and Rukhl Szmulewicz were attracted as teachers.

I believe that it would not be an exaggeration if I say that we were the very first, if not the only one with a children's school in Poland at that time.

We also established a course for adults. Yiddish grammar, Jewish history and general cultural history, literature, geography and so much else were taught. And although all of the students knew how to read and to write and thought of themselves as very “able,” they were convinced that they could not write a proper Yiddish letter. The same with Jewish history. They had been advised against other disciplines about which a large number of students had entirely no knowledge.

It should be understood that the teacher was Comrade A. Bergman. The education was not as from a teacher to students, but as from a comrade to comrades. The lectures were actually true intellectual pleasures. The lectures rarely ended with what they had begun. Almost always we were “caught” in a discussion and arrived far from the theme…

It can be said without exaggeration that thanks to Comrade Bergman, the level of cultural achievement rose significantly in our shtetl.

A little later, the Zionists brought down a teacher, Comrade Menachem (I do not remember his family name), if I am not mistaken from Krakow. A very fine young man with a great deal of culture. And a Tarbut[2] school was created, where Yiddish and mainly Hebrew was taught.

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In a short time, we had non-party meetings on Shabbosim [Sabbaths]. Besides the Bund and Zionists, no other parties existed at that time. The party differences were not so great and no great party struggles took place. The themes were literary and not about party matters. Discussions for the sake of discussion took place, although a large number of those taking part knew that there were party objectives beneath the discussions…

We enlarged our choir and dramatic society, trained more and the results were very satisfactory. The performances were frequent and were well attended. Immediately afterward, the Zionists also organized a dramatic society.

A little later, the Zionist organization split off the proletarian part (it was a Bundist bit
of work…). The larger segment of the split off Zionists built the new for us Poalei-Zion party. A smaller number joined the Bund.

A competition began: Poalei-Zion also acquired a library, also opened a consumer cooperative (we already had one), and also created a dramatic society.

 

Members of the Dramatic Society:
(From right to left) Avraham Leib, Nachman Meir Goldberg, Avraham Liberman, Avraham Nowak, Itshe Leib Goldberszt, Velvel Weiss, Ruchl Lichtenfeld, Chaya Jakobowicz, Avraham Lipman Nowak, Gitl Hartman, Hersh Leyzer Goldberg, Shmuel Yosel Satt, Hinda Royze Jakobowicz, Moshe Eisner, Yechiel Leibish Goldberg, Shlomo Luszczanowski and Henoch Pigula.

We remained the only ones with a choir. It happened often that the Zionists needed a choir for its entertainment; they “borrowed” the choir from us.

Many arguments, mainly between the Bund and Poalei-Zion occurred, around the dramatic circle in general and in particular with the plays and there were also comical incidents. If one party began to rehearse a certain play, the other party immediately found the same play and began to rehearse it. If one party learned that a second party was rehearsing the same play, it went earlier to rent the only room in our shtetl, the firemen's hall (“the firemen's shed”) for the first two nights of Chol ha-Moed[3] or Purim.

 

A group of young community workers in 1919
From right to left: Yumke Leib, Hersh Leyzer Goldberg, Moshe Eisner, Melech Galster, Henoch Szerman, Wewe Piula, Avraham Leib, Ahron Bergerman, Avraham Liberman and Josef Reich.

It once happened that one party had triumphed with a play, for which it was impossible to obtain another printed copy. The only copy was stolen at night from the other's library, the play was copied over night and it was “smuggled in ” at dawn and placed in the other library in the same place from which it was taken. And to the astonishment of the “triumphant ” party, the play was also performed by the opposition.

In general we had few nights in the year to present a play. At that time the custom was introduced for us to mainly perform on the nights of Chol ha-Moed Sukkos and Passover and also on Purim. And in order to be sure of success, everyone sought to perform on the first night of Chol ha-Moed and particularly when two “troupes” were performing the same play at the same time…

We created smaller undertakings in our lounge at various opportunities.

Our people became so “enthusiastic” with theater that in later years, when a professional acting troupe would come to our shtetl to perform, they performed to packed houses. In addition, they had the satisfaction that they were playing for a thoughtful spectator with a great connection to Yiddish theater. And the troupe that had only visited our shtetl once knew that for a second visit they needed to bring good actors and also good plays.

The Zionist organization also had a dramatic section with rather good amateurs, with whom we lived very peacefully. There were never any conflicts between us and them in this area. Leading and directing this troupe was Yoel Leib Goldsztajn. They had an entire series of very successful and interesting performances, which always left a fine impression.

Y. L. Goldsztajn was a very intelligent person and, in addition, the only man of letters whom our shtetl, Belchatow, produced. True, he was not a very well known person in the writing world. Even in Poland, he was little known. It was probably, more than anything, his “fault” - because of his modesty he did not aspire to popularity. If he would had only desired it – he would have surely been heard. He succeeded in publishing several books during the course of his writing career. His first book, Der Letster Mentsh [The Last Man] was published before the First World War by Gitlin's publishing house in Warsaw. In 1934, the Bikher [books] publishing house issued his two volume novel of over 1,200 pages, Tsusamenbrich oder Iberboy [Collapse or Rebuild] (a fanciful novel in four parts). In 1939, the same publishing house published a book entitled 1960. We also know his book of short stories entitled Mit Punim Tsum Shpigl [With Face Toward the Mirror]. In addition to these, he created a great deal of literary work that was never published in book form and he wrote in several literary forms: novels, songs and also dramas. He produced several of his dramas and one-act plays in Belchatow with great success.

In general, he was an original and interesting person. He was drawn to everything and knew something about everything; he could play the fiddle a little, the piano a little. He was also a good chess master. He was a Zionist politically and was the head of the Zionist organization in our shtetl for a long time.

His was employed in commerce. He had a paper shop (that is what it was called among us). He was the only one in Belchatow who provided writing materials, all kinds of textbooks, both for Jews and for the Christian residents.

His shop was always a gathering place for the town intellectuals, principally for the Jews. The latest news was always heard in his shop; the newest books were read and discussed and even the latest slander was learned…

In 1941, already under the Nazi occupation in Belchatow, Y. L. Goldsztajn died with a “luxurious death,” as was said when someone died a natural death.

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The year 1918 was of great significance for us. In that year we revealed our political credo to the world. We were no longer totally unknown. In addition to being known for our work with the Culture Union, school, library, choir, lectures, reading room, theater performances, consumer cooperative – we also took part with representation in the existing “American Committee” (that is, a committee to divide products that were sent from America for poor people). And we had a reputation with our performances on behalf of the poor. We were witnesses to small scandals at the dividing of the products received. It took great work and struggle by us in the “American Committee” so that everything that came from America was accounted for and that everything was given to the truly needy.

Then we demonstrated our political activity to the community.

The weekly meetings had to be held on Shabbos between day and night because at that time it was a committee of the Bund, which consisted of seven comrades, three who still had one foot in the beis-hamedrash [prayer house]. This time was the most acceptable for the “beis-hamedrash young men” so that their appearance [at the meetings] would not be noticed in their homes and they would not have to explain where they had been. Once during such a meeting, we had a surprise: among others points on the agenda was also a point, “mass meeting.” This was great news to us. Out of curiosity about this point, we quickly finished with all other points and came to the matter of the “mass meeting.” Comrade A. Bergman reported: Poland is becoming independent. Parliamentary elections would be held. We needed to begin to appear in the street as a political power and we need to become acquainted with the future voting masses.

The mass meeting was set for tomorrow, Sunday, at night, between Minchah and Maariv [afternoon and evening prayers] in the beis-hamedrash. Sunday, at night, several hours before the mass meeting, we held a gathering of 40 chosen comrades, only men, the most responsible, and we assigned “roles.” Several young men were sent into the street to call the crowd to the mass meeting. They did so in this way: they were allotted several streets, chiefly Pabianicer, Stercewer and Piotrkowsker, where a small number of poor lived and where they met a Jew, they gave him a mysterious whisper in his ear: “They are speaking in the beis-hamedrash,” “A speech in the beis-hamedrash,” “Important news in the beis-hamedrash,” and before the Jew had a chance to ask a question, our messenger was somewhere else. A short time before Minchah and the was already overflowing. Such a crowd had not been seen in the for years. At the eastern wall, the best worshippers gaped and were amazed: what was happening? No famous preacher had been announced.

“Yudl Lekekhbeker” [cake baker] lived opposite the beis-hamedrash. He, as well as his entire family, were very fine and sympathetic people. Two of his daughters were our comrades. Our headquarters was located there and further roles were allotted: who needed to stand at the door, who at the eastern wall (in order to restrain the influential people), who among the crowd, a special “body guard” around the speaker. The main thing we were concerned with was that they be comrades with a great deal of tact and presence of mind.

A messenger announced that Minchah would be ending in a few minutes. The entire “headquarters” entered the and each took his place. Comrade Henekh Liberman, a little confused, stood on the reading stand. As soon as the bal-tefilah [person reciting prayers] ended Minchah, Comrade Henoch banged on the reader's desk and began:

“In the name of the Bund committee I have come to announce to you…” And he had no breath… He was one of those who still stood with a foot in the and sat on the Bund committee and, at the same time, probably imagined the dark Shabbos that awaited him at home…

Comrade A. Bergman stood on a bench, his cap tilted a little to the side and saw the situation with Comrade Henoch Liberman. He immediately began: “Comrades, friends,” and in the course of an hour and a half, he spoke about the war and what kind of “profits” the workers and toilers awaited after the war, even a war that was won… A few influential Jews began to try to make a racket, but they were immediately quieted because one of our comrades appeared near each one and whispered a secret in his ear: “Reb Eli Feiwel, if this does not please you, it would be better for you to go home because things can end badly here…” Another: “It would be better to leave quietly and with honor because, if not, we will throw you out like something useless…” And thus all the influential people were silenced.

At the doors, the comrades warned the Jews entering and leaving: “Sh, sh, they are speaking…” After the first few minutes, the lecture went on in the best order and with the most attentive quiet.

After the lecture, listening to the comments from the small groups of dejected Jews, we had the feeling that we had established contact with the poor and that they felt our support.

One group of Jews standing in the street after the mass meeting commented and discussed the party in general and about which party had arranged today's mass meeting. One Jew said something very absurd. A Jew, Yissachar the Shulkleper[4] (“Sucher Krusis”), who was well known even in 1905 for receiving four years in Siberia for the Bund, pushed himself in:

“You should excuse me, Reb Yid [a polite way of addressing someone unknown], you do not know what you are talking about. You want to know who this is, I will tell you. This is still the Bund! And who is the Bund – ask me!”

Thus was the Bund introduced to the shtetl.

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It was assumed that there was no anti-Semitism in Belchatow. Of the village population around the shtetl, it is certain that they were no anti-Semites. And it is natural because they were in constant contact with Jews and partly earned their livings from Jews from the produce from their villages that they brought to the city once a week (Monday) to sell. Their customers in very large part were Jews. And when they, the peasants, had time, beginning in the winter, they took to weaving and, again, needed to go to the Jews. In the main, at that time, no propagandists preaching anti-Semitism traveled through the villages. On the other hand, this cannot be said about the city's Christian population. It is true that almost no anti-Semitism was felt, but it is a fact that the larger part of the shtetl intelligentsia were anti-Semitic.

We must add that almost all gentiles here understood and spoke a not bad Yiddish. As a result, the greater number of the Belchatow Jewish population spoke a bad Polish.

The first steps of Poland's independence were “celebrated” with several pogroms against Jews. A question of self defense was placed before our committee of the Bund. It is true that we saw no great signs of anti-Semitism here. However, we did not want to be subjected to surprises and rely on miracles. We wanted to be prepared for every situation so that “we would not need to be.” We turned to the Zionists with our self defense proposal and they immediately, without hesitation, but truly with inspiration, accepted the proposal. After joint consultations it was decided that several shtarke jungen[5] from the shtetl be drawn into the action (not to confuse them with members of the underworld – we, too, did not like them). These were wagon drivers, young butchers, who did not belong to any party, were respectable, toiling Jews, athletically built and could deliver a blow. If a non-Jew had a conflict with one of the people and it came to blows, such a non-Jew was careful not to “discuss” this more with the gang…

At the conclusion of Yom Kippur 1919, we had our first meeting. Those present were only those chosen for self defense. Discipline and conspiracy were considered first. Everyone was given the opportunity to withdraw if he was unable to subject himself to discipline and conspiratorial situations. The positions, although not easy, were all accepted without exception. No one withdrew. We determined a password, a sign that only members of the self defense group knew. We collected several hundred marks on the spot to buy weapons. It appeared that our bourgeois young people owned a score of revolvers and it was decided to buy a certain amount more. The revolvers were allotted only to the most responsible ones. Although we had a suspicion that more than one of them possessed one. Every one of them received a short, thick, round and hard wooden stick that could be held in the sleeve and not attract attention from anyone.

We paid special attention to two days of the week, Sunday and Monday. Sunday – because on this day hundreds of peasants from the surrounding villages came together in the city churches to pray and to listen to the priests' sermons. And Monday – because this was our market day during which hundreds of peasants from all around would bring their products to sell and on one street to buy the things they needed in the city in the Jewish shops and from what was displayed in Jewish stalls in the market.

On all other days of the week we had fewer guards, but on Sunday and Monday we had everyone active on their feet.

The city was divided into various sectors. A group of five people had command over each sector. One of them was the responsible commandant for each “small sector.” On Sundays and Mondays, the headquarters was located at a central point in the city (at Yoel Leib Goldsztajn's). Couriers ran the entire day from sector to sector and from the sectors to the headquarters and back, bringing news to the headquarters and carrying away orders. The task of the “five sectors” was to not be provoked: If a gentile boy grabbed a packet of tobacco from “grobn Alter” [“fat Alter”] and ran away without paying, or stole something (as would happen) from a Jewish stall and several peasants would help to block it – lest it not immediately be thought of as a pogrom. Each leader of a “sector” had the right to resolve the small things in his sector. Only the headquarters itself had the right to decide the large things.

The task of the “five positions” was to follow the non-Jews with caution and watch their movements, where they were gathering in certain places, sitting at their tables in the taverns, moving closer to hear if someone in their group spoke and, mainly, watching unnoticed if there was a stranger, an agitator who had arrived unexpectedly.

On Sundays we would even enter the churches to hear the priests' sermons.

We had various comical episodes relating to self-defense: if someone wanted to convince someone else to observe the communal undercover precepts, he stopped the other one's bride [comrade] and gave the “password.” He immediately was persuaded of the other's [part in the] conspiracy; one of the young fighters went to the other's comrade, gave the word and received the secret answer, and he asked, “So, comrade, when will something happen, we are waiting for days doing nothing?”

The Zionists were active in self defense – Mordekhai Safirsztajn, Moric Fajtos, Y. L. Goldsztajn, Meir and Daniel Warszawski, Chaim Meir Czeslawski, Berl Waldman, Pitowski's sons, and so on. From the Bund: Ahron Bergman, Josef Reich, Avraham and Henoch Liberman, Henoch Groszka, Henoch Pigula, Yehezkiel Burncwajg, Yechiel Leibish Goldberg, Avraham Nowak, and so on. From the “shtarker” – Dovid's son Nute Hersh, Yankl “Pachtshasz,” Peretz Abraham Zelners,[6] Avraham Alter Khmal, Shimeon the cake baker, Yakov Hillel, Itshe Grunem's son Chaim-Yankl, and so on.

Besides the smaller unimportant excesses that were immediately settled with great tact, there was no great unrest here. We were all sure of and convinced of one thing, that if a pogrom broke out here, it would quickly be a pogrom on the attackers themselves…

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Our city came to life with the approach of the first Sejm [parliament] elections. All of the then existing parties, such as the Bund, Agudah, Zionists and Poalei-Zion, threw themselves into the work. First of all, each party wanted to benefit from it politically. Each party had already “counted” the number of votes that it would receive, winning members for the party, or at least sympathizers on whom one could rely for support. And there was a concern about bringing speaker-organizers. For a long time, speakers in Belchatow were not something new. We are not speaking about preachers and tedious orators, whom the religious Jews would always bring, and many of them who would come from time to time uninvited and would also speak about worldly matters wrapped in a talis [prayer shawl], because with the rise of the parties, speakers in the shtetl were not newcomers. All of the parties would bring them. The themes would be diverse; mostly direct party [themes], others indirect, on general literary themes.

It was very cozy in the shtetl when a report and discussion was presented. Then all “polished their tongues ” to give an opinion. During the lectures, comrades sat with pencils and papers in their hands, noting every expression of the speaker. Every opponent was “pelted” with at least a dozen citations from newspaper articles, from journals and books to which the lecturer (if he was a writer) had contributed. There were more ways to “persuade” a speaker from the opposing party, namely, not permitting him to finish, interrupting or not letting him begin at all…

For a short time Belchatow was the ir-miklet [asylum city] for two Bundist comrades who, because of police matters, could not be in Warsaw and felt safer with us. These were the comrades Leizer Lewin and Hershl Bekerkunst. The first was with us for a time and then left; later the other one came. Obviously, as the comrades were party activists, speakers and also writers, we used them for our party purposes. We mainly held our gatherings in the woods because of their conspiratorial nature.

Once we permitted ourselves a luxury. Comrade M. Bekerkunst gave a lecture to our “Culture Union.” We had a surprise in the middle of the speech: a police ambush. We successfully led comrade H. Bekerkunst and several other comrades (also not completely legal) out through a window and sent them to the forest. After several days of hiding out, he left Belchatow and our city was no longer an asylum city. We never learned if it was a provocation or a pure accident.

Each party tried to bring the most popular and the most famous speakers for the Sejm elections. Only the Bund was not successful in this because the central committee believed that it needed the famous speakers for the large cities. However, the Bund found itself in a better situation in relation to every other party here because the Bund always had at its disposal a speaker and also a very competent opponent that no other party had in the person of the previously mentioned Bergman.

A series of meetings began that incited the shtetl. There was only a problem with meeting halls. Belchatow had only one meeting hall, the firefighters' hall.

Immediately, the parties thought that as the Bund had once used the beis hamedrash [prayer house] for a meeting, why should it not again be done? All of the parties began to use the beis hamedrash and not only the synagogue. It reached the point that the religious Jews raised a tumult, banging the table and shouting, enough! It was blasphemy and it could not continue. And it was decided that with the agreement of all of the parties that no one would hold any more meetings in the religious premises.

One night when the campaign was almost at an end, we learned that a secret conference of all of the parties except the Bund was taking place in the anteroom of the synagogue. On the spur of the moment the Bund committee and several active members were quickly called together and a decision was made and an uninvited delegation was immediately sent to the secret conference. At the same time, the Bund committee went into a secluded session in a comrade's cellar bakery next to the synagogue in order to take a stand on the secret conference. Simultaneously, runners went back and forth – from the synagogue to the meeting and from the meeting to the synagogue – in order to bring news and, after quick consideration, carry back agreed upon decisions.

The above mentioned conference to end the election campaign proceeded with a concluding meeting that would take place in the synagogue. As no outside speakers were here, the only speaker would be the rabbi (to be truthful, although a very smart Jew, he was never a speaker. Even giving a sermon, he was not so strong…). The following characteristic dialogue took place at the conclusion of the conference:

Reb Yakob Hersh Sztatlender from the Agudah [Orthodox political party]:

– It remains that even at tomorrow's meeting only the rabbi will speak.

Comrade Yechezkel Birencwajg of the Bund:

– And Comrade Bergman.

Meir Warszawski of the Zionists:

– It was decided by general consensus that the only speaker at tomorrow's meeting is the rabbi.

Comrade Yechezkel:

– There will be another individual speaker – Comrade Bergman.

Moshe Szmulowicz of the P. Z. [Poalei-Zion], directly to the uninvited Bundist delegation:

– You heard that there is a unanimous decision; you always have a mouth full of democracy. How dare you oppose an accepted decision?

The Bundist representative:

– We are not violating a decision, only you! Who permitted speaking in the synagogue after it was already decided not to use the prayer house for meetings? Incidentally, we are not at today's session so that we would need to respect anyone's majority decision; we are here by chance and we have heard that tomorrow there will be speeches in the synagogue. We give you notice so that it will not be a surprise to you that our comrade, Bergman, will speak tomorrow.

The meeting took place. The synagogue was overflowing below and also above in the women's section. It had been made known that Comrade Bergman would speak. Only ten percent had probably come to hear the rabbi's speech.

The rabbi spoke first. There was a quiet stir, murmuring; we actually did not hear a word. After 10 minutes of speaking, he left the reader's desk and, immediately thereafter, also the synagogue. After the rabbi, our comrade, Bergman, spoke; there was a stir and not a word [of Bergman's speech] could be heard. We declared a short break and Comrade Yechezkel Birencwajg declared loudly in a very theatrical pose:

– We give you 10 minutes so that those who are not happy that comrade Bergman is speaking in the synagogue can leave the synagogue calmly and without a tumult. And we will have an indication that those who wish to remain have come to hear comrade Bergman and woe to those who would still try to disturb someone after this.

Perhaps two minyanim [a minyan consists of 10 men] of Jews left the synagogue. Comrade Bergman, in the greatest quiet and attentiveness, spoke for over an hour. Then Moshe Szmulewicz, Shmuel Chaim Kelman and Mordechai Sapirsztajn spoke. The first in the name of Poalei-Zion [Marxist Zionists] and the last two in the name of the Zionists.

In general, the meeting, with several comical incidents, passed in the best order.

First it must be acknowledged that the Belchatower youth benefited a great deal spiritually from all of the meetings, speakers, lectures and reports, with or without discussions.

* *
*

As in all larger and smaller cities and shtetlekh in Poland, there was no lack of Jewish thieves and, in general, Jewish members of the underworld here.

The thieves were not fastidious people; they “took” everything that they could. They “took” chickens and geese from the market stalls; they “took down” the wash from the attics and if it happened and they learned that a family was not at home, they took every important things of value from the house and “withdrew”…

The gang was mainly busy on Mondays when they could “cultivate” so many arriving peasants.

A particular category was the card player who “worked” jointly in larger groups. The same gang, from time to time, paid a visit, “touring,” the neighboring shtetlekh around Belchatow during the special market days.

The gang had another “trade” – ambushes. They figured out when Jews would bring money to Belchatow. It usually occurred on Thursday night. Every Thursday the Belchatow manufacturers would bring money with them to pay the workers on Shabbos. Then the gang with masks on their faces would block the Dzialoszyn forest, stopping as many wagons as would arrive from Piotrkow and with weapons in their hands rob the passengers. Principally they robbed all of the money that everyone possessed; but they did not turn down a gold watch, a ring or other things of value…

Belchatowers even said that years ago the same band carried out a bold ambush. They stopped a train and robbed the mail and disappeared.

The Belchatow police mixed very little in these matters. Some believed that the police were simply afraid of them and others that they were silent partners in the “businesses”… It is entirely possible that both sides were correct.

With the outbreak of the war in 1914, the entire band disappeared and the “trade” declined.

Another group of “actors” “worked” at selling the “stolen” goods. Their work was very simple: finding the customer, leading him through a gate and placing a piece of goods that caught the eye. And because it was “stolen goods,” they were sold very cheaply. At home, the customers realized that they had bought a nice… piece of paper.

Jews, too, and even smart men, purchased such bargains…

A very special category was the horse thief. The “business” was carried out on a very large scale. And although, the “main” robbers and receivers were Poles, the Jews played a very significant role, both among the thieves and among the receivers.

The chief Polish thieves, the Knopek brothers, were people of extraordinary daring. They were not afraid of anyone. On the contrary, they were the terror of the entire shtetl and even of the police. Anyone who started with them was not certain about their life and they kept quiet.

A legend circulated in our circle that all of the horses that were stolen in the area of Lodz – Kalisz – Czenstochow went through Belchatow hands.

In order to finish with our underworld, we must add that we did not need to order blackmailers from outside. We had our own. The Jews in the shtetl had great trouble from them. There were two of them. One, Shmuel, the son of Nekhemia Meir, was a very cunning and crafty person; his “trade” was to denounce and then “use influence” and free the denounced one for good money… And the other one was Leibush Mekhl Lande, a not-too-smart man (a Jew, a Hasid, certainly smart, once brought him into his house, carried on negotiations with him about freeing his son from military service and just at the paying of the “trade-money,” a secret agent appeared – and the shtetl had a short time of peace … until he came back from jail). However, he had a very “rich” career. Beginning as a revolutionary, he was active in the P.P.S. [Polish Socialist Party]. After the failure of the revolution he had to escape from Poland and in 1918 he returned from London and became a “foolish” merchant and ended as a martyr. On Purim, 1942, he was one of the 10 Jews who were publicly hung by the Nazis before the entire Belchatow population…

Actually not a great pedigree, but facts remain facts.

* *
*

The Forest

Heinrich Heine said that the Rhine is his. It can boldly be said about the Belchatower forests that they belonged to the Jewish youth. We called it “the forest,” although that is a great error because it would have had to be called “the forests.” Actually, there was not one forest, but many forests. There was the low forest, the high forest, the young little forest, the Brzezinkas, the Smoliarne and still many other forests. And these are only the more well known that were near the city. In fact the entire 16 kilometers between Belchatow to the nearest shtetl, Stradzew, was almost only forest.

During the summer months we would (if we had the time) spend entire days in the forest. In general, we were very close to the forest. It was two kilometers by the highway by a straight road.

 

The road to the little forest

However we went through a closer road, perhaps one kilometer in total. The closer road was Pabiancer Street. Through each courtyard on the left side of the above mentioned street was a passage to the fields and meadows straight into the forest. We traveled over the road in a few minutes.

What did we not do in the forests? Meetings and gatherings were held there; readings, discussions, conversations and the rehearsals were often also held there; tennis was even played – lehavdil [Usually the word used to separate the sacred from the profane; here it is used ironically.] – the forest served for playing games of cards. In the years of 1914-1918, when there was no work because of the war, we actually lived there during the summer months. Yet there were no summer residences in the forest then. During the last year, the well-to-do population from Belchatow sensed the prized air that the forest possessed and erected their summer residences there.

 

The small bridge shortened the way to the little forest

On the other side of the highway, another forest was located about three kilometers on the Piotrokower highway, the Dobszelower forest. But this forest was unknown to our young people. We had no great involvement with it. There was something threatening there (many times bandit attacks and robberies came from this forest). If we would sometimes take a walk there, we had the feeling that we should do something adventurous… In Dobszelower forest, we felt as if… in a forest, while in our forest we felt better than at home.

After spending a day in the forest, we first began to make “improvements” in the meadows. We did not “labor” on difficult problems there, but with light flirtations. There we spoke of all of the gossip; there we learned who would marry whom, who would break up with whom. There our entire song repertory was sung. Many times, actually thanks to the songs, peasants with their dogs chased us from our gan-eden [Garden of Eden, or paradise].

The songs had a thousand allures and sounded like the most beautiful music to us, and the smells of the woods by day and of the fields at night – cannot be compared to the most expensive perfume.

* *
*

[continued on next page]

 


Translator's footnotes:

  1. Karl Kautsky was an orthodox Marxist. Erfurt is a town in Germany at which the Erfurt Program was adopted by the Social Democratic Party. return
  2. The Tarbut school system in Poland emphasized the study of modern Hebrew and Hebrew literature. return
  3. Chol ha-Moed is the intermediate days during Sukkos – the Feast of Tabernacles – and during Passover, during which work is permitted. return
  4. A shulkleper would go from house to house on Friday afternoons, knocking on windows, shutters or doors with the message that it was time to light the Shabbos candles and go to the synagogue. return
  5. Literally, “strong youth” – a phrase that refers to strong, young men who would defend the Jewish population of a city or shtetl from any threats from the non-Jewish population. The shtarke jungen usually included butchers, because they were already “armed” with the knives of their trade. return
  6. Zelners could mean he was the son of a soldier – a zelner is a soldier. return

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